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The Virgin and the Grail

The Virgin and the Grail: Origins of a Legend

Joseph Goering
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 212
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  • Book Info
    The Virgin and the Grail
    Book Description:

    Some fifty years before Chrétien de Troyes wrote what is probably the first and certainly the most influential story of the Holy Grail, images of the Virgin Mary with a simple but radiant bowl (called a "grail" in local dialect) appeared in churches in the Spanish Pyrenees. In this fascinating book, Joseph Goering explores the links between these sacred images and the origins of one of the West's most enduring legends.While tracing the early history of the grail, Goering looks back to the Pyrenean religious paintings and argues that they were the original inspiration of the grail legend. He explains how storytellers in northern France could have learned of these paintings and how the enigmatic "grail" in the hands of the Virgin came to form the centerpiece of a story about a knight in King Arthur's court. Part of the allure of the grail, Goering argues, was that neither Chrétien nor his audience knew exactly what it represented or why it was so important. And out of the attempts to answer those questions the literature of the Holy Grail was born.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13820-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Part I From Romance to History

    • [Part I Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      The story of the Holy Grail is not an ancient myth whose roots are lost in the depths of time. The Grail legend was invented by medieval poets and storytellers in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The earliest surviving account of a sacred vessel called a “Grail” is found in a medieval romance entitledThe Story of the Grail (Conte du Graal)written by Chrétien de Troyes in the north of France at the end of the twelfth century. Chrétien called his long verse-narrative “the finest tale that may be told at royal court,” and contemporaries seem to...

    • CHAPTER 1 Chrétien de Troyes: Perceval or the Conte du Graal
      (pp. 4-15)

      For all practical purposes Chrétien de Troyes must be considered the originator of the Grail legend as we know it today.¹ HisConte du Graal(Story of the Grail) was widely popular, and it inspired a host of imitators and competitors immediately after its publication. But it was Chrétien, himself, who seems first to have imagined that a common piece of tableware (for that is the original meaning of the wordgraal) could serve as the centerpiece of a great Romance. If we wish to discover what this Grail is, where it comes from, and why it was thought to...

    • CHAPTER 2 Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival
      (pp. 16-39)

      The success of Chrétien de Troyes’ poetic invention is astonishing. Within a very few years, storytellers across Europe had taken up the theme of the Grail, elaborating and modifying Chrétien’s tale, adding new twists and turns to the story, and probing the image of the Grail to discover where it came from and what it might mean. The primary means of discovery, of course, was poetic invention, and poets from across Christendom vied with each other to tell the story of the Grail in ways that would delight and enlighten their audiences.¹

      The most elaborate and inventive retelling of Chrétien’s...

    • CHAPTER 3 Robert de Boron: Joseph d’Arimathie (La grant estoire dou graal)
      (pp. 40-57)

      At about the same time as Wolfram von Eschenbach was composing his elaborate version of the Perceval story, Robert de Boron was embarking on an even more challenging task, that of writing a “history” of the Grail. He called his work “The Great History of the Grail” (La grant estoire dou graal), although modern scholars have preferred to call it after its main character, Joseph of Arimathea.¹ Robert claims to be the first person ever to tell the history of the Grail: “I am convinced that no one could [tell the whole story of the Grail] if he had not...

    • CHAPTER 4 Hélinand of Froidmont
      (pp. 58-68)

      All of the stories and accounts of the Grail that have come down to us have been shaped, to one degree or another, by the romantic fictions of the three great poets discussed above. Chrétien de Troyes first made the enigmaticgraalinto the centerpiece of a romance. He may have heard about the Grail in other stories, now lost, but it is hiscontethat first introduces the matter of the Holy Grail into the mainstream of European literature. Chrétien seems to have had only a very vague notion of just what agraalmight be, where it might...

  5. Part II Before Romance:: The Virgin and the Grail in the Pyrenees

    • [Part II Introduction]
      (pp. 69-70)

      In Part II, I will venture a new hypothesis about the historical origins of the Grail. It is new, not because it adduces hitherto unknown sources, but because it interprets known sources in a new way. The sources themselves are unusual because they are products of the artistic rather than the literary imagination, and because they come from an area not usually associated with Chrétien de Troyes and with the origins of the Grail legends. They are a group of wall paintings, and one wooden sculpture, from the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. Although famous in their own right...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Bishop of Roda/Barbastre and the Churches of Taüll
      (pp. 71-88)

      Late in the autumn of 1123, the bishop of Roda/Barbastre, Raymund William, set out on a journey into the furthest corner of his diocese, in the high valleys of the eastern Pyrenees.¹ Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Robert de Boron were not yet born, and their stories of the Grail were still far in the future. Bishop Raymund, who would be honored as a saint soon after his death in 1126, had no way of knowing about the stories that would be told by these poets decades later, but he was present, or so it would seem, at...

    • CHAPTER 6 The Master of St. Clement
      (pp. 89-111)

      More than one artist produced the paintings in the church of St. Clement in Taüll, but the anonymous person who decorated the central apse around the time that the church was consecrated in December 1123 is at the center of this story. It is he, I will suggest, who produced the earliest datable image of something that can be called a “holy Grail.” His was an invention of the artistic imagination; he knew nothing of the later stories of the Holy Grail as elaborated by Chrétien de Troyes and his successors. One might say, instead, that when he discovered a...

    • CHAPTER 7 The Virgin and the Grail in the Pyrenees
      (pp. 112-140)

      Half a century before Chrétien de Troyes wrote the first surviving story of the Grail, the Master of St. Clement painted an image of the Virgin Mary holding a mysteriously radiant platter or shallow bowl—a “grail”—in her covered hand. The artist, we can be sure, had no idea that his simple dish would subsequently become one of the most famous objects in history. He sought simply to portray the Virgin with a suitable symbol that would mark her special place among Christ and the Apostles. But what does the grail represent in these paintings? If it is not...

  6. Part III The Historian’s Quest

    • [Part III Introduction]
      (pp. 141-142)

      Parts One and Two of this study have suggested that there existed in the high Pyrenees, and nowhere else in Christendom, an artistic tradition of depicting the Virgin Mary holding something that could be called a holy “grail,” and that this Pyrenean grail is at least a halfcentury older than the first Grail romance, written by Chrétien de Troyes in the north of France during the 1180s. Might this unusual attribute of the Virgin in the Pyrenees somehow be at the root and origin of the later stories of the Holy Grail? None of the previous hypotheses about the sources...

    • CHAPTER 8 Perceval and the Grail
      (pp. 143-158)

      In the prologue of her novelSolace for a Sinner, the mystery writer Caroline Roe evokes a scene with which we are now familiar. She writes:

      High in the Pyrenees, on the northwest edge of the kingdom of Aragon, the village of Taüll lay hidden from the world. The winding road that led up to it was steep and perilous; the meadows that fed its flocks were sparse and rocky. Hemmed in by towering mountain peaks, tumultuous rivers, and deep winter snows, Taüll had slumbered, protected from invasion as far back as the memory of men went. . . ....

  7. Notes
    (pp. 159-182)
  8. Index
    (pp. 183-188)