The bowl, including the handles, is cut from a single block of agate
and is the largest surviving work of the lapidary art of antiquity.
That it was so highly esteemed was not due, however, to its impressive size or to the technical perfection of the execution but rather to the mysterious inscription that at times becomes visible in the stone. In fact, the phenomenon results from a peculiarity in the veining of the agate that makes patterns visible in the stone under certain lighting conditions: the letters “XRISTO” seem to appear (seen on the half of the bowl that has a banded edge) in letters about 3 cm high that begin to the left of the small, light agate cloud with a concave indentation and extend to the small, angular white patch on the right). This “wonder of nature” led to the assumption that the bowl was the legendary Holy Grail – the cup that caught the blood of Christ as he hung on the cross. Because the visibility
of the letters depends on the lighting and they cannot always be seen, there was an assumption that the mystery was revealed only to the chosen, further enhancing the mystique surrounding the bowl. The Agate Bowl is some 1600 years old and still in perfect condition. It may have been produced at the court of Constantine (306–337) and must have came to the West when Constantinople was captured in 1204. In a document dating from 1564 it is first mentioned together with the “Ainkhürn” (Inv. No. XIV 2), a giant narwhal task that was believed to be a unicorn horn . The heirs of Emperor Ferdinand I declared these two objects to be “inalienable heirlooms of the House of Austria”. They were considered so precious that no member of the House of Habsburg could personally own them (because of the temptation to sell them). According to a legally binding contract, they were to remain in the
possession of the family in perpetuity.
© Masterpieces of the Secular
Treasury, Edited by Wilfried Seipel, Vienna 2008