The Holy Tub at Court
THE HOLY TUB’s first dramatic change of fortune came with the triumph of Christianity. Though the process actually took over a century; almost overnight, it seemed, the recently-despised faith emerged from the catacombs and took over the basilicas.
Doubtless, the grand collecting spree that Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helena, undertook in the Holy Land shortly before her death had much to do with it. Her grand tour to rediscover the suppressed and built-over Biblical sites occasioned the resurfacing of many ancient (and not a few recently-concocted) artifacts.
Golden Legend of the Holy Basin
By Anonymous, c. 400
The story is told in the latter part of this book about how difficult it proved to obtain was the Holy Tub. Apparently the monastic custodians who had kept it more or less intact for almost three hundred years were still naturally suspicious of imperial interest. Rightfully as it turned out, for old Gregorios the hermit was quickly relieved of that responsibility. His being named abbot of the first great abbey in the East, that of the Blessed Toe of Antioch, never made up for it.
The monastery, by the way, was given that odd name due to the test the Empress used to prove that the artifact really was the Holy Tub. It was similar to the method used to ascertain the True Cross though less spectacular, and for the time, quite scientfic.
A double-blind experiment, the Empress herself was the subject. As she hobbled past three covered pots, suddenly the gout in her toe was healed. And so the Sacred Basin once again emerged into the light of day.
But during its concealment, the pot had been damaged. There were cracks and chips, and one side of the rim was worn down. Apparently, the Sacred Basin had been kept in a box with only that edge exposed.
In Byzantium, the Holy Tub was kept at first in the sacred treasury along with the many other relics Helena collected. But at an early date, an iron carrying frame was fashioned to enclose and protect Sacred Basin while it was on display. This shows that the relic was already in high demand, and faith in its powers was growing. Later, the Emperor Justinian would order a magnificent reliquary, made of gold, silver, and other precious materials, to hold the whole assembly. Later called the “Inner Reliquary,” it would often be mistaken for the relic itself.
Document to Come:
- Letter from the Empress Irene to the King of the Franks
– Diplomatic communication, 800
It is not known precisely why the Byzantine Empress Irene should send the Holy Tub to Charles, King of the Franks. She had already sent him the Holy Shirt of Jesus (of which a few scraps remain) as a gift, largely, it seems, for help in securing the succession, so why this additional beneficence would be necessary is a mystery.
The document itself speaks obliquely of “favors” and mentions land and gold that Charles had given, along with the white elephant sent to him by the Caliph, it seems. Nor is it obvious whether the Holy Tub was an outright gift or a loan she expected returned. If so she must have been profoundly disappointed, for Charles is said to have first thought that the magnificent reliquary was the Sacred Basin itself, and vowed he would never give it up.
However, this all ocurred shortly after Charlemagne had been crowned Emperor of the Romans by the pope. So whether intended to be a permanent bequest or merely temporary, it seems likely that this was to get one-up on the papacy.
By Br. Eadward of York, 801
By far, our best description of the Sacred Basin and its containers at the peak of their fame comes from this source. Most of the illustrations in later illuminated manuscripts depended up it, too, because due to the sacredness of the Holy Tub itself and the magnificence of the Inner Reliquary, there are very few eye-witness accounts available.
Brother Eadward, who had come over from England as part of Charlemagne’s monastic and educational reforms that kept literacy alive during the Dark Ages, was given the task of detailing all that Irene sent. Whether this was because Charles was expected to return it, or as a means of conserving it as an imperial possession is not known. However, the Holy Tub and related materials are all included in the inventory along with all the other royal property. Of great interest to continental historians, those lengthy lists have no part here and so have been deleted from this excerpt.
The Maundy Grail in all its Dark Age glory, with the cross added by Charlemagne, and the gold-embroidered purple silk veil to block the gaze of the profane. This is as it likely appeared between 800-1300.
Click here for a larger view.
Document to Come:
- Articles of Deposition of Pope John XII
– Official decree, 964
Charlemagne’s empire didn’t last long. Fortunately, the Maundy Grail and its priceless containers survived both Vikings and the anarchy as the Dark Ages fell, kept safe and secret by monastic guardians much like it had been during the Roman persecutions.
The papacy suffered too, passing into the hands of Roman noblewomen and courtesans who made and unmade popes regardless of scandal. Finally, however, a strong-armed German leader emerged who took the title of Emperor, and with it, the Holy Tub. Otto I used both to reform the papacy, by ceremonially removing Pope John XII for his candidate, Leo VIII.
This was one of the few occasions that the Holy Tub was used as Charlemagne and others had imagined. And it proved a high-water mark in terms of efficiency. The next time it would be used to secure a papal election would prove to be a disaster.