The Holy Grail: Hermetic Testimony in Stone

In his novel, Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo spends a whole chapter (Chapter II of Book Five) on the idea that architecture is the great book of humanity, and that the invention of printing and the proliferation of mundane books spelled the end of the sacred book of architecture. He reports that the Gothic era was the sacred architect’s greatest achievement, that the cathedrals were expressions of liberty, the emergence of a new sense of freedom. “This freedom goes to great lengths,” Hugo informs us. “Occasionally a portal, a facade, an entire church is presented in a symbolic sense entirely foreign to its creed, and even hostile to the church. In the thirteenth century, Guillaume of Paris, in the fifteenth Nicholas Flamel, both are guilty of these seditious pages.”
Hugo’s basic point is correct. Those medieval artists who created with such exuberance were trying to communicate important truths. They believed with an intensity that allowed them to work patiently for lifetimes on the same symbolic framework. Standing in front of the western front of Notre Dame de Paris and trying to absorb this explosion of imagery and information, our modern sensibilities allow us to see little more than its obvious Christian symbology. But when we look closer, we find that these are indeed unorthodox, if not seditious, pages in stone.
Take for instance that unusual image of a woman with a book and a ladder reaching the clouds behind her. The guidebook calls it philosophy, but why is it on the base of the plinth that leads upward to the image of the Last Judgment? Or those strange images along the sides of the portal. . . The guidebook suggests that they are vices and virtues but upon examination they dissolve into a welter of paradox and medieval surrealism.
We recognize the power of the images, but can we understand their message?
Yes, but to do so, we must learn a new language – the ABCs of symbolism. For this purpose, the daunting hermetic libraries in stone of the great cathedrals, Notre Dame de Paris, Amiens, Bourges, are too overwhelming and complex. Before we face such complexity, we need a primer and for that we must turn to the south and the ancient Imperial city of Arles, the Cathedral of St. Trophime and the true origin of the Grail legends.
When Hannibal crossed the Rhone a few miles north of present-day Arles in 218 BCE, the Gallo-Greek settlement of Theline was already a trading post of some note. Under the Romans, who called it Arelate, the city retained its commercial status and flourished. Christianity arrived before the middle of the first century, brought, according to legend, by St. Trophimus. Curiously enough, St. Trophimus dedicated the very first shrine to the Virgin here, even before her death. By the late 1st century CE, Arles had become an ecclesiastical center, a position it would retain for the next four centuries, partly on the strength of its legendary cemetery, the Alyscamps.
Perhaps the most famous necropolis of the medieval era, the Alyscamps (from Elisii Campi or Elysian Fields) owed its fame to St. Trophimus. Built outside the city walls, as were all Roman cemeteries, and along the Via Aurelia, the main road to Italy and Rome, the Alyscamps was a perfect location for secret meetings. St. Trophimus soon attracted a following and in the year before he died, probably 52 CE, he invoked a blessing on the cemetery. Christ himself attended the ceremony and left the imprint of His knee on a sarcophagus lid. Burial at Alyscamps became so desirable that bodies were shipped from all Europe for burial in its holy grounds. The 12th century chronicle of the Pseudo-Turpin informs us that the peers of Charlemagne, Roland and the other fallen heroes, were transported with great difficulty to the Alyscamps.
Arles therefore is ground zero for whatever version of Christianity it was that swept the region in those early years. If we are looking for the origin of those seditious pages in stone, then Arles is a likely place to look. In Mystery of the Cathedrals, the enigmatic alchemist Fulcanelli directs us here, to Arles, the Alyscamps and to the Cathedral of St. Trophime in particular, with several tantalizing references. He points out to us a rose cross ankh on a sarcophagus lid at St. Honore in the Alsycamps and bids us pay close attention to the tympanum on the Great Portal of St. Trophime.
Built in the mid 5th century by St. Hilaire and originally dedicated to St. Stephan, the Cathedral was rebuilt in the 11th century and the Great Portal was finished a century later in time for the coronation of Frederick I Barbarossa as King of Arles in 1178. Rededicated to St. Trophime when the relics of his miracle were moved from the Alyscamps in 1152, the Cathedral failed to retain the sacred cache of its Saint’s miraculous status, probably because the Holy Stone, the sarcophagus lid with the knee print, had disappeared. This missing Stone, which conferred “knowledge of the Living Christ,” to those who beheld it and “ certainty of resurrection and eternal life” to those sacred dead who slept in its embrace, according to the 12th century “Golden Legends,” might just be the origin point of all the later Holy Grail legends.
Consider that, although Chretien de Troyes had invented all the other trappings of the Arthurian legends, the Matter of Britain as it was known in the Middle Ages, in his earlier works before 1180 or so, there is no hint that he had any idea of anything remotely resembling the Grail. Then, he was supposedly given an ancient manuscript “in the Breton tongue” by Phillip of Flanders and asked to render the material into an epic poem, which became Perceval, or the History of the Grail.
So where did Phillip of Flanders come by the story? Chretien doesn’t tell us much and although there have been many suggested sources, we just don’t know. However, Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parsival, a complete version of the story that Chretien only began, tells us that he had the true story from its source: one Kyot or Guyot of Provence.
This is an important clue, because there was a Guyot de Provins, a troubadour poet. And there is only one place that a young squire soon to be knight such as Wolfram could have met Guyot de Provins: at the coronation of Frederick I Barbarossa as King of Arles in 1178. Guyot de Provins was there, in the company of the Lords of Baux, a curious clan from the Alpilles north of Arles who claimed descent from Balthazar, one of the three magi. We are less certain that Wolfram was there, but it does seem probable, as it been determined from the texts of his poems that he entered the service of Frederick I Barbarossa at an early age.
We can be certain however that Phillip of Flanders and his sister-in-law Marie de Champagne did attend, as they are prominently listed among the assembled nobles in various sources. Thus, on this one occasion, all of the people involved in the creation and propagation of what would later be the Grail legends crossed paths in Arles. And curiously enough, also in Arles, we find the veneration of a Holy Stone with miraculous properties.
Perhaps this is more than coincidental, as there are political considerations as well. At the treaty of Vienne (another ancient Imperial city up the Rhone) in 1177, Frederick had been forced to acknowledge the authority of Pope Alexander III, effectively ending Frederick’s bid to re-establish an Empire in the West. Accepting the crown of the ancient Imperial province of Arles was for Frederick I Barbarossa, already Holy Roman Emperor, a kind of lateral move that can be considered as a way to establish connections with an even more ancient, and perhaps more legitimate form of Christianity. His coronation in the spring of 1178 at the newly finished Cathedral of St. Trophime signalled a shift in focus, one that would lead, a decade later, to Frederick’s taking charge of the Third Crusade and his death in the wilds of Armenia.
So, let us imagine for a moment that we are standing in the square in front of the Cathedral that bright May Sunday in 1178, waiting for the appearance of the Emperor and examining the almost complete decorations of the Great Portal. (The fact that the Portal has been cleaned and somewhat restored in recent years helps us in this. Its figures and friezes are as vivid today as they would have been in 1178, since these were never painted.)
The first thing we notice is the classical elegance of the Great Portal. It reminds us of other Roman Provencal Arches, most powerfully the one at Glanum. Above the Portal, the front of the Cathedral is plain, pulling our eye upward to the angel at the top. The obtuse angle of the top of the Portal breaks the flow and directs us back to the Portal itself, but the upward pull remains.
However, this triumphal arch is dedicated to the Last Judgment, seen here as a blend of John’s Apocalypse, the Gospel of Matthew, local legends and hermetic wisdom. The 11 small putti that line the angle of the roof of the Great Portal are a perfect example of the hermetic wisdom. They represent the 11 great circles needed to orient the earth, sun and the center of the galaxy, as well as the esoteric higher zodiac of 11 paired signs that would eventually become the Trumps of the Tarot. They can also be seen as a reference to the Tree of Life, with 10 sephirot and one access point, Daat or gnosis. All of these concepts are related, and are symbolised here on the portal as the highest level of wisdom related to the Last Judgment.
From this, our glance is drawn through the three veils of the negative (Ayn, Ayn Soph and Ayn Soph Aur), symbolized by the three receding levels of the arch, to the central arch itself. There, Christ Triumphant is seated on a throne within a vesica piscis holding the Book of Life and surrounded by the kerubic forms of the Evangelists and with a choir of 18 paired angels up in the arch. As we look closer at the Evangels, we notice that they are also the fixed signs of the zodiac, but the arrangement is unusual.
They can be seen as pillars; Leo/Aquarius and Scorpio/Taurus on each side, but note that each of these is actually opposite each other in the zodiac. Properly aligned they cross, making a 90-degree division of the celestial circle. To get any kind of astrological sense out of the arrangement on the tympanum one makes a zig-zag cross pattern that when completed forms two triangles, one up, one down, with points touching. This pattern also reveals to us two out of the three celestial axes.
Keep this in mind, because the entire movement adopted this key symbology. Look for instance at the tympanum of Chartres Cathedral and you will see the same unusual arrangement. The meaning is connected with the Cube of Space/New Jerusalem eschatology of St. John’s Apocalypse and blended with that of the Philosopher’s Stone and even the Holy Grail.
Below on the lintel are the Apostles, flanked by angels and on either side, the Elect and the Damned. Below that is a narrow frieze depicting the story of the Magi and the Massacre of the Innocent. This is interesting because of the support of the Lords of Baux, who claimed descent from Balthazar, one of the Magi, and the importance Fulcanelli, in Le Mystere des cathdrales, puts on these legends.
Under the Magi frieze are the figures of the saints separated by columns. There are six polished marble columns on the front, and four rougher columns facing in toward the portal, our ten sephirot, with the centre pillar making eleven, Daat or gnosis. There are two more pillars on the side, facing out, for a total of thirteen. Under each column is a symbolic figure.
All of these connections are significant and tell a very different story, even superficially, than one would expect. But the symbolic component is unique. Many of the motifs that we will find later explicated in detail on the great cathedrals can be found in symbolic broad strokes on the Great Portal.
One example of this will have to suffice. The two alignments given in the tympanum, Leo/Aquarius and Taurus/Scorpio, recur among the symbolic figures under the columns. Other curious features, including a Greek key on the forehead of a Leo figure, point us in strange directions. But, to make all this work, on any level, we must be given the key of that third celestial alignment, from north to south ecliptic pole.
However, under the figure of St. Trophime as Bishop of Arles, there is an unmistakable figure of that alignment. The north ecliptic pole falls in Draco and the southern pole on the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. Traditionally, this was symbolized as the union of the Dragon/Snake and the Turtle. As can be clearly seen, St. Trophime, holding a curious stone or book, stands on the back of a giant turtle and a snake. The snake in fact is also under the pillar, reinforcing the image of the celestial axis. We find this same key symbol on the front of Notre Dame de Paris in the image of St. Marcel and the Dragon.
From this we can glimpse a larger pattern behind both the Grail legends and the hermetic libraries of the great cathedrals, one that is, as suggested by Wolfram’s source, astronomical in form. Wolfram claimed that Guyot had unravelled the mystery and found a way to create a genealogy of the Grail family. From this information, Wolfram would come to focus on Parsival and a real historical figure – Guillaume de Gellone – whose family takes us back to Septimania and the ancient Jewish Goths of Languedoc.
Perhaps, vicariously and just for a moment, we can share the enthusiasm of the crowd that day as Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor and the newly crowned King of Arles, stood on the steps in front of the Great Portal, the high gold crown and the flaming red beard catching the clear afternoon sunlight of a Provencal spring. From this point, the larger current of the Gothic Revival would coalesce into the initiatory and chivalric current of the Grail Legends, offering us a dual track glimpse of the alchemical and hermetic wisdoms contained in the Gothic books in stone.