A Grail quest in Catalonia

Joseph Goering The Virgin and the Grail:
Origins of a Legend
Yale University Press 2005

South of the high peaks of the Pyrenees and bounded by Aragon to the west and Andorra to the east lies a corner of Catalonia that offers an unexpected but strangely satisfying explanation for the literary Grail’s medieval antecedents.

At least ten churches of 12th-century Romanesque date used to contain images – murals, plus an altar frontal and a wooden statue – that display highly unusual iconography unique to this area of Spain. These feature the Virgin Mary (often labelled Sancta Maria) making an open palm gesture with one hand and holding a vessel in her other, covered, hand. That this vessel is special is indicated by its luminosity or by rays emerging from its reddish contents. The earliest representation comes from the church of St Clement in Taüll, where Mary holds a shallow dish. In local dialect this would have been called a gradal, a “grail”.

As all graalologists know, this was a term found only in this part of the world, so obscure that Wolfram von Eschenbach imagined the grail as a stone, while Robert de Boron described the grail as a sacred chalice. But Chrétien de Troyes’ Conte del Graal – the first Arthurian romance to popularise the Grail – specifically depicted the vessel as a dish capable of displaying a large river fish and thus not a stone nor a chalice. But while Chrétien’s romance was (probably) written in the 1180s, the sacred gradal held by St Mary in the church at Taüll can be closely dated to 1123, more than a half century before.

In this short but fascinating study Goering shows that these Virgin-with-grail images were part of a composition, developed in the Spanish Pyrenees, depicting the first Pentecost, where church apses displayed a Christ-in-Majesty icon above Mary and the apostles. Her radiant gradal represented polyvalent symbols such as blood, wine, chrism and the fire of the Holy Spirit, a concept which was in vogue particularly in 12th-century Catalonia and which seems to echo much of the sacred metaphors of the later literary grail. Was this then the Grail? Unlikely, for chronological reasons, argues Goering. Why didn’t other parts of Europe adopt this imagery? Goering suggests that by the 13th century the Church will not have wanted to be associated with the extravagances of the Grail romances and that gradal iconography would have been discouraged.

There is much else of interest here (though I exclude discussion of a not very convincing theory advanced by Swiss scholar André de Mandach about the origins of Perceval, which postulate a frankly speculative link between Catalonia and Chrétien); thankfully these details render this account of an intriguing if little-known connection worth its otherwise excessive price-tag. The only drawback is the subtitle “the origins of a legend”, which is not at all proven. Incidentally, the place to view most of the relevant murals is now the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, but if you can’t get there the book contains a selection of relevant photographs.

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9 thoughts on “A Grail quest in Catalonia

  1. Ooooh, this looks fabulous, Chris. It’s just the sort of thing I love, symbolism trails across Europe. Might wait and cadge a second hand copy in time, though…or try borrowing from the library….

    1. I could and should have discussed the relevant paintings a lot more, Kate, as they are really quite extraordinary, often with very distinctive and expressive eyes. In fact, looking through a selection of even just the Romanesque art available in the museum is wonderfully exhilharating (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museu_Nacional_d%27Art_de_Catalunya#Romanesque_Art), while a wider selection is at http://art.mnac.cat/collection.html;jsessionid=d9680381f3aa1f744b760a876b346c3f17e3c19a14ce0ff9e03013b7348ebec9?colId=romanic (if you have the time). Sadly, I could find very little available online specifically depicting the gradals, but it would probably require a more prolonged search. Maybe someday I’ll actually go and visit in person: we’ve always said we’d love to visit Barcelona…

      Anyway, I do hope you get to catch up on it, however you acquire a copy of the book! I haven’t re-read it since it was first published, and this review is essentially one I did about seven years ago, but now I feel I must give it another go due to your enthusiastic response!

  2. Fascinating, indeed. I didn’t know there were alternatives to the cup or chalice nature of the Holy Grail.
    I think most fantasy writers have taken inspiration from Arthurian legend, whether consciously or not, and in my case it is with deliberation. In fact, my latest novel is titled ‘Forest Circle Quest’, and all of my ‘classical-type’ composition albums have also borrowed from the grail concept. In the covers I expound the theory that a composition in sonata form, whether for solo instrument, ensemble or orchestra, is a kind of grail quest. I have even named them ‘Quests 1,2,3 & 4’.

    1. I’ve always thought that there were close links between different types of narrative arts, and as a musician I often see that the counterpart of much fiction (and even some non-fiction) can be multi-movement compositions. I particularly remember the concept ‘narreme’ thought up by a Canadian academic to describe the sections that medieval epics and romances often seem to be divided into, and didn’t Anthony Powell write a Napoleonic novel based on the sequence of movements in Beethoven’s Eroica?

      1. Then, of course, there is the Tchaikovsky Pathetique, with its themes of life, loss, disillusionment and death. I don’t know if he intended love to come into the ‘life’ part, or maybe he didn’t see it as a factor. Anyway, that provides a lovely pattern for the morbid-minded.
        My pet theory of all art is that it is the manipulation of energy forms based on expectations. One takes existing expectations, develops and/or modifies them, builds on them, perhaps creates new expectations, and then meets them harmoniously or departs from them dramatically in various permutations.

        1. Not sure about the ‘energy forms’ bit, Col, but I certainly agree about the artistic process. I think though that the finished form of a great piece, performed or susceptible to viewing, has a potential that makes it feel like a form of energy, so emotionally powerful it appears.

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