The Holy Tub on Tour
THE HOLY ROMAN EMPERORS tired of the struggle with the papacy first, but they weren’t about to give up the Holy Tub. Frederick II, perhaps sensing his own end and the Great Interregnum that would all-too-soon befall the Empire, bequeathed it to the one international power with the muscle, money, and nerve to stand up to the pope: the Knights Templar.
So began the most spectacular phase of the Maundy Grail’s career. By this time, there was a tremendous cachet and curiosity to the Holy Tub. The facts that the greatest powers in Europe contended for possession combined with that it was so rarely seen contributed to a radical shift in perception.
Where the Holy Tub had become famous for physical cures, it now gained even more repute for promoting spiritual ones. Somehow the popular idea grew that merely beholding the Sacred Basin with faith was enough to remove any lingering stain of sin.
The origin of this dubious idea is not known, but undoubtedly the Order’s vigorous promotion spread it across Christendom. For almost as soon as they took custody, they began carrying it around the continent, charging money for a peek. It was a profitable idea but risky, and doubtless was a factor in their doom.
To prepare it for the road, the Knights encased the Maundy Grail, that is, the Sacred Basin, Iron Frame, and Inner Reliquary, covered by the silk Veil, in a brand-new box. This “Outer Reliquary” or “Ark,” was shaped like a Gothic church, made of gilded woood, and had four large brass pins that served as hinges for folding doors with hooks for carrying poles.
A minor mystery still surrounds this watercolor sketch of the Maundy Grail in the Ark by Nineteenth Century artist Silviano Alfini, for its accuracy is incompatible with what was known of it at that time.
Document to Come:
- Hymn to the Maundy Grail
– Anonymous, c. 1269
As the great Maundy Grail processions of the Templars wended from town to town and preceptory to preceptory, they gradually grew. In time, they rivaled some of the trading caravans in size. Even St. Thomas (see below) was said to compare them to “Carnival or the Feast of Fools.”
So of course, they would sing hymns as they marched. Here’s one apparently adapted from a Goliard parody of a Gregorian chant.
Attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, 1274
Most Catholic theologians, especially Dominicans, scoff at the notion that the official theologian of the Church wrote this. But it does seem similar to Thomas Aquinas' style, and the surrounding events are well-known from his biography. Since Aquinas was sure to be put forward for canonization, everything in his final days was carefully noted, but there is nothing officially about him being asked to look into the Holy Tub. So some tubbers – and, it should be noted, the Endurists as well, claim a cover-up of some kind.
Conspiracy theorists may be stretching it, but the Dominican theologians’ recalcitrance here is understandable. Despite its careful warnings and qualifiers, On the Well of Forgiveness speaks lyrically at times of the Holy Tub’s virtues, and did more to establish it as a spiritual icon a “ceramic sacramental” than anything else before.
As hard as it is to imagine, the gruesome idea contained here that one of the great joys of the saints is watching the damned roast in Hell, is indeed, true to the era and Aquinas’ thought. It too was a direct inspiration to Endurists a century later, providing much-needed sanctions for their masochistic practices.
Official objections to the work were not long in coming, and debunking continued off and on. Yet once the idea penetrated popular consciousness, nothing, not even the abrupt disappearance of the Maundy Grail, could shake it off.
issued by Pope Boniface VIII, 1300
An unexpected boost to popular piety was this papal bull issued during the first Jubilee Year of 1300. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flocked to Rome. So much gold and silver was given at St. Peter’s that it is said that two priests were given the job of literally raking it in every day.
Possibly Boniface’s interest in the Holy Tub was excited by seeing it used to secure the election of his predecessor, Pope St. Celestine V. But whether it was his own greed that inspired the bull, or legitimate concern over the vast number of fake relics then circulating or both is still debatable, the pope’s attempt to get control of the relic trade was an unquestioned failure. It only added to the aura of holiness surrounding major relics, especially the Holy Tub. And the trade in relics soared.
However it came about, the demand that all such relics be surrendered to the Holy See was ludicrous. But it gave justification for a failed attempt within a year by a supposed rogue band of Knights Hospitaller to seize the Holy Tub. This damaged the Ark, and even bent the cross atop the Inner Reliquary. And it presaged much worse violence to come.