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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Selflessness and Gain

The Sacro Catino in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, Genoa [Sylvain Billet, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons]

The concept of selfless love is a fine one perhaps, but how often is love genuinely selfless? How often do people do purely altruistic things without any thoughts of personal gain? Certainly, one might do anything to protect a loved one, but is even that entirely selfless? Is it not in fact an act of protecting a possession - in other words, an act carried out, at least in part, for one's own benefit? It might sound callous to say so, but even the most generous and compassionate acts of benefactors must have, in the minds of those who perform them, some expectations of personal gain. This is never more obvious than in those signs we see on the walls of hospitals or other public buildings recording the names of those who funded their construction. Indeed, we often apply noble motives to act that are in reality done with our own needs and desires in mind.

What motivated people to participate in a crusade? Certainly, for most, the religious/spiritual incentive was prominent, but even that was not an entirely selfless one. The Church used the promise of plenary indulgences in order to drum up participation. And there was a host of other entirely selfish incentives at work, in the form of various types of material gain - spoils of war and landed property.

When the crusaders broke into the Friday mosque in Caesarea on 2 May 1101, they discovered a transparent green bowl, hexagonal in form. According to William of Tyre, the Genoese believed it to be carved from an emerald and they eagerly accepted it as part of their share of the plunder. It was taken back to Genoa by William Embriaco, where it is still to be seen today in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. This was no ordinary bowl. By the thirteenth century it came to be known as the Sacro Catino, the Holy Basin and was regarded as nothing less than the Holy Grail itself, the legendary vessel used by Jesus to serve wine at the Last Supper and by Joseph of Arimathea to conserve his blood at the crucifixion. It was and is still held in high regard, though the belief that it was an emerald was shattered, literally shattered (as can be seen in the above photograph) in 1816 when Napoleon returned it to Genoa, having in 1805 taken it off to Paris after his conquest of Italy. It was in fact of Roman period Egyptian glass, so at the very least with regard to its age it had the potential of being the famed relic. It was an important acquisition along with a third of the spoils that had been taken during the conquest. These including a considerable amount of gold and large quantities of pepper - a valuable commodity in the Middle Ages. The bowl is above all a good testimonial for Genoese interests in the Levant, and indeed for those of all the Italian merchant fleets. They were not absent of religious incentive, but above all they were driven by motives of financial gain.

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