Throughout the long history of Christianity, the Holy Grail has served primarily as a symbol. As Ben Witherington III notes in the preceding article, no early Christian writings indicate that the cup used at the Last Supper survived or was preserved as a relic. Jesus’ first followers regarded the cup as a symbol of salvation, and nothing else. In modern times, the vessel now known as the Holy Grail has become a metaphor for any ever-elusive ideal or never-ending quest.
But in the late Middle Ages—in the late 12th and 13th centuries—and again in the 19th century, the search for this relic of the Last Supper was transformed into a very real mission—one that consumed the passions, money and blood of seekers.