Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns was among prized relics saved from the inferno in Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, but how did it get there?
Could the object Christians regard as among the most sacred of religious artifacts really have sat atop Jesus Christ’s head as he was crucified more than 2000 years ago?
As Christians around the world mark the anniversary of Christ’s death and resurrection, it is worth looking at the origin of the crown of thorns and Christ’s cross, a piece of which was also said to be inside Notre Dame.
Simply, the cross and the crown of thorns are symbols of Christ’s suffering for mankind and his laying down of his life for the world.
According to three of the Gospels, a woven crown of thorns was placed on the head of Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion after he had been condemned to death.
The crucifixion, or death by being nailed to a cross, was a form of execution in first century Palestine in which the person dies from suffocation as the body collapses in on itself.
Jesus is reputed to have been crucified at the age of 33, which given that the anno Domini years or AD historical timing began at his birth meant the crucifixion took place around 33AD.
Condemned for claiming to be the son of God, Jesus was put on trial and sentenced by Pontius Pilate to the punishment of being scourged and then crucified by the Romans.
Scourging is whipping with a lash with multiple thongs, sometimes with metal attached to maximize injury.
On the day of his crucifixion, Jesus was stripped of all his clothing bar a loin cloth.
To increase his humiliation and to mock his claim of being “king of the Jews”, he was given a crown made from local thorn bushes twisted into a circlet for his head.
It was employed by his captors to cause him pain and to mock his claim of religious authority.
He was then suspended from a wooden cross, attached by nails being driven through his hands and feet, and placed between two thieves who were being crucified for their crimes.
Jesus’ suffering, his death by crucifixion while wearing the crown of thorns which precede his resurrection are referred to as “the Passion”.
After his death and the rise of Christianity as a religious movement, a relic was said still to be in existence, kept and worshipped by the faithful, of Jesus’s crown of thorns.
Also said to be kept was the cross on which he was nailed.
In the year 409AD, a Roman poet Paulinus of Nola wrote about “the thorns with which Our Saviour was crowned” being held, along with the cross and the pillar on which he was scourged.
Other writers in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries write of it, one saying “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”.
In 870, a pilgrimage was made by the monk Bernard to see the crown of thorns at Mount Zion, the hill in Jerusalem regarded as the holy temple mount and used as a metaphor for God’s holy, eternal city.
It was believed that a purported crown of thorns was venerated at Jerusalem from the fifth century for hundreds of years.
The entire crown was then meant to have been transferred to Byzantium — the ancient name for what became Constantinople and is now Istanbul, chosen by Emperor Constantine as the “new Rome”.
It was Constantine who embraced Christianity in 330AD and ensured its spread throughout his empire.
Meanwhile, however, thorns from the crown were appearing and being sold or presented to rulers Charlemagne, the Anglo Saxon king Athelstan, and a Spanish princess.
There are around 500 of these supposed holy relics in existence in reliquaries today, meaning many of them cannot be genuine.
In the year 1238 the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, offered the crown of thorns to Louis IX, the King of France.
It was a gift Baldwin made to garner support for his crumbling empire from a powerful potential ally.
The crown then was held as collateral for a heavy loan by the Venetians for the sum of 13,134 gold pieces after Baldwin II pawned the relics to prop himself up.
King Louis built Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cite in the River Seine to receive and hold it, along with other holy relics.
Sainte-Chapelle is located opposite Notre Dame on the same island.
The crown of thorns and other relics were carried from Venice into the city of Paris by two Dominican friars. King Louis held a week-long celebration.
The king then dressed himself as a barefoot penitent and carried the crown of thorns and relics into the chapel.
The relics were stored at other chapels until a large silver chest, called the Grand-Chasse had been specially made to hold them.
Fragments of Christ’s Cross were acquired for Louis’s collection.
On April 26, 1248 the chapel was consecrated and the crown of thorns, fragment of the cross and other relics were moved into the chapel and stored in the grand-chasse.
The crown of thorns remained in Sainte-Chapelle until the French Revolution, during which the priceless relics were hidden in the Abbey of Saint-Denis in 1790.
In 1806, they were transferred to Notre Dame to be worshipped by all the people of Paris.
The crown of thorns, now preserved in a gilded and crystalline reliquary, is brought out for the faithful every Good Friday at a special service at Notre Dame.
The crown is comprised of a twisted wreath of rushes from the Juncus balticus plant, perennially flowering rush native to northern Britain, the Baltic and Scandinavia.
The thorns preserved in many reliquaries, including in the rooster which sat stop Notre Dame’s spire until the first broke out, are from the Ziziphus spina-christi plant.
Known as Christ’s thorn jujube, the plant native to the Levant and East Africa.
The oldest know Ziziphus is reputed to be 2000 years old and growing south of Jerusalem in in Ein Hatzeva, Israel.
Locals believe this is the tree from which Christ’s crown of thorns was made.