Why we'll never stop looking for the Holy Grail
FOR 2,000 years the Holy Grail has drifted in and out of vision like a jewelled chimera, taunting generations to find it. Was the fabled cup from the Last Supper spirited from Jerusalem by Christian knights, or is it an unimaginable secret about Jesus himself? Why don't we ask a presenter of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear to find out?
Richard Hammond and the Holy Grail, an hour-long BBC1 documentary, is the latest offering from the mini-industry spawned by The Da Vinci Code. The Holy Grail has long fascinated Christians, but the 30 million sales of Dan Brown's book have propelled the legend to stratospheric popularity. From spin-off books to TV and even 144 Da Vinci Code breaks from VisitScotland, everybody wants a slice of immortality.
BBC1 has deeper pockets than the average tourist, so it sent Hammond on a 5,000 mile odyssey, crossing four countries, to find out. The result is what you could term "occultism lite" - Hammond is known for his cheeky-chappy style, so the BBC clearly didn't intend this to be a furrowed-brow exercise in academia. Hammond begins his quest with: "The BBC - bless 'em - have given me just two weeks to search for the Holy Grail so, er, I'd better get on with it."
He sets out the basics of the Grail story by flying to Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was once known. The city is significant as a kind of geographical crossroads, regularly used by crusaders heading east to the Holy Land or returning to Europe.
Legend has it that the Grail, the cup drunk from by Jesus at the Last Supper before his crucifixion, was seen by pilgrims in the 5th century. However, it seemed to disappear from Palestine, apparently resurfacing in Constantinople in the 13th century. Constantinople was a clearing house for religious relics. At various times pieces of the one true cross, the crown of thorns, John the Baptist's bones and the lance that pierced the side of Christ are all supposed to have passed through there.
So is the Grail there? The conclusion of Tom Asbridge - an expert on the crusades - is "possibly". So many other relics appeared at points it is conceivable the grail was among them.
The returning crusaders are thought to have taken some relics with them as they scattered back to Spain, France and Britain, so Hammond - on the toss of a coin - heads to Britain. He takes an inconclusive trip to Temple Church in London, on the grounds that it was built by the order of the Knights Templar, who loom large in grail history. Set up to safeguard the progress of pilgrims to the Holy Land, the order grew rich and powerful - until it was violently suppressed in 1312 on the orders of Pope Clement V. Some say the order attracted the envy of monarchs because of its wealth and privilege; others contend the knights followed deviant occult beliefs.
Is the Grail in London? Who knows, says Hammond, and heads off to Scotland. He goes to Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin, near Penicuik, a must-see for Da Vinci Code fans. Built in 1446 by Sir William of St Clair, legend suggests the chapel may have been used by the Templars as a hiding place for religious relics - and, conceivably, the Grail.
Hammond describes the chapel as "a sort of temple to medieval bling". Could the Grail be there? Ian Robertson, author of Rosslyn and The Grail, says no: "The order of the temple was suppressed way before this [Rosslyn[ was built.
"This was built by a 15th-century knight, but not a Knight Templar. In the last 20 years stories of the Templars building Rosslyn have grown up, but they are based on no historical fact." The only place the grail exists in Rosslyn is, it seems, as an image in a stained-glass window.
Next stop is Glastonbury, on the assumption that the King Arthur stories may yield some clue. Did Joseph of Arimathea carry the grail back from the Middle East and bury it in Glastonbury? Cue the sceptical historian, Geoffrey Ashe, author of The Discovery of King Arthur: "In the stories it is magnificent, it is jewelled, it shines, it hovers in the air, it is a supernatural object altogether. It's quite mistaken to equate it with a thing you could actually find and put in a museum or anything like that."
The connection between the Grail and Glastonbury is evidently derived from the 19th-century poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson in turn took it from French romances of the medieval period, which originated with the work of French writer Chrtien De Troyes in the 12th century. And Chrtien, Hammond says, "made the whole thing up".
The Da Vinci Code, however, revolves around the premise that the Grail is not a physical object but a secret - the fact that Jesus had a relationship with Mary Magdalene and children, of his bloodline, were born as a result - and that this secret is guarded by a mysterious organisation called The Priory of Sion, whose members reportedly included Leonardo da Vinci and Victor Hugo.
This theory leads Hammond to some rather fetching photo opportunities in France's Cathar country - the medieval towns of Carcassonne and Montsgur in the Pyrnes. One theory goes that the Cathars, a heretical sect, knew Jesus was a man, not divine, and that they had his skeleton. Mary Magdalene was supposed to have sailed with his body to the south of France.
While in France, Hammond tries to nail another story of the Grail myth: that an impoverished priest, Abb Brenger Saunire, stumbled across a Grail-related secret while renovating his church, leading him to unimaginable wealth. Again, all is speculation. The only people likely to be enjoying unimaginable wealth here are owners of the local hostels, where three million tourists arrive every year.
One of the most illuminating interviews emerges when Hammond visits the Vatican and puts the straight question to Gerald O'Collins, a professor of theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome: is the Church hushing something up? Bloodline theories prevail, O'Collins declares, because "they sell well". He adds: "The official Church is supposed to have suppressed that, but it's fantasy, pure fantasy. There is no evidence of a liaison between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
"It's good stuff for novels, and it's spicy, but it degrades the real Mary Magdalene and it simply is unfounded historically."
So at the end of it all, the answer to "does the Grail exist?" in the BBC's hour-long inquiry is a resounding "possibly". What is sure is that many have made earthly riches in feeding the public fixation. Simon Cox, author of Cracking the Da Vinci Code, proudly reveals that his own spin-off book has sold more than a million copies. "We went into this thinking , '30,000, 40,000' - it's over a million. It's an A-Z, it's fluff. But it goes to show that people are so into this and they will eat up anything to do with it."
Da Vinci Code fever is expected to send 150,000 visitors through Rosslyn Chapel as the Hollywood film of Brown's book, starring Tom Hanks, opens in May. Visitor numbers to the Chapel have been rising steeply in recent years - 117,000 last year, 68,000 the year before and 37,000 in 2003-4.
Stuart Beattie, director of Rosslyn Chapel, knows many of his visitors are lured by the Da Vinci Code connection, even though the novel does not make much play of the chapel. But he hopes a quest to Rosslyn will produce a real result: "Rosslyn is an enigma. There is a huge amount of history about it and a great deal of conjecture.
"All we can hope for is that people who come with either an opinion or no opinion of Rosslyn go away knowing a little bit more about its history."
Richard Hammond and the Holy Grail will be shown later this month.
Literature creates the legend
LEGEND has it that the Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Or that it is the cup used to catch Christ's blood when his side was pierced on the cross. It all depends which legend you prefer.
It was in the Middle Ages that "the Grail" entered common parlance. Chrtien de Troyes, writing in France in the late 12th century, penned the first story in which Perceval, a knight of the court of King Arthur, searches for the Grail, which has power to heal the ailing Fisher King. Grail quests (usually unfulfilled) permeated the poems and stories of the time.
The Victorian fascination with all things Arthurian revitalised the Grail quest in the poetry of Tennyson and the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, notably Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Wagner's opera Parsifal was based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's 13th-century poem Parzival.
More recently, the Grail has spawned new interpretations from conspiracy-theory thrillers such as The Da Vinci Code, the 1980s "non-fiction" blockbuster The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and the comedy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
It has been revisited in Kate Mosse's acclaimed new novel Labyrinth, and in Susan Cooper's children's saga, The Dark is Rising.
One ancient legend even goes so far to purport that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail with him to Britain. Needless to say, we're still looking.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 12 C to 21 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: South east
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 12 mph
Wind direction: West