The Holy Nails and a horse

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | March 20, 2023

Trail for the nails of the Cross leads back to fourth century Jerusalem

Did a nail from Christ’s Cross end up on a horse?

As we near Holy Week, our thoughts turn to the Passion and death of Christ. There are many items that are considered relics of the Passion. One set of these is the Holy Nails, the nails that held Christ to the cross on Calvary.

There has been debate about whether there were three or four nails: one in each hand and one or two in Jesus’ feet.

Implements of the Passion of Jesus Christ as represented here with square, Roman-style nails and a mallet. (


In 1968, three first-century tombs were uncovered by archaeologist Vassilios Tzaferis, then of the Israeli Department of Antiquities and Museums. One tomb contained an ossuary (bone box) for a young man named “Yehohanan ben Hagkol.” He had been crucified and both feet pierced by nails, one fixed to each side of the upright beam. One nail remained in one foot. It was a Roman-style nail, made of iron, about six inches long and square-sided.

The late Dr. Nicu Haas, then of the department of anatomy of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, examined the remains and said that the nail had been driven through a small piece of lightweight wood to help anchor it.

This bone box burial find helped turn the evidence toward Jesus’ cross also having four nails. However, this does not align with the most ancient of the trails we have to the cross of Christ and nails of that cross — the fourth-century Holy Land travels of St. Helena. In 326 A.D., Helena was sent by her son, the Roman Emperor Constantine, to locate the places where Jesus had lived on earth.

Helena found not only the site of Calvary, but also what was believed to be the True Cross — as well as three nails. She also found what is believed to be the tomb of Christ nearby. At her direction, what is now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was constructed.

When Helena returned to Rome, among the relics she brought with her were pieces of the True Cross and the Holy Nails.

This is where the horse enters the picture. Tradition says that Helena had one of the nails put into the bridle of her son’s favorite horse. Now this may seem odd or even frivolous for such a relic, but think of Helena as the mother of a soldier son.

Likewise, a second nail was fashioned into a crown that was worn by Constantine. However, some historians, like the fifth-century’s Theodoret of Cyrus (455 A.D.), said that one nail was split into two and then used for both purposes: bridle and crown. It also may have been Constantine himself who ordered the two items made.

So what happened to those nails after Helena and Constantine?


It was long said that the Iron Crown (also called the Iron Crown of Lombardy), which was used to crown Holy Roman Emperors for centuries, was that same headpiece with a holy nail from Constantine’s time. Today the Iron Crown is kept in the Cathedral of Monza near Milan. In 1805, this same crown was used by Napoleon to crown himself as King of Italy. (In 1993, analysis of the crown found that what was said to be the Holy Nail is in fact made of silver.)

Where did the horse’s bridle end up? No one is completely certain, but there are two main contenders for possession of that relic. One is at the Cathedral of Milan (Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica of the Nativity of Saint Mary) and the other is in the treasury in the Carpentras Cathedral in Provence, France.

The French claim is that St. Helena gave “the Holy Bit” to St. Siffrein, the patron of the cathedral. In Milan, the relic is called “Santo Morso” or the “Holy Bridle.” Once a year, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (Sept. 14), it is exposed for public veneration. The relic is in fact shaped in a way that may resemble a ring-shaped part of a horse bridle.

As for the other nails, from there, things get a bit fuzzy. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, there have been as many as 30 “holy nails” claimed to exist through the centuries.


Now, this doesn’t mean that some, or all, are fakes. What is more likely is that — as with the story of the one nail split in two by Constantine — the nails became fragmented. This could have been accidental or done on purpose so that the fragments of the Holy Nails could be given as gifts to the various rulers and religious leaders in Europe. Also, some of the nails may have become “Holy Nails” by virtue of becoming third-class relics when they were touched to the original nails. Such relics may become objects of veneration themselves.

Of the many places that claim to have a Holy Nail — including Vienna, Trier and Bamberg in Germany and Catania in Sicily — the one in the Basilica of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce in Gerusalemme) in Rome certainly has a strong claim.

The church was built on what had been a chapel in a palace belonging to St. Helena. It dates to the year before she went to the Holy Land. The basilica church is called “in Jerusalem” because the floor was covered with soil brought back from the Holy Land by Helena. Since it was built on soil from Jerusalem, it is thus considered to be “in Jerusalem.”

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; “The Ecclesiastical History” at;; The Catholic Standard and Times, 20 April 1962, at;;; and

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