Holy Grail or 20th-century fake?

For decades, true believers thought the Great Chalice of Antioch was the miracle-working cup used by Christ and the Apostles at the Last Supper. Equally fervent doubters call the ornate silver vessel a fraud.

This summer, museum goers in Baltimore can see it and make up their own minds. The controversial cup is the centerpiece of a Walters Art Gallery show of the greatest silver treasures to survive the looting of Byzantium more than a millennium ago. The chalice and more than 50 other pieces have been reunited at the Walters, after almost a century of what Walters Assistant Director Gary Vikan calls "clandestine excavations, secret antiquities deals, undocumented 'restorations' and fabricated finds."

New scholarship suggests the chalice is neither Grail nor fake. It's more probably a hanging lamp, only one part of a massive silver hoard from an early Byzantine church in 6th-century Syria, said Vikan, also the Walters' curator of medieval art.

The so-called Antioch Chalice is actually two pieces. It has an elaborate exterior silver-plated casing of vines and figures (earlier said to be a reliquary decorated with life portraits of Christ and the Disciples). This openwork container holds a plain inner cup, the reputed Grail but possibly a later addition.

For years, the inside of the inner cup has been so covered with gesso -- plaster of Paris -- that a thorough examination of the fragile object has been difficult. Vikan said he had to display it on a high pedestal so the interior wouldn't distract from its handsome exterior.

Guest curator Marlia Mundell Mango, who for six years researched the Walters exhibit and wrote the catalogue, says she hopes soon to begin a quest to discover more of the Antioch Chalice's strange and dubious history.

"Probably the plain silver inner cup of the Antioch Chalice is a later replacement for a broken glass container," said Vikan. The colored glass containers were often blown to fit the silver basket lamps. He added that the footed vessel won't sit without support. Originally, it may have hung from chains.

The chalice, Vikan says, is unlike any other ceremonial cup of the period in shape and decoration, but it is similar to oil lamps of the era.

Several openwork standing lamps, including three in a current display of the spectacular Sion silver (found in 1963 near Antalya, Turkey) at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, have much in common, Dumbarton Oaks' Byzantine curator Susan Boyd points out. A third of the Sion treasures are lamps, including the great hanging multiple lamps called polycandra.

For centuries, the image of the Holy Grail has appeared and disappeared -- a vision of Heaven and a promise of eternal life. All sorts of powers have been attributed to the Holy Grail -- the power to heal, the power to protect itself and even the power to confer power on its owner.

The Grail legend is at the core of the myth of King Arthur's knights of the Round Table.

In 1923, Gustavus Eisen, an antiques expert, claimed he had discovered the Antioch Chalice was the sacred relic itself. The artifact, Mango said, belonged to the Kouchakji, a family of antique dealers, who gave several versions of the time and way the chalice was found. Mango believes the vessel was found about 1908 to 1910. In 1950, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought it.

During the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, the vessel was displayed in the Hall of Religion and credited with miraculous cures. And one report alleges that it rose mysteriously from the floor of its display case at the Metropolitan's Cloisters on Easter Sunday 1964 and set off a security alarm. The skeptical claimed the alarm was set off by a heat-distorting Lucite stand.

For years, scholars have debated loudly not only the origins of the chalice but its intended purpose. The dispute resurfaces from time to time. In April 1985, an article in Arts and Antiques magazine by Jeffrey Schaire and two coauthors said both the inside and the outside filigree of the chalice may have been the product of the well-known numismatic forger Constantine Christodoulos of Cyprus, done around 1908.

Mango says she checked out the Arts and Antiques story in Greece, but found a number of inconsistencies. She adds that the Antioch Chalice is still considered to be the Holy Grail by many in Aleppo, Syria. The Homsi banking family in Aleppo once gave the Kouchakji a large loan secured by the chalice.

Mango, Vikan and Boyd believe the vessel is a part of a huge treasure hoard of 6th-century Syrian silver from a single village church.

At its high-water mark in the 6th century, the Christian Roman Empire of Byzantium stretched from the Atlantic to the Euphrates. The amount and value of its ecclesiastical silver was incalculable. The Hagia Sophia church alone had 40,000 pounds of silver displayed in just the sanctuary. Perpetually threatened by Arabs and the Turks, Byzantine churches often buried their silver when marauding troops approached.

"Witness at once to the extraordinary wealth of Byzantium and to the vicissitudes of its history," says Vikan in an entertaining and informative exhibit brochure, "this precious treasure was hoarded, hidden, and abandoned more than a millennium ago near a small village in Byzantine Syria -- only to be discovered by chance in the winter of 1908."

When the 60 or so pieces of silver surfaced about 1910, their sellers pretended they came from four different finds, named for Syrian villages where they allegedly surfaced: the Hama collection, now owned by the Walters; the Stuma by the Istanbul Archaeological Museum; the Riha by Dumbarton Oaks; and the Antioch by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mango believes the treasure -- chalices, spoons, large platters called patens, flasks and ewers -- may have all come from a village called Kurin, a few miles from Stuma. She renames the entire hoard the Kaper Koraon Treasure. (Kaper means village; Koraon is the earlier Greek name for Kurin.) The treasures are displayed at the Walters in a setting designed to look like a Byzantine church of the period.

So far, the Antioch Chalice has performed no miracles at the Walters. But the exhibit is open until Aug. 17.