The Incredible Saga of the Crown of Thorns
Earlier this week, the eye of the world watched in horror at the televised footage of the devasting fire that swept through the historic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. The artifacts and architecture lost in the blaze are unfathomable, but thanks to the heroic efforts of French firefighters and Father Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, one precious, priceless relic was saved…the Crown of Thorns. Just how this crown, which was placed on the head of Jesus during the Crucifixion, survived since Biblical times and made its way to France is an incredible saga.
At the Crucifixion
The Bible first mentions the Crown of Thorns in the gospel of Matthew. In the description of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, there is a passage that reads, “And when they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee and mocked him, saying Hail, King of the Jews!" The crown is also mentioned in the gospels of Mark and John. After that, however, biblical accounts of the Crown of Thorns are virtually non-existent for a few hundred years.
The Crown Resurfaces
In 409 AD, St. Paulinus of Nola wrote that, along with the cross on which Jesus was crucified, the “thorn with which Our Savior was crowned” was a venerated relic, but he does not elaborate on where the crown was being held or the condition that it was in. Around 530 AD, a reference to the Crown of Thorns shows up in Breviary or Short Description of Jerusalem. Here, it is stated that the Crown of Thorns is housed at the Basilica of Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This fact is confirmed in The Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza, written in 570 AD, and again in the written records of a monk named Bernard who made a pilgrimage to Mount Zion in 870 AD.
Plucking the Thorns
During this time, such a high degree of importance was placed on biblical relics that many of the thorns from the Crown of Thorns were removed and presented to various people, including Charlemagne, Saint-Corneille of Compiegne, and St. Germain, the Bishop of Paris. These thorns themselves became relics that were worshipped and venerated. At some point, however, the practice of plucking thorns from the crown ended and the goal became to keep the crown as intact as possible.
The Move to Constantinople
After the Great Schism of 1054 when the church broke into Eastern Orthodox church and the Catholic church, probably sometime around 1063, the Crown of Thorns was moved out of Jerusalem and into the Byzantium, most likely to Constantinople. Records show that the precious crown was safely housed there until 1238 when the Byzantine Empire began to crumble. The Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, used the Crown of Thorns as collateral against a loan from King Louis IX of France. Baldwin II must have defaulted on his debt to the King because we know that the Crown of Thorns traveled to France.
A French Possession
To house the priceless relic, King Louis IX of France ordered the construction of Sainte-Chapelle. The Crown of Thorns was stored there until the French Revolution in 1789. Fearing for the artifact’s safety, it was moved to a secure location in the Bibliotheque Nationale, or the National Library of France. In 1801, an agreement between Pope Pius VII and Napoleon meant that the Crown of Thorns would be moved to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, where it was to be kept in an undisclosed, guarded location. Fortunately, Father Fournier knew where this location was on Monday, April 15.
A Devastating Fire
When the fire broke out at the famed Gothic cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, on Monday, the flames destroyed much of the gothic interior of the massive, stone structure, which was built between 1160 and 1260. More than 400 firefighters battled the fire at the cathedral, which was undergoing extensive renovations. As the devastation unfolded, Father Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, was escorted by firefighters to the spot where the Crown of Thorns and other relics were stored. The crown, encased in a round, jeweled reliquary, was rescued from the fire. Current reports state that the Crown of Thorns is being stored at Paris’s Louvre Museum for now.
Christians around the world rejoiced at the news that the Crown of Thorns was saved from the destructive fire at Notre-Dame de Paris this week, giving them one more reason to be thankful this Easter holiday.