The Holy Blood At Bruges

by Prof. Roland Rotherham

For anyone studying the mysteries of The Holy Grail one of the most interesting sites worthy of investigation is ‘The Basilica of The Holy Blood, Bruges’.

Bruges, situated near to the border of Holland and Belgium, is without doubt one of the most lovely towns in Europe and its market square is a wealth of medieval magnificence.

However, tucked away in the corner of the square, to be precise in Breidal Straat, stands the entrance to the aforementioned basilica. The entrance is encased in a frontage of railings and gilt statuary and it is on the statuary we get our first clue as to what is held inside the building.

As well as the statues of medieval nobles who are associated with the basilica and the obligatory angels are two figures of Knights Templar and wherever we see these ‘military monks’ depicted we can be sure that the interior will be something of interest.

‘The Order of the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon’ or Templars as they will be known, first came in to being during the time of the 1st crusade in the late 11th century and were, at least to all intents and purposes, formed to protect the pilgrim routes to Jerusalem. However, over the last three decades more investigation has been done on this order of knighthood than perhaps any other and their real reason for forming may have had a far more interesting motive, that of protecting what we will know as The Holy Grail and other even more arcane items.

It is with their involvement in Bruges however that we must confine ourselves at this moment.

The basilica, or to give it it’s correct title ‘The Chapel Of Saint Basil’, was part of the old fortifications built to protect the town from the possible attacks of the vikings and gained it’s name due to the fact that in about the year 1100 Count Robert 2nd of Alsace donated to the town the relics of Saint Basil The Great. These relics consisted of four vertebrae or pieces of back-bone said to have been those of the saint and had them brought to Bruges from Caesarea in the Holy Land.

A little later the Count Derrick constructed a two storey building on the site and the lower chapel of this building still exists today. It is in this chapel that some of the most intriguing clues exist in the study of The holy Grail.

During the 1st crusade it had been possible for the armies of Christian Europe not only to fight against the saracen islamic forces of the east but also to be victorious and place a Christian king on the throne of Jerusalem. However, this is where it starts to become a detective story, because the man who was offered the throne of Jerusalem was a certain Godfroi de Bouillon, NOT one of the participating monarchs or great nobles in attendance. Why offer the crown to this man? ( By the way, he declined the title King and accepted that of Protector).

One theory is that Godfroi was descended from a line of ancient French kings who had their seat in the area we call the Langudoc, and that these monarchs were themselves descended from the tribe of Israelite ‘Benjamites’ or children of the tribe of Benjamin, who had been of the line of David and had supplied the ancient kings of Israel for centuries until they were deposed and left the Holy Land. If this theory was correct it seemed that by placing Godrfoi on the throne of Jerusalem they were in fact reinstating an ancient line of kings back to their rightful place. Be that as it may, and many scholars are debating this point even now, the outcome was that a Christian noble was in charge of the Holy City of Jerusalem.

It was during the 2nd crusade that the Holy Blood came to Bruges and to it’s current resting place. There are two main theories regarding this, the first states that in the year 1150 Count Derrick of Alsace was given the relic of the Holy Blood by the Patriarch of Jerusalem as a reward for outstanding bravery and it was he who brought it back to the town and installed it in the Chapel of Saint Basil in a reliquary for devotion.

However, that is not the only version of how the relic arrived and the 2nd version is even more interesting.

Again we can look at the year 1150 but this time at the lord Thierry of Alsace, it is said he was rewarded with the relic by King Baldwin 3rd of Jerusalem for bravery in the crusades. Please note that although Godfroi had turned down the title of king his younger brother, Baldwin (1st)’ who inherited after him had no such modesty and neither did his successors, all of whom readily accepted the crown.

It is said he brought it back to Bruges on 7th April 1150 but I have found a strange inconsistency of dates in regard to this and I personally believe that the date was earlier and was, indeed, 3rd March 1148. This date fits more correctly with the movements of the Count during this period and would appear more likely.

One particularly interesting point is that the son of Thierry was none other than Phillip of Alsace and he was the patron of Chretien de Trois the famous writer of the 12th century and it was under Phillip’s patronage that Chretien wrote ‘Le Conte del Graal’, not only was this the first time in literature that we find the Holy Grail but the book was also dedicated to Phillip by his protoge.

It is also worth remembering that the families of Alsace, Burgundy and Habsburg also claimed descent from the same line as Godfroi de Bouillon, though not as directly, and therefore they all had an interest in the line of the ancient French kings known as the ‘Merovingians’.

These monarchs, it is claimed, owed their bloodline to the fact that Mary Magdalene journeyed to their lands after the crucifixion, some even say carrying the child of Christ, and from this startling beginning came a line of religious ‘Priest kings’ who would dominate their area for many years before finally, perhaps, being placed onto their old throne in Jerusalem in the person of Godfroi, king in all but name.

It is during the period of the crusades that most of Europe’s great houses of worships were either built or redesigned and it is also recognised that Knights Templar were present as consultants at the building of these churches and chapels.

Certainly it seems likely that templars were present at Bruges during this time and let us not forget that in the great literary masterpiece ‘Parsifal’, later turned into the opera ‘Parzival’ by Wagner, that the Grail guardians are referred to as ‘Templiesen’.

If we start our investigation in the old lower chapel, (see the accompanying plans), we can start to pick up our clues as to the true identity of this mysterious chapel.

The lower chapel is the only existing part of the original church and it is down here that we can glimpse that it was here and NOT in the upper chapel that the relic of The Holy Blood was housed in the first instance. As you descend the stairs you are entering this ancient and lovely chapel by it’s old doorway and you will first be struck by the atmosphere. Remember that the ‘feeling’ a place gives off can often be a clue itself when researching items like this.

The main body of the chapel is held up by four large romanesque pillars, if you walk ahead to the area called the ‘Tomb of Christ’ you can see a most astonishing example of carving and most unusual in the fact it portrays Christ lying in the tomb and on a canopy over the image you can see the ‘Articles of the Crucifixion’. These are the items that were used during the Passion and list such things as:The Nails, Hammer, Ladder, Tongs, Flail, Spear, Crown on Thorns, Reed, Sponge etc that were seen as the objects of The Christ’s torment.      

To find these items portrayed in such a manner is most unusual but if you search you will not find the Grail or any reference to it on this canopy, these are the articles of execution and torment only and do not show the items of the burial.

Underneath you can see the figure the figure of The Christ as if lying in the tomb but NOT covered with the shroud, He is shown as being laid out in preparation only and not in final condition, this will become an important clue later. Also, if you now look to your right you can just see marked out the wall next to the ‘Tomb’ the image of a rugged cross with a ’Grail’ shape set into it and on each side of the shaft stand you can also see the faint outline of two jugs or cruets. It was said in the ancient tales that Joseph of Arimathea carried with him two small jugs carrying the blood and water of the crucifixion as well as the Grail in the shape of a bowl.

If you now walk to the altar, which is surmounted by a figure of a pelican, and look down to your feet, you will clearly see two tomb stones, both of them plain except for the fact that carry the image of a cup carved into them. This symbol is widely recognised as the emblem of the Holy Grail and often those who rest under these stones are, indeed, Knights Templar or those associated with their order.

The pelican over the altar is also worthy of note, the type of pelican shown is normally known as a ‘Heraldic Pelican’ and does not look like the actual bird but is a medieval representation of the bird. However, the important thing is the pelicans actions, this is known as a ‘Pelican in its piety’. When the early travellers first saw the bird feeding its young they thought it was pecking its own breast and feeding its young with its own blood. This important symbol came to be given two meanings by the church, the first was as the image of Christ in the Eucharist, or if you prefer, the communion when the wine is turned to Holy Blood. The second symbol was that it resembled the Virgin Mary due to the fact that her son was sacrificed for others and she, as a mother, was giving the blood of her blood to the world.

There was however one more theory, that was that it represented Mary Magdalene, who was, according to some, carrying the Holy Child when she was forced to flee the Holy Land after the passion and that the pelican represents her carrying the Holy Blood with her.

In the upper chapel there is an intriguing reinforcement of this theory, but it must be said that it is not one that the modern church authorities would be very happy with.

It is now time to head to the upper chapel and to see what can be detected from the imagery on show there.

As you enter you will notice that the building is much lighter and brighter than the old chapel you have just left. This is due to the fact that by comparison you have now entered a relatively modern structure due to the fact that the old upper chapel was destroyed by the French Revolution and this part of the building only dates to the 19th century when it was rebuilt.

In the side chapel, dedicated to the Holy Blood, you can see the magnificent silver reliquary/altar in which is housed the actual reliquary containing the Holy Blood. To its side is the carved ‘Throne’ for the relic, it is here that the pilgrims, (and the curious), can come to see the precious relic when it is revealed for public veneration, (this happens every Friday from 08:30 until 11:45 and then from 15:00 until 16:00) as well of course as on special feast days.

Apart from the many items of interest here it is to the two pillars that separate the main church from the side chapel that contains the Holy Blood that I want you pay particular attention. These pillars each contain an image and it is these images that give us yet another clue in our investigations.

The left hand pillar shows Joseph of Arimathea, said by some to be the uncle of Christ and the man who gave up his own tomb to house the body of The Christ. This particular image of Joseph shows him holding the cup or bowl that he is said to have held at the passion and in which he caught the blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ as he was pierced by the spear of Longinus the centurion (The Spear of Destiny), and that this was indeed a Holy Grail that contained the blood of the passion.

The right hand pillar shows Mary Magdalene, she is shown as holding yet ANOTHER cup. This one is an ointment cup with which she anointed the body as it lay in the tomb prior to burial. It is also said that when she dressed the body and had applied the ointment she gathered into the cup some of the blood WHICH WAS STILL FLOWING FROM THE WOUNDS, this can not go without comment, as a dead body can not pump blood round its system and if she gathered flowing blood from the wounds at this time ???????

Yet neither of these cups is the cup of the Last Supper, that is still lost. Please remember that in this belief there are THREE grails that are cups or bowls, as well as the theory of Mary Magdalene herself being a grail if carrying the Holy Child. A grail is only a receptacle and not just a cup or bowl. This belief was common in medieval Europe, particularly with the Cathars who lived in the area that had once been ruled by the Merovingian Kings we mentioned eariler.

It is therefore possible that we can see here, in this building, not only a resting-place for a very important relic but also, and quite likely, the remains of a medieval cult that held Mary Magdalene in the highest esteem. Remember that in the lower chapel we see The Christ’s body in preparation for burial and not as it would appear when complete and ready in the tomb, a link with Magdalene who anointed the body?

We have also seen the ‘Grail Cross’ set into the wall and the tombs bearing the grail symbols, possibly templar tombs and guardians of the Grail.

Also, we have seen the links with Bruges and the Kings of Jerusalem, starting with Godfroi, a descendant of the Merovingian monarchs and therefore possibly from the line of David in the Holy Land. Legend tells us as well that Godfroi’s great grandfather was none other than Lohengrin, the ‘Swan Knight’ also linked with Grail stories.

The theories are endless and complex, but my studies have revealed that which I have told you. Visit the basilica for yourself and see the chapels at first hand, BUT please remember that it is a place of worship and this should be remembered and respected as you conduct your studies. Good luck and good hunting on your own Grail Quest and may saints guide your steps to the truth.