Last year, on April 15, fire raged through the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris, destroyed its roof and spire and damaged the upper walls. Almost a year later, stabilization and repairs are ongoing, though slowed by the current pandemic.
Many of the priceless artifacts of the cathedral were saved. These include the Crown of Thorns, housed in the cathedral since 1806 and displayed to the faithful on Good Friday and the Fridays of Lent each year.
Today, the crown, believed to have been worn by Jesus during his crucifixion, is housed in a safe in the Louvre Museum in Paris. It has been publicly displayed twice since the fire. The first time was on Good Friday (April 19) last year at a church near Notre Dame, Saint-Sulpice Church. Whether it will be displayed this year was unknown at press time, but seemed unlikely since France enacted a stay-at-home order on March 17. The pools at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes had been closed on March 2.
Fifth century Jerusalem
The earliest mention of the Crown of Thorns as a relic 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 Christ’s Crown of Thorns can be unbrokenly traced back only to Constantinople. Many of the church’s treasures, originally in Jerusalem, were transferred to the Byzantine Empire between the fourth and the 10th centuries.
In 1238, King Louis IX of France brought the crown from Venice and had the relic stored in Sainte-Chapelle. During its stay there, several of the crown’s thorns were removed and presented as gifts from the kings of France.
When the French Revolution occurred in the late 18th century, many relics and church treasures were lost. However, the Crown of Thorns was saved by Napoleon and kept at the National Library until 1804. At that time, Christ’s crown was returned to the Archbishops of Paris. On Aug. 10, 1806, it was transferred to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. According to the website 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 gold filament made to resemble a thorny vine.
The crown today has none of its original thorns. Thorns purported to have come from the crown are kept in reliquaries around the world. One is claimed by St. Anthony Chapel in Pittsburgh. What remains today in Paris is a bundle of reeds or rushes tied by gold wire. (There is speculation that the original band of reeds of Christ’s crown was held together by a thorny vine.)
Which thorn plant?
Since thorns do not remain on the relic, no one has been able so far to completely ascertain which plant they came from. However, tradition holds that they came from a shrub common to ancient Palestine. This shrub is botanically called Zizyphus spina Christi. It is a form of a jujube tree. This jujube shrub is related to the lotus tree around Greece as well as the common (and invasive) buckthorn familiar to Wisconsin residents.
Like the true jujube tree — with which it is often confused — the Crown of Thorns shrub has thorns and bears fruit. That fruit has been used as food and medicine for centuries.
A field study by the National Institutes of Health in Arabic villages around Israel (1999-2004) found that jujube shrubs have been traditionally used as medicine, especially for inflammation and pain relief by Arabs, Israelis and nomadic Bedouins for centuries. It is not unique to the Middle East. For example, in the famine-ridden Sudan, jujube fruits are dried and ground into a form of flour.
Dried fruit as candy
Most of us are familiar with jujube candies — sometimes part of Easter baskets, but more common in movie theater concession stands. While these candies are not related to the shrub, they did get their name from it. Dried jujubes — just like licorice and marshmallow plant products — were used as candy prior to the 20th century (when jujube candy was created). Nineteenth-century recipes for jujube gum and paste, made from the plant, can still be found, and used, today.
Muslims revere the jujube because the Quran says that such a tree — the lote tree, which is the crown of thorns bush — exists in heaven. Muslim tradition says that the leaves of this tree contain the name of every person on earth. At the end of the month of Ramadan (Ramadan begins on April 23 this year), it is said that an angel shakes the tree. The leaves that fall off bear the names of those who will die in the coming year.
Today, jujube tree wood is used to make Catholic rosaries, as well as Buddhist and Muslim prayer beads. In the 1950s and 1960s, jujube seeds were used to make rosaries that were said to contain soil from the Roman catacombs inside the crucifix. These seeds are flat ovals of a reddish-brown tone. Some of these rosaries also claim to contain relics of soil from Roman catacombs or Jerusalem.
Sources: cruxnow.com; abc.net.au; aleteia.org; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov; the Catholic Encyclopedia; foodtimeline.org; African Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology; and the Encyclopedia Britannica