A grail like no other

Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum
Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum

G Ronald Murphy Gemstone of Paradise:
the Holy Grail in Wolfram’s

Oxford University Press 2010

Who has not heard of the grail? Who does not have an image of it, perhaps as a cup or some other receptable? Who has not gathered that there is some mystery concerning it, such as it being the chalice of the Last Supper, or the bloodline of Christ, or even some angelic or alien artefact? And who has not gathered that it is something many search for but few, if any, find? What is it, where did it come from and what is its significance? Does anyone really know?

It may be best to go back to basics.

The very first literary appearance of a graal or grail came in the late 12th-century, in an unfinished work by the French poet Chrétien de Troyes. In it he describes this object as a deep flat dish capable of serving up a large fish, such as a pike, a salmon or an eel. It also is capable of carrying a mass wafer or host, which suggests it is visualised as similar to the paten that is used during Mass to hold or serve the communion host when it’s not stored in a ciborium or in the tabernacle. Note, it’s not yet the ‘holy’ grail, but it is mysterious and is starting to bear religious overtones.

Another Frenchman, Robert de Boron, names it the ‘Holy’ Grail for the first time, and describes it not as a flat dish but in terms that link it to the chalice used for wine or the ciborium used for storing the hosts. Largely it is this image of the grail that has persisted since the 13th century, including the Continuations that attempted to complete Chrétien’s tale.

The main discordant voice from these early tellers of grail tales is the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach, writing in the early years of the 13th century. Borrowing from and expanding Chrétien’s original, he demurs from describing his gral as a dish, instead specifically referring to it as a stone. Scholars have argued about the significance of this departure for many years, but Jesuit scholar G Ronald Murphy puports (in a study first published in 2006) to not only have identified the source of Wolfram’s concept but also the still extant physical object that inspired it. What are to make of this, one of hundreds if not thousands of claims?

Murphy structures his book following the model of Wolfram’s epic poem Parzival: Wolfram’s frame story of Parzival’s parentage and rediscovery of family begins and ends the elaboration of Chrétien’s original, while Murphy’s frame, his personal search for the specific relic that Wolfram had in his mind’s eye, encases five chapters on the background, context, intentions and meanings of the poem.

In his consideration of Wolfram’s conception of the Grail, the author lists sixteen attributes, among them that it is a stone associated with the bliss of Paradise, carried on an oriental green cloth and placed on a translucent, thin red stone tabletop; it is the stone on which the Phoenix is reborn, on which a dove places a communion host every Good Friday; the source of water that flows into the baptismal font, it is only visible to those who are baptised; names of keepers of the grail are inscribed on it and it is guarded by an order of knights whose symbol is the turtledove.

After this list, which very clearly underlines the grail’s Christian associations for Wolfram, Murphy goes on to discuss the significance of precious stones in the theology of the time; used as homeopathic medicine, they were believed to have originated in the waters of the four rivers of Paradise: the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Phison or Ganges and the Gihon or Nile. Murphy further expounds on the frequency of the colours red and green amongst these translucent stones, such as ruby, garnet, carnelian and carbuncle for red, emerald, jasper and serpentine for green. These colours, along with the idea of precious stones being sacred, all add to the particular nature of the grail in Parzival.

Another thread in Murphy’s discussion is the historical context. Between the incomplete Perceval of Chrétien and Wolfram’s Parzival came a major traumatic event for Christendom: the loss of Jerusalem, when Christ’s tomb, the Holy Sepulchre, fell into Muslim hands. It would be hard to overestimate the impact this had, given the reverance Christ’s tomb was accorded for its emotional as well as religious significance. Europe still has many examples of replicas of the Edicule, the original structure built to house the tomb in Late Antiquity. Though I’ve not seen the Eichstätt replica, completed in 1194, which Wolfram will have known, I have visited the basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna, where another replica (built in the 5th century and restored in the Middle Ages) can still be seen as testament to the European preoccupation with this traditional place of pilgrimage. The Good Friday ceremonies associated with such structures, together with the requirement that portable altars contained particles of the consecrated communion wafer regarded as the Body of Christ, all furnish key elements that link the tomb with Wolfram’s grail.

For Murphy, proof of his belief that he has identified the source of Wolfram’s concept of the grail comes with his discovery of a particular object that seems to incorporate most of the features he has discussed. This is the so-called Paradise Altar of Bamberg, in Franconia, “Wolfram’s heartland”. This late 12th-century portable altar is about 25cm long, and about 15cm high and 15cm wide, roughly ten inches long and six inches wide. Two remaining plaques bordering the top face of the stone itself depict the personifications of the rivers of Paradise (two are still extant, two have disappeared), the four evangelists, the four trees of Paradise and, prefiguring the celebration of the Mass, the Old Testament figures of Abel and Melchisedech bringing their offerings to God. A blue repeating pattern symbolising the waters of Paradise surrounds the table top. The altar stone itself, made of green serpentine, covers and seals a sepulchre-like box. This surviving reliquary, almost unique in being decorated with so many of the themes that the author has discussed, for Murphy “is Wolfram’s Grail.” Is he right?

It’s very easy to get carried along by Murphy’s enthusiasm and bowled over by his erudition. His arguments are very persuasive, supported as they are by references to the expected primary and secondary resources. He presents the most convincing explanations I have yet seen for the meanings of the names of prominent characters, particularly the five important women who mediate and mitigate the action of the story. However, he often tends to employ a lot of associative imagery to reinforce his points, more than one might expect from a strictly scholarly standpoint, as though the frequent repetition of assertions, however poetically apt, will make his points more credible. This I feel is an approach that would weaken rather than strengthen his case for many, especially those who don’t support his religious affinities.

He also makes a very strong argument, through textual analysis, that Wolfram’s purpose is to plead for compassion and respect: compassion for the suffering of fellow humans (the many figures Parzival meets through the course of the story) and respect for non-Christians, especially Muslims, despite their not being promised the bliss of the Christian paradise. It’s easy to understand why Wolfram pushes this message: so many Crusades over so many years, so much bloodshed, even the shocking siege and sack of the Christian city of Byzantium by fellow Christians, what had it all achieved? And why were the Jewish heroes of the Old Testament, and the civilised Muslims of the Middle East (with their silks and precious stones and astrological learning) less worthy than bloodthirsty Crusaders indiscriminately killing all and sundry? Murphy points to Wolfram’s underlying theme of triuwe, “faith understood as personal loyalty”, where compassion and respect are two sides of the coin which we moderns might call empathy. This message, if Murphy has interpreted it correctly, is surely one that will resonate for us all even now, eight centuries later.

Seeing that it was unlikely I’d visit Bamberg and its Paradise Altar any time soon, I went instead to museums in Britain to see examples of similar portable altars. In the British Museum I was distracted by so many other goodies on offer that I missed their Hildesheim altar, but found a detailed description and colour photographs in the BM’s 2011 publication Finer than Gold: saints and relics in the Middle Ages by James Robinson. The red altar stone is not porphyry but limestone, of a type that could be mistaken for porphyry, possibly a variety of Purbeck marble. A list of the saints whose relics are enclosed under the stone is inscribed on the lower side of the gilt copper mounting, echoing Wolfram’s description of the roster of grail guardians visible on the grail.

I did however manage to find another altar stone, also from Hildesheim in Lower Saxony, and of the same period at the tail end of the 12th century, in the Victoria & Albert Museum [pictured above]. This too consists of a flat red stone (genuine porphyry this time, apparently), approximately fifteen inches by nine, enclosed in gilt copper; images of saints, Mary and scenes from Christ’s life and death including the Crucifixion, the three Maries at the Sepulchre, the Ascension and Christ in Majesty form a border for the top face of the stone, while the base includes saints surrounding a depiction of the Trinity. While missing many of the specific attributes that Wolfram gave his grail, this relic for me gave substance to Murphy’s championing of Bodo Mergell’s 1952 suggestion that Wolfram’s mystical grail was indeed to be envisioned as an altar stone.

Whether or not the Bamberg Paradise Altar was the specific model (though it is highly plausible that it could be), such portable consecrated reliquaries with their saints’ relics, designed to be placed on an unconsecrated table to allow Mass to be said there, are the closest model to Wolfram’s particular interpretation and personal take on the Holy Grail. It’s not our conventional vision of the Grail but it’s closer to the spirit of a now distant medieval world. And even if, like me, you’re not remotely religious, such objects can still inspire a degree of awe. If you are religious, with a personal attachment to Catholic dogma, it will be easier to understand why someone like Wolfram would want to invest such an object with all the properties he ascribes to it and to weave a complex story around it.

2 thoughts on “A grail like no other

  1. Great article, thanks. I first heard of Wolfram’s Grail from Joseph Campbell, and later read it myself (in translation of course). I always found it the most fascinating of the different versions.


  2. I’m glad you liked it, Morgan. I too read Parzival in translation, in the 80s, when it seemed intolerably long and indigestible, but this study very much helped to make sense of it, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it, perhaps in another translation. I may prefer the original version, the unfinished Perceval, but this seems the most coherent of the interpretations.


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