Is the Shroud of Turin the Holy Grail?

While there is no conclusive proof that the Shroud was ever identified at any point in history as the Grail, there are many intriguing connections between the two.

Holy Face of Jesus
Holy Face of Jesus (photo: Public Domain)

There have been not a few attempts to identify the elusive Holy Grail as not just the Shroud of Turin itself but also its reliquary casket. But in just a cursory glance into the deep depths of Arthurian lore, we can see how the quest for the Holy Grail is fulfilled not so much in the artifact of the Shroud, but in what it represents: the body and blood of the Lamb of God.

Although Pope Urban IV decreed the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, it was slow to gain traction throughout Christendom. Urban’s own devotion to both the corporal and Eucharistic body of the Lord is evidenced in the popular story of his coming into possession of what is known today as the Holy Face of Laon, after Urban (then still Archdeacon Pantaleon of Laon Cathedral) sent the icon to his sister, Abbess Sibylle at Montreuil-les-Dames, in July 1249. The inscription is in late-first-millennium Slavonic: “The image of the Lord on the sudarium-shroud.” Pantaleon is said to have urged his sister in his accompanying letter to look upon it “like the holy Veronica, as its true image and likeness.”

For the one who would establish the Feast of Corpus Christi — and a native of Troyes at that, where the Shroud would emerge in the historical record in the mid-14th century — the Holy Face of Laon icon united the mandylion traditions of the East with the Roman Veronica cult in the west.

In his book, The Holy Grail and the Shroud of Christ, Noel Currer-Briggs subscribed to the hypothesis that the mandylion and Shroud of Turin are one and the same. He connects the Holy Face of Laon to a badly preserved mandylion fresco in Serbia’s Gradac Monastery, built between 1277 and 1282 by the queen consort of Serbia, Helen of Anjou, mother of King Stefan Uroš II Milutin. Currer-Briggs specifically points out the similar trellis or lattice shapes on that mosaic as also visible on the Laon icon. “The term lattice or trellis is synonymous with grid or grill, and they all derive from the medieval French word ‘greil’ or ‘greille.’” For Currer-Briggs, this was evidence of a decorative grill behind which was the Shroud, folded in such a way as to only reveal the face. (I pursued this hypothesis here.)

For Currer-Briggs, greil and greille appeared an awful lot like “Grail.”

Troyes, the residency of the counts of Champagne, was instrumental in disseminating Grail stories throughout Champagne and Burgundy, particularly in the work of Chretien de Troyes (d. 1191). Chretien was the poet-in-residence at the court of Marie and her husband Henri, count of Champagne. A popular literary work at this time embraced by their court was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, a pseudo-historical rip-roaring jaunt through British history that blended fact and fiction to great acclaim. A Homeric, Celtic response to the Frankish chanson de geste (heroic deeds) of Charlemagne, the opus fell under the common genre known as the Matter of Britain. Of particular interest was its inclusion of a British king named Uther Pendragon and his son, the once and future king, Arthur. Other characters included in Monmouth’s work were a magician called Merlin and other kings named Lear and Cymbeline.

The History of the Kings of Britain, written in Latin, was soon translated into French as Roman de Brut by Robert Wace. It is Wace who adds new Arthurian motifs such as the Round Table. It eventually reached the court of Marie and Henri, where it would have a tremendous influence on their poet-in-residence, Chretien de Troyes.

Chretien’s Arthurian cycle, Eric and Enide (1170), Cliges (1170), Lancelot (1172) and Yvain (1173), were produced under the patronage of Henry and Marie, except for the incomplete Perceval, the Story of the Grail (1175). That was commissioned by Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders. Though Chretien did not invent the Arthurian legends, he singularly influenced later efforts, namely by extending the Arthurian universe beyond Arthur himself. With the embellishment of side characters and plots, Arthur’s knights, such as Lancelot and Perceval, became the leading men of their own poems. In this way, Chretien deepened the notion of knights and quests, adding a crucial original motif that would forever be associated with the Knights of the Round Table: the Grail.

In Chretien’s version, the enduring elements found in Perceval took on heightened relevancy for his audiences in the wake of the Crusades. For instance, the young knight, Perceval, discovers the guardian of the Grail, the Fisher King, wounded and alone, unable to heal. In Chretien’s time of scribing Perceval, Amalric I, king of Jerusalem, died of dysentery, consistently besieged by Saladin, the new Sultan of Egypt. Amalric’s successor was his son, himself a wounded king — the leper king Baldwin IV, whose short, ineffectual reign focused on appeasing Saladin’s advances on Jerusalem had enormous consequences for the unstable future of the Latin kingdom. Baldwin’s cousin was the same Philip, Count of Flanders, who commissioned Chretien’s Perceval.

On another level, the Fisher King also was recognized as the King of Kings. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Later, the one who multiplied the loaves and fishes will be wounded on the Cross by a lance into the side, under the sign of Pilate: This is the king of the Jews. The vicar of Christ, the pope, the successor to St. Peter as the bishop of Rome, wears the fisherman’s ring. In the early Christian community, when the faith was underground in the catacombs, the symbol for Christ the Savior was a fish.

It is important to note Chretien does not associate the grail as anything beyond some kind of ambiguous vessel. It was another troubadour, Robert de Boron, who interwove a Christian presence so effectively within the Arthurian romances that it was only after Boron that the Holy Grail forever became associated with the cup, or chalice, from the Last Supper. It is not clear whether Robert de Boron traveled with his crusading patron, Gauthier de Montbeliard — a colorful character in his own right — on his exploits with fellow men-at-arms Robert de Joinville and Gauthier III de Brienne, the hero of St. Francis of Assisi’s younger days.

Gauthier de Montebeliard became Regent of the kingdom of Cyprus. The religious center of Cyprus was anchored by the bishop of Lambousa on the north coast of the island. The headquarters of the bishop of Lambousa was a venerable monastery originally built on the ruins of a sixth-century Christian basilica. The name of the monastery, though dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is better known for its colloquial name — Acheiropoietos Monastery. A 1918 description of historic monuments in Cyprus indicated the monastery’s name, Acheiropoietos, derived from a local tradition that the Shroud spent some time at this very monastery.

Boron is credited as the author of a Grail cycle that comprises three titles: Perceval, Merlin and the first entry in Boron’s trilogy, Joseph of Arimathea.

For as central a role that Joseph of Arimathea plays in the Grail legends as the bearer of the sacred vessel containing Christ’s blood, he speaks no words in the four canonical Gospels. Instead, Robert de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea is inspired more by the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. The central conflict revolves around Joseph’s role as a secret disciple of the crucified Jesus. Jewish authorities imprison Joseph, only to find him somehow escaped, rescued by Jesus:

Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me: I am Jesus, whose body thou didst beg of Pilate, and didst clothe me in clean linen and cover my face with a napkin, and lay me in thy new cave and roll a great stone upon the door of the cave. And I said to him that spake with me: Show me the place where I laid thee. And he brought me and showed me the place where I laid him, and the linen cloth lay therein, and the napkin that was upon his face. And I knew that it was Jesus.

Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea picks up with the events of the Passion, though here Joseph is an associate of Pontius Pilate, a knight in charge of five other knights, and present when Judas negotiated the 30 pieces of silver with Jewish authorities to betray Jesus. After the crucifixion, as in the Gospels, Pilate grants the body to Joseph, and here, Nicodemus. Pilate also hands off a vessel to Joseph, an item associated with the crucified Nazarene.

Upon washing the body, prompting a fresh flow of blood from the wounds of Christ, Joseph uses the vessel to catch the Redeemer’s blood. Boron then details “the Harrowing” — Christ’s descent into Hell and subsequent resurrection. Because of the mysterious resurrection event and disappearance of Christ’s body, Joseph is thrown into solitary confinement in a Roman prison in Jerusalem. In a vision, Christ gives Joseph the vessel containing his Precious Blood. Here, a direct distinction between the Passion and the centrality of the Mass, the Holy Sacrifice, is linked. In addition to sharing with Joseph the sacred words of consecration, Christ reveals the meaning of the sacred elements to forever be enacted: Christ’s flesh and blood appear as bread and wine; the tomb is the altar; the linen burial cloth becomes the square-sized linen corporal on which the consecrated elements are placed; the vessel containing the blood becomes the chalice; the tombstone becomes the paten, the small plate containing the hosts.

Though Christ hands over the sacred vessel, Joseph remains in prison for 40 years, sustained by the presence of the vessel. The Roman emperor’s son, Vespasian, afflicted with leprosy, then enters the narrative seeking healing and is told he can be healed only by something related to Christ. Here, the character Veronica is introduced, specifically associated with her towel on which Christ wiped his face en route to Golgotha. In Boron, Veronica and her veil are brought to Rome, where the relic then cures Vespasian.

Soon, Vespasian travels to Judea, demanding Jesus be brought to him. Vespasian is told that only one person can meet Vespasian’s demand, and he is brought to the dungeon where Joseph is kept. Vespasian is amazed to find the Arimathean so healthy after 40 years in prison, and is so compelled by Joseph’s commitment to the faith that he converts to Christianity. Though there is no historical account of Vespasian encountering Joseph of Arimathea, there is a curious line in Suetonius’s biography of Emperor Vespasian in the Roman historian’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars: “One of the noble captives, named Joseph, when he was put in chains, kept affirming that he would soon be freed by Vespasian.”

Boron then documents Joseph upon his liberation, setting off to evangelize in distant lands along with his sister, Enygeus, and his sister’s husband, Hebron (Bron). Eventually, an angel announces:

The Lord knows Bron for a worthy man and it was therefore his will that he should go fishing. He is to keep the vessel after Joseph, who must instruct him properly, especially concerning the holy words which God spake to Joseph in the prison, which are sweet and precious, gracious and merciful, and which are properly called the Secrets of the Grail.”

Bron then becomes known as “The Rich Fisher.” Joseph transfers the vessel into his possession, and it is the descendants of Bron who become the guardians of the Grail — the Fisher Kings.

Robert de Boron’s Joseph of Arimathea manages to effectively place this “sacred vessel” at the center of a narrative that weaves a Christian backstory into an Arthurian theme. It effortlessly builds off the recognizable events of the Gospels and the role of relics, but above all draws on the centrality of the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection as ritualized in the Mass.

Although there has been much analysis on what “grail” (or “graal”) means, both etymologically and physically, J. Douglas Bruce speaks plainly and most effectively on what the Grail represents at the heart of Robert de Boron’s Joseph. While there is no conclusive proof that the Shroud was ever identified at a point as the Grail, substituting “Grail” for “Shroud” in the following quote from Bruce shows how closely they resemble each other:

Joseph of Arimathea receives [the Grail], as he receives the body of our Lord; it is present at the entombment, remains then concealed, and at last reappears with the risen Christ. It is plain, then, that we have in Robert’s history of the Holy Grail a characteristic piece of medieval symbolism. The Grail is the symbol of Christ’s body.