“People say I’m crazy doing what I'm doing, Well they give me all kinds
of warnings to save me from ruin, When I say that I'm o.k. they look at
me kind of strange, Surely you’re not happy now you no longer play the game”
- John Lennon
The Holy Grail E-Codex
Quest for the Grail Part 1
Day 1-2 Nov 9-10 2004, New York
We arrive in New York late at night and stay at the home of Mildred, one of Andrea’s friends in Queens. A nice and funny gal Mildred. Well-traveled too. She shared a few of her travel stories with us including the time she woke up in a tent in Africa with a bat flying around and a monkey sitting in her entry way.
The next day we have about 6 hours or so to visit NY before the flight continues on to Paris. We learn Arafat is dying and would possibly die the day we arrive. In NY, we check out the fall leaves in Central Park and I begin to ponder my quest to find the Holy Grail. In the park, we make a brief visit to Strawberry Fields and the memorial to John Lennon. I believe I see a few clues to the Grail in the inscription and Andrea removes her gloves to place a colorful leaf there. We stop and admire the ‘Alice and Wonderland’ sculpture and I sense the white rabbit is trying to say something to me. Before we leave the park, Andrea’s gloves mysteriously disappear. Imagine that!
Arafat dies the day we arrive in Paris. Poor man couldn’t take it I suppose. The weather is clear but a bit chilly and we make our way to our hotel located a few blocks from the Sacre Coeur in Montmarte near the Anvers Metro station. Built on the Montmartre hill the Roman-Byzantine basilica of the Sacred Heart dominates Paris. The Prussians, and the civil war, which steeped the capital in blood, have constructed it in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus after the 1870 disaster, the capture of Paris. The archbishop of Paris in 1872 approved the wish of a Parisian, Mr. Legentil, to build a sanctuary dedicated to the heart of Jesus-Christ, "true God and true man", present in the Holy Sacrament exposed day and night. Therefore he chose the site where Saint Denis was beheaded because of his faith in late 3rd century. I heard St. Denis still haunts Montmarte with his head in his hands. I decide to look for anything resembling this apparition as a possible clue to locate the grail.
We had never experienced Montmarte in this detail before and enjoyed the artisan vibe as well as the numerous cafes and beautiful side streets that crisscross the hill.
It is my understanding that clues to the grail lay in the various museums in Paris. At the Musee D’Orsay, we explore the various Impressionist works by Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, Seurat etc. It was a surprise to find Portrait of Whistler’s Mother on display and we were relieved to see that ‘Mr. Bean’ had not ruined the face after all.
Another surprise discovery at the D’Orsay was a single room installation featuring contemporary art. Video projectors, your basic camera trickery. Nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s nice to see the D’Orsay take the technological leap.
After a short lunch break at the Luxembourg Gardens, we head on over to the Pompidou museum of modern art. By the way, when you want to order one of those tomato and ham sandwiches from the street, you must say “Saand-Weech” with a little flair and effervescence lest the locales discover you to be an imposter. We succeed and our disguises are intact. Thus far, no one seems to realize what we are searching for and that’s good because the Holy Grail has left a trail of woe like no other.
The Holy Grail is generally considered to be the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper and the one used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch his blood as he hung on the cross. In medieval romance, the grail was said to have been brought to Glastonbury in Britain by Joseph of Arimathea and his followers. In the time of Arthur, the quest for the Grail was the highest spiritual pursuit. Perceval achieves the quest and locates the grail; after the death of its keeper the Grail suddenly and mysteriously vanishes.
However, James Russell Lowell's "The Vision of Sir Launfal", one of the most popular of nineteenth-century American poems gave to generations a democratized notion of the Grail quest as something achievable by anyone who is truly charitable.
I like to think that I’m a generally charitable person but the Pompidou tested my resolve. I very much dislike the lack of beauty in much of what is considered good modern art. Looking through the glass-enclosed elevator toward the sun setting behind the Eiffel tower is, well, beautiful and filled with meaning to me. Looking at a room filled with nothing but rolled up carpets is not. Strangely enough, I did enjoy one particular piece of art. I stared at it for several minutes and I swore I saw more clues to the grail. Just as I was beginning to understand this confounding experience, Andrea kindly reminded me that I was actually staring at a blank wall and not a piece of art.
All this looking at and talking about modern art inspired us to head over to the Pere Lachaise cemetery in the eastern part of Paris. This cemetery houses the bones of artists, musicians, writers and painters. I was happy to pay homage to Pissarro and Modigliani and Andrea sought out Edith Piaf, Colette and Oscar Wilde. Jim Morrison must still be restless since there is always a crowd and a round the clock guard hovering over him. It started to rain a little bit but I saw something on Modigliani’s tombstone that propelled us to our next clue.
Later that night, we take in a cabaret show at the Lapin Agile which is a famous Montmartre cabaret, at 22 Rue des Saules, Originally called "Cabaret des Assassins"; legend has it that it got this name after a band of assassins broke in and killed the owner's son. The cabaret was more than 20 years old when, in 1875, the artist Andre Gill painted the sign that was to suggest its permanent name. It was a picture of a rabbit jumping into a pot, and locals began calling their neighborhood nightclub "Le Lapin à Gill": "Gill's rabbit".. At the turn of the century, the Lapin was a favorite spot for struggling artists and writers, including Picasso, Modigliani, Apollinaire and Van Gogh. It was also popular with shady Montmartre characters including pimps, eccentrics, simple down-and-outers, a contingent of local anarchists, and a sprinkling of well-heeled bourgeois out on a lark.
We were sitting at wooden tables where decades' worth of initials had been carved into the surfaces and French songs dating back as far as the 15th century were sung by all. Pablo Picasso's 1905 oil painting "At the Lapin Agile " stared right at us and forced me to think all night about "the meaning of art.
When you are in that art ‘mood’ there is probably no better place to get your art yah-yahs than the Louvre. Since we are traveling off-season, it was quick and easy for us to stroll, on a somewhat overcast morning, through the Tuilleries and into the Louvre. We had only the day to see as much as we could. This was Andrea’s first visit so I needed to make sure she saw the high points. I, on the other hand, was intent on finding one particular piece of sculpture that held the latest clue to the whereabouts of the grail. The most ghastly scene of the day was watching, in horror, people crowd around the Mona Lisa and take flash pictures, digital pictures and videos of the famous Da Vinci work. It was like something out of a celebrity wet dream. My first thought was, “Why?” Why do people need to take pictures of the Mona Lisa when there are perfectly high-quality images available in the gift shop, the Internet or probably in a book in their own homes? All the flashing, red-eye correction reflection made it virtually impossible for someone to actually LOOK at the damn thing. I would say it was hilarious to see people stare into their mini color LCD screens as they record the image but it was more sad and disturbing than anything else. Like suddenly finding Michael Jackson in your bathtub.
But the sculpture I needed to find would draw no such attention. After a quick tour of the Richelieu, Denon and Sully works and Napoleon’s apartments I find what I am looking for. It is a sculpture of Joan of Arc. She is portrayed, not as the armor clad 14 year old general on horseback who saved France from the English, but as a 14 year old girl in a dress who bends her head slightly, hand raised to her head as if struggling to hear a voice. It becomes profoundly clear to me where I must go next.
The sounds from the bells at Notre Dame cathedral echo throughout Paris. It’s easy to imagine Quasimodo high up in the tower swinging away like mad and it is easy to imagine why Hemingway chose the title for his book, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. But Notre Dame bells bring us across the Ile-de-la-Cite to the Palais de de la Cité. Within the modern-day walls of law and order rests a Gothic jewel: Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle was commissioned by St. Louis (Louis IX) in 1242 to be a Royal chapel and a shrine for the relics of Christ's Passion--including the most precious relic of all: the Crown of Thorns. St. Louis was the son of Hugh Capet, the first of the Capetian kings of France. Hugh was appointed as king by the ruling nobles of France, and upon his death, his wife Blanche of Castile, served as regent for the young Louis. To justify his claim to the royal throne, St. Louis used Sainte-Chappelle and the holy relics as prominent symbols of his authority.
Here, I search amid the vast stained-glass windows for clues to the grail. Nearby, a whispering tour guide tells a group that St. Louis was enamored of the stories of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail. St. Louis's set of Holy Relics did not include the Grail. However, the floor plan of Sainte-Chapelle resembles a cup--a cup filled with Holy Light. Perhaps St. Louis did have the Grail once…
At this point in the search I would like to mention that I am not a particularly religious person and follow no particular religion. I was raised a Catholic but had since rejected its dogma, but nonetheless its history and meanings had influenced me. The Holy Grail, for many during the Middle Ages, represented the ultimate faith in Christ and Christianity. It is also about this time that Christian monarchs began tightening their hold on the population and that hold meant ridding the country of other religious groups such as the Muslims and Jews. Basically, Christianity said, “You are either with us, or against us.”
One of the few nations still accepting of other religions (for the meantime) was Spain. The Roman built fortresses of Toledo and Girona offered some peace for Jews to live their lives without too much persecution. I’m thinking about all of this as we are flying to Girona, Spain on the last and final leg in the hunt for the Grail. Blanche of Castille, mother of St. Louis, was from Spain but ruled in France by marriage. She was very religious but not very popular with the French. A source tells me that she may have transported the grail from France through the Pyrenees and into Spain. Girona is the first walled-city you come to after crossing the Pyrenees.
Girona is home to the oldest and best-preserved medieval Jewish quarter in Europe as well as the founding home of the cabbalistic teachings of Nahman, an early teacher and possible rediscoverer of Kabala. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Kabala began in Girona around the same time the grail disappeared.
Arriving in Girona and walking through the “Call” or old Jewish Quarter, I was struck by the numerous signs pointing the way to the Holy Grail. We were stunned to come across the Jardins of John Lennon located just north of the old city wall. No, we did not find Andrea’s gloves there but we knew we had to find the Gironella Tower. The Gironella Tower was a refuge during the summer riots of 1391 where 600 Jews were locked up for 17 weeks. We had heard and read about the tower but strangely enough there were no postcards or signs pointing to the tower. I am certain the grail is there and we search the better part of the day for the tower to almost no avail. Finally, just before giving up, a jogger passed by us and he was able to take us to the exact spot where portions of the Gironella stood. “You can always trust a jogger to know exactly where things are on their jogging route”, I say to Andrea.
The Gironella was a large Roman-turreted tower attached to the city wall. The jogger said it was originally around 800 meters high but I think we may have mistranslated this number. Now it is only one story high and a huge iron gate prevents any entry. But I notice one lone tree standing near the entrance of the Gironella. The “Tree of Life” perhaps. It stands there containing all of the knowledge and experience of what transpired here during those turbulent times. It also represents the final clue to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. Astonishingly enough, I also realize that I won’t be able to grasp the grail in my hands after all.This revelation makes the journey worthwhile and I know that the secret of the grail must remain just that---a secret. So Andrea and I do the next best thing to holding the Holy Grail in our hands.
Story by George Aguilar
Images by George Aguilar and Andrea Paul
All Rights Reserved Copyright 2004