The Grail Code 

Archive for December, 2006

A self-help book?

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Sometimes I wonder whether The Grail Code would have done better over there in the self-help section. Business sure looks lively over there. It looks as though people are willing to pay any price to have someone tell them why they feel so lousy.

Well, we could have told them that. In fact we did.

This self-help stuff is an industry worth millions upon millions of dollars. “Why am I miserable?” everyone seems to be asking. Thousands of books try to answer that question. You’re miserable because you let people walk all over you; you’re miserable because you’re not getting enough antioxidants; you’re miserable because you haven’t mastered the four easy steps to self-fulfillment; you’re miserable because your clothes are all wrong for your body type.

And here we sit, at the other end of the bookstore, with the real answer: you’re miserable because you’re a sinner.

Think of Lancelot in the Walter Map romances, or in Sir Thomas Malory’s versions of them. Why was he miserable? He had all the wealth he could possibly imagine; he won every battle he ever fought; he was more widely admired than any other man in the kingdom, not excluding Arthur himself; and he had the love of the most beautiful woman in Britain.

How could he possibly be miserable?

The answer is easy: he was miserable because he was a sinner. His sin kept him from the one thing that could really bring him contentment, which was an encounter with the Holy Grail. As long as he was a slave to sin, he was excluded from the kingdom of God.

Like any good self-help book, ours gives you the cure as well as the diagnosis. There is a way out. Confess and repent: acknowledge your sin and turn away from it.

Isn’t that easy?

Well, no—actually, it’s the hardest battle you’ll ever fight. Just ask Lancelot.

But the principle is easy to understand. You don’t need seven easy steps or five sure-fire techniques or the top ten secrets only the pros know. All you need is confession and real repentance, and the grace of God takes care of the rest.

That’s the answer all those people over there in the self-help section are looking for. Do you think they can hear us at this distance? Hey! Over here! This is what you’re looking for!

No, they’re not listening.

A pair of grails

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Speaking of art, the Carnegie Museum of Art has added a new collection search to its site. With it, I was able to find pictures of two of the Roman glass cups I’ve admired every time I walked past. One of them comes from the first century A.D.: it’s a solid deep red color. The other, from the previous century, is cast in beautiful swirling patterns of green, yellow, blue, and red. If the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper was glass, it might well have looked like either one of these.

This collection search is a lot of fun. Just type in the name of any artist–especially from the nineteenth century on, where the collection is strongest–and see what comes up. Try Burne-Jones, for example, and you’ll find a fascinating allegorical Nativity that puts the Holy Grail right at the birth of Christ.

Tiffany & Co.

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

A few days ago I went to the big Tiffany show at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and my head is still full of dragonflies and wisteria.

Louis Comfort Tiffany was an artist to whom no medium was foreign. If you were rich, and a lot of people were in those days, you could have your whole life designed by Tiffany: Tiffany interiors to live in, Tiffany furniture to sit on, Tiffany lamps to read Tiffany books by, Tiffany jewels to wear while you read, and of course Tiffany windows with ideal landscapes in glass to compensate for the aesthetic deficiencies of the real world outside.

Like William Morris, whose name comes up in The Grail Code, Tiffany aimed at nothing less than recreating the whole world on aesthetically sound principles. Tiffany’s studios made everything from fireplace screens to wallpaper. (When I saw Tiffany’s wallpaper designs, I imagined Tiffany receiving a visit from William Morris’ thugs, who would tell him that Mr. Morris was working this side of the street and he should lay off the wallpaper if he knew what was good for him.)

But in spite of the superficial similarities, there are deep differences between Morris and Tiffany. We can see those differences right away in the way they approached the art of stained glass.

William Morris aimed at reviving the lost craftsmanship of the Middle Ages. He developed his own distinctive style, but always based on the best medieval models.

Tiffany, on the other hand, was proud of making a deliberate break with the past. He declared that he had invented something new. Where the old craftsmen had practiced “painting on glass,” Tiffany was “painting with glass.” He developed an amazing array of glassmaking tricks to give him different visual effects, and he layered different textures to create mesmerizing effects of movement that hardly seem possible in a stationary work of art.

Where Morris studied the great art of the past, Tiffany devoted himself to nature. He was an expert photographer (at a time when handling a camera at all was a considerable accomplishment), and he used his skills to make detailed studies of insects, leaves, flowers, and other natural objects that could be turned into ornaments.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s entomology department has provided a case with dozens of dragonfly specimens, and by comparing them to Tiffany’s famous lamps we can see that he observed the tiniest details. Every segment of the tail, every vein in the wings is accurately translated into glass.

It seems that Tiffany had little interest in allegory, which makes him an odd character to be popping up in a site dedicated to the Holy Grail.

Of course, Tiffany was no stranger to religious art. His church windows are some of his most famous works, certainly some of the greatest works of art in glass ever executed. When you’re in Pittsburgh, you must pay a visit to Calvary Methodist Church in Allegheny West, where some of the best windows ever to come out of Tiffany Studios have been lovingly cleaned and restored over the past few years. These spectacular windows certainly show real religious feeling, and it would not be too much to call them some of the most inspiring art glass in the world.

But they’re representational rather than allegorical. As in everything Tiffany & Co. made, nature was the tutor. These religious scenes capture us so completely because they look so real. With the light pouring through them, they look almost more real than the world we live in.

Creation is good: that’s the message that comes through in every one of Tiffany’s works. It’s certainly a message we need to hear today. Neo-Gnosticism is the dominant wackiness of the moment, and one of the characteristics of Gnosticism is that it rejects creation. In most forms of Gnostic doctrine, creation is the work of an inferior “demiurge” who was either actively evil or a hopeless bungler. Jesus Christ was sent into the world to show us how to escape from the prison of creation.

It’s hard to express how pernicious this Gnostic idea is. Taken to its logical extreme, it deprives us of all joy in this life. Death is the only good thing about life.

Gnosticism was one of the heresies that resurfaced during the high Middle Ages, the time of the Arthurian romances, and there are people who find Gnostic doctrines in those romances, as we explained in The Grail Code.

In fact, most of the Arthurian romances are not only orthodox, but carefully and deliberately orthodox. The best of them seem to be well-worked-out orthodox responses to heresy.

Every ordinary medieval romance begins in the spring, when the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming and the birds are singing and all’s right with the world.

But some of the Arthurian romances deliberately turn that cliché on its head. They begin in a bleak wasteland: the land is blasted, barren, and cold. Sin has brought a curse on the whole country.

This is orthodox Christian theology. The blooming flowers and twittering birds are God’s blessings. Creation was made to be good; our sin is what makes creation go wrong.

Which brings us back to Louis Comfort Tiffany and his delight in the natural world. By showing us the beauty in things we don’t normally class as beautiful—dragonflies, for instance, or spiders in their webs—he brings us the good and very necessary Christian message that the earth is the Lord’s.

Tiffany is in the front lines in the fight against Gnosticism.

The best arguments for orthodox Christianity don’t come from theologians. The best arguments are the dragonflies. Creation is beautiful because it is the work of the God of all goodness.

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages continues through January 15 in the Heinz Galleries of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. There’s also a smaller exhibit of Tiffany’s desk sets in the Treasure Room.

A car, an idiot–gee!

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Why are you just sitting there reading this? You could be earning yourself a million pounds sterling by solving the mystery of the Holy Grail.

That’s about two million dollars in our comical American money.

All you have to do is plod through a little puzzle book called Maranatha Et In Arcadia Ego Cave Canem. Oops—my mistake: I should have stopped at “Ego.”

The authors of this little volume have discovered the long-suppressed secret of the Holy Grail, and it will destroy the foundations of all the world’s religions. Buddhism will fare no better than Christianity once this secret is in the open. Then we’ll all be better, more spiritual people, once we’ve got rid of all our, um, hang-ups. The world will be saved.

But the authors aren’t quite ready to enlighten us yet. We have to figure it out for ourselves.

Imagine Kofi Annan using his last speech at the UN to announce that he’s finally found the key to world peace. “But I won’t tell you what it is,” he says. “My successor will be a better Secretary General if he figures it out for himself. Meanwhile, go on killing each other as usual. Bye all!”

It’s something like that.

So it looks like it’s up to us to solve the mystery. And actually, since I’m fatally hampered by apathy, it looks like it’s up to you.

But I have a proposition for you. The official rules of the contest say that, if simultaneous correct answers are received, the winner will be the one who best completes a couplet of which the first line is

Worthy am I read this book

“Worthy am I read this book” sounds like it was written by a foreigner who doesn’t understand how English infinitives work. But if that’s what I have to work with, I’ve got the tiebreaker already:

Worthy am I read this book:

Not like you, you stupid schnook.

You may use this couplet in your submission, and if you win, I’m asking for only 30% of the prize. I think that’s very generous of me.

(It occurs to me now that perhaps correctly punctuating the first line is part of the challenge. For example, perhaps it’s supposed to read, “Worthy, am I? Read this, book!” If that’s the case, don’t forget who gave you the hint.)

Now, you may be wondering about the Latin subtitle Et In Arcadia Ego, which looks as though it was put there by a random subtitle generator. That’s because you haven’t spent much time among the Grail-conspiracy cultists. Good for you.

In Grail-conspiracy lore, the Latin saying “Et in Arcadia ego” is an anagram for something far more significant, like maybe “arcane age idiot.” (I’ve put another possible solution in the title of this article, just to puzzle you and to see whether anybody ever reads this far. I don’t know why all the anagrams I come up with have the word “idiot” in them.)

Why an anagram? We know it must be a code because, by itself, it’s an incomplete sentence. Look: no verb!

Now, this argument may come as a surprise to those of you who remember that pithy Latin sayings often come without verbs. “In vino veritas” comes to mind, or (speaking of comical American money) “e pluribus unum.” But the absence of the verb really bothers them over there in the conspiracy cult.

Usually the phrase is taken to mean something like “I” (meaning death) “am even in Arcadia.” Poussin painted a couple of pictures in which he interpreted it as “I” (meaning the person memorialized) “have also been in Arcadia.” At least that’s how you’d interpret Poussin’s interpretation if you were a boring old art historian, but since we know now that the phrase is really an anagram, we know that Poussin was really giving us a clue about where to find the Holy Grail. (I’ve left out a few steps in the argument, but don’t think you’d be any happier if you knew what they were.)

As for the rest, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that Leonardo da Vinci is also in it up to his neck, and that there will be more anagrams to decipher before the thing is over and done.

Now that you know all that, you’re well started on your million-pound quest, and once again I remind you that 30% of the take will be thanks enough.

But I should warn you not to expect much help from The Grail Code. Our book deals not with conspiracies over the centuries, but with the true meaning of the Grail quest. And you won’t find a million pounds sterling at the end of that quest—only eternal life, which, if you were only looking for the million pounds, may turn out to be a bit of a disappointment.

The intellectual epidemic of our time

Tuesday, December 5th, 2006

A while ago I saw an auction on eBay offering a photograph dated 1708. That was intriguing enough, since I had not been aware that the art of photography predated the nineteenth century. But what was even more intriguing was that the people in the photograph were dressed in the fashions of the early 1900s. Obviously what was on offer here was an actual photograph of time travelers, a couple who had probably borrowed Mr. Wells’ time machine and gone on a sightseeing tour two hundred years into the past.

Now that I know that photography was in use as far back as the early 1700s, I’m convinced that there must be even more striking images out there waiting to be found. Surely the photographers of those days took the trouble to document the great figures of their time at the decisive moments of their careers.

Just for one example, I’d love to have a snapshot of Thomas Jefferson sitting down at his old Remington to bang out the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson would have used one of those cumbersome understroke machines, the kind where you have to lift the carriage to see what you’ve just typed, but I’ll bet he could get going at a pretty good clip once he got started. Getting started is always the hard part, though, as any writer will tell you. I imagine the picture would show him surrounded by crumpled rejects (“Every once in a while it seems like a good idea…”; “When, every once in a while, it seems like a good idea…”; “When, in the course of this and that…”; “When, in the course of human eveb oh DANG”).

I’d also like to have a photograph of Napoleon, fresh from his conquest of the Soviet Union, stepping off the plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport with his mistress Britney by his side. He’d be standing in front of a forest of old-fashioned microphones, getting ready to give his first interview to the newsreel reporters.

But most of all I’d like to have a snapshot of my hero Dr. Johnson carefully enunciating a bon mot into his friend Boswell’s Dictograph. That would be a sentimental favorite with me.

All right, so I’ve had my fun at the expense of some innocent person whose only sin was in not knowing as much about the history of photography as I do. I ought to be ashamed of myself. Obviously, what really happened is that someone misread the date 1908 as 1708. What’s my point?

My point is this: that there was a very big difference between the technology and the styles of 1708 and of 1908. But here’s someone who’s obviously educated (the words were all spelled correctly and organized into well-constructed sentences, and the punctuation was unobjectionable) and quite capable of dealing with complex computer transactions, yet that person has no idea of the historical context that allows me to deduce so easily that the date was 1908.

I bring this up because I think the lack of historical context is the great intellectual epidemic in Western culture. (Some Eastern cultures have exactly the opposite problem: a lively sense of historical context that keeps up grudges from thousands of years ago.) You and I would be able to look at a photograph and tell right away that it didn’t come from 1708. Even if we didn’t know when photography was invented, we know that the somber suits of 1908 were very different from the colorful tights of 1708.

This lack of historical context—a sense of where things fit in history—is exactly what makes things like The Da Vinci Code possible. (You knew I’d blame Dan Brown evenetually.) It’s why The Grail Code takes a different approach from many of the books written in direct response to Dan Brown. Trying to refute every one of the historical revisionists’ assertions makes one feel a bit like a little Dutch boy trying to hold back the North Sea with his finger. But when you know the whole story—the whole outline of how the legends of the Holy Grail developed—then when you see that there’s just no room for the odd ideas of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and all its derivatives, including The Da Vinci Code. They just don’t fit anywhere in history. It’s the context that makes us good judges of what’s true and what’s false.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey