Hot on the trail of the Grail

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The focal point of the cold, bare room is a stone table on which rests a plain cup held in a jewelled stand.

It seems ordinary, but it’s anything but. “This monastery was a resting place of the Holy Grail,” our guide Belen Bistue says casually. “It’s now in Valencia Cathedral; that is a replica.”

For anyone steeped in the many and varied legends of the Grail – the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper – it’s a momentous announcement. What’s more, there’s not a trace of doubt in Bistue’s voice, despite the fact that the Valencia Grail – a Middle Eastern chalice and jewelled medieval stand – is only one of several claimants in various parts of Europe.

Of them all, however, this particular Grail probably has the best provenance. It is believed to have been in Huesca Cathedral in about 553 AD, but following the Muslim invasion in the 8th century, was hidden away in various places in the region, including this remote monastery about an hour’s drive north of Huesca. San Juan de la Pena possessed the cup from about 1071 to 1372 when it was the medieval equivalent to a tourist attraction.

A major pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain runs through the area and pilgrims would stop at the monastery, hoping for a glimpse of the Holy Grail.

Built underneath a huge, overhanging rock, the monastery is high up in the mountains, and about 30 kilometres southwest of Jaca. The small lower church is the only part left of the original building – the monastery was founded in 920 – while on the second level there’s a pantheon with the tombs of Aragonese rulers such as Pedro I and Ramiro I. One of the monastery’s best features, however, is the lovely cloister, built in the 12th century.

Huesca Cathedral doesn’t capitalize on the Grail legend but does contain several items of interest, including a magnificent alabaster retable created by sculptor Damian Forment in the 16th century.

“It is the most famous thing we have in Huesca,” says local guide Ismael Navarro. It also has an impressive portico dominated by the Virgin Mary and with 14 stone figures either side of her.

Beneath her is a female sinner, identifiable by her long hair and exposed breast.

Entering the cathedral, there is (or so we were told) a sculpture high on top of one of the pillars showing a man and woman “misbehaving.” In what way, I can’t tell you – it’s impossible to make out any details with the naked eye.

The 11th century Church of San Pedro el Viejo – one of the oldest in Spain – is also thought to have housed the Grail for a while. It contains the tombs of Ramiro II (the Monk) as well as that of King Alfonso the Warrior, and also has a shivery little chapel specifically designed for exorcisms.

Best of all is its Romanesque cloister, with each of its wonderfully carved pillars showing what Navarro describes “the slippery slope of sex” – scene after scene of women tormented by sexual obsession, temptation, depravity and suffering. It’s strong stuff.

Talking of legends, a bloody drama orchestrated by Ramiro the Monk took place in the 12th century palace of the kings of Aragon, now the provincial museum.

Ramiro was being treated with contempt by the nobles, said Navarro. “He asked his spiritual master what to do about the rebels and his adviser didn’t say anything. He just went into a garden, took out a knife and cut the heads off cauliflowers.”

Ramiro got the message. He told the nobles that he wanted them to help him make a new bell and summoned them to a meeting. As soon as they arrived, Ramiro had their heads chopped off, then arranged all 12 of them in the shape of a bell.

The legend – of doubtful authenticity – is known as the Bell of Huesca. Today the room is used for weddings and other, more peaceful purposes.

In The Star