And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”Matthew 27:29
What is the Crown of Thorns?
The above quotation is one of four gospel passages which make explicit reference to the relic known as the Crown of Thorns. Christ was tried by the Sanhedrin – a Jewish judicial body. They accused Jesus of various crimes, including claiming to be the Messiah.
Pontius Pilot ordered Jesus to be flogged and sentenced to crucifixion. By way of mockery, the Roman soldiers responsible for carrying out this punishment placed a crown of thorns of the head of Christ and mocked him as ‘King of the Jews’.
The Crown of Thorns is thus representative of the suffering of Christ during his final hours. It signifies the mockery of Christ but also, ironically, his regal and magisterial qualities and is symbolic of his heavenly reign.
It is not my intention to engage in a debate regarding the events of the Crucifixion, or indeed the significance of Christ. Needless to say, I am a Catholic and I uphold Catholic believes. Furthermore, whether you believe in Christianity or not, there is historical evidence for the life and Crucifixion of Christ (as highlighted by non-Christians). And so, as the historical evidence suggests, there was a Crown of Thorns, an actual artefact worn by a man called Jesus during his crucifixion.
The Crown of Thorns Following Jesus’ Crucifixion
It is not known what happened to the Crown of Thorns immediately following the crucifixion. It was likely removed from Jesus’ head once he was taken down from the Cross and the crown cast aside.
At the time, only Jesus’ disciples knew of the religious significance of the event that had just taken place. Perhaps they kept the artefacts worn by Christ during the crucifixion, aware of their religious significance. There certainly would not have been a stampede to collect anything associated with Christ from the general public or the Roman soldiers.
The only things of value would have been those items that could have been re-used, e.g. clothing and shoes. To 99% of the population at that time, Jesus was just another criminal sentenced to death.
The Early Medieval Period
References to the Crown of Thorns during the early medieval period are rather scant. The popularity and demand for relics (objects venerated because of their proximity to a Saint or holy person) did not really take off until the high middle ages.
However, we do know that the Crown of Thorns was in Jerusalem until the 11th century. According to the Golden Legend (a text written in the 13th century), St Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother, had located the Crown of Thorns in Jerusalem when she visited the city in 326. It was found along with other relics associated with Christ, including the True Cross. It was displayed in the church on Mount Zion in the 6th century and there is evidence to suggest it was displayed in the same church into the 8th century.
In about 1063, the Crown of Thorns was taken to Constantinople and it remained there until 1237.
The High Middle Ages
Allegedly, thorns from the Crown of Thorns were removed from the crown itself and distributed throughout Europe even before the 13th-century.
In the medieval period, there was a huge black market for religious relics. Many churches claimed to have pieces of the True Cross, heads of John the Baptist and bones of saints. Some of the more intriguing relics were Christ’s foreskin, the milk of the Virgin Mary and the head and thumb of St Catherine of Siena.
People would go on pilgrimage and pay to visit shrines and churches which housed these relics and were thus good for business. One church which supposedly housed the brain of St Peter was found to be a forgery when the relic was disturbed and found to be a stone.
It was said that if all the pieces of the True Cross which claimed to be authentic were put together in a line, they would stretch out over a mile. And if all the body parts of the apostles were collected, they would each have 4 bodies. With so many relics claiming to be authentic, it was difficult to distinguish legitimate artefacts from forgeries.
The Significance of Relics
One way in which to establish the authenticity of a relic was its association with miracles. Relics were said to possess holy powers and could perform miracles when one came into close proximity to it, for instance, curing lepers, restoring the sight of the blind and healing the lame.
The holier the saint, the greater the power of the relic. And, the closer the relic was in proximity to the holy person, the stronger its power was said to be. And so Christ as the holiest of holies, and the Crown of Thorns, worn by the man himself during his death was considered extremely powerful. The Crown of Thorns was (and still is) venerated as an incredibly holy artefact.
The Crown and Thorns and Louis IX
The French King, Louis IX came to the throne in 1226. He is marked out as a rather pious king who was venerated as a Saint following his death. In 1244, Louis had been struck dumb by
In 1237, Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople was in possession of the Crown of Thorns. He needed to raise funds to fight the Greeks (who wanted to retake possession of Constantinople). Baldwin offered the Crown of Thorns to Louis IX who paid 100,000 livres for the relic. (As a comparison, the church Sainte Chapelle in which the relic was housed cost 60,000 livres to build).
In 1239, the Crown of Thorns arrived in France. The occasion was met with much celebration. The streets were lined with people and colourful banners.
The relic embarked on a tour throughout France and arrived in Paris on 18th August 1239. King Louis, along with his brother, Robert of Artois received the relic outside the Church of Sainte Antoine-des-Champes. Following a service, Louis and Robert walked into the centre of Paris with the relic wearing only plain clothes and in
Louis then distributed thorns from the Crown throughout France and Europe as gifts. These fragments of the original relic are still revered today by those who house them.
King Louis began to construct Sainte Chapelle in 1238. The chapel was built to house Louis’ relics. Most notably, the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross. The chapel was completed in 1248 and Louis’ relics were moved there.
Sainte Chapelle still stands today and is a popular Parisian tourist attraction.
The French Revolution and Beyond
During the French Revolution (1789 – 1799) Sainte Chapelle suffered extensive damage. The Crown of Thorns was moved at this time for safekeeping to the National Library of France. It was returned to the Catholic Church in 1801 where the relic found a new home in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Napoleon commissioned a reliquary (a casing to hold a relic) for the Crown.
The Crown can be seen by visitors on the last Friday of every month and each Friday throughout Lent.
Yesterday (15th April 2019) a fire started at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Firefighters fought the blaze for around 12 hours. Thanks to their efforts, much of the building remains. Firefighters, priests and staff of the cathedral risked their lives to save as many relics as possible. Including the Crown of Thorns.