The Mystery of the Crown of Thorns
by A Passionist Father
Preserving Christian Publications, Inc.
"The soldiers platting a Crown of Thorns put it upon His Head." [Jn 19: 2]
Our work would be incomplete without some historical notice of the Crown of Thorns of our Savior. We trust that a brief account of it will be agreeable to Catholic piety and devotion.
In the outset we have to observe that Almighty God in His Divine wisdom, deals very differently with Christians from what He was pleased to do with the Jews. These were, by nature, and circumstances more material, and had more need of visible and. sensible objects in the practices of their religion. Moreover, being surrounded on every side by idolatrous nations, they were exposed to the temptation and danger of falling into idolatry. For these motives God gave them very explicit and detailed instructions about the nature and form of the objects and instruments of their religious worship, and sacred rites and ceremonies. This is evident to anyone who reads Exodus, Leviticus etc. Hence, Almighty God, speaking of the Tabernacle and its appurtenances said to Moses: "Look and make it according to the pattern that was shown to thee in the mount." [Exod. 25: 40] About the principal facts which are the foundation of Christianity, God has given us the most certain, and convincing proofs. Take, for instance, the Birth, Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Divine Redeemer, the institution of the seven Sacraments, the holy Sacrifice of the Mass and so on. But He has been pleased to leave us in obscurity about many details, which would naturally gratify human curiosity, but are not essential to Christian Faith. We know for certain that our Savior was born, but we know not the exact year. We know not in what month His holy Mother and Saint Joseph had to flee with Him into Egypt, or in what year and month They returned thence to Palestine. We are told by the Evangelists that He was scourged, but they do not inform us what were the instruments used on that occasion, and for but they do not describe to us the nature of the wood from which the Cross was made; how large it was, nor whether only three, or four nails were used. The holy Evangelists have done the same in relation to our Savior's crowning with thorns. They announce to us that He was crowned with thorns, but they neither mention the quality, nor the quantity of these thorns. This knowledge would certainly gratify a pious curiosity, but it is not essential to our faith, or devotion. One of the principal motives for their reticence may have been to induce us to seek and find out by reading, by studying, or by listening to instructions, what the Evangelists have judged best to entrust to the safe treasury of Christian tradition. Our Lord likes to see His disciples practicing humility by acknowledging their ignorance in many things, and evincing their docility by seeking information. Let us try to please our Divine Master by the practice of both these Christian virtues.
Many Christians would like to know what was the nature of the thorns with which our dear Lord was crowned by the Pagan soldiers. Upon this subject there are three opinions, which we will state on this occasion, and thus enable the devout reader to select that which best satisfies his mind.
1. Some Christian writers are of opinion that the thorns with which our Divine Lord was crowned in the hall of Pilate were taken by the soldiers from a bramble bush, or from the hawthorn tree. Other able writers sustain that the crown of our Lord was formed of Red Sea bulrushes. [See A Lapide. com. in 27 St. Matt.] Both sides have authorities and facts in their favor.
In support of the first opinion we have the well-known fact that in some churches, thorns are venerated by the faithful with the approbation and sanction of the Church, as belonging to the original crown of our suffering Savior, which are not Red Sea rushes, but have been taken from a thorny bush. The great Pope Benedict XIV states that a remarkable relic of one branch with five thorns of the crown of our Lord Jesus Christ is devoutly preserved in the Chapel of the Royal Palace in Munich, Bavaria. [De Beot. et Cann. Lib. 4 Part. 2 Chap. 14 No. 15] It is well known that bulrushes have neither branches, nor side thorns.
2. The opinion, however, of those writers who sustain that the crown of our Lord was formed of Red Sea rushes is well supported by facts. The principal portion of the Crown of Thorns preserved and venerated in the holy Chapel in Paris favors this opinion. William Durandus states that he saw this holy crown in Paris composed of Red Sea bulrushes. The pious and learned Cornelius A Lapide, the prince of biblical commentators states that: "In Rome he saw two of the sacred thorns of our Savior's crown, which by direction of the holy Empress St. Helena were preserved in the Basilica of the Holy Cross. According to his description, these thorns are long and sharp like large needles: "Sunt illae longae et acutae instar crassarum acicularum." [Com. in S. Matt. 27: 29] Again St. Vincent Ferrer says that the Crown of Thorns of our Lord was formed by the executioners in the shape of a hat, or helmet, which covered His entire head." [Serm. In Parasceve]
We know no kind of thorns that could be woven, or platted in such a form, except Red Sea rushes. Whilst the brown thorny points of these rushes are very hard and sharp, the stem itself as the name of rush implies, is sufficiently long and flexible to be twisted and shaped in the form of a cap adapted to the head of a man. This kind of thorny rushes, growing profusely on the shores of the Red Sea and about Palestine, could easily have been procured by the Roman soldiers. St. Vincent of Lerin testifies that the points of these Red Sea thorns are so hard and sharp as to pierce through the soles of travelers' shoes.
3. From what we have said we must naturally arrive at a third conclusion. It is pretty plain that the Crown of Thorns of Our Lord was partly formed of the small branches of some thorny bush, round which were woven the Red Sea bulrushes. In this supposition we embrace both the two former opinions, and are more easily satisfied about the form of the Crown of Thorns mentioned by St. Vincent Ferrer. Cornelius A. Lapide seems to incline to this third opinion. Forte in ea corona spinas junci spinis rhamni intertextae fuere. [A. Lapide in Matt. 27: 29] We should also remember that St. Anselm, St. Bernard and Tauler affirm that this horrible crown contained a thousand thorns. "Ipsa corona mille puncturis speciosum caput Jesu devulnerat." [St. Bernard]
It is generally believed that our Lord was made to wear the Crown of Thorns, during the remaining portion of His Passion. This fact is proclaimed by every picture or engraving representing the Crucifixion of our Lord. The uniformity of these images expresses the traditional belief of Christianity. Origen and Tertullian explicitly state, that our Lord on the Cross wore the Crown of Thorns on His sacred Head. This is confirmed by the revelations made to St. Bridget. This great Saint writes, that the Blessed Virgin Mary revealed to her that immediately before the Crucifixion, the Crown of Thorns was drawn violently by the executioners, out of the Head of our Lord in order to strip Him of His seamless tunic. But after the Crucifixion, the Crown of Thorns was replaced with inexpressible pain on the Head of our Lord, and pressed down to the middle of His forehead. So copious was the Blood flowing from every part of His perforated Head, that it filled His ears and especially His eyes in such a way, that when our crucified Savior wished to look at His afflicted Mother standing with St. John at the foot of the Cross, He was obliged by compressing the eye-lids to force the blood out of His eyes. [St. Bridget. Lib. 1 Revel. Chap. 10]
The Crown of Thorns came in possession of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, when she visited Jerusalem in the Spring of the year 326. The object of her journey was to find the Cross of our Savior and some of the principal instruments of His Passion. Jews and Gentiles had combined in a common effort to conceal from Christian devotion, these venerated relics. It was an invariable custom among the Jews, to bury near the body of a public criminal, whatever instrument had been used at his execution. In conformity with this practice, they buried near the Sepulcher of our Lord on Mount Calvary, the Cross and other instruments of His Passion. Large numbers of fervent Christians, however, often visited this hallowed spot to commemorate the sufferings of their Redeemer and to venerate, in the best manner they could, the hidden instruments of His Passion and Death. The heathens, from an aversion to Christianity, did everything in their power to prevent this manifestation of Christian faith and devotion. For this end they heaped on this place a large quantity of stones and earth; and erected near it a temple in honor of the impure Venus; that those who came thither to adore our Lord, might appear to worship, in the marble idol, the false and degrading goddess of Paganism. Pious Christians had addressed many fervent prayers to God, for the removal of these Pagan abominations, and for the public and complete triumph of the Christian religion. Three hundred years of persecution, had well tried the invincible firmness of Christian faith and devotion. God was determined to reward, even upon earth the fidelity of His servants. He miraculously. converted the brave and youthful Emperor Constantine to the sacred standard of His crucified Son; and inspired him with the determination of abolishing idolatry throughout all his vast dominions. His pious mother, St. Helena, by word and example urged Constantine to the execution of these good works. Though eighty years of age, this holy empress in the Spring of the year 326, undertook a journey from Constantinople to Jerusalem. The principal object of her pious pilgrimage was to find out the place of our Lord's Sepulcher with His Cross and the instruments of His Passion and then build there a magnificent church for the worship of the true living God and of His Incarnate Son. After her arrival in Jerusalem, St. Helena made every prudent inquiry in order to discover the place of our Lord's Sepulcher. Her Christian piety was horrified when she beheld with her own eyes Mount Calvary and the Sepulcher of our Lord profaned by the temple and statue of the impure Venus. Fired with a holy zeal, she gave orders for their immediate demolition and destruction. Under her direction the heap of stones and earth was removed and a large and deep l hole was dug until the sacred instruments of our Savior's Passion were unearthed. With her heart overflowing with joy and with sentiments of profound gratitude to God for the recovery of these precious treasures of Christian devotion, the holy and generous Empress built in the city of Jerusalem some churches, the most magnificent of which was that of the Holy Sepulcher. This she enriched with a good portion of the sacred relics of our Lord's Passion. Some others she sent to Rome, and the remainder she took with her to Constantinople. Among the sacred relics of the Passion taken by this holy empress to the latter imperial city, was the Crown of Thorns of our blessed Lord, which she highly valued and deeply venerated. Out of respect for the Chair of St. Peter, she sent to the Pope in Rome two thorns of the sacred crown. This precious discovery was made May 3rd, when the Church commemorates the finding of the Holy Cross. This pious empress was called by God to her eternal crown of glory in Heaven Aug. 18, 326.
The sacred Crown of our Lord remained in Constantinople about nine hundred years. Baldwin the II, the Latin Emperor of the East had many and powerful enemies to contend with. The Greek Christians disliked him, and turned against his government. They treacherously enticed the Saracens, or Turks to attack him. Harassed by both parties, Baldwin had serious fears that Constantinople would soon fall into their hands. In his spirit of Christian devotion, being anxious to protect from infidel desecration, the principal relics of our Lord's Passion, he sent them to France to his relative, the holy King St. Louis. Baldwin by these sacred presents wished to testify his esteem for the great virtue of St. Louis and his profound gratitude for the magnanimous efforts of the pious King of France in defending the holy places of Palestine and the Eastern Empire. The first relic sent by the Emperor Baldwin to the holy King of France was, according to Genebrard, the Crown of Thorns of our blessed Lord. It was carefully sealed in a rich case and taken by two Dominican Fathers, James and Andrew from Constantinople to Venice. Thence, it was brought through Italy into France. This was in August of the year 1239. St. Louis accompanied by his pious mother Blanche, by his brother Robert of Artois, and by many princes and prelates, went in procession to meet the sacred treasure fifteen miles beyond the ancient city of Sens. Arrived at the appointed place, the holy king knelt before it in profound veneration, and the remainder of the numerous procession imitated his example. Dressed in sack cloth and in his bare feet, this most Christian monarch with his pious brother reverently took the sacred relic and returned in solemn procession to Sens; shedding tears of devotion through sentiments of religious gratitude to our Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings. From Sens the holy crown was soon conveyed to Paris, where it was received with extraordinary solemnity and devotion. St. Louis built a beautiful new church for its reception, which on account of the many precious relics wherewith it is enriched, is called the Holy Chapel, La Sainte Chapelle. From the holy Crown of our Lord in Paris, some sacred thorns have been distributed to other churches. They are usually very long. [See Butler's Lives of Saints, May 3]
We will close this chapter with another account of the Crown of Thorns, given in the "Illustrated Catholic Family Almanac," 1877, from which some other interesting details about this precious object of Catholic devotion will be learned. It bears the following title:
THE CROWN OF THORNS WORN BY OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST
. . . The branches of thorns [in the original publication of the book there was an illustration but it was not reproduced with the newer printing] were twined alternately within and without, and twisted across in such a manner, as to form not only a circlet, but a cap, as it were, of torture, which covered our Redeemer's Head. The authentic history of this sacred relic is of great interest:
In the year 1204 the French and the Venetians, having captured Constantinople, established there as emperor Baldwin, Count of Flanders. On the division of the booty this prince requested for his share the sacred crown of our Savior, which was found among the treasure of the emperors of the East. His successor, Baldwin II, finding his empire in the year 1238, threatened by the Greeks on the one side, and on the other by the Bulgarians, came into the West to seek aid and protection against his enemies. Whilst at the court of France, whither he had gone to entreat the assistance of St. Louis, tidings reached him that the nobles whom he had left at Constantinople, finding their resources completely exhausted, were on the point of pledging the holy crown to the Venetians, for a sum of money. The young emperor, strongly disapproving of this measure, offered as a free gift to St. Louis, the precious relic which the lords of Byzantium were wishing to sell. St. Louis eagerly accepted such a gift as this, and immediately at the same time that Baldwin dispatched one of his officers with letters-patent, commanding the holy crown should be sent to him, the French monarch sent two of the Friars Preachers named James and Andrew, to receive it in his name. On the arrival of the messengers at Constantinople, they found the sacred relic gone from the treasury and pledged to the Venetians for 13,075 hyperperia or about £157,000 sterling. It had been deposited by their chamberlain, Pancratius Caverson in the church of Fanta Craton, that of his nation at Byzantium. On receiving the emperor's orders, the Latin lords rearranged the matter with the Venetians, and it was agreed that, if within a reasonably short time, the latter did not receive the reimbursement of the sum they had paid, the sacred crown should become their undoubted property. Meanwhile, it was to be carried to Venice, accompanied by the envoys of the King of France, one of whom, Father Andrew, had formerly been guardian of the convent of his order at Constantinople and, having on several occasions seen the crown, knew its appearance perfectly well. Every possible precaution was taken to secure the identification of the holy crown, which was enclosed in three chests, the first of gold the second of silver on which the Venetian lords affixed their seals, the third of wood which was sealed by the French nobles. On the arrival of the envoys at Venice, the holy crown was at once borne to St. Mark's and there placed among the treasures in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, where reposed the body of the Evangelist, between the two columns of alabaster which are said to have been brought from the Temple of Solomon. At the same time one of the Dominican Fathers set out for France to acquaint St. Louis with the terms agreed upon. These were approved by the king who directed the French merchants to repay the Venetians the sum they had advanced. The sacred relic was then delivered into the hands of the French envoys who after assuring themselves that the seals were intact, started homewards with their treasure on the road to France. Safely arrived in Paris, the crown, amid great solemnities was deposited in the palace chapel. Besides all the precautions taken to render any substitution impossible, we may add that Baldwin, on being required to examine and identify the relic, declared its authenticity in a document written on parchment, which was in existence until the Revolution of 1793, signed with his own hand in Greek characters traced in cinnabar, and having his own seal of lead covered with gold, affixed. On one side of the seal the emperor was represented enthroned, with the inscription: "Balduinus Imperator Romaniae semper Augustus." On the other he was on horseback with the inscription in Greek letters: "Baudoin, Empereur, Comte de Flandre." It must also be borne in mind that the Venetians, before lending so considerable a sum for such a pledge, would be certain to satisfy themselves beyond all doubts as to its authenticity. It is certain too that a century and a half before the reign of St. Louis, at the time of the First Crusade, all the world admitted that a very large portion of the crown was preserved at Constantinople in the chapel of the Greek emperors. When Alexis Comnenus wished to induce the Christian princes to go to his assistance, he spoke to them of the very precious relics which they would help to save, amongst which he especially designated the Crown of Thorns. Also in the time of Charlemagne, all the West had the certainty that Constantinople possessed this treasure, of which a considerable part was equally known to be at Jerusalem. Towards the year 800, according to Aimoin, the Patriarch of Jerusalem had detached some of the thorns which he sent to Charlemagne, who deposited them at Aix-la-Chapelle, with one of the nails of the True Cross, and it was these relics which were afterwards given by Charles le Chauve to the Abbey of St. Denis. The existence of the crown is a fact constantly alluded to in the sixth century by St. Gregory of Tours amongst others; and about the year 409, St. Paulinus of Nola knew of its preservation. He writes: "The thorns with which the Savior was crowned, and the other relics of His Passion, recall to us the living remembrance of His presence."For the reception of the crown and other precious relics of the passion, St. Louis caused to be erected in Paris, the elegant Sainte Chapelle, at a cost of about $3,500,000, and there they remained till the Revolution, when this, as so many other churches, was desecrated, the interior being nearly destroyed. Fortunately, the holy treasures belonging to the Sainte Chapelle were rescued, the sacred crown having been deposited in the National Library, where it was preserved with the utmost care by the Abbe Barthelemy. On the 10th of August, 1806, the holy crown was deposited in Notre Dame where it is now.
CHRIST THE KING--------------------------HOME