Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Cup of Christ

by Michael Hesemann


Michael Hesemann, a German author and historian, provides a brief history of one of the most sacred relics of the Christian world — the Santo Caliz, the Holy Chalice, which inspired the myth of the Holy Grail. For more than 500 years the Cathedral of Valencia has been in possession of an agate cup, venerated as the vessel with which Christ initiated the Blessed Sacrament during the Last Supper; a claim which, according to some eminent historians, might very well be true.

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Inside the Vatican


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Urbi et Orbi Communications, Inc., New Hope, KY, March 2006

When Pope Benedict XVI visits Valencia, Spain, in July, he will see one of the most sacred relics of the Christian world: the Santo Caliz, the Holy Chalice, which inspired the myth of the Holy Grail. For more than 500 years the Cathedral of Valencia has been in possession of an agate cup, venerated as the vessel with which Christ initiated the Blessed Sacrament during the Last Supper; a claim which, according to some eminent historians, might very well be true.

Inside Valencia's splendid cathedral, a charming mixture of Gothic and Baroque elements, one can easily find the illuminated shrine on the High Altar where, behind bullet-proof glass, stands a small chalice of nearly translucent agate: the Santo Caliz, the most precious treasure of the "Seu," the "See," as the Cathedral is called in the native Valencian dialect.

Since July 14, 1506, it has been in possession of the canons of the cathedral. Since then, it is taken out of the shrine only twice a year: on Holy Thursday at Easter time and on the "Feast of the Santo Caliz" on the last Thursday in October, when it is carried in a solemn procession to the main altar of the cathedral, where the archbishop of Valencia, today Msgr. Agustin Garcia-Gasco, celebrates Holy Mass in the presence of this precious relic, guarded by the prestigious "Brotherhood of the Knights of the Holy Chalice," headed by the Count of Villafranqueza, a cousin of Spain's King Juan Carlos, and Don Ignacio Carrau, a commander of the Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great and former governor of the province of Valencia.

In its present form, the "Santo Caliz" consists of three parts: a small agate cup, a reversed onyx bowl used as its foot, and a two-handled middle-piece of gold. The onyx bowl is fixed by four gold-bows, set with 27 pea-sized pearls, two rubies and two emeralds. The agate cup is the original relic. In a document of the year 1135, the "chalice of precious stone and a dish of similarly precious stone" are still listed as two separate items. In that year, King Ramiro II of Aragon commissioned his goldsmiths to set them into a single object which corresponded much more with the mediaeval idea of a chalice.

But already in its earliest document, dating from 1134, the stone cup was described as "the chalice in which Christ, Our Lord, consecrated His blood." The same document states that this chalice once "was sent by St. Lawrence to his father's town Huesca."

History of the Chalice

According to Spanish tradition, the chalice of the Last Supper was originally brought to Rome by St. Peter. For two centuries, only the Popes were allowed to celebrate Holy Mass with it, and it is possible that the special Eucharistic prayer of the Roman Canon reflects this, when it says ". . . accipiens et hunt praeclarum calicem" — which, literally, means: "He, taking this very cup." So these words may originally have had both a symbolic and also a very definite meaning.

Probably St. Lawrence was indeed a Spaniard; near Huesca in the north of Spain, an estate named "Loreto" is still venerated as the place of his birth and residence of his parents. Already in the 4th century, the Spanish Christian poet Prudentius mentioned St. Lawrence in his hymn on the Spanish martyrs, which seems to confirm the tradition. Certain it is, according to a contemporary letter of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, that during the "Valerian persecution" of the year 258, when first Pope Sixtus II and four of his deacons and, three days later, St. Lawrence received martyrdom, Church treasures were confiscated by the Roman emperor. Therefore it would make sense that a responsible deacon, as St. Lawrence certainly was, would have made sure that such a precious relic as the agate chalice would have been sent to a safe place, far away from Rome. His parents' estate in Huesca was at least a plausible possibility.

With certainty it can be said that the agate cup has been venerated as a relic in the monastery of San Juan de la Pena north of Huesca since the 1100s. According to the Spanish tradition, in 712 AD, when the Muslim Moors invaded the Iberian peninsula, the chalice was hidden in the Aragonian highlands, one of the centers of the Christian resistance. For nearly a century it was hidden in a cave sanctuary, before it was moved to the changing royal sees, eventually to the cathedral of the new, provisory capital, Jaca, and from there to the monastery of San Juan de la Pena, which stood directly under the Pope's control. In 1399, King Martin I, at the insistence of the Spanish anti-Pope Pedro de Luna (alias Benedict XIII), ordered its transfer to the palace chapel of his residence in Zaragoza, then to Barcelona, and finally, in 1437, to Valencia. There it was kept originally in the royal palace, before it was transferred to the cathedral and entrusted to its canons.

It seems that the veneration and history of the Santo Caliz is the true core of the myth of the "Holy Grail" which in 1180 inspired the French poet Chretien de Troyes to write his Perceval, in 1205 the German Wolfram von Eschenbach to write his Parzival and the composer Richard Wagner to compose his opera Parsifal, first performed on stage in 1882.

"Grail" is an old Spanish word, meaning "mortar-shaped drinking vessel," which certainly fits for the Santo Caliz in its original (cup) shape. Wolfram von Eschenbach described the grail also as a "stone"; the Valencian cup is made out of a semi-precious stone, agate. Furthermore, he mentioned a mysterious inscription ("an epitaph") on the surface of the stone grail, which reveals "its name and its nature." Indeed the Santo Caliz bears an inscription on the surface of its stone foot in kufic (old Arabic) writing, reading "Allabsit as-sillis."

Also the Grail's Castle Monsalvaesche, as described by Chretien and Wolfram, corresponds in all details of its topographical situation and architectural layout with the fortified monastery of San Juan de la Pena. Indeed, the monastery is situated at the foot of the Mons Salvatoris, a 4,641 foot high mountain. Anfortas, the Grail king, might have been the historical King Alfonso I of Aragon (1104-1134), called "Anforts" in the Occitanian language of his kingdom, or, Latinized, "Anfortius." Like Anfortas, the Grail king, King Alfonso / Anforts used to spend Lent in San Juan de la Pena, where, as documents prove, the Santo Caliz was venerated during that time. He was an important supporter of the Knights Templar and, in his testament, left them a third of his kingdom, which may explain why the knights guarding the Holy Grail are called "Templeises" in Wolfram's Parzival. Like the Anfortas of the myth, the historical Alfonso / Anforts was mortally wounded in a battle before he was brought to San Juan de la Pena, where he died seven weeks later, though in popular belief he, like King Arthur, never died and was expected one day to return. This caused the myth of the ailing King Anfortas, who, guarded by the Templeises / Templars, awaited salvation in the presence of the Grail. The historical "Parzival," hero of the first Grail epics, could have been the cousin and companion of the king, the French count Rotrou Perche de Val (Spanish: "Conde de Valperche").

Wolfram leaves no doubts that the myth of the Holy Grail indeed had its origin in Spain. According to his Parzival, the French troubadour Guiot de Provins brought the story from Toledo. Indeed, Guiot did visit the court of King Alfonso II of Aragon to play and sing at his wedding in 1174. At that time, the king was preparing a new campaign against the Moors. His grandfather, Alfonso I / Anforts, for his campaign against the Moors, had once received all the privileges and indulgences of a Crusade from Pope Paschalis II (1099-1118). Alfonso II also hoped for the blessing of the Pope and to win the best European knights to fight on his side. To attract them, he needed a new myth. Those who went on a crusade to Jerusalem fought for the Holy Sepulchre. The message of the Grail-myth was: even more honorable than going on a crusade for the liberation of the empty tomb would be to serve the Holy Grail, the symbol of the Holy Eucharist, in which Christ is alive and among us. Therefore, Guiot combined the history of the Holy Grail with the Arthurian legends: the Knights of the Round Table were the great role models of the mediaeval knights, and Europe's princes were expected to follow their example and recognize the Grail as the highest good imaginable.

Although the Grail myth developed its own dynamics and became a popular and inspiring literary motif over the years, its message remained the same: it became the symbol of man's eternal quest for God and therefore a metaphor for the highest ideals and aspirations of Christian Europe. To search for the Holy Grail means to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. When the Grail promises eternal life, the Blessed Sacrament fulfills the promise of Christ: "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life." (John 6:54)

The Chalice of Christ?

Although it seems certain that the myth of the Holy Grail originates in the veneration of the Santo Caliz during the 12th century, the question whether it indeed is the chalice used by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper has to remain open.

The stone cup is, according to leading archaeologists like the Spanish professor Antonio Beltran, a typical drinking vessel of the Hellenistic era (3rd-1st century BC), most probably created in the workshops of Antioch, Syria.

The British Museum in London exhibits two similar cups of chalcedon and sardonyx from the Roman period, dated 1-50 AD, as Janice Bennett shows in her book St. Laurence & the Holy Grail (2002). Goods from Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid Empire, were popular in Jerusalem.

For the seder meal on Pesach (Passover), traditional Jews preferred stone vessels, since only stone was considered "kosher" or ritually pure. Clay was too porous and could contain impurities, while silver might have been used before for coins with the images of pagan deities and therefore was considered impure, too.

Of course, an agate cup was a very precious vessel. But nothing indicates that Our Lord actually owned the chalice He used during the Last Supper. Instead, there are several indications (as the renowned Benedictine archaeologist Father Bargil Pixner has pointed out) that the Last Supper took place in the guest house of the Essene community. The earliest Christian tradition located the "Upper Room" on Mount Zion which was, according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Essene Quarter.

When in the rest of Jerusalem the passover meal took place on the eve of the Sabbath (as St. John reports in 18:28: the Jewish priests "went not into the Judgement Hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover"), the Essenes followed a slightly different calendar according to which the "first day of the unleavened breads" was already the Wednesday before. If the Last Supper was indeed a passover meal, it could have taken place on the traditional date, Holy Thursday, only in the Essene Quarter and in no other part of Jerusalem. From the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the caves of Qirbet Qumran, we know that already the Essenes, in expectation of the Messiah, celebrated a "Meal of the Covenant." We can assume that they used precious vessels for this purpose.

When we read in the Acts of the Apostles, that the Twelve returned to the "Upper Room" on Pentecost (Acts 1:13; 2:1), this demonstrates a close contact to the Essene community and makes it possible that the chalice was indeed entrusted to St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles.

Therefore, although it cannot be proven that the Santo Caliz is indeed the Chalice of the Last Supper, nothing excludes this tradition. Maybe it can be said here, too: "In dubio pro traditio" ("when a matter is in doubt, side with the tradition").

Indeed it is difficult to think that the chalice with which the most holy sacrament was instituted as the meal of the New Covenant, simply got lost.

Also, no other vessel can make any legitimate claim. The "Sacro Catino" of Genoa, which was found during the conquest of Caesarea in 1102, is an Arabic glass work of the 9th century. Originally it was thought to be of emerald and believed to be a gift of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, so in the 13th century Jacobus de Voragine, bishop of Genoa and author of the Legenda Aurea, speculated it might have been the Holy Grail.

Since only the Santo Caliz has a venerable, ancient and at the same time plausible tradition, its claim to be Christ's actual chalice seems a legitimate one.

John Paul II and the Santo Caliz

When Pope John Paul II visited Valencia on November 8, 1982, he was shown the Santo Caliz and its history was explained. Carefully the Holy Father touched the golden pedestal of the relic, bowing down and kissing it as a sign of veneration. Then he asked to use it for the great Pontifical Mass to take place in the largest square of Valencia; gladly the canons fulfilled his wish. So it happened that, for the first time in 1,724 years, a successor of St. Peter spoke the Eucharistic Prayer over the most holy chalice.

A visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Cathedral of Valencia during his stay in July is already scheduled, and the experts are ready to explain the history of the precious relic to the 265th successor of St. Peter. We will see if he will venerate it with the same devotion as his great predecessor did. But it seems like a good omen that Benedict was elected Pope during the Year of the Eucharist.

Michael Hesemann, a German author and historian, has written several books on Christian relics.

© Dr. Robert Moynihan, Editor, Inside the Vatican Catholic Magazine

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