The Crown of Thorns – From Jerusalem to the Cathedral of Notre Dame

The Crown of Thorns – From Jerusalem to the Cathedral of Notre Dame

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.

Christ Carrying the Cross – El Greco, 1580

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 Crucifixion – Image by Pete Linforth

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.

Crown of Thorns – Image by Arnaud 25

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 Head of John the Baptist

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 an illness and upon his recovery had vowed to go on crusade. However, even prior to this event, Louis had shown exceptional piety.


Saint Louis IX by El Greco

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).

Crown of Thorns – Image by Jeff Jacobs

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 bear feet. They briefly stopped outside the cathedral of Notre Dame and then interred the relic in the Chapel of Sainte-Nicholas. It was shortly thereafter moved to the chapel of Sainte-Denis whilst construction was completed on the Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel).

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.

Sainte Chapelle

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, France

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.


Crown of Thorns in the circular reliquary in crystal of 1896. Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral.

The Crown can be seen by visitors on the last Friday of every month and each Friday throughout Lent.

Notre Dame Cathedral – Image by Leif Linding

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.

Follow:

12 Comments

  1. April 16, 2019 / 5:27 pm

    Thanks for reminding us about the meaning of The Crown of Thorns especially with Easter approaching.

    It is so upsetting that Notre Dame was on fire right before Easter too.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      April 16, 2019 / 8:23 pm

      Thank you for reading Deb – it is incredibly sad xxx

  2. April 16, 2019 / 8:13 pm

    I am personally not a catholic or even overly religious but hearing that this incredible cathedral was on fire brought tears to my eyes! I loved getting to learn some of the history of such an amazing relic!

    • Lellalee
      Author
      April 16, 2019 / 10:27 pm

      Thank you Andra xxx

  3. Britt K
    April 16, 2019 / 10:18 pm

    It was really interesting reading all this history, as I didn’t know any of it originally!
    When I saw the news yesterday, I was devastated. So much history at risk. I had always talked about visiting Notre Dame but had never made the time, unfortunately.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      April 16, 2019 / 10:28 pm

      It was so devastating – thank goodness so many relics have been saved xxx

  4. April 17, 2019 / 3:42 am

    I was devastated to see the images of the Church burning, but I’m happy to know that so many of the relics were saved.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      April 17, 2019 / 8:55 pm

      It is such a devastating event xxx

  5. April 17, 2019 / 8:37 pm

    Wow, this is truly powerful. Thank you for reminding us all.

    • Lellalee
      Author
      April 17, 2019 / 9:59 pm

      Thank you for reading xxx

  6. April 18, 2019 / 12:46 am

    Very interesting read! So powerful!

    • Lellalee
      Author
      April 18, 2019 / 10:28 pm

      Thank you Michelle xxx

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: