We look at how the cup of the Last Supper cast its spell over one of music’s great agnostics.

The ‘Holy Grail’ is a potent and persistent image in Western culture; a metaphor for all that is prized, mysterious and elusive. Once a favoured subject of Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers such as Malory and Tennyson, today it is linked in popular imagination to Monty Python, Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code. Yet, behind this modern facade lies a rich and colourful history stretching back to the 12th century.

In about 1190, the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron identified the Grail as the cup of the Last Supper, that tangible reminder of Christ’s continuing presence among his disciples after his death. According to Robert and his sources, Joseph of Arimathea bore the crucified body of Christ to the tomb where, still bleeding, it was washed and the divine blood was caught in the Grail. By the 15th century, the cup had become an object of knightly romance – the Sangrail. Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur describes the arduous quests undertaken by Knights of the Round Table to find the Sangrail, quests which only three – Galahad (the purest), Bors (the most-worldly) and Percival (the simplest) – achieved.

Wagner, Holy Grail, ParsifalThe Temptation of Sir Percival by Arthur Hacker, 1894

These days, it seems that either quests are becoming less arduous or the Grail is becoming more accessible for, each year, countless devout, or at least curious, pilgrims view the red agate Santo Cáliz in its chapel within Valencia Cathedral in Spain, or the jewel-encrusted onyx Chalice of Doña Urraca in the Basilica of San Isidoro in León (also in Spain), or the Roman-era emerald glass Sacro Catino in Genoa Cathedral in Italy, seized by Napoleon in 1805 but later returned (damaged), all of which, at one time or another, have been thought of as the Holy Grail.

Then there is the silver-gilt Antioch Chalice in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, now regarded as a sixth-century lamp rather than a first-century cup, and the miracle-working wooden Nanteos Cup in the National Library of Wales, which was probably made no earlier than the 14th century. Among other would-be Grails is one reputedly in an unopened vault below Rome’s Basilica of Saint Lawrence-outside-the-Walls. Another, whose existence is even more speculative, is said to be at Glastonbury – the legendary Avalon, last resting place of Arthur.

The Church has never officially endorsed the notion of the Grail’s existence, let alone its power of intervention in the lives of men. Nevertheless, devout members of the laity and even some cloistered orders have propagated the romances as vehicles for illustrating paths to salvation and forces beyond human understanding.

ParsifalOlive Fremstad as Kundry, 1913

The Church was wise not to sanction the legend because, in truth, its origins were more pagan than Christian, traceable to classical, Celtic and Oriental mythologies. Even before the Grail was given its Christian gloss during the Middle Ages, it was described as possessing miraculous powers, including the ability to provide all kinds of food and drink and to extend the life of those who gazed upon it.

Its prototypes were the magic cauldrons and cornucopias of pagan antiquity, and the alchemist stones of the east. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval ou le Conte du Graal (‘Perceval, or the Story of thee Grail’) written soon after 1180, the Grail was not a cup at all but a dish or platter. Gradalis or Gradale came to mean a dish in which costly food was served ‘in degrees’ (gradatim), one morsel after another in different rows. From the Medieval Latin ‘gradale’ it was but a short step to the Old French ‘graal’ and English ‘grail’.

In this context, the Grail was a miraculous provider of food, a role bearing more resemblance to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand than to the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is its function in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, where its powers include the ability to prolong life, to be a source of food and drink, and to bring general well-being to all who set eyes upon it. In Holy Communion, bread and wine are mystically transformed into the body and blood of Christ but, in Act I of Parsifal the ‘body and blood’ of the Grail supplies bread and wine to the community of knights – a fundamental difference.

ParsifalRinging the Parsifal bells, backstage at Covent Garden, 1914

In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King of 1869, a maid tells Sir Percivale about the Grail’s descent on a beam of light amidst unworldly and exquisite music: “O never harp nor horn, nor aught we blow with breath, or touch with hand, was like that music as it came; and then streamed through my cell a cold and silver beam, and down the long beam stole the Holy Grail.”

The maid might well have been describing the prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, composed two decades earlier. Lohengrin reveals himself to be Parzival’s son. Wagner’s initial encounter with the subject matter for Parsifal came as early as 1845 when he read the 13th-century courtly epic Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Parsifal was completed towards the end of Wagner’s life, but in it we see the working out of musical and dramatic ideas that are as breathtakingly original as any that he conceived. He commented to his wife Cosima in January 1882: “I was telling myself today that it is quite remarkable that I held this work back for my fullest maturity; I know what I know and what is in it; and the new school… can take their lead from it.”

Musically, it is Wagner’s most subtle and beautiful score, described by Debussy as “one of the loveliest monuments of sound ever raised to the serene glory of music”. Mahler was so overwhelmed on his first hearing in 1883 that he left the Festival Theatre unable to speak, and Puccini travelled to Bayreuth three times – in 1888, 1889 and 1912 – to hear it. He quoted the Abendmahl-Motiv in Le Villi and took inspiration for the ending of La Fanciulla del West from the radiant ending of Parsifal. Liszt, Sibelius and Berg were all profoundly moved and wrote ecstatically about their experiences. Stravinsky, though later making a show of distancing himself from Wagner’s influence, had been mesmerised by the music (as distinct from the quasi-religious setting) when first experiencing it in 1912.

ParsifalHans Beirer as Parsifal, Bayreuth 1959

Wagner was very selective in what he took from Wolfram’s narrative and, in fact, he was dismissive of much of it. For Wolfram, the Grail was a stone that had fallen from heaven and was capable of producing an abundance of the most delectable foods. He tells us that the Knights of the Grail “live from a stone of the purest kind. If you do not know it, it shall be named to you. It is called lapsit exillis. This stone is also known as the Grail.” Moreover, says Wolfram, “there never was a man so ill that, if he saw that stone, would not live, unable to die within a week of that day. Nor in complexion would he ever change. One’s appearance, whether maid or man, remains the same as on the day that stone is seen, or as at the start of the years of one’s prime. And should one look upon that stone for 200 years, nothing but one’s hair would turn grey.”

This is the origin of Titurel’s prolonged state of grace in Wagner’s Parsifal, and his death, at last, when his son Amfortas, in mortal agony, refuses to reveal the Grail. Wolfram repeats the belief that the stone was left behind on earth and guarded by those angels who had remained neutral during the strife between God and Satan. The basic idea of the stone probably originated with Arabic or Sabian astrology and alchemy, since lapsit exillis is also the name of the alchemists’ stone.

Parsifal encapsulates Wagner’s most deeply considered views on the human condition, and this is where his interpretation of the Grail becomes particularly interesting. For dramatic purposes, he adopted the Christian imagery of the Grail as a cup, not as a stone or even a platter. However, Eastern imagery was certainly embraced, reflecting the composer’s growing fascination with the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer and the tenets of Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads with which Schopenhauer was also in sympathy. Towards the end of his life Wagner said that he regarded his Schopenhauerian philosophy and Parsifal as his crowning achievements.

ParsifalFlower maidens in the Adelaide Parsifal of 2001

In 1857 he had begun work on, but did not finish, an opera about the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, just before recommencing consideration of Parsifal. Both works were clearly in his mind at the same time, and he saw no incongruity in this. By the mid-1850s, his focus had shifted from (revolutionary) politics to metaphysics, and we find this most of all in Parsifal, which is based on transcendental notions such as the denial of the will and rejection of the world. It has nothing to do with politics of any kind. Wagner himself said that Parsifal owed its conception to his flight from the world and from a soulless age of unfeeling utilitarianism. For Schopenhauer, compassion was the source of morality, and Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross on Good Friday – the context of the second Act of Parsifal – was the ultimate demonstration of compassion.

Parsifal is the awaited ‘innocent fool made wise through compassion’, which is the motto theme of the drama. Wagner’s ‘Grail’, despite being visible on stage is, in fact, more idea than substance. With Einsteinian insight, the knight Gurnemanz tells the naïve boy Parsifal that in the realm of the Grail, “time becomes space”, which is to say, what appears to exist in one state of consciousness may in fact belong to another. Above all, Wagner’s Grail is significant not because of its legendary associations but because it symbolises the power of compassion.

At the heart of Parsifal is the notion that salvation is to be found not in the satisfaction of selfish desires but in the ability to share the sufferings of others. In our shared sense of compassion we can recognise the fundamental unity of all beings – of all creation. This is the insight that Parsifal, with childlike simplicity, brings to the community of the Grail, and the message that Wagner in his ‘crowning achievement’ left to the world.

Jonas Kaufmann sings three concert performances of Parsifal with Opera Australia at Sydney Opera House from August 9 – 14.