RA Magazine Winter 2008
Issue Number: 101
On the trail of the Holy Grail
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Rediscovered 1oo years ago, it is one of the most intriguing works in the RA’s Byzantium exhibition. Is the Antioch Chalice a holy relic or an empty vessel? Sally Kinnes tells the story
A hundred years ago, a corroded and somewhat battered cup-shaped object, not quite eight inches high, was unearthed somewhere near the ancient city of Antioch (modern-day Antakya in south-east Turkey). Within eight years this unassuming piece of silver had been acclaimed as the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus had drunk from at the Last Supper and which is regarded as perhaps the most sacred relic in Christendom.
An antique of the Byzantium Empire it may be, but the tale of the Antioch Chalice is also a twentieth-century adventure story. After the chalice was found in 1908, it travelled first to Paris and later to New York. Today it is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has lent it to the Royal Academy for its ‘Byzantium’ exhibition. But its story began in the Middle East, in the lively art market of the early twentieth century, a time when in Europe and America, archaeology was fashionable as never before.
‘It was a new frontier in terms of the discovery,’ says Melanie Holcomb, Associate Curator at the Met’s medieval department. ‘It was a bit like the Wild West… even though the First World War was looming, business went on apace.’
Whole families worked as dealers. There were the Marcopolis in Syria, described by TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as ‘one of the big dealers in Aleppo’ – a major trading post in the north. Then there was the Kouchakji family, also Syrian dealers, who included brothers Constaki, Salim, George and Habib and a number of sisters. This family plays a key role in the story.
In the fluid, sometimes shady world of backhanders and commissions, the lines often blurred between scholars and dealers. It was the era of educated adventurers such as Howard Carter in Egypt and Lawrence, who was working for the British Museum, in Syria. There was a lot of digging and a lot of dealing.
It was into this frenzied world of treasure and money that the Antioch Chalice emerged. Shaped like an upside-down bell, the vessel was originally two cups: a plain, inner cup had later been fused to the outer, much finer shell.
This outer cup depicts two Christ-like figures and possibly ten disciples surrounded by a fruit-laden grapevine, animals and birds. ‘It would have been quite lovely in its original state,’ says Dr Helen Evans, Curator of Byzantine Art at the Met.
Its appeal wasn’t lost on the Kouchakjis. While little is known about their background, the brothers were established enough to own a gallery in Paris and to have the ear of the top collectors. By 1910, they owned the chalice. No one had yet suggested a connection with Christ, but the chalice was, they believed, sufficiently tantalising for them to pitch it to one of the richest collectors of them all, the billionaire American financier John Pierpont Morgan.
If the Kouchakjis could interest Morgan they would expect to make a huge profit. They began by arranging a showing for Morgan’s chief buyer, the influential Belle da Costa Greene. Many years later, Greene told James Rorimer (the Met’s Director in the 1950s) that when she first saw the chalice, it appeared to be ‘somewhat flattened’. Indeed, there was a three-centimetre hole next to one of the figures.
So before showing it to Morgan, the Kouchakjis decided to send their investment to the renowned Parisian studio of Leon André for restoration. Alas, Morgan never got to see it. Having escaped the Titanic disaster in 1912 when at the last minute he had cancelled his private suite, he died in his sleep in the Grand Hotel in Rome less than a year later.
For the Kouchakji brothers this was a setback. Nevertheless, within two years, the chalice made the leap from valuable and interesting antiquity to priceless holy relic. When the Battle of the Marne shook Paris in the First World War, the chalice was moved to New York for safekeeping. In April 1915, according to Time magazine, the Kouchakjis were visited in New York by Dr Gustavus A. Eisen to discuss a book he was writing on antique glass. On hearing about the chalice, he asked to see it.
Eisen, whose eclectic interests ranged from entomology to sequoia trees, was no fool. According to his obituary in the New York Times, he once received a letter from Charles Darwin thanking him for a scientific contribution. Eisen’s theory about the vessel was to catapult it into a frenzy of interest. Writing first in the Journal of the Archaeological Institute of America, and then in a grand monograph (published by the Kouchakjis), he went as far as possible to suggest, without actually claiming it outright, that the chalice was the Holy Grail. As Eisen saw it, the inner cup was the cup used by Christ. The outer shell was made to preserve it. The story was electrifying.
Although there were detractors from the start, academic arguments were no match for an idea that spread like wildfire. Even a magazine as sophisticated as the New Yorker sent celebrated critics to see it on its grand tour of American cities: first Alexander Woollcott in Chicago 1933, then James Thurber in 1936, who saw it on show in Brooklyn.
Both men viewed it with an urbane wry detachment, but were careful not to dismiss it as a fake. But the chalice still had no buyer, although there is an unsubstantiated suggestion that the Kouchakjis were attempting to broker a deal with the Vatican. After exhibiting it in New York (where it was guarded by a policeman), it was shown at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1936, at the Worcester Museum in 1937, where protection reportedly escalated to several armed guards, and the Baltimore Museum in 1938. Between exhibitions, the chalice was kept in a vault on Fifth Avenue. There it remained until after the Second World War.
By the time it re-emerged, the gilt of celebrity was wearing thin. While it was still sufficiently linked in the public’s mind for it to be the model for the Holy Grail in Paul Newman’s 1955 film, The Silver Chalice, scholars had cooled the wilder claims of the antiquities gold rush.
When the Met bought it in 1950, it was as a piece of fifth-century Byzantine silver. Perhaps the beginning of the end of serious speculation that the chalice was the Holy Grail had come with an article published in 1942 in the Biblical Archaeologist by H. Harvard Arnason, a lecturer at the Frick Collection. ‘All the archaeological probabilities point to a date in the fourth or fifth century,’ he concluded. Then in the 1950s, Met Director James Rorimer added his voice, arguing for the chalice’s authenticity as a fifth-century work, at least quashing further claims that it had actually been made in 1900.
Its swansong as a holy relic came in 1960, when the chalice was said to have levitated on Good Friday. ‘I was once asked to confirm the story, but couldn’t find anyone who could do so,’ says Helen Evans. ‘However, it was heavily protected, and I have been told the chalice would move when the alarm went off.’
It took a further 26 years for a scholar to unravel the mystery of the chalice’s origins, when Oxford University lecturer in Byzantine archaeology Marlia Mundell Mango made it part of her doctoral thesis in 1986. Her view is that a collection of silver, including the chalice, was unearthed in 1908, not in Antioch, but further south, in Kaper Koraon, near modernday Kurin, in northern Syria. The Ottoman authorities confiscated four pieces from the find but were unaware of the rest, which were bought by dealers, including the Marcopolis and the Kouchakjis. The Kouchakjis mortgaged the chalice (presumably the most valuable piece) probably to buy up more treasure and display the pieces alongside the chalice at Hama in 1910 as ancient church property (religious objects being exempt from confiscation). Having established the treasures’ credentials, suggests Mango, they were then free to sell the lesser pieces, probably at a profit, and pay off the loan on the chalice, which by 1912, they had sent to New York.
Not only is the chalice probably not from Antioch, a provenance that would be crucial to recognising its status as a holy relic (Antioch was where Christians were first called Christians) it may not even be a chalice. ‘It’s very well made but I think it’s really a lamp,’ says Mango, who puts the date of its origin as 500-550AD. ‘The lining was probably originally glass.’
Mango’s impressive detective work is not quite the end of the story. In the past fifteen years, the Met has been approached by members of the public who claim to have a Holy Grail ‘just like yours’. These objects are crudely worked pieces, whose origins often remain a mystery. ‘The chalice has a life of its own,’ says Dr Evans. She still keeps tabs on its representation in popular culture. ‘I am the person who sat through Raiders of the Lost Ark to see if our chalice was still being used as the model for the Holy Grail.’ It wasn’t.
But, heavily restored though it is, and relieved of the burden of carrying an immense myth, the chalice still exerts a strange magnetism. ‘When we had it on show in 1986, some people were in awe of this thing,’ says Gary Vikan, the Director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Even he, who never believed its sacred connections, put it on show in a taller case than usual. ‘I didn’t want people to look down on it. I wanted them to look up. I guess I’m as bad as Gustavus Eisen.’
Even without its status as a relic, the chalice is not to be dismissed. ‘It’s a fascinating piece and totally worthy in its own right,’ says Dr Evans. It’s not hard to see why it caught the imagination of Gustavus Eisen. Eisen died in 1939. He was 93 and living at the home of Fahim Kouchakji, who had become his lifelong friend. Fahim, who married an American journalist in 1930, died in 1976, aged 90. Widely respected as a scholar, he had become a pillar of the art establishment.
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