Bruges and Blood, Ghent and Grail

img_1964( St. Bavo’s Cathedral )

The greatest mysteries remain mysteries. Best-selling literature such as “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” contains ( and purports to explain ) one such mystery. Regardless of its popularity and the supposed solving of the Christological puzzle ( the Grail is just code for Christ’s bloodline ), the mystery still remains. Millions have read “The Da Vinci Code” ( the novel based on the aforementioned book’s research ) and have seen its movie adaptation. A mass tourist industry didn’t spawn around Rennes-le-Château because the whole Jesus story was unveiled, but precisely because it wasn’t. Both belief and disbelief about the story have kept the mystery alive.
The same has happened with other modern mysteries, such as the UFO-phenomenon, Bigfoot or Loch Ness ( also pulling millions of tourists to a still lake, each and every single one of them hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled creature ). In fact, the whole field of cryptozoology can only exist as long as the creatures remain cryptids, i.e. “hidden”. If we stumble upon Bigfoot one day and take him back to the civilized world, he will belong to the field of zoology. And as time moves on, other cryptids will be spotted in the wilderness thereafter.
As such, it’s not the number of people who are in the know of the mystery that makes it mysterious, but that our tools to measure and our mappings of reality are (considered) wholly and inherently inadequate and inaccurate. And that when we successfully do measure and map, we push reality’s fringes ever further and new undiscovered lands are always beyond our newly set horizons.

The Holy Grail was pretty much known to everyone during the middle ages. It provoked some to actually go in search for it. Grail romances emerged around the time of the Crusades. An adventurous time for those engaged in it. A less gallant time for those on the receiving end of those adventures.
A time in which the Holy Land was taken for more than an easy access to pilgrims. One of these reasons was definitely the search for ancient relics. The grail was never found, but the blood of Christ was… At least, that’s what’s being claimed.


Last month I visited Bruges again and wandered around the Basilica of the Holy Blood. An annoucement was made through stereo speakers in the tourist packed chapel-turned-basilica: the relic of the “Precious Blood” was now available to be seen up close by the public . A rather short line of interested people formed to catch a glimpse of the blood of the saviour of humanity. Most didn’t seem to care much. At first, my disbelief kept me from actually caring about it as well. But after a few minutes my mind made a switch and went into “well, why the hell not?“-mode. I joined the small crowd of devotees and waited my turn. The above pic is what I got to see.
Gazing upon it didn’t exactly throw me off my horse. It sure made me wonder about the historicity behind this particular item and the connection Flanders has to the grail and the blood.
Apparantly the splatch of blood in this fancy container was brought to this godforsaken outer corner of the European continent by Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders, after the Second Crusade ( or by another Flemish nobleman during the Fourth Crusade ). The blood itself was first collected by Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have done so with what would become the Holy Grail ( a sample of Christ’s blood is enough to turn any object upon which it drops into a nexus point of worlds ).

Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have brought the holy cup from the East to Britain was a wealthy Jew to whose care Christ’s body was given to prepare it for the tomb. While preparing the body, some blood flowed from the wounds, which he caught in the cup of Christ that was used during the Last Supper. After the disappearance of the body, Joseph was accused of theft and thrown into jail. Then Christ appears to him in a blaze of light and entrusts the cup to his care. He then instructs Joseph in the mystery of the Mass and, it is said, certain other secrets, before vanishing. After Joseph is released, he goes into exile overseas where he is joined by his sister and her husband Bron. According to some versions, Joseph travels to Glastonbury where he founds the first Christian church, in which the Grail is housed. In the image we see him standing under the shadow of Glastonbury Tor. In other versions, Joseph goes no further than Europe, and the guardianship of the cup passes to Bron, who becomes the rich Fisher. The company settles in a place called Avaron (perhaps Avalon, the Celtic name for the otherworld, also identified with Glastonbury) to await the coming of the third grail keeper, Alain.
– John Matthews: The Grail: Quest for the Eternal

The small town of Glastonbury and the Grail have been connected for centuries. A mystery I have not delved into as much as I like, but I intend to check out Paul Weston’s work on it. The Blood and Bruges most definitely are connected. Catholics are convinced of its authenticity, whether or not it came from Jerusalem during the Second Crusade, or Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade.
Art in this small fiefdom was spurred by the relic’s mere presence. Flemish piety centered around iconic imagery of the Lamb of God, the Holy Wounds and the Fountain of Life. Most famously, it was the birthplace of the Ghent Altarpiece, where the Mystic Lamb bleeds into a cup in the center of the painting.
Which brings me back to my hometown, Ghent, where stuff like nazi’s and the grail do share an actual story. Indiana Jones might not be as fictitious as it sounds. Actual nazi’s, given specific orders by the Führer himself, took the Ghent Altarpiece to Germany. This painting would be the closest Hitler and the nazi’s would ever get to the grail. One panel is still missing though, the Just Judges. The theft thereof is still aching to be solved.

But in a sense, the Blood did touch the devotees in this small but opulent county in the high middle ages. It created the world’s first major oil painting, in fact the most influential painting ever made. It not only depicts the mystery of the Holy Grail and the Holy Blood, as well as forms an A to Z of Catholicism. It is in itself a type of grail which offers a ceaseless source of vitality to all who gaze upon it. Art as the nexus point of worlds.

Me and Lynn wandered around St. Bavo’s Cathedral, as if a forest, where the most sought after piece in world history rests again. We didn’t pay entry to see the painting with its Holy Grail. In Bruges, Lynn didn’t care to see the Holy Blood. Roaming around both cities, we took part in another mystery, another quest for the eternal.


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