As we enter Holy Week and contemplate the Lord’s Passion, one central image of Jesus’ suffering — other than the Cross — is the crown of thorns.
The crown of thorns is depicted in various ways in art: from a band with rose plant-like thorns to a full cap with spikes of several inches in length.
But what was it really and where did it end up?
After the crown appears in the Gospels (Mt 27:29; Mk 15:17; Jn 19:2), it is not mentioned again in any writings for more than 400 years.
The 1918 “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that the crown of thorns was not spoken of as a relic — even by St. Helen (who journeyed to Jerusalem to found Christ’s true cross in the early fourth century) or St. Jerome, who lived in Jerusalem in the early fifth century. The earliest mention seems to have been by St. Paulinus of Nola (d. 431) who mentioned veneration of the crown of thorns in Jerusalem in 409 A.D.
However, what we today know as the Christ’s crown of thorns can be unbrokenly traced back only to Constantinople, where many of the church’s treasures originally in Jerusalem were transferred to the Byzantine Empire between the fourth and the tenth centuries.
In 1238, the crown of thorns appears as part of a deal proposed by Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Byzantium, who was in desperate need of cash at the time. King Louis IX of France arranged to purchase the crown of thorns from Baldwin — but he actually received it from bankers in Venice, who had already advanced funds to Baldwin.
On Aug. 19, 1239, the relic of the crown of thorns arrived in Paris. Louis, a devout man who would later be canonized as St. Louis of France, took off his own crown and royal robes to walk barefoot behind the relic as it was carried to the unfinished Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel of the French kings. That chapel was completed in 1248 and then housed Louis’ collection of Passion relics, of which the crown was premier. There is even a “relics of the Passion” stained glass window in the chapel.
During its stay in the Sainte-Chapelle, several of the crown’s thorns were removed and presented as gifts from the kings of France to important figures of their times. This included Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been queen-consort of France in 1559-60. (She had married Francis II, who reigned for about a year).
When Francis died, Mary returned to Scotland, taking the holy thorn with her. After her execution, the thorn was given to Thomas Percy, her servant and his daughter, Elizabeth Woodruff. Elizabeth later gave the thorn to a Jesuit priest, who presented it to the Jesuit’s Stoneyhurst College, where it has been ever since. It is placed in the college chapel during Holy Week. (The thorn is housed in a reliquary with a string of Mary’s pearls surrounding it.)
When the French Revolution occurred in the late 18th century, many relics and treasures of the church were lost. However, Napoleon saved the crown of thorns and it was kept at the National Library until 1804. At that time, Christ’s crown was returned to the Archbishops of Paris and, in Aug. 10, 1806, was placed in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris.
By this time, the crown had last all its original thorns. It now consists of a bundle of reeds, bound together by gold wire to symbolize the lost thorns. (There is speculation that the original band of reeds of Christ’s crown was held together by a thorny vine.)
According to the website of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, in 1896, a goldsmith — using an architect’s design — fashioned a circular container made of crystal and gold to place over the relic. There is also an entwining branch of a shrub, similar to that which most scholars believe to have been used for the crown of thorns by the Roman soldiers, around the relic. Known botanically as Zizyphus spina Christi, the plant is more popularly called the jujube-tree.
Today, the relic of the crown of thorns is publicly displayed in the Notre Dame cathedral every Friday of Lent, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and all day on Good Friday.
During the rest of the year, the crown of thorns is placed out for veneration at 3 p.m. on the first Fridays of each month. At other times, it is kept in the cathedral’s treasury. The Knights of the Holy Sepulchre have been entrusted as its guardians.
Sources: Notre Dame cathedral website at notredamedeparis.fr; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; the “Encyclopedia Britannica”; “Smith’s Bible Dictionary”; “Easton’s Bible Dictionary”; I”nternational Standard Bible Encyclopedia”; dailymail.co.uk; and “Fausset’s Bible Dictionary.”