The long wait is nearly over: Grail Knight (Outlaw Chronicles, book 5) will hit the shelves in only a couple of weeks on August 1st.
I’m rather proud of this one. It continues the story on from Warlord with the Master, Nur, Roland, Little John and all the other supporting characters playing their parts, and of course, Robin and Alan heading the cast. But the true star of the show is the Holy Grail, as you might suspect from the title of the book, and I thought I would tell you a little about my thinking on the subject and a little about what drove me to include this legendary relic in a Robin Hood story. It started with a book called the Virgin and the Grail by a history professor in Toronto and a trip to a major European city . . .
Barcelona instantly became my favourite city in the world after a weekend trip there with my wife in June 2012. The municipal authorities, we discovered with delight, screen movies for free in the public squares; bar-hopping and casual snacking comes close to an art form; there is funky architecture everywhere you look and nobody eats dinner until ten o’clock at night. And, as if that wasn’t enough to make you fall in love, Barcelona’s finest art museum also houses the first images ever made of the Holy Grail.
In the bowels of the Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), the interior of the small 12th-century church of St Clement of Taull has been partially reconstructed. The original church still stands in remote village of Taull in the Boi Valley high in the Pyrenees, but when the extraordinary Romanesque frescos the church contained were discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, and foreign “entrepreneurs” began chipping off bits of the masonry and carrying them away, the Spanish authorities acted swiftly. Using a near-miraculous chemical process, in which strips of treated cloth are pressed on to the church walls and then peeled off, the paintings were painstakingly removed form the walls of the church of St Clement and taken to Barcelona, where they have been lovingly restored and housed at MNAC.
When I saw them there in June last year, I was genuinely astonished by their enduring beauty and raw power.
In the main apse of the reconstructed church is the setting for the remarkable painting of “Christ in Majesty”, which shows the Saviour enthroned in Heaven and looking down on mortal sinners with a stern yet compassionate expression on his face. The curve of the apse gives the fresco a strangely three-dimensional effect, and the colours – royal blue, warm ochre, creamy white and blood red – appear to be as vibrant as the day they were painted, probably in the Year of Our Lord 1123. Christ is surrounded by various saints and apostles and below his bare right foot and slightly to the left is a panel containing an image of the Virgin Mary. Her expression is serene, she holds up her right hand, palm out in a gesture of blessing, or perhaps of warning, and her left hand, covered by her rich blue mantle, she is holding a shallow bowl, painted white, which seems to be filled with fire and has rays of reddish-orange light shooting out of it.
This is one of the very earliest representations of the Holy Grail, an object that shortly afterwards began to appear regularly in religious art all over the Pyrenees. Of course, the object in her hand was not regarded then as the Holy Grail, as we think of it today – it was a “graal”, the word in the medieval language of the region for a common, broad, shallow dish of the kind that might be used to hold a cooked fish when it was served at the table. And it was holy because Mary the Mother of God was holding it, not in her bare palm, but in a hand covered my her blue mantle.
Opinion is divided on what the graal is supposed to symbolise – other Christian dignitaries have their symbols, useful icons for identifying them in medieval art today, as then: St Luke, for example is often pictured with an ox, St Peter holds a set of keys; on the picture of Christ in Majesty, in the panel to the right of Mary’s, St John is seen supporting a book in his right hand, the hand also covered in a mantle, like the Virgin’s, to indicate the book’s holiness. Some scholars suggest the graal pictured in this magnificent painting might be a container of Christ’s blood, reminiscent of the Saviour’s words repeated in the Eucharist – “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many . . .” – others suggest the graal might hold sacred oil, chrism, a holy unguent used in consecration and other important Christian rituals. Personally, I think Mary’s graal is a symbol of her womb, in which she conceived Christ and carried him for nine months. What more powerful symbol could a holy mother display than the space inside her body in which she nurtured her child and from which issued the future Saviour of Mankind?
But whatever the graal was originally intended to mean – and nobody seems to be sure – the symbol was to have a profound effect on Christendom. By the middle of the 12th century, grail-like objects were appearing regularly in the hands of the Virgin in religious art, particularly in the southern lands of western Europe. Sometimes they were bowls, sometimes cups or chalices, sometimes they appear as lamps. But it was not until the end of the 12th-century that the Holy Grail made its literary debut.
Perceval, Le Conte du Graal (Percival, The Story of the Grail) was written by the northern French poet Chretien de Troyes sometime between 1180 and 1190 – perhaps sixty years or more after the graal was pictured in the Virgin’s hands in the Pyrenees – and it was an almost instant hit in European aristocratic circles. The Grail appears as a golden bowl encrusted with precious jewels, paraded about by mysterious denizens of a mysterious castle in the company of a shining lance, a pair of candlesticks and a silver carving platter. (See my previous book Warlord.)
In Chretien’s story the graal is a receptacle for the host of the Eucharist, and such is its power that one wafer of holy bread a day is enough to sustain the lord of the mysterious castle. Beyond that, Chretien does not say much about the Grail, and indeed his poem Le Conte du Graal was never finished. But the Grail was now out there in the public domain and it had begun to exert its strange fascination over writers, which has continued ever since. Around 1200, a Bavarian poet called Wolfram von Eschenbach produced an operatic retelling of Chretien de Troyes’s story called Parzival, embellishing it considerably, and conceiving of the grail as a precious stone that had fallen from the sky. But the version of the Grail story that I have chosen to adopt, comes from Robert de Boron, a Burgundian knight, who wrote Joseph d’Arimathie or Le grant estoire dou graal (Joseph of Arimathea or the Great History of the Grail), sometime in the 1190s. His take on the legend is the one that would be most recognisable to readers today, in that his Grail is both the cup used at the Last Supper and the vessel used to catch the blood of Christ as he died on the Cross.
I would recommend that anyone interested in the story of the Grail read Professor Joseph Goering’s excellent book The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend (Yale University Press, 2005) for more details on the above medieval Grail poets. Indeed, I must acknowledge him as the inspiration behind my own take on the Holy Grail in this novel and my source on its origins and, perhaps, its physical reality. Because I think that there might really have been a physical object which people in the 12th and 13th centuries considered to be the Holy Grail. And it might even still exist.
Let’s return to the beginning of the 20th century and the Valley of Boi in the high Pyrenees. At the same time that the marvellous painting of Christ in Majesty was discovered in St Clement of Taull, a set of wooden sculptures was discovered in another church dedicated to St Mary in the valley a few hundred yards away. These figures were part of a tableau, dated to around the same time as the fresco in St Clement’s church, which is most likely to depict the Descent from the Cross – statues of Mary and Joseph of Arimathea, and perhaps Nicodemus, helping to bring down Christ’s dead body after the Crucifixion. In other contemporary examples of this sort of tableau, Christ’s hand is seen as dangling over a wooden bowl held by his mother, in a manner such that a few drops of his blood might fall into the bowl. The wooden statue of Mary bears a striking resemblance to the image of the Virgin in the painting in St Clement’s. Both have the same clothing, the same posture, the same expression – indeed the resemblance is so striking that scholars believe that one must have been a copy of the other, although it is impossible to say whether the painting inspired the statue or vice versa.
But the interesting thing about the statue of the Virgin, which is now housed in the Fogg Art Museum, at Harvard University, is that the left hand, the hand that would have been holding the bowl which caught the Saviour’s precious blood, is missing. It has been cut off at some point and the arm, or the wooden bowl it once held, has never ben found.
I like to think that this missing, 12th-century wooden bowl, from a remote church in the Pyrenees, might have been to origin of the physical, the actual Holy Grail. And, perhaps, somewhere, in a Swiss vault in a rich man’s collection, or in some secret annex of the Vatican, there it remains to this very day.
And, if you want to know more, you’ll have to go out and buy a copy of Grail Knight on August 1st!