October 24, 2009

On the Possible Whereabouts of the Shroud in Post-Resurrection Times (3 of 3)

Continued from Part 2

Part 3 - The Shroud and the Grail

The place where Pilate ended his life is of importance. It is the link with the development of the medieval literature of Pilate, where “Aquitaine” features large, and with the cycle of the Grail. It is now admitted that the Holy Grail was in reality the container in which the Shroud was kept. In his monumental opus The Holy Grail. The Galahad Quest in the Arthurian Literature (which is a revised edition of The Holy Grail, its legends and symbolism of 1933) Arthur Edward Waite struck the right note: “The noticeable point is that the story of Veronica, of the Sudarium, and of the healing of a Roman Emperor is the root-matter of the earliest historical account of the Holy Grail; and this fact has led certain scholars to infer that the entire literature has been developed out of the Veronica Legend, as a part of the Conversion Legend of Gaul, according to which the holy woman, in the company of the three Maries and of Lazarus, took ship to Marseilles and preached the Gospel therein. They carried the Volto Santo and other Hallows” (p.342). He added in the footnote the story of the landing with the oarless boat on the shores of Provence by Mary Magdalene, Martha, Mary of Cleopas, Salome, Lazarus, Joseph of Arimathea and many others; in actual fact the boat drifted up the Rhine to Arles. He stressed the point that this happened after the first persecution, when St James was slain by the sword, i.e. after the installation of King Herod Agrippa. Waite stopped here unfortunately, because this is the real key to open the “secret” of the Holy Grail. It was the high jacking of the Holy Grail by the occultists, esotericists, new agers, and Hollywood among others that further obscured and actually derailed any serious quest for the Holy Grail. What happened might be summarized in the words of René Guénon, the famous traditionalist, in a long review of Waite’s Holy Grail: "Que la légende du Graal soit chrétienne, ce n’est certes pas contestable…mais cela empêche-t-il nécessairement qu’elle soit autre chose en même temps? Ceux qui ont conscience de l’unité fondamentale de toutes les traditions ne verront la aucune incompatibilité ; mais M. Waite, pour sa part, ne veut voir en quelque sorte que ce qui est spécifiquement chrétien, s’enfermant ainsi dans une forme traditionnelle particulière, dont les rapports qu’elle a avec les autres, précisément par son coté intérieur, semble dès lors lui échapper. Ce n’est pas qu-il nie l’existence d’éléments d’une autre provenance, probablement antérieurs au christianisme…mais il ne leur accorde qu’une bien médiocre importance, et il parait les considérer comme « accidentels », comme étant venus s’ajouter à la légende ‘du dehors’, et simplement du fait du milieu ou elle s’est élaborée."[16] The amount of literature generated by this view is staggering. Essentially it attempts to reverse the order of things enunciated by Waite. The Grail became anything but a Christian object, and the Christian elements became the ‘accidents’, literary inventions of Chrétien de Troyes, Robert de Boron, and Wolfram von Eschenbach at the end of the eleventh century, mostly as a propaganda tool to enhance the position of Henry II Plantagenet in his conflict with the Papacy or to serve the general ideology of the “translatio imperii”, “translatio studii”, “translatio religionis” from East to West, which began with the foundation of the western “Holy Roman Empire” by Charlemagne. It went from “Celtic myth to Christian symbol”, in the expression of Richard Loomis. This view was greatly helped by the ascription of the events described in the Arthurian literature to the sixth century.

But we must uphold the explanation intuited by Waite. The elements of the Grail “legend” find their place firmly in the first century. It is the only historical environment where a merging of Celtic myths and Christian symbols could have occurred. We consider that the identity of the Grail with the container of the Shroud has been definitively established by Ian Wilson and Noel Currer-Briggs.[17] We consider, with Noel Currer-Briggs, that the Image of Edessa is not the Shroud, but it might be the Sudarium, the cloth wrapped around the face. We do not deny, of course, that the story of Abgar and his miraculous cure had no relation with the same story in the west. The Syriac literature tells about exchanges of letters between Abgar and Tiberius. The letter of Tiberius to Abgar, quoted in the Syriac Doctrine of Thaddaeus the Apostle, about the report of Pilate to Aulbinus[18] the Proconsul is echoed, as we have seen, in The Golden Legend. The letter of Tiberius to Abgar mentions the troubles in Spain, which prevented the Emperor to dedicate his full attention to the matter. It is certainly based on a widespread tradition with documentary basis. Moses of Chorene quotes the exchange of letters between Abgar and Tiberius in his History of Armenia, specifically referring to the archives of Edessa.[19] But we believe that the western “legends” did not copy the Syriac stories. They relate their own story. The story of Abgar is not the origin of the Veronica legends.

The Conte del Graal of Chrétien de Troyes remained incomplete. Attempts were made to ground the story more firmly in history. Robert de Boron based his stories on the Gospel of Nicodemus. Far from appealing to a hidden tradition, to “secret words” of Christ charged with revelations going beyond the canonical Scripture, the preserve of initiates and sages, to “superapostolic” hierarchies, it was an attempt to clarify the oral traditions circulating in the “Celtic” area of Britain, Brittany and France. Joseph of Arimathea along with his relatives and companions set sail (so to speak, because they were put in a boat without oars, rudder and sails!) westwards carrying with him an object related to the body and blood of Jesus, the Grail. This is purely and simply the story of the arrival of Joseph, Mary Magdalene, Martha and the others in Provence and their sailing upstream the Rhine. There are, of course, some variations between the multiple branches of the romances of the Grail Cycle. But they can be summarized as follows: Joseph arrived at the city of Sarras, reached curiously by the way of Bethany, the home town of Mary and Martha. The king of that city, Evalach, is converted by Joseph. From there the company reached the kingdom of Logres, i.e. England. But prior to the arrival at Sarras a command was received from the Son of God to build an Ark, similar to that of the Old Covenant, for the reception of the Holy Vessel. In reality this Ark is the Grail. They arrive in Logres where the Grail performs the miracle of feeding a multitude with miraculously multiplied bread and fish. There follows the story of the Fisher King and the Quest for the Grail and the return of the Grail to the city of Sarras, by Galahad, the pure knight. From there it disappears and the legend has that it was taken to Mountsalvach, or Monsalvat, which is clearly the Mount of Salvation. We need to stress that the story of the Grail is immersed in the story of King Arthur and his Round Table. It is a point of considerable importance. The Arthurian literature is not primarily about the Grail, but about Chivalry and its role in medieval society. It clearly reflects the relations between Church and Kings. The Round Table is certainly one of the Celtic elements. It is evocative of all the circular structures revealed by archaeology, of which Stonehenge is just the most glamorous, but not unique. These structures were presumably places of assembly of the fianna, the warrior band established to protect the high king. The Grail comes in the picture as an expletive of this role and we presume that the various authors tried to “research” their history, only dimly recognizable in the oral traditions. Certainly the interest in the relics of the Passion was renewed by the direct contacts with them at Constantinople.

Another central personage in the cycle is Bron, the brother in law of Joseph. Enough to say that he was identified with Bran Vendigaid, Bran the Blessed, the king Cunobelinus of Britain, the Shakespearean Cymbeline, son of the king Tasciovan = Llyr (the Shakespearean “Lear”) and father of Caractacus, the king that led the resistance against the Roman invasion under Claudius. It is worth reminding that these kings were of Gallic continental origin showing strong Roman proclivities. Cunobelinus himself was a hostage at Rome and familiar with the Roman ways. His relation with Joseph of Arimathea, might not then be that far fetched. At the time of his Roman education, Cunobelinus might have been exposed to the Jewish proselytism which was making inroads in the capital, especially among the aristocracy. In any case the Welsh Triads say that Bran was baptized at Rome by St. Paul, an impossible date, but which likely reflects that acquaintance and his interest in the events that took place in Judaea. He was also identified with the Fisher King, the wounded king guardian of the Grail, who cannot die until a pure knight would ask the right question and be entrusted with the custody of the Sacred Vessel. It is an absolute indication that the story unfolds in the first century. Cunobelinus was wounded in a battle with the Irish. An almost complete clarification of the matter was brought about by a largely unnoticed book Guardian of the Grail: A New Light on the Arthurian Legend, by John Whitehead. First published in 1959 it was reprinted in a typographic copy in 1993, without any editorial indication that it was a reprint. Whitehead demonstrated convincingly that the real King Arthur was Caractacus, son of Cunobelinus=Bran= Uther Pendragon. The battles that made Arthur famous were not against the Saxons, but against the Romans, against the invasion of Claudius, the “King Claudas” of the Arthurian romances, who has no place in the sixth century. The confusion arose almost inevitably during the transmission of the oral tradition of the Bards. The legend, found in the Mabinogi, of the head of Bran buried in London facing France to protect Britain against the “gormes Saessons” is indeed an old Gallic myth originating in the prehistory of the Celts, but passed to Britain from the Volcae of the south of France. In the story of Peredur (the Welsh Perceval), part also of the Mabinogi, the procession of the Grail carried the severed head of a man. We believe also that the Saessons were originally the Suessiones, the powerful Gallic tribe from around Soissons, which in the pre-Roman times extended their dominion over the south of England as well. Whitehead indentifies also Arthur with the Arviragus of other sources of British history, the king who granted Joseph land at Glastonbury. Caractacus was taken hostage to Rome for seven years, after which he was returned a client king to Britain. He was the father of Claudia Britannica, the wife of the Roman senator Rufus Pudens, the mother of SS. Praxedes and Pudentiana and of Linus the first pope of Rome, named in the Epistle to the Romans of St. Paul.[20] These are sufficient reasons to explain the enduring fame of Arthur, which can hardly be accounted for had he been only an obscure chieftain of the sixth century. His victories against the Saxons, certainly without much interest for the rest of Europe were not enough to give Arthur his mythical stature outside England. It was his father Bran who brought Joseph and the Grail to Britain, indication of an early exposure to Christianity. There is an almost unanimous tradition of a very early date. St. Gildas, in his De excidio Britanniae said: ”Christ, the True Sun, afforded his light, the knowledge of his precepts, to our island in the last year, as we know, of Tiberius Caesar”! Recent research has shown quite conclusively that large portions of sixth century epic, like the Book of Aneirin and the Goddodin (where we have the first mention of Arthur) represent in fact recollections of the Iron Age and precisely of Cunobelinus.[21] We think that another indication of an early date is the presence of the fish along with the bread and the wine on the Table of the Grail. The catacombs of Rome revealed a wealth of early representations of the Eucharist.[22] The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes mentioned by all four Evangelists was chosen to symbolize the Eucharist. Another one was the banquet of the seven Disciples by the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection. One of the oldest representation of the Eucharist, appropriately called “Fractio Panis” occurs in the cemetery of St. Priscilla, in the so called Capella Greca. The scene represents seven persons at table. In the center of the table are two plates, one containing five loaves, the other two fishes, while on the right and left of the divan seven baskets of bread are distributed symmetrically. In front of the celebrant there is a two handled cup, evidently the chalice. Other frescoes show baskets of bread next to fishes; in the baskets are glasses filled with a red substance, obviously the wine. The story of the seven disciples is recorded in the Gospel of St. John (XXI, 9 sqq.). The Lord invited him and the others to eat the bread and the fish lying in the hot coals. “And none of them…dared ask him: ‘Who art thou?’ knowing that it was the Lord." Is not here the prototype of the unasked question of the Grail quest?

We must stress that there is no indication whatsoever in the literature that the Grail remained in Britain, that it might be hidden somewhere at Glastonbury or wherever. Rather it is to the contrary. In the words of Arthur E. Waite: “The Grail literature is in any case a testimony of loss and dereliction.” The Grail is taken back to where it came, at Sarras, and from there even further. The things are, it seems, very simple. Montsalvat, or Munsalveche, is plainly Mount Zion. Here was the room of the Last Supper, the place where the risen Christ showed Himself to the Apostles, and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles. This was the Mother church of Christianity! Recent archaeological excavations showed that a church was built there, after the destruction of the Temple.[23] We may be certain that the Shroud was deposited there until an unknown date when it was taken to Constantinople and kept along with the instruments of the Passion as the Palladium of the Empire.

It is time to draw a conclusion. The most likely scenario is that Pilate carried with him the Shroud (it was in the hands of Procla anyway), first to Rome and then in his exile to Vienne, where he was followed by Joseph, Mary Magdalene, Martha and the others, obliged to flee the persecution against the Christians initiated by Herod Agrippa and surely backed by Caligula. This group can be considered in fact the keepers of the Grail. Every one of them had a special relation with the Shroud. Saint Irenaeus of Lyon tells us that the heretical Carpocratians were in possession of a portrait of Jesus “painted by Pilate”.[24] It certainly designated the Shroud. The mysterious city of Sarras might simply be an ancient Gallic settlement. Not far from Vienne to the south, in the department of Ardéche, there are two villages: Arras-sur-Rhone and Sarras, only six kilometers apart! We may as well opt for Arras, in Artois, which was the capital of the Atrebates. Could then the Bethany of the legends be Bethune? From Sarras Joseph proceeds to the “vaux d’Avaron” or Avalon. Avalon is a town in the same area (department of Yonne), the former Gallic and Gallic-Roman city of Aballo, or Avallo. That certainly does not preclude the dash to Britain at the request of Bran. The underlying idea was that it was for a “cure” of sorts for the ailing king. We like to stress that the healings operated by the Shroud presuppose a prior belief in the Resurrection. They see the Shroud and believe and their faith heals them, like in all the healings of Jesus. The Shroud was the silent witness of the Resurrection and therefore a potent instrument of conversion. The Queste dou Graal evokes the first stages of the conversion of Britain and Gaul. It was certainly a longer process, but I think we can not doubt that it started very early. Its peculiarity was the collaboration of the Druids in the conversion, as illustrated by the role of Merlin. We cannot dismiss lightly a very firm tradition, which was never seriously challenged. The Shroud played a significant role in the apostolic preaching and left in tradition an indelible mark; in the south of France as well. But Mary Magdalene did not remain there. Eastern tradition, which is more reliable in this respect, informs us that she returned to Ephesus where she helped Saint John in preaching and where she died. Her relics were taken to Constantinople by the Emperor Leo the Wise and deposed in the Monastery of Saint Lazarus, built by Leo. It would seem ironic that the Albigenses, other alleged keepers of the Grail, while denying the transubstantiation, were nevertheless commemorating the Lord’s Supper in the woods or in the houses on a cloth spread upon the ground![25] The presence of Titus and Vespasian in Aquitaine can be explained in the same context. Vespasian detained a high command during the conquest of Britain. His meeting with Joseph of Arimathea might have taken place there.

When the Crusaders rediscovered the Shroud at Constantinople the interest in its history was rekindled and serious “research” was made. The result was the literature of the Grail. The real quest for the Grail, as Noel Currer-Briggs puts it, was, alas, the Fourth Crusade.



1. Catholic Encyclopaedia, New Advent.org, s.v. Corporal.

2. Ibidem.

3. Catholic Encyclopaedia, New Advent.org, s.v. The Gallican Rite.

4. Dictionnaire d’Archéologie Chrétienne et de Liturgy, s.v. Antimension.

5. Montague Rhodes James, The Apocryphal New Testament…, Oxford at Clarendon Press, p. 3.

6. Remi van Haelst, The Shroud in the Gospel following Gamaliel, Collegamento pro Sindone Internet – Ottobre 2001.

7. Ibidem.

8. Montague Rhodes James, op.cit., p. 95.

9. Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, 9.5-7.

10. Montague Rhodes James, op.cit., pp. 157-161.

11. Idem, p. 117

12. Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 30.

13. Inscription archived by the Theatrum Pompei Project, www.theaterofpompey.com

14. Josephus Flavius, Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 3

15. Tacitus, Annals, IV, 22.

16. René Guenon, Le Saint Graal, in Symboles de la Science sacrée, Gallimard, p. 30.

17. Ian Wilson, The Turin Shroud, Penguin Books, 1978; Noel Currer-Briggs, The Shroud and the Grail, St. Martin Press, New York, 1987.

18. W. Cureton, Ancient Syriac Documents relative to the earliest establishment of Christianity in Edessa and the neighbouring countries from the year after our Lord’s Ascension to the beginning of the fourth century, Edinburgh, 1864, p. 17.

19. Idem, op.cit., pp. 133-134.

20. Rev Lionel Smithett Lewis, St Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury or The Apostolic Church of Britain, p.23.

21. John T. Koch, Llawr en assed (CA 932) “The laureate hero in the war-chariot:” Some recollections of the Iron Age in the Goddodin, in Etudes celtiques, XXIV, 1987; John T. Koch, Bran, Brennos: An Instance of Early Gallo-Brittonic History and Mythology, in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 20(Winter 1990).

22. Catholic Encycopaedia, New Advent.org, s.v. Early symbols of the Eucharist.

23. Bargil Pixner, "Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion", in Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 1990

24. Adversus Haereses, 1, 25,6.

25. Arthur E. Waite, The Holy Grail, p. 400.