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Searching for a Grail that was never lost

In the final scene of The Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and his father reach the temple that houses the Holy Grail. After navigating a series of deadly obstacles (including a leap of faith over a seemingly bottomless pit), Indiana eventually reaches the room where the Grail is kept. As he walks in, an old crusader challenges him to choose the right wineglass from a collection of chalices he has been zealously guarding.

Indiana grabs a rather simple, wooden chalice –that of “a poor carpenter,” he says.

Epic, sure. But misleading. It is highly unlikely that a Jew in Late Antiquity would have used that kind of a goblet for a Passover dinner, no matter how poor. In fact, using a glass made from noble and pure materials was customary –especially the one used for the fourth and final toast. Polished agate, for example, was rather appreciated. These glasses were considered precious –and expensive enough as to be passed on from father to son.

In fact, polished agate was so expensive that rabbis had to allow the use of glass and crystal to make these ritual toasts as early as in the first century. It was still a luxurious material, but certainly less expensive than agate.

At least, this is what the late Antonio Beltrán claimed was the case. Beltrán authored the only archaeological study of a chalice that might as well be the Holy Grail. Housed in the Cathedral of Valencia, Spain, the Holy Chalice claims to be the true relic. But how do know this is the case?

A first glimpse at the relic makes it hard to believe this might be it. But looks can be deceiving. The chalice kept in the cathedral is made of two parts, broadly speaking. On the one hand, a remarkable gold structure abundantly adorned with precious stones –in typical medieval fashion. On the other, the chalice itself, barely visible under so many ornamental additions.

The relative irrelevance of the chalice itself is key. Not as simple as Indiana’s, the Valencian Grail is basically an onyx wineglass. Beltrán’s archaeological study explains how onyx was extensively used in workshops in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria between the second century BC and the year 50 CE to make fine house dinnerware, wineglasses included.

Ecclesiastical authorities allowed Beltrán to examine the relic to his liking. He dismantled it entirely, separating gold from onyx. A professor of Archaeology and History (a true eminence in his field), Beltrán was not particularly devout. In fact, he was imprisoned by fascist authorities after the Civil War for his service to the Republican Faction –the openly anticlerical, radically secular, political coalition that fought fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

It was precisely because of these reasons that the then Archbishop of Valencia, Marcelino Olaechea, was interested in Beltrán’s opinion.

Whereas historical documentation on the Valencian Grail only provides reliable data from the 14th century on. But some other documents give reasons to believe it might have arrived in Rome in the third century, or even earlier than that. Beltrán’s research concluded the goblet was an Alexandrian piece from the first century –that is, that the Holy Chalice of Valencia might as well be the real one. But how did it get there?

Specialists have tried to trace back the Grail’s itinerary. It all begins with a well-known figure: the evangelist Mark. Current hypotheses claim that the Grail was his.

The Route of the Holy Grail might lead to Valencia, but it begins in Jerusalem.


This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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