Holy Chalice, Holy Grail
In Stephen Spielberg’s 1989 movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the titular character is on a quest to recover the Holy Grail. The “grail” is a cup that, according to medieval legend, can bestow immortality. Legend had it that the Holy Grail was used by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper, and was later used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ’s blood during the crucifixion. In a famous scene Indiana Jones is tasked with selecting the correct cup from a massive array of elaborately gilded vessels, one more ornate and bejeweled than the next. Indiana Jones, ever the clever hero, correctly identifies the famed Holy Grail as not one of the innumerable ornately gilded cups, but instead, following the ethos of Christ’s humility, a simple clay vessel. The inherent message is that despite the opulence of the other cups, they’re a foil for the simplicity of the true holy grail.
Yet the ornate cups are what the audience “expects” such a precious object to look like, and are aligned with the types of cups one might expect to see during public worship in a church.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) houses the so-called “Hearst Chalice,” an exquisite example of a silverwork vessel made in Mexico. Elaborate cups like this one were used in Catholic churches since the Middle Ages (c. 500 C.E.) in Europe to hold wine during the sacrament of the Eucharist, when the wine is miraculously transformed into the blood of Christ. The “Hearst Chalice” is silver gilt, which means that the silver is covered in a thin layer of gold. The portion of the chalice that holds the wine is the simplest portion, but the rest of its surface is elaborately ornamented, largely with traceries and vine like designs in relief largely seen below the drinking portion of the vessel and at the foot of its structure.
In addition to the gilded surface, the chalice is punctuated with rock crystal at the stem and various inlays at the stem and foot of the vessel, including intricate boxwood carvings of Biblical scenes and holy figures atop intricately feathered backgrounds. This chalice was produced in Mexico City, during the tumultuous sixteenth century, a time of cataclysmic change in the wake of the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish (1521). Unraveling the cultural context of its creation is, as with so many art objects, crucial to understanding its meaning. Let’s begin first with how it arrived at the museum and what has been discovered about it since.
The Hearst chalice is so called because it was donated to LACMA in 1948 by American media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was a prolific collector, and he purchased the chalice from a British dealer of Spanish art (it was originally categorized as originating in Spain, not Mexico).
Unlike the chalices rejected by Indiana Jones, this one includes features that could not have been made in Europe, but place it firmly in the Americas, particularly Mexico—namely, feathers. Though mostly degraded and no longer visible aside from a few scant traces, the chalice originally housed miniature feather mosaics combined with wood carvings placed behind glass that accent various forms of the cup’s structure. The feathers create a backdrop to delicately carved scenes within tiny glass-enclosed niches.
The tiny carved scenes include images of the Four Evangelists at the cup’s knop and Stations of the Cross at the cup’s foot.
Both the boxwood carvings and the use of feather mosaic have long histories. The tradition of the miniature carvings originated in the Netherlands, where they were popularized in the early sixteenth century and used for small, personal devotional objects like rosaries, prayer beads, and altarpieces.
While the microcarving tradition originated in Europe, the Hearst chalice’s inclusion of feathers was uniquely Mexican. Microcarvings with inserted feathers became popular in New Spain, combining the imported carving tradition (from the Netherlands) with the local featherwork tradition. They were created either by immigrant artists from Europe trained in featherworking, by local Indigenous (largely Nahua) artists trained in boxwood carving, or by a collaborative process from both groups.
In the prehispanic period featherwork was one of the most highly prized artforms. Its creators were called amanteca in Nahuatl (the lingua franca of pre-Hispanic central Mexico), and were so elite that they were even housed in their own quarter of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The featherworks made by the amanteca took the form of worn objects like capes, headdresses, and shields. Feathers were associated with power, fertility, wealth, status, and sacrifice. The ability to obtain feathers of tropical birds, especially the tail feathers of the elusive quetzal, was a sign of the power and reach of the empire and its leaders. The iridescence of feathers furthered their potency and prestige. When worn, the intricate and multicolored feathers in motion seemed to almost transform the elite wearer.
Following the conquest, Spaniards were immediately impressed by the Indigenous use of feathers. In the colonial period featherworking was first greatly admired by Europeans and soon transformed into Christianized objects. This took the form of mosaic-like works, but was also used for worn objects like chasubles and miters (worn by clergy). And in the Hearst chalice they take on new life as animated background for the boxwood carvings, adding to the glittering iridescence of the elaborate chalice. The scintillating quality of the object comes not only from its use of metal and featherwork, but still too from its inclusion of rock crystal.
Rock crystal and metal
The lapidary arts (stones and gems), like featherwork, were highly developed and prized in the Mesoamerican world. In the Florentine Codex made in 1575–77, the Nahuatl text describes the use of crystal as: “exceedingly clear. . . . They are cherished, esteemed, wonderful . . . precious . . . venerated.”  Rock crystal was especially associated with the Aztec patron god Huitzilopochtli, and was venerated as a manifestation of tonalli, or life force believed to be generated from the sun. Crystal was also highly esteemed in Europe, often used in chalices and other liturgical objects. In the Christian context, crystal was associated with the perceived transformation of water into rock due to its clarity and translucency, and thus with Christ’s body and resurrection. Rock crystal was further associated with the purity of the Virgin and the light of Christ, thereby embodying Christian aesthetic ideas about the divine.
The final material that bears mention alongside the cup’s feathers, wood carving, and crystal is of course, the metal. Advanced metallurgy flourished on both sides of the Atlantic in the sixteenth century. Prior to the conquest of Mexico, most elite metalwork was executed in gold. Silver became more common in the colonial period.
In the 1560s the archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo, who was a leader in the Council of Trent, published a series of reforms for the Catholic Church that were printed in pocket-sized manuals that quickly made their way across the Atlantic.
The manual includes specific instructions on the production of eucharistic chalices:
The chalice will be of pure gold or, if because of limited means this is not possible, of pure silver, folded both inside and outside.…The foot will be proportionally wide, so that the chalice will stand firmly wherever it is set and cannot fall over. It will be octagonal or hexagonal or of some other similar shape. There will be decorations appertaining to some sacred mystery of the Passion on the surface of the foot. Charles Borromeo on eucharistic chalices 
The fact that the Hearst Chalice fulfilled these descriptions yet was created on another continent only a decade later shows the reach of transoceanic modes of communication as expressed in the visual arts. Borromeo mentions the Passion scenes (describing the final period of Christ’s life) but says nothing of what material they should take. The Hearst Chalice then showcases the brilliance of local artists in inserting their local traditions into those imported from Europe.
Provenance and patronage
Unfortunately we have no surviving records of the exact provenance of the chalice. We don’t know who commissioned it, who made it, or who used it. But based on what we do know generally about the visual arts in sixteenth-century Mexico, it is highly probable that the chalice was commissioned by an Indigenous elite and made by Indigenous artists. For one, most artworks were made by Indigenous artists in this period, sometimes under the direction of Spanish tradesmen.
Secondly, it was common in this period for Indigenous elites to commission Christian objects such as featherworks, for example, in order to curry favor from church officials. By adapting prehispanic techniques into Christian liturgical objects and their related imagery, Indigenous elites were able to advocate for themselves and their community within the Spanish colonial hierarchy.
Furthermore, the use of ancestral practices, while of course modified within a Hispanized context, allowed for Indigenous traditions to survive. While some scholars may refer to such an object as “hybrid,” others urge us to think past Spanish-Indigenous binaries to consider the development of an entirely new local art form.
The Chalice’s miraculous light
While we may never know who exactly used the chalice, we can imagine how it was used and the effect it had on those who would have used it during Christian rituals. During the mass it was believed that the bread and wine miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ through a process known as transubstantiation. During the rite, the officiant would hold up the host and the chalice to enact this miracle. We might imagine then, the chalice in motion, held aloft above the head of the priest. As it moved the play of light over the surface would cause a glittering, scintillating effect as it hit the metal, crystal, and luminous feathers. The cup in this way embodied the divine, an apt metaphor for its role in the mass and its deliverance of spiritual sustenance.
 Sahagún, Florentine Codex, Book 11: Earthly Things, trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1963), p. 225.
 As quoted in Rachel Kaplan, “Hearst Chalice,” in Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800, ed. Ilona Katzew, p. 101.
Carolyn Dean and Dana Leibsohn. “Hybridity and Its Discontents: Considering Visual Culture in Colonial Spanish America,” Colonial Latin American Review 12, no. 1 (2003): pp. 5–35.
Ilona Katzew, ed. Archive of the World: Art and Imagination in Spanish America, 1500–1800: Highlights from LACMA’s Collection, exhibition catalogue (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New York: DelMonico Books/D.A.P., 2022).
Ilona Katzew and Rachel Kaplan. “‘Like the Flame of Fire’: A New Look at the ‘Hearst’ Chalice,” Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture 3, no. 1 (2021): pp. 4–29.
Joseph J. Rishel and Suzanne L. Stratton, eds. The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820, exhibition catalogue (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art; Mexico City: Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso; and Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2006).