By Br. Eadward of York, 801
and Parts List, 801
MY LORD the most noble Charles, King of the Franks and the Lombards, having by grace of God been crowned Emperor and Augustus of the Romans, realized that the imperial office had been vacant in the West so long that all its accoutrements and regalia are scattered and despoiled. Therefore he did at once ordain the creation, collection and safeguarding of a new Imperial Treasury. And it pleased my most excellent lord King and Emperor to appoint me, his most humble monk of the monastery of Aachen, to oversee this most important assortment and the addition of new regalia to the Royal Inventory...
The Maundy Grail with the Frankish cross and a restored gold-embroidered purple silk veil furnished by Charlemagne, as it looked between 800-1300.
This completes the list of the treasures of the Kings of the Franks from Clovis on, and those added by Charles the Hammer, Master of the Palace, and his son, King Pippin. As for King Charles, in his many campaigns against the Saxons and the Saracens he won riches and renown worthy of all his predecessors…
But it was not until His Holiness, the father of the Roman Church and Bishop of Rome, Leo, moved by the Holy Spirit, crowned my Lord King Charles as Emperor and Augustus that the princes of all the world sent their ambassadors flocking to his court with many diverse and marvelous gifts, from the wild forests of Germany to the learned isles of Ireland and Scotia…
Even Haroun, the Caliph of Persia, swore friendship to my king, sending him the only living elephant he had, as listed elsewhere in the Royal Menagerie. But the greatest and most rare treasure ever offered was also the most acclaimed for its holiness.
For it came to pass that Her Serenity Irene, the Empress of the Greeks, in recognition of His many favors and tacit token of His Majesty’s ascension to the purple, and for diverse other reasons, bequeathed unto the Emperor Charles, the Pelluvium Sanctissimum Christi, the Most Holy Footbath of Christ. It is also known as the Labrum Sacrum Verum, the True Sacred Washtub, and by yet other terms. Together with its containers and veil, the Sacred Basin is popularly called by the vulgar, the “Maundy Grail.”
Diligently did Empress Irene’s servants and artificers prepare for the journey but God’s grace, so necessary for the success of any undertaking, shown upon it; no storms or Saracen pirates assailed the galley and its priceless cargo on the long voyage from Constantinople to Italy. Finally, word came of its arrival in Ravenna.
I hurried to greet the company of bearers. Yet while courteous, the Greek Captain Basilides would allow no inspection of the prize there beyond that of its container and the soundness of its supports. For he said, and rightly so, that the roads would prove a rougher trial, and naught could be done if it were already damaged. Oxcart could not be trusted all the way across the spine of Italy; often our own backs bore the holy burden. And indeed, it seemed to grow lighter on the way.
Though God continued to smile upon our march; the soldiers provided by My Lord the King greatly easing our way, the difficulties and dangers demanded great caution and care. Not until we arrived at Rome as the King commanded, dared we open the large crate. Within the first crate we found another wooden box packed amid sacks of down.
Inside was at first a disappointment, for our eyes were met with a faded, worn purple covering. Embroidered with a net of gold thread, diapered with pearls, many missing, on each side hung a Labarum, the Chi Rho, the sacred initials of Christ in Greek, was cunningly worked in golden wire above the bowl-shaped symbol of the Sacred Basin. This precious rag was all that remained of the Veil the Greeks wove to protect the vessel from the gaze of the profane. My august Lord Emperor, Charles, did immediately order a suitable replacement, as closely matching as possible, to be made by the finest royal workers of precious cloths before it is displayed to the people.
Beneath that was the fabled reliquary, surrounded and packed with white wool, bound by cords of fine silk from the East to golden rings on the corners of the magnificent container. Made of gold, silver, and precious stones by the greatest craftsmen of the Greeks at the order of the Emperor Justinian, this finely wrought vessel merits close description.
The reliquary of the Holy Tub is a rectangular box set on golden lion’s feet, wider than it is long and larger at the top than on the bottom. The wall panels are of thin white porphyry stone, delicately veined. In the center of each is a round, cunningly-worked, carved purple glass medallion bearing the sign that the Emperor Constantine saw in the heavens, given for his and his inheritance, forever proclaiming the Empire’s new allegiance to the one true God, set over the symbol of the Holy Washtub. Smaller medals bear images of the Caesars who accepted Christ, that of Constantine the Great being the most prominent.
Thick bands of richly worked gold join the four sides, while others inlaid with pearls cross over the panels. The lip and the bottom edge are replete with engraved gems and enameled panels of intricate design. Precious rubies are set about along with pearls, lapis lazuli, and emeralds, and likewise top the four golden carrying rings.
The lid is made of an arched, open net of wrapped silver wire, with tiny pearls and carnelians inset at every junction, so that the faithful can see the Sacred Vessel within. Across the net a cross of gold cunningly worked is set. One direction bears a verse from the Gospel of John in Latin: “If I Do Not Wash You, You Have No Part in Me.” And on the other arm is inscribed in Greek also from the Apostle John, “Do As I Have Done For You.”
Surmounting all this in the center is a golden right foot, most wonderfully life-like and bejeweled. The big toe is swollen, containing an actual bone of the Empress Saint Helena, whose happy discovery of the relic was by the healing of her toe of gout.
Much can be learned from the reliquary. On one side of the precious container is a latch of gold, held fast by the most cunning lock of iron, much smaller and finely crafted than any our smiths can make. On the other side are brass pins that hold the lid that it may open. But these pins are unlike any I have ever seen. One end is shaped like a spiral of equal size stretched along its length and fits most artfully into a short, flanged sleeve with a similar spiral.
This holds the pin in place under all conditions and yet allows a man to harmlessly and easily remove it and replace it again whenever he so wills. Captain Basilides called it a “screw” and said it could be cut by a special lathe.
More ancient artistry is shown by the next vessel, an iron frame closely fitted to the Holy Tub itself. Handles stick up at either end so it may be easily lifted from the reliquary, but it seems much older, and is said to have been with the Most Holy Footbath since before it arrived in Constantinople. What is curious about this is that there are more metal spirals, placed beneath and on the sides as well. These are of fine steel, free standing by themselves, and can be compressed but jump back to their original size with an equal push. Inside the reliquary, Basilides explained, they doubtless eased the jolts and bumps of the journey far more than feathers, wool, and silk ever could.
No wonder the Greek captain was well content. The marvelous cleverness and beauty of Greek craft displayed in the Holy Tub’s containers surpass the science and art of even the best jewelers and metalworkers at court. It is no discredit that the reliquary has oft been mistaken for the Sacred Basin itself, even by My Lord the King.
Finally, we came to the Pelluvium Sanctissimum. This is a simple, unadorned and rather crude piece of earthenware, light gray in color. It is a thick-lipped, rounded rectangle, about a cubit by a foot by a span in depth, with lug handles at either end, standing on a low ring base.
The contrast between the humble Holy Footbath – a plain, broken, graceless vessel that is a living fountain of grace – and its ark of royal opulence, proudly encrusted with jewels yet of far less worth than its holy cargo, could not be more vivid.
Sadly, the Holy Tub is not intact, either. There is a crack down one side, and it is chipped. A small piece missing from the side, but the pot is carefully held together with golden wires and plates and glue. Some ancient letters are scratched into the surface also,“Christos” being the most readable. And most strangely, one small stained portion of the edge has been eroded down somehow by almost a finger’s width. The Greeks said that during the persecutions the Sacred Vessel was kept in a box, and the faithful wore it down with their kisses on the one place they could reach.
Many other things bespeak the Holy Tub’s authenticity. Were the miracle of Saint Helena’s toe not enough, surely the visible signs testifying to the simple pot’s veneration in age after age should be.
Undecorated, battered, and ill-used; its utter simplicity is profound, so perfectly expressive of Our Lord’s modesty in humbling Himself to become a man. It is this marvelous effect on the souls of those who have been blessed by its sight that speaks most clearly in that still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, that this is indeed, the very Washtub of God’s Only Son.
The Most Holy Footbath deserves to be properly venerated by the faithful, but it is, after all, an ancient and already cracked piece of pottery. Therefore, I have taken counsel with the King’s advisors and wise men among the clergy. We are solemnly agreed to recommend to His Most Gracious Majesty, My Lord King Charles, and his true and appointed heirs that the Holy Tub, and the other Imperial treasures and regalia should be fittingly kept in a fortified royal cathedral or abbey, such as Tours, Aachen, or Reims, though we are unable to settle on which one, for all want it.
Now that the Sacred Vessel has been shown according to the imperial pleasure before the people, it is hoped that the Holy Tub may be judiciously situated in a safer place wherein it may rest. We pray that it not be subjected to further risks of travel about this world so full of mischance and misadventure any more than is absolutely necessary.
Secure in a royal sanctuary, the Most Holy Footbath may be exhibited for the salvation of pilgrims from all over Christendom. In that manner, the prayers drawn by this fulsome relic will continue to bless My Lord King’s most Christian realms of the Franks and Lombards, as the pilgrimage’s ordeals will most surely bless the faithful with abundant graces, and also the church or abbey so fortunate as to be honored to house it.