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The Quest for the Holy Grail

Josephe with the Holy Grail

Christ appears to a hermit in a vision, holding a book containing the true history of the Holy Grail. From History of the Holy Grail, French manuscript, early 14th century
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The legend of the Holy Grail is one of the most enduring in Western European literature and art. The Grail was said to be the cup of the Last Supper and at the Crucifixion to have received blood flowing from Christ's side. It was brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea, where it lay hidden for centuries.

The search for the vessel became the principal quest of the knights of King Arthur. It was believed to be kept in a mysterious castle surrounded by a wasteland and guarded by a custodian called the Fisher King, who suffered from a wound that would not heal. His recovery and the renewal of the blighted lands depended upon the successful completion of the quest. Equally, the self-realisation of the questing knight was assured by finding the Grail. The magical properties attributed to the Holy Grail have been plausibly traced to the magic vessels of Celtic myth that satisfied the tastes and needs of all who ate and drank from them.

The Holy Grail first appears in a written text in Chrétien de Troyes's Old French verse romance, the Conte del Graal ('Story of the Grail'), or Perceval, of c.1180. During the next 50 years several works, both in verse and prose, were written although the story, and the principal character, vary from one work to another. In France this process culminated in a cycle of five prose romances telling the history of the Grail from the Crucifixion to the death of Arthur. The Old French romances were translated into other European languages. Among these other versions two stand out: Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (early 13th century) and Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur (late 15th century).

With the passing of the Middle Ages, the Grail disappears until the 19th century when medieval history and legend awoke the interest of writers such as Scott and Tennyson, of the artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and of composers, notably Richard Wagner. The symbol of the Grail as a mysterious object of search and as the source of the ultimate mystical, or even physical, experience has persisted into the present century in the novels of Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis and John Cowper Powys.

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Quest for the Holy Grail
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TREASURES IN FULL

Treasures in Full: View pages from Malory's Arthurian manuscript

View pages from Malory's Arthurian manuscript

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