The Grail Code 

Grail Art

Jessie M. King, Perceval Winneth the Golden Cup

When I was in high school, I used to know every grubby little bookstore in the Washington metropolitan area. Somewhere on a back shelf of one of them I found Sebastian Evans’ translation of The High History of the Holy Graal, and that was the book that first introduced me to the legends of the Grail.

The dreamlike romance was what enthralled me once I started reading, but I’m sure the illustrations were the reason I bought the book in the first place. They were like nothing I had ever seen before. Here’s one of them, and it demonstrates all the qualities that make Jessie M. King’s pictures so striking: the long, flowing lines, the elongated bodies, the medieval attitudes and composition, and the blurring of the line between illustration and decoration. I choose this as the first entry in our new page of Grail art because it’s the first illustration of the Grail I ever remember seeing, and it still haunts me now, several presidential administrations later.

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Camelot, from “Myths and Their Meaning.”

Light distinguishes the celestial from the earthly. As far as we can tell, there’s no way for the dark figure–probably Arthur himself–in the foreground to reach the glowing castle on the next hill. The approach seems to be impossible. The figure hangs his head (and so does his horse), as though saying a last farewell to the Arthurian Eden from which he has been exiled.

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The Failure of Sir Lancelot

Click on the image to enlarge it.

The Failure of Sir Lancelot, a tapestry by Burne-Jones, Morris, and Dearle

This tapestry must be glorious in color, but I have it only in black and white from a 1912 book called TapestriesTheir Origin, History, and Renaissance, by George Leland Hunter. The design, at least, is striking. The Holy Grail was one of Edward Burne-Jones’ favorite subjects; here he illustrates Lancelot’s closest approach to it. The Grail Mass is going on inside the chapel, but Lancelot sleeps through it, dimly aware that he is missing something terribly important but unable to stir.

Of course, the failure is only a step on the road to ultimate success. Lancelot dies a holy death, welcomed into heaven, where the feast of the Holy Grail goes on eternally. His failure here awakens his sense of unworthiness, and understanding our own unworthiness—our incapability of achieving the Grail without God’s grace—is the first step in becoming worthy. Our most disappointing failures are usually divine providence hard at work for our benefit.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey