Introduction: The Most Famous Wine Cup in History

Regular visitors to the cinema over the past forty or fifty years might well have come across the most famous wine cup in history. Robert de Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac featured it in 1974. A year later it was the focus of much of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, although this iteration of the quest ends with King Arthur and his knights being arrested by some twentieth-century British police while the Grail’s resting place is protected by a vicious bunny rabbit. In 1981 the quest for this cup was central to John Boorman’s Excalibur and it has continued to feature in such films as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fisher King and The Da Vinci Code.[1]

The wine cup in question is, of course, the Holy Grail, the legendary cup which Jesus is said to have drunk from at the Last Supper shortly before his arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. The concept of the Grail has fascinated people across the centuries. But as famous as the Holy Grail is, there is a resounding lack of detailed discussion about exactly what might have been in the cup and what it might have actually looked like. Here we examine the history of the Holy Grail and question what wine might have actually been served at the Last Supper.

Chalice of Infanta Dona Urraca

The Chalice of Infanta Dona Urraca from the Basilica of San Isidoro in León, Spain, a recent claimant to being the famed Holy Grail

What is the Holy Grail?

So, for those who haven’t yet seen Monty Python’s doubtlessly historically accurate account of the Grail legend, let’s start by briefly asking what exactly is the Holy Grail? On a basic level the Holy Grail is the cup from which Jesus is purported to have drank wine at the Last Supper to celebrate the feast of Passover shortly before he was arrested by the Romans and Temple authorities, condemned to death and crucified. Having drank from the vessel Jesus instructed his Apostles to ‘Do this in memory of me’.

Thus, the Grail is intrinsically connected to the celebration of the Mass, one of the most central aspects of Christianity. Other sections of the Gospels also make the Grail the vessel into which Jesus’s blood poured while hanging on the cross as Joseph of Arimathea, the man who assumed responsibility for Christ’s burial after his death, held the cup below the cross.[2]

The myth of the Holy Grail holds that the cup was kept by Christ’s closest followers and guarded for centuries thereafter. It then ended up being taken to Europe, with different renditions of the tale surrounding it holding that it was taken to different countries at different times.

Cremisan Winery vineyards

The vineyards of the Cremisan Winery near Bethlehem where wine is being made today from grape varietals such as Hamdani and Balouti which are native to Israel and which might have been used to make the wine served in the Holy Grail at the Last Supper

It was here in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages that it acquired its name, Grail being derived from the Old French or Occitan words graal, greal or grazal, meaning a cup or bowl. It was also during the Middle Ages that the idea emerged that the Grail was imbued with remarkable powers which could heal individuals who drank from it or make them eternally youthful.[3]

The Grail in Medieval Literature

The Grail’s prominence in modern popular culture is directly owing to how it emerged as a central aspect of medieval literature between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. At this time a series of tales were produced concerning the Grail, many of them tied into what is termed the Arthurian Cycle or the Matter of Britain, the collection of myths and fables associated with the legendary King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table at Camelot.

The first of these major literary efforts concerning Arthur, his knights and the Holy Grail was produced by Chrétien de Troyes, a French poet who flourished in the second half of the twelfth century. In the late 1180s and early 1190s he composed Perceval, the Story of the Grail, an epic poem charting the life of Sir Perceval, one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, who was raised in the wilds of Wales.

He later ends up at Arthur’s court before setting out on his own adventures. During the course of these he ends up at the castle of the Fisher King where he discovers that the Grail is held there. Unfortunately, though, Chrétien appears to have died before he completed the poem and we do not know what he might have envisaged for it.[4]

Other works appeared on the Holy Grail and the Arthurian legend in the centuries that followed. A notable one was Joseph d’Arimathie by the early thirteenth-century French poet, Robert de Boron. Here de Boron hypothesised that Joseph of Arimathea had been visited by Jesus while he was in prison and that Christ explained the magical powers of the wine cup. Joseph was then said to have travelled far to the west to Britain where he became associated with Glastonbury and his ancestors were said to have become the guardians of the Grail for generations to come.[5]

Holy Grail

The Holy Grail as depicted on a stained-glass window of Quimper Cathedral in Brittany

Other versions of the Holy Grail legend in medieval literature tied Sir Lancelot du Lac and Sir Galahad, two of the other prominent Arthurian knights, to the Grail. This was the scenario favoured in perhaps the most famous of all Grail tales, La Morte d’Arthur composed by Sir Thomas Malory in England in the fifteenth century. But what is striking about all of these renderings of the Holy Grail is the singular lack of discussion of wine.

The cup itself is central to this medieval literature, but there is no overt discussion of what its contents might have been in the past or indeed what those who wished to be healed by drinking from it might have actually been drinking in doing so. But in order to try to cast some historic accuracy into this discussion we need to head all the way back to Judaea in the early first century AD.

Wine in Roman Judaea

If we were to ask what sort of wine might have once been served in the Holy Grail or what Jesus might have drank from it at the Last Supper, then surely we need to ask ourselves what kind of wine was being drank in Judaea in Roman times? The wine had been introduced to the Levant thousands of years before the time of Jesus and the Romans. By the classical period of Greek history, around the start of the Second Temple Period in Judaea, the common practice throughout the Eastern Mediterranean was to water wine down to the point where it was probably little more than 4%, 5% or 6% ABV.

This practice continued well into Roman times and so one of the things that we can speculate is that the wine drank at the Last Supper out of the fabled Holy Grail was substantially weaker than most modern wines. Yet this is not wholly clear and as we will see below there are some authorities on the matter who have speculated that the wine of the Last Supper was actually quite potent.

In addition to possibly being watered down, the wine consumed by Jesus and his Apostles was very likely to have been spiced. Winemakers at the time in the Levant believed that tree resins like frankincense, myrrh and terebinth prevented wine spoilage and so they added them to their product. These would have added spicy, bitter notes to the wine made here.

This would have been counterbalanced by the addition of some fruits like pomegranate and figs, while saffron and cinnamon were other possible additives. It is quite likely one or multiple of these ingredients would have been present in the wine Jesus drank from the Holy Grail two millennia ago, making it a spiced wine, possibly with some fruity notes.[6]

What Type of Grape Might the Wine Jesus Drank Have Been Made From?

This brings us onto the issue of what grape the wine Jesus and his followers imbibed of that fateful evening would have been made from. Trying to determine this might seem on first glance like looking for a needle in a haystack, but researchers in the past few decades have actually developed a number of specific theories about what grape varietal was involved.

The top contender is unquestionably Marawi, which is also called Hamdani. This grape is native to Palestine and was in widespread use by viticulturists here in the first century BC and first century AD. The curious thing about this is that Hamdani is a white grape variety which would have been used to make white wine.

It is typically just simply assumed that the wine which was involved in the Last Supper was red, given its association with blood, but the evidence of the local grapes suggests it could well have been white. Indeed another possible contender for the grape used is Muscat from Roman Egypt, most of which were white, yellow or pink grapes used to make white wines. Jandali too is a white grape varietal which was native to Palestine and used in winemaking in Israel at the time.

The number of red grape varietals which have been nominated as contenders for the wine consumed at the Last Supper is also fairly limited. It could quite possibly have been made from Syrah grapes which were being produced abundantly just to the north of Roman Judaea in the province of Syria.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1874)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Damsel of the Sanct Grael (1874)

Baladi is a red grape varietal which is native to Israel and was used to make wine in the region two thousand years ago. Other native red varietals which are common to the region include Balouti, which in Hebrew means something akin to ‘acorn’ and Zeitani, zayit meaning olive. These are particularly small grape varietals, thus their names.[7]

Thus, there are a number of specific grape varietals which are either native to the Levant or adjoining regions which have been proposed as the possible grape type from which the wine drank by Jesus from the Holy Grail at the Last Supper was made. Curiously, many of these are not well-known, but as we will see shortly, they are becoming major features of Israeli winemaking today.

Other Theories – Raisin Wine? Port?

There are of course further theories still which push the boat out even further. Patrick McGovern, the world authority on ancient wines, who has been dubbed the Indiana Jones of ancient alcoholic beverages, has argued that there are substantial reasons to believe that the wine which might have been consumed at the Last Supper from the Holy Grail was actually a strong, concentrated wine. He notes that while most of the Roman and Greek cultures of the Mediterranean at the time favoured watering down their wine, the Jewish people of Roman Judaea favoured rich, concentrated wines.

This theory is supported by archaeological discoveries in recent times. For instance, the remains of wine jars which were found in Jerusalem some time ago bore an inscription which in translation read, ‘Wine made from black raisins’, while other inscriptions on wine jars found in Israel contain descriptors like ‘very dark wine’. As a result, McGovern and others have speculated that there were large amounts of strong wine being made in Roman Judaea around Jesus’s time, ones which would have had a port-like strength, consistency and flavour.[8]

Some might have been made from grapes which were dried out in the sun on reed mats and were consequently raisin-wine to all intents and purposes. As such, the wine which Jesus drank at the Last Supper might very well have been similar to an Italian Amarone, which is a rich wine with an above-average alcohol content of 15% ABV or more.[9]

What Else was Served at the Last Supper?

Now that we have some general ideas about what the wine which Jesus and his twelve followers were drinking at the Last Supper, we might ask, what else was served? This question actually has a fairly clear answer. Many have speculated that Jesus’s talk of the ‘lamb of god’ insinuates that lamb was served and indeed zeroa, a Jewish dish of lamb shank, was traditionally eaten at Passover. It would have been served with maror or chazeret, a bitter herb like horseradish, charoset, a brown paste of fruits like dates and nuts, karpas, a crudité of vegetables like celery dipped in salt water and beitzah, a hard-boiled egg. This was a traditional Passover feast or Seder plate, as it is known.[10]

The Grail in Modern Times

While the issue of what wine was served at the Last Supper was quickly forgotten by the leaders of the early Christian church, the significance of the Last Supper and the Grail in literature, art and western culture in general only continued to grow. Following the closing of the Middle Ages and the advent of the Renaissance it became a common feature of the art of the period. It is, for instance, prominent in Fra Angelico’s The Last Supper, painted in 1442, where the Grail stands on a table before the Apostles, though partially obscured by Jesus’s outstretched hands. Others were more mysterious in their depictions. Curiously, Leonardo da Vinci did not include any Grail in his famous depiction of The Last Supper.[11]

In more recent times the Grail has continued to feature in everything from operas such as Richard Wagner’s last work, Parsifal, which premiered in 1882, to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s famous painting finished just a few years before Wagner’s play debuted, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael. The twentieth century has continued the trend with everything from Hollywood films to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and the Assassin’s Creed video-game series referencing the Holy Grail.[12]

In tandem, there has been a perennial interest in identifying the real-life Holy Grail. There are over 200 contenders, with various collectors, religious orders and churches claiming that they have a chalice or cup which may home come all the way from Roman Judaea in the early first century AD. The most recent one to gain considerable attention is the chalice of the Infanta Dona Urraca in the Basilica of San Isidoro in the city of León in Spain. Researchers have tracked its journey from the Holy Land across the Maghreb to Spain in the early Middle Ages.

But surely what is most curious about this assertion is that the chalice of the Infanta Dona Urraca, like many others which people have argued, are the Holy Grail over the years, is an ornate, jewel-encrusted goblet. Surely the cup from which the Christian messiah and his Apostles drank in Jerusalem approximately 2,000 years ago was a more modest affair.[13]

Winemaking in Israel Today: The Cremisan Winery

While the general tendency over the last two millennia has been to focus on the Holy Grail and its alleged miraculous powers, there is a growing amount of attention being paid to what kind of wine would have been served at the Last Supper. In particular, the Cremisan Winery in the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem is producing wines from grape varietals which are native to Israel such as Hamdali, Jandali and Baladi.

These vintages, which are produced by the Salesian monks of the Cremisan Monastery, have gained a considerable reputation for their quality in recent times. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they can claim to have potentially re-created the wine which Jesus drank at the Last Supper from the Holy Grail.[14]

Winemaking in Ancient Israel

Wine was being produced in the Holy Land thousands of years before Christ’s own time. This formed part of the trade of the region when the Levant was at the crossroads of the trade routes of the Late Bronze Age world in the second millennium BC between Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and the Hittite Empire. Viticulture was central enough to the region that the grape was specified as one of the seven blessed fruits listed in the Book of Deuteronomy.

The legendary attribution of this to Moses is rejected by most scholars and instead, Deuteronomy, which forms part of both the Torah and the Pentateuch at the start of the Old Testament, was most likely composed in the seventh or sixth centuries BC. Thus, approximately 600 years before Jesus’s time, wine was of cultural significance to the inhabitants of Israel. Moreover, winemaking and consumption played a significant role in the religious life of the Israelites in the centuries following the Babylonian Captivity, typically referred to as the Second Temple Period. Clearly there was a rich history of viticulture in Judaea long before the arrival of the Romans here.[15]

Da Vinci’s The Last Supper

Arguably the most famous depiction of the Last Supper ever created is somewhat anomalous for enthusiasts of the Holy Grail. The Last Supper, which was painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the mid-to-late 1490s and which is housed in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, does not actually include a grail, chalice or goblet or any kind.

Here Jesus and the Apostles are depicted as sitting in a line along a long table with bread and other food lying on the table in front of them. But there is no Holy Grail and no wine in evidence anywhere. This has confounded art historians and critics for centuries and has led to myriad theories as to why da Vinci chose not to include a grail or cup in his painting. The most famous recent explanation is outlined in Dan Brown’s best-selling Da Vinci Code in which it is suggested that the Grail was meant to be symbolic of Jesus having had children and a direct bloodline.

It is an indication of the ubiquity of the belief that Jesus drank wine from a cup of some sort at the Passover celebration with the Apostles shortly before his death and crucifixion that da Vinci’s omission of it has caused such deliberation.[16]

Further Reading:

  1. Emlyn K. Dodd, Roman and Late Antique Wine Production in the Eastern Mediterranean (Oxford, 2020).
  2. Colin Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge, 2011).
  3. Judi Rudoren, ‘Israel aims to recreate wine that Jesus and King David drank’, The New York Times, 1 December 2015.
  4. Jonathan D. Sarna, ‘Passover Raisin Wine, the American Temperance Movement and Mordecai Noah’, in Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 59 (1988), pp. 269–288.
  5. Jo Ann H. Seeley, ‘The Fruit of the Vine: Wine at Masada and in the New Testament’, in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3: Masada and the World of the New Testament (1996–7), pp. 207–227.
  6. Rich Tenorio, ‘An intoxicating journey uncorks Holy Land’s 5,000-year old history of wine making’, The Times of Israel, 28 July 2018.

Also read:

On this Day

2 May 1519 – On this day in 1519 the acclaimed Italian Renaissance painter, inventor, engineer and all-round polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, died in the town of Amboise in France. Over twenty years earlier da Vinci painted one of his most significant works in Milan, The Last Supper, on the walls of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in the north Italian city. What is highly unusual about da Vinci’s depiction of the Passover meal which Jesus and his Apostles shared shortly before his arrest, crucifixion and death is that there is no sign of any wine or cups on the table in front of the thirteen figures seated at the long table. This is highly curious, for the idea that Jesus drank from a cup of wine at the Last Supper is integral to accounts of it in the New Testament and has become central to the Christian celebration of the Mass ever since. Unsurprisingly, given this anomaly, da Vinci’s decision to omit the Holy Grail from which Jesus is purported to have drank has led to all manner of theories as to what the painter’s motives were, the most famous of which is found in Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code.[17]

31 January 1888 – On in this day in 1888 Saint John Melchior Bosco died in Turin in Italy. Bosco was the founder of the Salesians, a Roman Catholic religious order which was established by him in Italy to provide charity and education to the growing number of urban poor in Italy’s industrialising cities. Bosco and the Salesians are well-known for this work, but their ties to winemaking in the Holy Land and the Holy Grail are altogether more obscure. In 1885, three years before Bosco died, some of his followers had established a monastery in the Cremisan Valley near Bethlehem. Within a short while the monks here had established vineyards, a winery and extensive cellars. Today the Cremisan Cellars winery is one of the few wineries anywhere in the world which produces wine from grape varietals such as Hamdani and Jandali which are native to Israel. As such they can stake a serious claim to being the varietals from which the wine that Jesus and his Apostles drank at the Last Supper was made.[18]

2 April 2014 – On this day in 2014 the History channel reported on a recent theory concerning the fabled Holy Grail, the chalice or cup from which Jesus is believed to have drank wine from at the Last Supper with his Apostles. The Holy Grail has been famed for 2,000 years and was central to some of the most acclaimed literature of the Middle Ages. Accordingly, many people have hypothesised just where the Grail might be and what it might look like over the centuries. In 2014 History reported that a new substantial theory had emerged that a jewel-encrusted goblet known as the chalice of the Infanta Dona Urraca in the Basilica of San Isidoro in the city of León in Spain has a strong claim to being the Grail. Researchers had tracked its journey from the Holy Land across North Africa in the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods, before finally arriving to Spain in the eleventh century. But the chalice in León has a lot of contenders for being the cup from which Jesus drank his wine at the Last Supper. There are over 200 other goblets in Europe alone which various individuals have claimed are the Holy Grail. The debate continues![19]

Want to read more? Try these books!

The Mystery of the Last Supper- Reconstructing the Final Days of Jesus Roman and Late Antique Wine Production in the Eastern Mediterranean- A Comparative Archaeological Study at Antiochia ad Cragum (Turkey) and Delos (Greece)...

References

[1] Kevin J. Harty (ed.), The Holy Grail on Film: Essays on the Cinematic Quest (Jefferson, North Carolina, 2015).

[2] Colin Humphreys, The Mystery of the Last Supper (Cambridge, 2011); Daniel Scavone, ‘Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and the Edessa Icon’, in Arthuriana, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 1–31.

[3] Juliette Wood, The Holy Grail: History and Legend (Cardiff, 2012).

[4] Chrétien de Troyes, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, translated by Nigel Bryant (Cambridge, 1996); Jean Frapper, Chrétien de Troyes: The Man and his Work (Athens, Ohio, 1982).

[5] Robert de Boron, Joseph of Arimathea: A Romance of the Grail, translated by Jean Rogers (London, 1990).

[6] https://www.vivino.com/wine-news/searching-for-the-wine-from-the-last-supper [accessed 21/12/22]; Emlyn K. Dodd, Roman and Late Antique Wine Production in the Eastern Mediterranean (Oxford, 2020).

[7] https://www.albawaba.com/editorchoice/israel-wine-holy-grail-536755 [accessed 21/12/22]; Adam Montefiore, ‘Wine Talk: Grape Expectations’, The Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2016; Jo Ann H. Seeley, ‘The Fruit of the Vine: Wine at Masada and in the New Testament’, in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3: Masada and the World of the New Testament (1996–7), pp. 207–227.

[8] https://www.vivino.com/wine-news/searching-for-the-wine-from-the-last-supper [accessed 21/12/22]; Jonathan D. Sarna, ‘Passover Raisin Wine, the American Temperance Movement and Mordecai Noah’, in Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 59 (1988), pp. 269–288.

[9] https://www.foodandwine.com/wine/red-wine/amarone-wine-guide [accessed 22/12/22].

[10] https://www.thespruceeats.com/traditional-passover-seder-foods-1807638 [accessed 22/12/22]; Judy Zeidler, ‘The feast of unleavened bread: Tradition! Doing it the wrong way’, The LA Times, 4 April 1993.

[11] Jack Wasserman, ‘Reflections on the Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci’, in Arte Lombarda, No 66 (1983), pp. 15–34.

[12] Angelica Frey, ‘T.S. Eliot and the Holy Grail’, JSTOR Daily, 1 June 2022.

[13] https://www.history.com/news/is-the-quest-for-the-holy-grail-over [accessed 16/12/22].

[14] Morand Wirth, Don Bosco and the Salesians (New Rochelle, New York, 1982); Rich Tenorio, ‘An intoxicating journey uncorks Holy Land’s 5,000-year old history of wine making’, The Times of Israel, 28 July 2018; https://merip.org/2022/05/indigenous-wine-and-settler-colonialism-in-israel-and-palestine/ [accessed 15/12/22]; Judi Rudoren, ‘Israel aims to recreate wine that Jesus and King David drank’, The New York Times, 1 December 2015.

[15] ‘Israel’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); https://www.frw.co.uk/editorial/people/the-wines-of-lebanon [accessed 16/12/22]; Morris Jastrow, Jnr., ‘Wine in the Pentateuchal Codes’, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 33 (1913), pp. 180–192; Asaph Goor, ‘The History of the Grape-Vine in the Holy Land’, in Economic Botany, Vol. 20, No. 1 (January–March, 1966), pp. 46–64.

[16] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York, 2003); Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper (New York, 2012).

[17] Robert Wallace, The World of Leonardo, 1452–1519 (New York, 1972); Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York, 2003); Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper (New York, 2012).

[18] Morand Wirth, Don Bosco and the Salesians (New Rochelle, New York, 1982); Rich Tenorio, ‘An intoxicating journey uncorks Holy Land’s 5,000-year old history of wine making’, The Times of Israel, 28 July 2018; https://merip.org/2022/05/indigenous-wine-and-settler-colonialism-in-israel-and-palestine/ [accessed 15/12/22].

[19] https://www.history.com/news/is-the-quest-for-the-holy-grail-over [accessed 16/12/22].

Categories: Medieval Period & Monasticism, Wine History In-DepthTags: , , , By Published On: April 3, 2023Last Updated: February 28, 2024

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