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.
Repost of a review first published 11th November 2012