Crown of Thorns.—Although Our Savior’s Crown of Thorns is mentioned by three Evangelists and is often alluded to by the early Christian Fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others, there are comparatively few writers of the first six centuries who speak of it as a relic known to be still in existence and venerated by the faithful. It is remarkable that St. Jerome, who expatiates upon the Cross, the Title, and the Nails discovered by St. Helen (Tobler, Itinera Hierosolym., II, 36), says nothing either of the Lance or of the Crown of Thorns, and the silence of Andreas of Crete in the eighth century is even more surprising. Still there are some exceptions. St. Paulinus of Nola, writing after 409, refers to “the thorns with which Our Savior was crowned” as relics held in honor along with the Cross to which He was nailed and the pillar at which He was scourged (Ep. ad Macar. in Migne, P.L., LXI, 407). Cassiodorus (c. 570), when commenting on Ps. lxxxvi, speaks of the Crown of Thorns among the other relics which are the glory of the earthly Jerusalem. “There”, he says, “we may behold the thorny crown, which was only set upon the head of Our Redeemer in order that all the thorns of the world might be gathered together and broken” (Migne, P.L., LXX, 621). When Gregory of Tours (“De gloria mart.” in “Mon. Germ. Hist.: Scrip. Merov.”, I, 492) avers that the thorns in the Crown still looked green, a freshness which was miraculously renewed each day, he does not much strengthen the historical testimony for the authenticity of the relic, but the “Breviarius”, and the “Itinerary” of Antoninus of Piacenza, both of the sixth century, clearly state that the Crown of Thorns, was at that period shown in the church upon Mount Sion (Geyer, Itinera Hierosolymitana, 154 and 174). From these fragments of evidence and others of later date—the “Pilgrimage” of the monk Bernard shows that the relic was still at Mount Sion in 870—it is certain that what purported to be the Crown of Thorns was venerated at Jerusalem for several hundred years.
If we may adopt the conclusions of M. de Mely, the whole Crown was only transferred to Byzantium about 1063, although it seems that smaller portions must have been presented to the Eastern emperors at an earlier date. In any case Justinian, who died in 565, is stated to have given a thorn to St. Germanus, Bishop of Paris, which was long preserved At Saint-Germain-des-Pres, while the Empress Irene, in 798 or 802, sent Charlemagne several thorns which were deposited by him at Aachen. Eight of these are known to have been there at the consecration of the basilica of Aachen by Pope Leo III, and the subsequent history of several of them can be traced without difficulty. Four were given to Saint-Corneille of Compiegne in 877 by Charles the Bald. One was sent by Hugh the Great to the Anglo-Saxon King Athelstan in 927 on the occasion of certain marriage negotiations, and eventually found its way to Malmesbury Abbey. Another was presented to a Spanish princess about 1160, and again another was taken to Andechs in Germany in the year 1200.
In 1238 Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, anxious to obtain support for his tottering empire, offered the Crown of Thorns to St. Louis, King of France. It was then actually in the hands of the Venetians as security for a heavy loan, but it was redeemed and conveyed to Paris where St. Louis built the Sainte-Chapelle (completed 1248) for its reception. There the great relic remained until the Revolution, when, after finding a home for a while in the Bibliotheque Nationale, it was eventually restored to the Church and was deposited in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in 1806. Ninety years later (in 1896) a magnificent new reliquary of rock crystal was made for it, covered for two-thirds of its circumference with a silver case splendidly wrought and jeweled. The Crown thus preserved consists only of a circlet of rushes, without any trace of thorns. Authorities are agreed that a sort of helmet of thorns must have been platted by the Roman soldiers, this band of rushes being employed to hold the thorns together. It seems likely according to M. de Mely, that already at the time when the circlet was brought to Paris the sixty or seventy thorns, which seem to have been afterwards distributed by St. Louis and his successors, had been separated from the band of rushes and were kept in a different reliquary. None of these now remain at Paris. Some small fragments of rush are also preserved apart from the sainte Couronne at Paris, e.g. at Arras and at Lyons. With regard to the origin and character of the thorns, both tradition and existing remains suggest that they must have come from the bush botanically known as Zizyphus spina Christi, more popularly, the jujube-tree. This reaches the height of fifteen or twenty feet and is found growing in abundance by the wayside around Jerusalem. The crooked branches of this shrub are armed with thorns growing in pairs, a straight spine and a curved one commonly occurring together at each point. The relic preserved in the Capella della Spina at Pisa, as well as that at Trier, which though their early history is doubtful and obscure, are among the largest in size, afford a good illustration of this peculiarity.
That all the reputed holy thorns of which notice has survived cannot by any possibility be authentic will be disputed by no one. M. de Mely has been able to enumerate more than 700 such relics. The statement in one medieval obituary that Peter de Averio gave to the cathedral of Angers “unam de spinis quae fuit apposita coronae spine ae nostri Redemptoris” (de Mely, p. 362), meaning seemingly a thorn which has touched the real Crown of Thorns, throws a flood of light upon the probable origin of many such relics. Again, even in comparatively modern times it is not always easy to trace the history of these objects of devotion, which were often divided and thus multiplied. Two “holy thorns” are at present venerated, the one at St. Michael’s church in Ghent, the other at Stonyhurst College, both professing, upon what seems quite satisfactory evidence, to be the thorn given by Mary Queen of Scots to Thomas Percy Earl of Northumberland (see “The Month”, April, 1882, 540-556). Finally, it should be pointed out that the appearance of the Crown of Thorns in art, notably upon the head of Christ in representations of the Crucifixion, is posterior to the time of St. Louis and the building of the Sainte-Chapelle.
Some archaeologists have professed to discover a figure of the Crown of Thorns in the circle which sometimes surrounds the chi-rho emblem on early Christian sarcophagi, but it seems to be quite as probable that this is only meant for a laurel-wreath.