In 1868, a young farmer was out in his field in County Limerick, digging for potatoes, when he struck metal with his shovel.
He dug it up and pulled the object from the ground, and discovered an ornate silver chalice, decorated with gold, silver, glass, amber, and crystal.
“Astonishingly, he didn’t try to sell it or melt it down,” says Professor Michael Clarke of the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway.
Perhaps that decision was swayed by religion: the names of eleven of the apostles and St Paul are inscribed on the cup.
“Just at a glance he would have known he had found something important,” says Nessa O’Connor, curator at the National Museum of Ireland.
These days, the chalice sits in a clear box in the middle of one of the exhibition rooms at the museum on Kildare Street in Dublin.
The young farmer had found the Ardagh Chalice, and he handed it in to a local lord who in turn passed it on to Royal Irish Academy, O’Connor says.
It is a 150 years next year since the cup was found, and mystery still surrounds it. Some have even argued that it is the Holy Grail.
The Holy Grail
The Holy Grail is said to be the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, and into which he bled while on the cross.
In his book The Celtic Chronicles: The True Story of the Holy Grail, Maurice Cotterell argues that the Ardagh Chalice is the Holy Grail.
Cotterell studies sun-worshipping civilisations including the Mayans and the Celts. He claims to have cracked their codes, and discovered that the grail radiates light.
According to his theory, the holy cup was passed for safekeeping to the monks of Lindisfarne, off the east coast of what is today England, who copied its secrets into the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. Fleeing from the Vikings, the monks brought the cup to Ireland.
It’s a fantastic story, but sadly, there is no historical basis for the existence of the Holy Grail, says Professor Clarke of NUI Galway, much less any evidence that the Ardagh Chalice might be it.
But “does its artwork and decoration allude to the possibility that it might be the Holy Grail? That is a different matter,” he says.
To start with, Clarke doubts that the chalice was ever actually used to drink from.
Testing found that it leaks, he says. That indicates it was likely to have been an offering or dedication. If it was created as a dedication, it is not surprising that they wanted to imitate the cup that was used in the Last Supper, he says.
“If you are making a chalice which is for display and which has complex artwork, then one of the things you might hint […] is the idea that this represents or re-creates the cup that Christ used in the Last Supper,” he says.
O’Connor, the curator, has a different take. She thinks the chalice might have been used to drink from, because it is engraved on the underside of the base. That would make sense if it were to be used for communion; it would be lifted up and tilted during Mass.
We also know the chalice is not the Holy Grail because it was made much later than the time of Christ, in around the 8th century AD, says O’Connor. “Everything to do with it accords with an 8th-century date,” she says.
It was also almost certainly made in Ireland, due to its similarity with other works made here in that era.
It is comparable to the Book of Kells and other similar works of that time, says O’Connor. “It’s part of a tradition of metalwork, and the motifs are in keeping with what we know about metalworking,” she says.
In the 700s, the likely creators of the chalice wouldn’t have known about the legend of the Holy Grail, but they would have known about the cup that Christ used at the Last Supper, and the cup that received his blood on the cross, says Clarke. “The Ardagh Chalice refers to both of those,” he says.
Around the 8th century, manuscripts in Germany started to reference certain animals, such as unicorns and wolves, having been portrayed on the Holy Grail, says Clarke.
These are represented on the Ardagh Chalice. “In the symbolism of the animals, you can see references or hints of the symbolism that was later to be associated with the Holy Grail,” he says.
Importantly that symbolism was not recorded in the preceding centuries, he says.
It was 400 years later that the Holy Grail legend really got going, when epic poems about Arthur and his knights start in the 1100s, says Clarke.
“The legends that have become mainstream and fired the imagination in later times, like the Holy Grail story” usually start from some historically accurate premise “but then they come together and get a life of their own”, he says.
It is often in the 19th century that they get a life of their own. “It’s a revival thing, but that is part of how the story works,” he says.
Could the Holy Grail exist?
Is it likely that the cup that Jesus drank from still exists? The earliest texts that claim to be an account of Jesus’ life, were written 100 years after his death, says Clarke.
“There was a gap between the historical events and the time when people started celebrating them, venerating and worshipping them,” he says. So, it is unlikely that any artefact or vessel would have been celebrated before organised Christianity took off, which was quite a bit later, he says.
But Clarke says he would always give any theory a fair hearing, no matter how crazy it initially sounds.
“People who latch onto theories like that are often cranks and professors at universities don’t like them, but sometimes, just sometimes, they turn out to be right,” he says.
The theory that dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid was a crank theory when he was young, Clarke says. Nowadays it is widely accepted that it could have played a role, he says.
People who have one specialist area of interest might work harder at the evidence on that particular issue, he says, so “they might notice something”.
“Never rule out the lone wolf who has one crazy idea,” says Clarke. “Always give him a hearing.”
Our Brushing Up series takes a closer look at works of art that you might have noticed around the city, from stained-glass windows to tucked-away statues. Have you spotted one? Let us know at email@example.com.