April 18, 2019

History and Authenticity of the Relic of the Crown of Thorns

By John Sanidopoulos

A few days ago a relic purported to be the Crown of Thorns placed on the head of Jesus during his Passion was saved from the great fire that engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It, together with the Palatine Cross, are two relics of the Passion at Notre Dame that are considered its greatest treasures, and their preservation from the fire was a great relief to all the faithful. Many have wondered, however, how the Crown of Thorns arrived at Notre Dame in Paris from Jerusalem in the first place.

It should be made clear from the beginning that there is no mention of the survival of the Crown of Thorns among the relics of the Passion before the fifth century. In the East, it is not commemorated as being found, as are the Cross itself, the Nails of the Cross, and the Title above the Cross. It is only from sources in the West that mention begins of the existence of the actual Crown of Thorns in Jerusalem. Paulinus of Nola, writing after 409, refers to "the thorns with which our Savior was crowned" as relics held in honor along with the Cross to which he was nailed and the Pillar at which he was scourged. Cassiodorus (c. 570), when commenting on Psalm 86, speaks of the Crown of Thorns among the other relics which are the glory of the earthly Jerusalem. "There", he says, "we may behold the thorny crown, which was only set upon the head of our Redeemer in order that all the thorns of the world might be gathered together and broken." Gregory of Tours (+ 594) in the Glory of the Martyrs states that the thorns in the Crown still looked green, a freshness which was miraculously renewed each day, though he like others in the West had never seen it with his own eyes. The Breviary or Short Description of Jerusalem which can be traced to about 540 mentions a Crown of Thorns being stored at the Basilica of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. That location is mentioned again in the itinerary of The Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza written around 570, and in the pilgrimage account of a trip to Mount Zion made by the monk Bernard around 870.

It has been supposed that the whole Crown was not transferred to Constantinople until about 1063. In any case Justinian (died in 565) is stated to have given a thorn to Germain, Bishop of Paris, which was long preserved at Saint-Germain-des-Prés, while the Empress Irene, in 798 or 802, sent Charlemagne several thorns which were deposited by him at Aachen, though both of these are mentioned in western sources. Eight of these are said to have been there at the consecration of the basilica of Aachen by Pope Leo III. The presence of the Pope at the consecration is a later legend, but the relics apparently were there, for the subsequent history of several of them can be traced without difficulty. Four were given to Saint-Corneille of Compiègne in 877 by Charles the Bald. Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks, sent one to the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in 927, on the occasion of certain marriage negotiations, and it eventually found its way to Malmesbury Abbey. Another was presented to a Spanish princess about 1160 and again another was taken to Andechs Abbey in Germany in the year 1200.

In 1238, Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, anxious to obtain support for his tottering empire, offered the Crown of Thorns to Louis IX, King of France. It was then in the hands of the Venetians as security for a heavy loan (13,134 gold pieces), but it was redeemed and conveyed to Paris where Louis IX built the Sainte-Chapelle (completed 1248) to receive it. The relic stayed there until the French Revolution, when, after finding a home for a while in the Bibliothèque Nationale, the Concordat of 1801 restored it to the Catholic Church, and it was deposited in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The relic that the Catholic Church received is a twisted circlet of Juncus balticus rushes; the thorns preserved in various other reliquaries are of Ziziphus spina-christi and had apparently been removed from the Crown and kept in separate reliquaries since soon after they arrived in France. Not all of the reputed holy thorns are first-class relics, that is, relics of the original crown. M. de Mély was able to enumerate more than 700. Many of the thorns were relics of the third class — objects touched to a relic of the first class, in this case some part of the Crown itself.

As regards to the historical authenticity of the relic of the Crown of Thorns in Notre Dame, whether or not it was the actual Crown worn by Jesus, it is almost impossible to determine. Historically, its origin and finding are lost to us. It is also curious why no one in the East mentions it until many centuries after the True Cross, Nails and Title were found by Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great. Perhaps this Crown of Thorns was made at a later date to accompany the authentic relics of the Passion in Jerusalem, and it became romanticized in the West by the fifth and sixth centuries and made into the original and true Crown of Thorns. What we do know for sure is that the Crown of Thorns saved from the fire at Notre Dame can only be historically traced to 1238, when it was transferred from Constantinople to France.