It is difficult to enter the Valencia Cathedral without feeling a sense of awe. Upon crossing the threshold, I was greeted with the echoes of a Gregorian chant that reverberated across the vaulted ceiling. Stretched before me was a long procession of archways leading to a single dais on the far side of the cathedral. A small set of steps climbed up to the altar, which was encased by a half dome immaculately adorned with sculptures and paintings depicting scenes of angels and the apostles.
But I hadn’t come to Spain’s third-largest city for the views of its cathedral. Instead, I made my way to a small room just off to the side, one so nondescript that I’d nearly missed it on first glance. Within this humble chapel, encased in glass just beyond the altar, was the object I was searching for: a single cup, resting upon an illuminated golden pedestal. As legend has it, this is the very cup used by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper – or, as the cup is more commonly known, the Holy Grail.
Appearing in stories from the medieval epics of King Arthur and his knights to the silver-screen exploits of Indiana Jones, the Holy Grail has remained one of humanity’s most sought-after treasures, a mysterious relic that straddles the line between fantasy and reality.
Though the idea that a chalice used by Christ would be revered and therefore preserved by early worshippers is a plausible one, a magical vessel capable of granting eternal life is never mentioned in the Bible; it’s convention of Arthurian legend, penned by the likes of Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, two French poets who heavily shaped the development of Arthurian lore in the 12th and 13th Centuries. The first written mention of the grail as we’ve come to know it is in de Troyes’ Perceval, in which it is described not as a chalice but as a serving dish, likely harkening to the magical cauldrons of Celtic myth.
Growing up on the mythical tales of King Arthur, I’ve always been a sceptic; for me, the grail is a literary treasure. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued by Valencia’s Santo Cáliz (Holy Chalice). There are currently more than 200 claimants in Europe alone, all vying for the illustrious title of Holy Grail, with theories of the relic’s final resting place found everywhere from Scotland to Accokeek, Maryland.
Yet out of all the lists of claimants I researched, Valencia’s chalice almost invariably held the top spot. It still manages to attract pilgrims from all over the world, and has even been used ceremonially by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Eager for the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Sir Galahad on my own quest for the grail, I’d come here to discover what makes this cup so special among so many others.
I walked into La Capilla del Santo Cáliz (Chapel of the Chalice) to find it empty. Although my timing was unintentional, I’d arrived at the cathedral in the middle of a mass for Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, which meant that all the visitors were preoccupied with the ceremony in the adjacent room.
A single beam of light streamed down from a stained-glass window far above the altar; the gentle hum of the distant choir was the only sound within the chapel. Though I had come to the place more as a researcher than a pilgrim, it was hard not to be taken by the quiet solemnity of the moment.
As I approached the altar to inspect the chalice more closely, I found it far more elaborate than I’d anticipated. With two massive gold handles and a base inlaid with pearls, emeralds and rubies, the chalice immediately filled me with a sense of incredulity. Indeed, as anyone who has seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is aware, the Holy Grail should be a simple thing – the cup of a carpenter.
I was later informed by one of the attendants just outside the room that the actual relic is merely the piece at the top, a cup hewn from agate and polished with myrrh. The handles and base, which bear the hallmarks of medieval craftsmanship, weren’t added until much later. My scepticism temporarily assuaged, I turned to the task of discovering how this cup supposedly made the journey from Jerusalem, where the Last Supper is believed to have taken place, to the east coast of Spain.