Some of Catholicism’s most precious relics have a storied (and sometimes dubious) history. Among these is a wreath of thorns believed to have adorned the head of our Lord during His passion.
Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, the 19th-century German nun and mystic whose visions of the Passion inspired Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, described the crowning of thorns as follows:
In the middle of the court there stood the fragment of a pillar, and on it was placed a very low stool which these cruel men maliciously covered with sharp flints and bits of broken potsherds. Then they tore off the garments of Jesus, thereby reopening all his wounds; threw over his shoulders an old scarlet mantle which barely reached his knees; dragged him to the seat prepared, and pushed him roughly down upon it, having first placed the crown of thorns upon his head. The crown of thorns was made of three branches plaited together, the greatest part of the thorns being purposely turned inwards so as to pierce our Lord’s head. Having first placed these twisted branches on his forehead, they tied them tightly together at the back of his head, and no sooner was this accomplished to their satisfaction than they put a large reed into his hand, doing all with derisive gravity as if they were really crowning him king. They then seized the reed, and struck his head so violently that his eyes were filled with blood; they knelt before him, derided him, spat in his face, and buffeted him, saying at the same time, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Then they threw down his stool, pulled him up again from the ground on which he had fallen, and reseated him with the greatest possible brutality.
Emmerich, Anna Catherine (2011-03-30). The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (Kindle Locations 2934-2942). . Kindle Edition.
In France this week, the relic alleged to be this very same crown of thorns is on display to mark the occasion of the 800th anniversary of the birthday and baptism of King St. Louis IX, who came into possession of the relic in the 13th century. It has remained in France ever since.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
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 Bibliothèque 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 jewelled. 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 Mély, 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.
Sainte-Chapelle, if you are unfamiliar with it, is not simply a little museum for relics of the French royal households. It is a “chapel” (though one could be excused for considering it a cathedral) and is considered one of the great masterworks of Gothic architecture in all of Europe. That Sainte-Chapelle was built primarily to house this relic gives some sense of its great historical importance to the faithful.
While it is impossible to know if this is the actual crown of thorns, it has been venerated as such for many hundreds of years. It is one of the treasures of Christendom, and only makes rare public appearances.