Secrets of Urgell

It might surprise Arthurian scholars who connect the myth to the "Matter of Britain" that the word grail may have originated in Urgell (Catalonia) and that nine churches in the region (1) have paintings of the Holy Grail. According to the Canadian historian Joseph Goering, similar images are known "nowhere else in Christian art" and existed long before Chrétien de Troyes introduced the word "graal" (2). Joan Vallhonrat, a friend of Picasso, had made a few copies in 1908 and when reports about this unique treasure were published, the churches could no longer be protected at their isolated locations in the Pyrenees (3). The frescoes were covered with transparent glue and masterfully peeled off from the plaster. Most of them are exhibited today at the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona and are regarded as the most important collection of Romanesque art in the world. Because there were objections to the removal, painters had to be hired to restore the empty walls with copies. Two close-ups of the "grail virgin" at Sant Climent de Taüll (at left) show the great difference between the original and inferior copy. The independent scholar Peter Hubert has documented Romanesque art with detailed descriptions and great photography! See Romanesque Heritage and The Artists at Taüll.

 According to the MNAC, Sant Climent de Taüll was consecrated in 1123 CE, which is before Chrétien was born and a strong indication that the painting inspired the "Conte du Graal". It should be noted that some art historians connect grail romance to Catalonia independent of the etymological link to Urgell: Chandler R. Post writes in History of Spanish Painting (Harvard, 1930, p.195) the vessel in Mary's hand "has been tentatively explained as the Holy Grail because Montserrat in Catalonia is connected with this legend and because the vessel seems to be filled with the Sacred Blood emitting miraculous rays". Otto Demus supports this identification in Romanische Wandmalerei, (München, 1968, p.160): "The Virgin... holds up a dish filled with the red glowing blood of Christ, a reminder that Catalonia was one of the centers of the cult of the Grail." However, most Romanesque paintings depict a chalice that could be used for the Eucharist, the Holy Grail of popular culture (4), but only the virgin of Taüll has a simple bowl, a common service dish, which confirms the etymology of "gradalis-gradal-graal" (5). This is mirrored in a painting from nearby Santa Maria de Taüll where the wisemen present their gifts in similar bowls, as a detail shows at right. (Both images can be enlarged by clicking on them). But what could the gesture of Mary's right hand mean, is it reflecting the heat or a signal? Here is a detail of "foolish virgins" from one mural (6) and of apostles from another (7) to demonstrate that hand signals were widely used at the time. 

What makes the stern facial expression of the "Grail Virgin" so mysterious – is it because her lips seem to be sealed? Someone without an art background wouldn't even notice the subtle effect. Sealing wax or glue are difficult to depict but the effect of painful 'stitches' is rather easy to  create as we can see below. According to her gesture, the secret of her fiery bowl (8) is about "Christ in Majesty" who is floating high above her in the apse with the Book of Life announcing EGO SVM LVX MVNDI (I am the light of the world). He is surrounded by the Tetramorph and ready to exit his dualistic mandorla. In view of such a dramatic scenario, it is understandable that a history professor like Goering would overlook the vertical lines on Mary's lips. He had neither studied art nor literature and admits humbly to "poaching" in an homage of former teachers at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. We poached as well by copying the grail virgin from his book at first, where the stitches looked like jpeg-distortions, but the MNAC offers better reproductions (9). The close-up of Mary's mouth at left shows the actual brush strokes of vertical lines across both lips. It remains an open question if the painter wanted to depict actual stitches because vertical lines would seal the lips as well! Although no paintings with similar lips have been found in other Romanesque churches, skeptics might dismiss them as an artist's personal style to depict a mouth. (See Appendix for details.)     

It is another curious fact that the wisemen are depicted at Santa Maria de Taüll as kings, although their crowns look like exotic miters that remind of the Magi in the Bible, to which the public had no access. In an effort to minimize their image as heretic magicians and astrologers the Church renamed them in the early Middle Ages the "Holy Three Kings". This change became popular in 1164 when their alleged relics were taken in Milan by Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa and given to the archbishop of Cologne and enshrined there in its cathedral. They were venerated as the three kings until the Reformation, when Bible translations restored them as Magi or wisemen. However, there were always two notable exceptions at the Val d'Aran (10): Santa Maria de Cap d'Aran and Santa Maria d'Aneu had depictions of the Magi with conical caps, which should make them independent from Byzantine art where they usually wear Phrygian caps. What could be a challenge for historians is actually a major break-through for us: In both churches, the robes of the Magi are decorated with the "fiery" and "watery" triangles we have been featuring in our research since the 1980s. Based on Kepler's study of the Star of Bethlehem, our findings suggest an astrophysical link of planetary triangles to the phoenix myth and the Holy Grail! At left is a detail of Melchior from Santa Maria d'Aneu with the triangles, which can be enlarged by clicking on it! The painting of Cap d'Aran is at the museum "The Cloisters" in New York and can be accessed here, see p. 37. One of the reasons why scholars may have overlooked this challenge is that the valley of Aran was difficult to access until two tunnels were built, the first in the 20th century, and the second was completed in 2007, see Viella Tunnel!         

Back to Goering, who ignores the esoteric symbolism of the Grail Virgin because she is linked officially to the Gregorian Reform and her orthodoxy never questioned. He interprets the red-hot flames as "The grace of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost", but conceeds that "sacraments of oil, chrism and consecration; the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist; each and all of these meanings, and others too, might be represented..." Yet instead of pointing out that Pentecost is an important theme in Arthurian romance, Goering ends his book with the trivial pursuit of an obscure count Rotrou of the Perche as the most likely candidate for Chrétien's Perceval. If he is right, we have come to the wrong place and should be heading North to follow up with his praise of Helinandus, one of the most ardent preachers of the Albigensian Crusades. But the magical mystery of the sealed lips and esoteric triangles keeps us in the Pyrenees a bit longer to follow Chrétien and Wolfram to the legends of Mont Verdera, the "green mountain" of truth! In addition to the usual questions we'll try to find out how some of the frescoes relate to the 'Second Coming', what Jesus might really be signaling with his hand, and why an older painting from Sant Pere de Burgal depicts the fiery grail still as a "ciborium", an enclosed relic – with Peter signaling like Jesus as he holds up two keys like Mary the "Holy Grail" (MNAC) with a covered hand? Her grail parallels Peter's keys because the fiery relic is made up of two chalices, with the top one reversed – as if both Saints were posing for a poster to promote the kind of "dualism" Chrétien would feature later in his poem. Hermetic messages that require a detour to the Pontifical Institutions at the Vatican and a closer look at the Christian "history" (éstoire) of Robert de Boron, whom we honor as one of the three originators of grail romance.

 

Appendix:

The possibility that the vertical lines on Mary's mouth could be an artist's personal style to depict a mouth is easily disproven with the close-ups of John, Jesus, and James (below) in the same fresco and by the same painter. For a better comparison we framed the refined head of Christ with the saints, who are painted in the same style as Mary, but enhanced with a higher contrast and tint to emphasize the details.

There are no vertical lines over any of their lower lips and only a short line below the nose. The face of John has two fine cracks in the plaster, of which one runs from his ear across the lips to the chin, but only the corners of the mouth are marked by lines because he is beardless. There are also small accents to define the sides of his lower lip, but neither he, nor Jesus and James have lines that cover their lower lip, which is conclusive evidence that Mary's lips are meant to be sealed! In fact, it is probably the subtleness of the effect that preserved the fresco over the centuries, because the image would have been removed or painted over long ago! That so many depictions of Mary with a vessel survived in the Pyrenees could be an indication that some Church reforms never reached them.

 

Notes:

1. C. du Fresne du Cange; Glossarium, L.Favre, Niort 1885, Tom.IV, p.91, and Joan Coromines, Diccionari Etimològic Complimentari de la Llegua Catalana, Vol. IV, Curial Edicions Catalanes, Barcelona, 1984, p.637.

2. Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, tr. William W. Kibler, (London, 1991), pp. 7-8

 

3. Montserrat Pagès, the curator of MNAC, offers in Romanesque mural painting in Catalonia (2012) a most informative introduction, but without references to the controversial grail context.

 

4. Chrétien described the grail as a "golden platter" as bright as the sun, Robert changed it to a "Paschal dish" from the Last Supper, and Wolfram reduced it to a "lapsit exillis", a stone from paradise. Decades later, other poets changed the grail to the Cup of the Last Supper, which was probably meant to enhance the myth with the transubstantiation treatise of Thomas Aquinas.

 

5.  Du Cange, Coromines, see above no. 1

 

6. Sant Quirze de Pedret, see http://www.romanesqueheritage.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/pedret.pdf

 

7. Santa Maria de Mur, now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. See above, no. 3, the report of Montserrat Pagès how the preservation of Romanesque Art originated.

 

8. The fiery bowl may symbolize Plato's "Krater", a divine mixing bowl of life. See Henry Kahane, Renee Kahane, The Krater and the Grail: Hermetic Sources of the Parzival (Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, Vol 56), 1985.

 

9. Manuel Castiñeiras and Jordi Camps, Romanesque Art in the MNAC collections, in collaboration with Joan Duran-Porta, photographs by Matías Briansó, (Barcelona, 2008). They acknowledge the "Holy Grail" only once, in a reference to Sant Pere de Burgal (p. 28). It is rather curious they single out an enclosed relic and ignore the well-known Virgin of Taüll.

 

10. The mural of Santa Maria de Cap d'Aran belongs now to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the one from Santa Maria d'Aneu is part of the MNAC collections in Barcelona. For details see above n. 6.

 

 

 

 

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