c. AD 33
IN ALL ACCOUNTS, the Pelluvium Sanctissimum Christi, that is, the Most Holy Footbath of Christ, was a simple grey pottery basin, not much different from one that can be purchased anywhere today – something any housewife, such as Mary, might have owned. Traditionally, it was said “a span high, a foot wide, and a cubit long” which well matches the extant vessel today.
But it was set apart by the singular use her son Jesus made of it, recorded in the Bible only in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel According to John.
2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.
3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;
4 So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”
11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.
13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.
14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.
15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
John 13:2-17 NIV. Emphasis added.
The Pelluvium Sanctissimum Christi as it may have originally appeared.
This is one of the few very direct commands Jesus ever gave his disciples. From the Latin “mandatum” for “order, commission,” the day itself has been named in English, hence “Maundy Thursday.” Therefore the foot-washing ceremony is still faithfully repeated every year on that night in Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, various Anglican communities, and in some Lutheran and other high churches. From that derives the name, “Maundy Grail”, to distinguish the stoneware Sacred Basin made from clay from that “other” Grail, the mythical cup, or stone, or bloodline, mystical truth, light, or whatever it was.
A medieval view of the Holy Tub in use at the Last Supper.
Beyond that, it’s hard to find anything relevant in the Bible, though many people have minutely studied every possible reference to tubs and foot-washing in the Old Testament. But whispered traditions and fevered imaginative speculation of believers soon supplied the answer, setting the dish borrowed from Jesus’ mother on an unparalleled trajectory across time, space, and the human spirit.