Anne Gilmour Bryson

title.none: Goering, The Virgin and the Grail (Anne Gilmour Bryson)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.007 06.02.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Gilmour Bryson, University of Melbourne and Trinity Western University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Goering, Joseph. The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 188. $35.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-300-10661-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.07

Goering, Joseph. The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 188. $35.00 (hb). ISBN: 0-300-10661-0.

Reviewed by:

Anne Gilmour Bryson
University of Melbourne and Trinity Western University

This slim monograph, 157 pages of text plus notes and index, is a pure delight. Rarely, if ever, have I so enjoyed a work on the crossroads of history, art, and literature. Since for some years I and a group of much more eminent colleagues taught an Honours seminar on Arthur and the Holy Grail at the University of Melbourne, I had read just about everything available on the topic. Nothing I read managed, as this book does, to convey succintly the history of the Grail myth as surely as Goering's recent work. He writes with admirable clarity, introducing each chapter with a brief outline of what awaits the reader, marshalling his arguments with a very careful acknowledgment as to the source of his information, and summing up his conclusions at the end of each chapter.

It may be that the present vogue for myth, legend, and in some cases magic, all began with the appropriately entitled Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Michael Baigent et al., 1982. Some would place the origin of the modern search for the meaning of the Grail in Jessie Weston's, The Quest for the Grail of 1913, although the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto persists in dating it as at 2001. Recent works on the Grail myth, primarily for an educated popular audience, include Helen Nicholson, Love, War and the Grail, 2001 and Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief, 2004. The WWW furnishes many excellent summaries of the grail in history and literature as well as many entertaining but highly questionable sites devoted to the place of the Grail in modern "mysticism."

In Part I Goering declares that "The Grail legend was invented by medieval poets and storytellers in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century" (1). The first chapter of this section relates the story of the "graal" as it appears in Chretien de Troyes' Perceval or the Conte du Graal. Lengthy quotations from the original text, in translation, illustrate precisely how Chretien described this mysterious object in its first appearance: "of pure gold, adorned with many kinds of precious jewels . . ." (6). But what was it? We still do not know. We learn later that Perceval should have asked the important question: who was served from the "graal," but did not (9). And this point is one students rarely recognise since they are totally caught up in exactly what the Grail, the object, was, not what its purpose was. A few pages further, Perceval is told that the "graal" is a holy and pure object carrying the most holy of elements, the host (11).

We move on then to the additions made by Wolfram von Eschenbach. While the nature of the Grail is still uncertain, the Grail maidens and the Templar knights guarding the Grail make their appearance (18-19). We also read of the seeming origin of the Grail legend itself (27). In this version, the Grail morphs into a stone, an addition Goering describes as the most innovative contribution of von Eschenbach (30). Another new detail furnished by him is the notion that the "gral" or Grail cannot be seen unless the person has been baptized (37).

Chapter 3 on Robert de Boron and his contributions takes us to the grail most of us think of in what Goering refers to as "one of the great poetic inventions in history" (41). From that moment on, the Grail is associated with the cup of the Last Supper, given to Pilate and by him to Joseph of Arimathea, and with Christ's Passion itself since the Grail becomes the vessel or cup used to save Christ's blood prior to his burial. The true meaning of the chalice or cup is revealed to Joseph by Christ himself (48).

Chapter 4 moves on to the account of an historian from northern France, Helinand of Froidmont, a Cistercian. His contribution reveals that around 718, an angel caused a hermit to have a vision about Joseph of Arimathea in which the hermit described a vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper as "a broad and somewhat deep dish . . . also called in the vernacular, graalz (61). It seems very likely that Goering is correct when he suggests that Helimand's sources were both Robert de Boron and the anonymous Estoire del saint graal written slightly later (63). Nevertheless, as Goering emphasizes, the association of the Grail with both Joseph of Arimathea and the Last Supper appears to be an invention of de Boron (67).

Part II, the most innovative, addresses Goering's main topic: representations of the Virgin Mary holding a chalice to be found in the Pyrenees mountains of Spain. It is the author's view that "the historical origins of the Grail" may be found in these wall paintings and in the one similar sculpture (69). The earliest of these artistic works was painted about fifty years earlier than Chretien's grail epic (70).

Chapter 5, "The Bishop of Roda/Barbastre and the Churches of Taull" is a self-contained fascinating description of the bishop of Roda's episcopal journey into the Pyrenees region in 1123. It includes a lengthy and unusual depiction of the liturgy used to consecrate the local church written by the bishop in his journal (78-85). This chapter would be a great one to include in any selection of readings for an undergraduate course on the medieval church. It is through a publication of the Institute of Catalan Studies that information on these extraordinary paintings came to light (86). Almost all the paintings were hidden by successive coats of whitewash or by a 13th-14th century decorative screen behind the altar (81-82). Chapter 2 informs us that one of the paintings in the church of St Clement in Taull is the "earliest datable image of something that can be called a 'holy Grail'" (89). The Grail in this version appears as "a shallow bowl from which luminous reddish-orange rays stream forth" (93). This image is apparently the first depiction of the Virgin holding any sort of bowl, chalice, or cup-like object. While the author describes this image of the Virgin and the others in successive chapters in minute detail, and supplies coloured pictures, some of the text seems clearly irrelevant (see most of 100, and the quoted passage on 102-03). As Goering states: "If we are right, the earliest images of the mysterious Grail are to be sought in the Christian art of the high Pyrenees" (111).

The next chapter continues the investigation of artistic representations of the Grail in art of this region. Black and white reproductions of these paintings or frescoes are included here. Goering describes images found in eight other local churches which each showing the Virgin holding something like a bowl, cup, lamp, or chalice. He believes that these images illustrate depictions of the Virgin as a symbol of "the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church" (137). We are, after all, now in the period of the early twelfth century when the person of the Virgin Mary becomes increasingly more important to the medieval Church.

Part III sums up this book and its hypothesis that the Grail appears first not with Chretien de Troyes but in the artistic representations which began fifty years earlier in the region of the Pyrenees (141). It raises the key question: how did Chretien learn of these pictures, or did he? After lengthy investigation, Goering decides that it is Perceval who links the Virgin and the cup with the Grail as seen in Chretien (142). He believes it possible that a story about Perceval and the Grail was known in the south of France prior to Chretien's writing (145).

Chapter 8 presents a hypothesis linking the count of the Perche or Perceval with Rotrou the Great, Rotrou the second, who had been there at Antioch when the Holy Lance was found (152). Did the count of the Perche, famous in song and story, become Perceval? We may never know. Rotrou may have accompanied bishop Raymond to the Pyrenees, although there appears to be no evidence of this. Chretien may have taken the count of the Perche as his model for Perceval, linking him with the Grail he had heard described by visitors to the Pyrenees region.

Given how short this book is, I fail to understand why a bibliography was omitted. The endnotes are excellent, and the index useful, but for students a bibliography would have been a great help. This book does not offer new or startling information on the literary or historical background of the Grail. What it does accomplish is to set the entire complex story, including the usually ignored Spanish paintings, into a short and easily understood framework, offering a new and unusual origin to an almost too familiar tale. I thoroughly recommend this book for use in undergraduate or postgraduate courses as a model of history combined with fine Art and literature. It is also an excellent addition to the library of anyone teaching in any of these areas.

As examples of the shopworn quality of the idea of the Grail today, consider two modern quotes from popular magazines. First, concerning some superior wines of the last century: "These are the Holy Grail wines ..." from Wine Spectator (Dec. 15, 2005, 39); and in a review of a new car: "That sounds like the Holy Grail of driving ...", Financial Post Business (Jan. 2006, 48). The Holy Grail, it would seem, has changed from a wondrous, mysterious, magical object connected with Holy Grace, the Holy Spirit, and the blood of Christ, to a mere synonym for "best."