Murphy, S.J. Sheds Light on Holy Grail, Pacifism in ‘Parzival’

Professor Discusses Crusades, Possibly Finding the Holy Grail in Loyola Chair Lecture


On Feb. 15, the Dean of Arts and Science Faculty hosted Rev. G. Ronald Murphy, S.J, for the Loyola Chair lecture, entitled, “The Mysterious Stone: the Holy Grail in Parzival.” Murphy’s lecture shed light on how the 13th century poet Wolfram von Eschenbach put forth an argument for an end to the pointless violence of the Crusades in his romance, “Parzival,” the story of the Arthurian hero’s search for the Holy Grail.

“The Crusades had been so brutal,” Murphy said, “and the slaughter was such that one account relates that, as the knights made their way to the Holy Sepulchre, they waded in blood up to their ankles. Then along comes Wolfram and says ‘this was not necessary.’”

“‘Parzival,’” he said, “stands at the beginning of the Muslim vs. Christian troubles, calling out for peace on Trinitarian grounds.”

Murphy explained that even though Christians are the only of the Abrahamic faiths who believe in a Trinitarian God—a God who is at once Father, Son and Holy Spirit united in one Being—they share a common ground with Jews and Muslims, who worship one of the members of the Trinity, God the Father.

“If this is true,” Murphy said, “then, for Wolfram, the Crusades are setting the forces of God the Son [meaning Christians, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God] against those of God the Father.” Wolfram in this way presents the Crusades as fratricide committed by the Christians against their Muslim brothers.

Murphy pointed out that “Parzival” is not like other Grail stories. Instead of a jeweled serving dish, chalice or ciborium, the Holy Grail in Wolfram’s romance is a stone.

This has significance, according to Murphy, in that the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb in which Jesus was laid after his death, was made of stone. The Holy Sepulchre had been a major destination for pilgrimage, and its capture by the Abbasids and later Fatimids in the 11th century, served as an impetus for the Crusades. According to the account of Robert the Monk, when Pope Urban II called the First Crusade in 1095, he rallied the Crusaders, not simply to take back Jerusalem, but to “enter upon the road to the Holy Sepulchre.”

In Wolfram’s time, it was a common practice for priests to carry and use portable altars, which were typically made of wood. Priests would take three pieces of the Eucharist—which, for the Catholic Church, is considered Christ’s actual body—wrap them in a corporal, or shroud, and place them in the portable altar, sealing the opening with a precious stone.

Murphy explained that these gemstones are tombstones for Christ’s body, and their transparency serves as a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus. “Tombstones,” he said, “have been made gems because the light of Christ has passed through them.” Just as Christ emerged from the stone tomb in his resurrection, light passes through the gemstones which contain the body of Christ.

Murphy continued, saying Wolfram’s message is that these portable altars, containing Christ’s body are the Holy Sepulchre. “Wolfram wants to say, ‘We have the Holy Sepulchre in the altar stone. We already have it, so what good would it do to get the old, used one back?’”

According to Murphy, Wolfram argues in “Parzival” that there is no need for the fratricide of religious violence in the name of the Holy Sepulchre, because the stone—the Holy Grail in “Parzival”—enclosing the body of Christ is in every altar.

Murphy has written a book on his findings, entitled “Gemstone of Paradise,” which is published by Oxford University Press.