History

Understanding the Background of the Crown of Thorns

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The “Crown of Thorns” has a rich and illustrious history quite apart from its recent spike in pop-media mention in relation to the tragic inferno surrounding the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Firefighters have gained fame and notoriety by their epic efforts to save the crown of thorns from the flaming cathedral. Historically, of course, the crown was intended to be an ironic gesture in mock reverence to the King of the Jews, with proclamations that first surfaced at the time of his birth, and were then repeated by Pilate at the trial leading up to the trial and subsequent crucifixion of Jesus.  

Why is the Crown of Thorns Important?  

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The Crown of Thorns is one of the instruments of the Passion, a device used to cause Jesus pain (and thus of great importance). It was placed on his head just prior to his crucifixion and death, and it is thus considered a sacred relic, first described as such by St. Paulinus of Nola in 409 A.D. Mentions of the Crown of Thorns continued to pop up in literary references. In 530 AD, Breviary or Short Description of Jerusalem places the crown at the Basilica of Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which is later confirmed by an “anonymous pilgrim” and the monk, Bernard. In De gloria martyri, Gregory of Tours referenced the miraculous renewal of the thorns, claiming that they turned green every day.   

The Travels & Evolution of the Relic  

The Crown of Thorns was transferred to Byzantium in 1063, but it was also during this time that the crown was “dethorned”. Thorns were removed from the headpiece with some given to St. Germain, Bishop of Paris, and housed at Saint-Germain-des-Prés. In 798, Empress Irene gave Charlemagne thorns which were deposited by him at Aachen, a Roman settlement and spa. Charles the Bald gave four of the thorns to Saint-Corneille of Compiègne in 877. Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks, passed one thorn onto King Athelstan, and the thorn eventually appeared at Malmsbury Abbey.  

Emperor Baldwin II gave the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France. While there was some back-and-forth due to debt and political upheaval, including the French Revolution, the crown went to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where it stayed until it was relocated to the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.  

Modern Iterations 

With such a wide and varied history, the fact that the relic still exists into modern times is a testament to how much religious fervor has surrounded it. Even small fragments (thorns) are important. With the grave danger of this headpiece was under in the flaming cathedral, it’s no wonder the world has risen up in celebration and morning. The “safe” place that had been the home for the Crown of Thorns for so long was not the sanctuary that all those faithfuls had thought it to be.  

In the aftermath of the tragic blaze, though, the speed at which the entire world responded and immediately sent millions of dollars to renovate the Notre-Dame Cathedral, though, is just one small reminder of the true depth of appreciation for the place and its historical and cultural importance. The imminent danger of the Crown of Thorns, though, has also revived the mythology surrounding the legendary piece. The wealth of literary and multimedia adaptations of various tales related to religious relics has been constant and growing. Though tragic and troubling, the destruction of the Notre-Dame Cathedral gives both the place and everything of historical relevance that’s housed therein, an even more cherished stature. It has also helped to spearhead the renovation and rehabilitation of sacred and historically important places in the US and around the world.  

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