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When the Grail was hidden in the mountains

The legend of the Holy Grail once reverberated throughout Christian Europe. It may be difficult for us to grasp the significance of relics in the Middle Ages. To better understand their importance, one must walk in medieval shoes.

In less than a hundred years, the Ishmaelites conquered half of the then known world. The holiest sites of Christianity were now under Arab rule, and Christians were often driven from the Holy Land and North Africa. As they left, they took with them the relics of their martyrs and bid farewell to their centuries-old churches and homes.

The once mighty Hispania was conquered in a just a few months in the year 711. People living in the south of the Peninsula fled to the northern mountains –or elsewhere. The Archbishop of Toledo fled to Rome with his priests. The Franks had barely managed to contain the invasion in the Pyrenees.

For many, it was an apocalyptic situation.

But around the year 812, the Christians of the peninsula had reason to hope again: the tomb of the Apostle James was miraculously discovered in Compostela. “At last, it seems that heaven is beginning to be on our side,” thought the beleaguered Christians. The miraculous discovery of the relics was then seen as a sign of hope, as if it heralded a new springtime for Christian Spain.

The search for the chalice is part of this epic adventure. The whole story is written in the archives of the Crown of Aragon: manuscript 136 of Martin I the Humane, briefly describes the centuries-long itinerary of the holy relic through his kingdom, across the Pyrenees.

Today, this route is signposted as part of the Equestrian Route of the Holy Grail in Jacetania. The route was officially recognized in 2015, on the occasion of the declaration of Valencia as the Jubilee City of the Holy Chalice. However, in the High Middle Ages, its location was shrouded in mystery, so legends naturally grew up around it.

Martyrdom and flight

A 17th-century apocryphal text, supposedly based on the writings of a 6th-century monk named Donato, claims that Lorenzo (St. Lawrence), with a little help from his friends, managed to get the Holy Grail out of Rome and hid it with his relatives in Huesca before being sentenced to death. Once in Huesca, the Grail was kept in the monastery of San Pedro el Viejo – the old Visigothic cathedral.

The Spaniard who hid the Grail from a Roman emperor

Less than 200 years later, the Grail left Huesca. The Christians had to hurry it out of the city as they fled the Muslim advance and once again hid in the mountains.

Tradition has it that the bishop of Huesca, St. Acisclo, fled the city in 711. As expected, he took the relics with him to safety – including the Holy Chalice. Since it seemed impossible to get it out of Hispania, he hid it in the most inaccessible place he could find: the cave hermitages of Yebra de Basa. These caves are practically invisible: a waterfall hides them almost all year round. Acisclo and his niece, Princess Orosia, were eventually captured and barbarically martyred. They are now the patron saints of the diocese of Jaca.

An itinerant chalice

A hundred years later, in 815, the chalice was safely transported 80 kilometers to the north, to the present-day abbey of San Pedro de Siresa. At that time it was a rather small and much more discreet church, dedicated to the Virgin and protected by the Pyrenees. Local legends, such as that of the Mora de Oza, refer explicitly or implicitly to the Grail.

Monastery of San Pedro

However, the Holy Grail did not stay there for long. Less than thirty years after its arrival, it was moved to another hermitage hidden in a ravine in the mountains, further east: San Adrián de Sásabe. This explains why, at the time of the Reconquest, this humble place was chosen as the first seat of the Bishopric of Jaca.

San Adrian de Sasabe church

Less than 200 years later, the Grail traveled again: In 1014, it was brought to San Pedro de Bailo (now the church of San Fructuoso). This was the seat of the royal court of Aragon. The chalice therefore belongs not only to the Church of Aragon, but to the Crown itself.

San Fructuoso church

Only 40 years later, the Grail was moved to the Cathedral of Jaca, which was supposedly built specifically to house the chalice. Again, the chalice stayed there only a short time – just over ten years: The Bishop of Jaca at the time, Pedro, resigned and returned to the monastery where he lived, San Juan de la Peña, the “Covadonga of the Pyrenees. He took the Grail with him, where it was guarded by the monks for some 300 years.

The Myth

It is only natural that in the Middle Ages, anyone who heard of the Holy Grail would think of setting out to find it and embarking on a never-ending adventure.

Legends passed down from generation to generation were eventually compiled into the first great novel of chivalry: Perceval and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Medievalists note that the landscapes described by Christian de Troyes in this book are always high mountains, although there are none in England. Santiago Navascués, a historian at the University of Zaragoza, claims that the mythical King Amfortas could very well be Alfonso I the Battler.

The Aragonese kings proudly kept the Holy Grail in their territories, protected in the monastery of San Juan de la Peña. But one of them, Martin I the Humane, went even further. He asked the monks to give it to him for his personal devotion, with the approval of Benedict XIII – better known as Pope Luna. This is where the second part of this epic begins, written in well-preserved historical documents.

San Juan de la Peña Old Monastery

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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