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the Grail city?
towns have laid claim to owning a, if not the, Holy Grail. Amongst
all the candidates, one interesting town is Bruges, the Flemish
city often referred to as the Venice of the North. The reason
why Bruges should be considered of more interest than other contenders
is because of the fact that the first Grail romance was written
by Chrétien de Troyes, who worked in eastern France under
the patronage of Countess Marie de Champagne (1145-1198) and her
husband Philip of Alsace, Count of Flanders (1141-1191). The account
states that Chrétien found the story of the Grail in a
manuscript supposedly given to him by Philip of Alsace.
The story of Bruges’ connection to the Holy Grail –
or, to be precise, the Holy Blood – starts when Philip of
Alsace’s father, Thierry of Alsace, had been bequeathed
the Holy Blood of Christ. It was his reward from Baldwin III,
the King of Jerusalem, for his bravery during the Second Crusade.
Thierry went four times to the Holy Land, the second time in 1147
during the Second Crusade. He led the crossing of the Maeander
River in Anatolia and fought at the Battle of Attalya in 1148.
After arriving in the crusader kingdom, he participated in the
Council of Acre, where the ill-fated decision to attack Damascus
was made. He participated in the Siege of Damascus, led by his
wife’s half-brother Baldwin III of Jerusalem, and with the
support of Baldwin, Louis VII of France, and Conrad III of Germany,
he lay claim to Damascus; however, the native crusader barons
preferred one of their own nobles, Guy Brisebarre, lord of Beirut,
but in any case the siege was a failure and all parties returned
Despite such failure, Baldwin III apparently gave him a precious
relic, containing the Holy Blood of Christ, which he apparently
donated to the Flemish city of Bruges in 1150, a town where he
had found sanctuary during a previous military campaign. The relic
has remained in Bruges to this day, even though in times of war,
it often had to be secreted away. Still, could it be that one
of the most intriguing legendary artefacts has been on public
display for centuries?
tourist is hard-pressed to notice the double chapel that is almost
squashed in one corner of the “Burg” square and where
the Holy Blood is kept. On first sight, it appears to be an ordinary
– though old – house. This is because the original
façade was destroyed in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
The staircase leading up to the upper chapel equally inspires
little anticipation one is climbing towards a religious sanctuary…
of the Holy Grail.
Though constructed in the 12th century, the site was only promoted
to the rank of basilica in 1923 and many prefer to refer to it
as a chapel, rather than a basilica. The lower part of the church
is dedicated to Basilius and has preserved its Romanesque style,
so typical of churches constructed during the 12th century. The
dedication to St Basilius the Great occurred during the life of
Thierry of Alsace, when bones of the saint were brought back from
Caesarea by Robert II of Jerusalem, Count of Flanders. Few of
the original decorations remain, but amongst them is a tympanum,
sculptured in half-relief, and thought to represent the baptism
of St Basilius.
chapels as such were not unusual for the 12th century, but what
is most unusual, is that both floors are completely independent;
normally, the upper floor opened up a view to the nave. The two
levels were there so that ordinary citizens and nobles remained
separated even in their religious activities. But in the case
of Bruges, it is clear that both social classes even had separate
The upper floor was originally built in the Romanesque style too,
but was changed completely in the 15th century, and again in 1823.
It explains the sumptuous colours and decorations, so much in
contrast with the lower chapel. But however beautiful the stained-glass
windows are, they are relatively modern, the original ones removed
after the French Revolution, whereby some of these were sold off
and are currently on display in the Victoria and Albert museum
the Holy Blood had arrived in Bruges in 1150, the chapels might
indeed have been purpose built for this relic. But that is not
the case. In fact, the “Precious Blood” is preserved
inside the silver altar in the right-hand side section of the
upper chapel. This annex, known as the chapel of the Holy Cross,
was constructed at the end of the 13th century; the extension
was required because of the popularity the relic and the pilgrims
and visitors it attracted.
Indeed, despite what the history of the relic states, there is
no evidence for its presence in the town as early as 1150 and
the new deed of foundation of the chapel of Saint Basil in 1189,
drawn up by Philip of Alsace makes no mention of the Holy Blood.
It is now believed that the relic was actually recovered during
the Fourth Crusade (ca. 1204) and its origin is believed to have
been Byzantium. The earliest reference to the relic being in Bruges
dates from 1256. The bottle of rock crystal itself has never been
opened, but is believed to date from the 11th or 12th century.
Experts are almost certain that the bottle was made in Constantinople,
and that it was in origin a perfume bottle.
Some have even argued that the Crusade was diverted to Byzantium
to sack the city and retrieve its horde of precious relics, which
could then be shipped en masse to Western Europe. So even though
it might mean that the history of the relic is therefore erroneous,
it does not, by default, disqualify it as a genuine relic believed
to have been the Holy Blood. But, most interestingly, it is the
Church itself who often highlights that the Bible itself has no
evidence – i.e. the Gospels make no mention of it –
that the blood of Christ while he was hanging on the Cross was
ever collected, or that any of his circle ever cared for such
this cold attitude of the Church towards any Holy Blood and the
evidentiary contradictions about the relic’s presence in
Bruges in 1150, the Holy Blood itself remains revered throughout
the year, and even more so during the Holy Blood Procession, which,
since the late 13th century, has been held through the streets
of Bruges on Ascension Day, at 3pm. It was known to have been
one of the most sumptuous processions in the world.
Chrétien de Troyes’ Grail account postdates the legendary
arrival of the Holy Blood by approximately 25 years (1150 to 1175).
Interestingly, Chrétien lists a knightly and royal tradition
surrounding a precious relic, carried in a procession. Did his
master desire a romance that displayed his relationship to the
Holy Blood and the city of Bruges? For it is a fact that in the
Procession, several nobles participated. The same applies to the
fact that a group of 31 men, under the chairmanship of the dean,
all of whom had to reside in Bruges and who were “honourable”,
protected the relic. The organisation continues to exist today
and a number its members are still of noble origin. Though this
could therefore be the famous “Grail Brotherhood”,
the only problem is that the fraternity is known to have only
been incorporated in the 15th century, much too late for any mention
in Chrétien’s account.
this Holy Blood of Christ the source of Chrétien’s
Grail? The answer is “no” – even though, on
first appearance, it seemed to have all the necessary ingredients
and met many of the requirements. But whatever the Precious Blood
is, the Papal Bull Licit, dated June 1, 1310, confirmed something
of great interest about this relic. The Bull specified that each
Friday noon, drops fell from the Precious Blood. Since that time,
however, this phenomenon – the clotted blood returning to
its liquid form – has never been observed. The only exception
was in 1388, when a bishop, sent by Pope Urban VI, placed the
crystal phial in the gold-framed cylinder in which it still sits
today. So, whatever this relic is, it is not without intrigue.
That, of course, might be precisely why it received such an important
cult in the past and continues to attract devotion to this very