WHATEVER HAPPENED... No 4.
...TO THE CROWN OF THORNS?
By Paul Stenhouse MSC PhD
This is the fourth in a series of articles
tracing the history of sacred relics associated with our Lord's
life and death. BY PAUL STENHOUSE, MSC PhD
STS MATTHEW, Mark and John all describe, in
their gospels, how Jesus, in the Praetorium was crowned with
thorns by the Roman soldiers. We let St Matthew take up the story:
'Pilate's soldiers [i.e. members of the cohort that accompanied
the Governor while he was in Jerusalem] 'then took Jesus into
the Governor's headquarters' [Some argue that this barracks was
in the Palace of Pilate in the Western quarter of Jerusalem; others
make out a strong case for its being in the Antonia Fortress in the
eastern section, at the northwestern corner of the Temple]
'where they collected the whole company around him' [There were
ten cohorts to a legion, and each cohort normally was made up of
'They stripped him and dressed him in a scarlet
mantle' [scarlet/purple were colours of royalty] 'and
plaiting a crown from thorns they placed it on his head'
[another symbol of mock-royalty] 'with a cane in his right
hand' [after the fashion of kings who held their staff of office
in their right hands]. Falling on their knees before him they
jeered at him, 'Hail, king of the Jews!' They spat on him and used
the cane to beat him about the head. When they had finished mocking
him they took off the mantle and dressed him in his own clothes'.1
A Circlet or a Helmet?
Christian imagination has generally depicted the
Crown of thorns that the soldiers plaited as a coronet, or a
circlet that went around the side of the head but did not
cover the whole head. Some authorities2 have suggested
that the crown was in the shape of a helmet, with the thorns
sticking down into the concave- shaped helmet. The theory that the
crown was actually in the shape of a crude, close-fitting cap is,
seemingly, borne out by recent studies of the Shroud of Turin.3
The type of thorn used for the crown was, by
general consensus, from the jujube bush which is described
by botanists as having a small yellowish flower, and a red edible
fruit. Its thorns are both curved and straight: similar to the
relics that have come down to us.
There is a mysterious link between the past
and the present. Only God, who can look across time, knows that
there is no such thing as yesterday, today or tomorrow; that our
whole notion of time is a delusion because we are mortal and our
lives have a beginning and an end; that we are all contemporaries
of Tiberius, the Emperor whose reign saw the crucifixion of Christ;
and that we are also contemporaries of those who will be alive a
thousand years hence and who will, given the opportunity, nail
Christ to the Cross once again.
- Ivar Lissner, Power and
Folly, London, 1958
Giorgio Gucci, who travelled to the Holy land in
1384 describes the thorns in more down-to-earth terms: 'The thorns
with which they say our Lord was crowned are terrible to see and
touch. The tree has... thorns a fist long and a finger thick, and
some are more and some are less pointed and delicate. Like a saw
they would penetrate the hardest thing.'4
It goes without saying that this form of torture
at the hands of the soldiery caused horrible physical and mental
agony to Jesus. Like the Cross and the other instruments of his
Passion, the Crown of Thorns is remembered and its relics honoured
because it, too, played a part in our Redemption and because of its
association with our Lord who, 'though innocent of sin, was made
one with the sinfulness of men'.5
The Crown 'honoured' in Jerusalem
A number of fourth, fifth and sixth century
writers refer to the Crown of Thorns and the veneration it received
from the faithful. St Paulinus of Nola (353/4-431) an intimate
friend of St Martin of Tours (died 397), St Ambrose (339-397), St
Augustine (354-430) and Pope Anastasius I (399-401) declares that
the thorns with which Jesus was crowned, along with the holy cross
and the pillar at which he was scourged, are 'held in honour' in
St Vincent of Lerins (died before 450) describes
it thus: 'It was in fact the shape of a pileus that touched
and covered his head in every part'. A pileus was a
close-fitting cap-like covering for the head, shaped like the half
of an egg. The saint also notes that the Lord's head received 70
wounds from the sharp thorns of the helmet-like Crown; and this
agrees with the number of thorns known to have existed - of which
many have been destroyed either by anti- Catholic zeal or by the
ravages of war.
Senator Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus
(485-580) mentions the Crown of Thorns as being in the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in his day. St Gregory of Tottzt
(54()-594) also comments on it, as does Antoninus of Piacenza who
states that the Crown of Thorns was preserved in his day in the
Church on Mount Sion. The monk Bernard in his Pilgrimage in 870
referred to the relic as still held in the Church on Mt Sion.6
The Crown of Thorns and St Louis of France
Within less than 200 years, in 1063, the Crown
appears in Constantinople where eventually it came into the
possession of the Latin emperor Baldwin II (1217-1273), who handed
it over to the Venetians as collateral on a large loan he obtained
from them7, probably to support his efforts against the
Greeks and Bulgarians who were threatening his empire.
St Louis IX of France (1215-1270) who paid off
the debt in 1238 at the request of Baldwin, was given the Crown of
Thorns by the grateful emperor. Daniel-Rops, rather too glibly for
my taste, accuses both Baldwin and St Louis of simony: Baldwin, he
says, 'being short of money, sold the Crown of Thorns to St Louis'.8
From that time on, its fate has been tied in
with the fate of the French monarchs.
In 1239 the Crown arrived in France, having been
brought by two Dominicans. A contemporary account describes what happened:
'On having word of its approach - it was August of the
year 1239 - (the king) went out joyfully to meet it, accompanied by
his mother and brothers, the Archbishop of Sens and other prelates
and as many barons and knights as could be gathered at short
notice. They met the returning envoys about five miles beyond Sens,
bearing a wooden chest. Opening it, they found a silver coffer
fastened with the seals of the officials of the Eastern empire and
the Doge of Venice. When these were broken a case of pure gold
appeared within, containing the Holy Crown itself. All gathered
round to see it, moved by devout fervour as if they beheld the
Sacred Head of the Lord who once had worn it. The boxes were then
closed and made fast with the royal seal. Next day Sens was entered.
The whole populace came to meet them, rejoicing. The king and the
count of Artois walked barefoot, carrying the reliquary on their
shoulders. They were surrounded by knights and nobles also
barefoot. The procession was headed by the clergy carrying bones of
the saints and other relics. The citizens displayed their richest
treasures in the streets. The whole town was full of lighted
candles and the sounds of bells and organs and the joyous voices of
worship. The Sacred Crown was borne into the Church of St Stephen
and there uncovered before the people.9
The next day the procession moved towards Paris
which was reached on the eighth day at dawn. After visiting Notre
Dame for Mass the Crown was taken to the Palace and deposited in
the Chapel of St Nicholas. Louis then had the magnificent Gothic
shrine now known today as La Sainte-Chapelle 'The Holy Chapel'
built between 1245 and 1248, to house the two most precious relics
- the Crown, and a relic of the True Cross.10
Over the revolutionary period the Crown
providentially escaped destruction when La Sainte-Chapelle was
desecrated by the mob in 1791. It was kept in the Bibliothèque
Nationale only being restored to its shrine in La Sainte-Chapelle
in 1806. When La Sainte-Chapelle was again secularised in 1906, the
relic was transferred to its present resting place in Notre Dame.
The faithful may view it on Good Friday.
An English Connection
The Empress Irene sent Charlemagne several
thorns which he enshrined in Aix-la-Chapelle otherwise known as
Aachen. When Pope Leo III spent Christmas 804 with Charlemagne, the
newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor, there were reputedly eight thorns
from the Crown in the Cathedral. Perhaps it was one of these that
Duke Hugo Capet, known as 'the Great,' founder of the third Frankish
dynasty, sent to the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in 927. Whatever
its provenance, Athelstan was sent one of the thorns from the Crown
by his French brother-in-law.
The thorn sent by Hugo the Great found its way
eventually to the Benedictine Abbey of Malmsbury in Wiltshire
— founded in the seventh century by Mayldulphus a Scottish
Benedictine monk and to be confiscated along with all of England's
Abbeys and Monasteries by Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. The
fate of this thorn is unknown.
There is another thorn preserved at Stonyhurst
College that appears11 to have been one given by Mary
queen of Scots to Blessed Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland
executed in 1572 by Elizabeth for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace.
Percy was betrayed by the Scots with whom he had
sought refuge. Elizabeth paid his Scottish hosts £2000
'blood-money' for the pleasure of killing the Catholic Earl. Mary
queen of Scots who shared his Faith, also shared his fate. She went
to the block in 1587.
Some unbelievers, and sadly, numerous so-called
Christians, have scoffed at the fact that throughout the world
there are more than 70 thorns allegedly from the Crown of Thorns
venerated in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Some, perhaps
all, of these are genuine. It is simply impossible to judge at this
distance without documentary and other proof that 2000 years of war
and pillage have wantonly destroyed.
Others that are not 'genuine' may well have been
given to Churches and Abbeys, to Kings and Popes as second-class
relics (having been touched to the original) and with the passing
of time have been confused with the original thorns. To impute
bad-faith to good people who reverence the memory of Christ's
sacrifice, and respect these precious mementos of our Lord defies
Curiously, in the time of Henry VIII those who
scrupled to reverence relics connected with our Lord or his saints,
had no such scruple about worshipping money.
When the sacred vessels and reliquaries of the
Abbey of St Albans were handed over to the king's treasurer on
December 17, 1539 there were 122 ounces of gold, 2990 ounces of
gilt plate and 1144 ounces of parcel gilt and silver, along with
countless jewels and precious vestments.
Among the jewels they stole was, one presumes,
the famous jewel donated to the shrine of St Alban by King Ethelred
II (968-1016). Those who took it in the name of King Henry VIII
forgot, in their haste that Ethelred sometimes called the
'unready', in a rare moment of foresight requested the abbot and
convent to lay an excommunication against anyone who should steal
his gift.12 How well that curse worked may be gauged
from the consequences for the Romans and for the Tudors, of
forgetting St Paul's warning that we would do well to take to
heart: 'Make no mistake about it: God will not be mocked.'13
- Mt xxvii, 27-31.
- quoted by New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. iv, pp. 483-484.
- Relics, by Joan Carroll Cruz, 1984, p. 34.
- Visit to the Holy Places by Frescobaldt, Gucci and
Sigoli, Jerusalem 1948, p. 121. See also 'Recherches sur les
plantes de l' Évangile,' Revue Blblique 1933, p. 230.
- 2Cor v, 21.
- For the quotes from Paulinus of Nola, Vincent of Lerins and
Cassiodorus, see Cruz, ed. cit.
- See St Louis, by Frederick Perry, G.P. Putnarn's Sons,
New York 1901, p.101 where the figure of 'ten thousand pounds' is
given as the ransom paid by Louis for the Crown.
- Cathedral and Crusade, London, 1963, p. 37.
- St Louis, ed. cit. p. 102.
- The building and the shrines cost 140,000 pounds, and, until
they were desecrated and sacked during the French Revolution, the
two shrines were encrusted with gold and jewels as a fitting
resting place for the relics.
- See Cruz, ed. cit. p. 36.
- Matthew of Paris, Additamenia, ed. Luard, vi. p. 387.
- Galatians, vi, 7.
From "Annals Australasia" January/February 2000
Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files
Sean Ó Lachtnáin's Home Page