Holy Thorn Reliquary

Contributed by British Museum

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The Crown of Thorns, worn by Jesus when he was mocked and crucified, was one of the great relics of medieval Christianity. It was acquired by Louis IX, king of France, in Constantinople in AD 1239 for the price of 135,000 livres - nearly half the annual expenditure of France. Jean, duc de Berry (1340-1416) commissioned this elaborate reliquary to house just one of the thorns, which is mounted on a large sapphire in the centre.

How were relics used in medieval Europe?

Christian relics were usually part of the physical remains of a saint, though they could also be associated objects or clothing. Medieval worshippers would contemplate relics as a means of getting closer to a saint or Christ himself. Relics were also associated with miraculous powers of healing. Pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles to visit important relics in shrines, such as Jerusalem or Canterbury. Trade in holy relics was a huge business in Medieval Europe and kings would assemble large collections and even go to war to secure them.

The Crown of Thorns acquired by Louis IX is now housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in a container provided by Napoleon

Approaching the divine

In the context of faith, what the thorn reliquary displays is almost unimaginably valuable and emotive: something that is meant not only to have touched Christ – the viewer's Saviour – but also to have been involved in his torture during his Passion.

Christ suffered and died for the sins of all mankind, according to the Christian faith, and the viewer's sins therefore contribute to that suffering. The viewer is brought face to face with the humbling implications of his or her life. And yet the relic is just a little stick. In visual terms it is profoundly disappointing. Its real appeal is tactile.

What the believer wants is to touch - touch the thorn that pierced Christ's flesh. But the thorn is sealed away behind its crystal screen. The reliquary is a display cabinet. The British Museum's display of the reliquary reproduces the same device on another level: you can see but not touch.

The reliquary is in the end somewhat coy: it presents the priceless thorn but holds the viewer back from a satisfying engagement with it. In compensation the reliquary gives the frustrated viewer something to look at. It visualizes the significance of the relic in its display of Christ and points beyond the suffering to the hope of Salvation in its depiction of the heavenly host.

The display case itself becomes an object of contemplation. But what do we end up contemplating? The reliquary's materials are in themselves valuable and its craftsmanship is of a high order. One can rationalize this as honouring the holy contents. But the Duke who owned the reliquary was a notable collector of luxury objects. Many were at least nominally placed in the service of the faith but we may be seeing a transition to a more familiar sort of collecting of precious objects for their own sakes.

Visitors to the British Museum come to admire the container and not reverence the thorn, but one suspects that there may have been at least some ambivalence in the Duke's own view.

Robert Maniura, Department of History of Art and Screen Media, Birkbeck, University of London

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  • 1. At 17:25 on 9 June 2010, homardjaune wrote:

    The building constructed by Louis IX to house this reliquary (and others) is quite impressive. The building can still be visited today, it is named Sainte Chapelle and it is located in Paris (France) near Notre Dame de Paris. The stained glass windows are incredible!

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  • 2. At 10:17 on 6 July 2010, Dora Thornton wrote:

    I think Benedicta Ward's comment on the particular holiness of a relic like this, which touched Christ and, in this case, pierced his skin to draw blood, is right. The Crown of Thorns is also specifically mentioned in one of the Gospel accounts of Christ's passion, which must have been an additional draw and made it even easier to identify with it as part of rehearsing the events leading to the Crucifixion.

    It also strikes me that the Sainte Chapelle is in itself a Gothic Crown of Thorns, so there's a sense of synergy between the building and the precious relic within it.

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  • 3. At 11:27 on 6 July 2010, Miles Hodgkiss wrote:

    Guilt. Not wishing to offend? I can see why the word wasn?t used in your program. But without it the Jesuit expression "Give me the child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man" could not have arisen. Nor without it for that matter would any faith dependent on ?the? dictates of a supreme being have been able to control the excesses of its flock. What a pity those flocks now appear devoid of successful capitalists, parliamentarians, Prime Ministers and Presidents alike. Turbulent times ahead do you think? Pity the poor man who will die for their sins.

    It?s a relic. But it is also history repeating itself. As I see it, the intimate associations between art, religion and state is an old story. It can be traced all the way to ancient Kemet ( Egypt) and beyond.
    Never mind what it is made of, it is the crown which connects history. In this instance I am particularly reminded of the ring of Rams heads that I see surrounding the crown on the head of Ramasses The Great(held at The British Museum) and which, for me, holds the exact same purpose attached to The Crown Of Thorns subsequent to its enforcement on Christ as it became a reliquary. Christ?s crown of thorns was initially a form of rebuke but became with imperial approval a religious Iconograph of Kings. Conversely, the Ramasses? crown attachment ring of rams heads was intended as a religious iconograph from its inception.
    From the beginning the circumscribing of the Egyptian royal crown by a ring of ram?s heads signified his willingness to be ruled, over and above his royal will, by the dictates of the Egyptian God Amun? Christ? ring of thorns may not have come with that intention but it became a symbol of the exact same significance for Kings Luis of France from the moment he first became aware of its existence, and, kept it even if doubts existed concerning the provenance of the actual ring of thorns received into his hands. And by extension the Holy Thorn reliquary was similarly a symbol of assurance from the king to his loyal subject that both acknowledged piety in his subject and gave assurance to his subject that the royal will would always follow the dictate of holy doctrine.

    The Amun priesthood had already physically instated several pharaohs to the Egyptian throne over the course of the previous thousand years or so and ?erased? at least one, and so I can presume they knew a thing or two on the subject of crown control. Surely they worked hard to keep Ramasses The Great within limits. Quite possibly without them and their magnificent and distracting temple building program he might have been known as The Forgotten (in the dusts of war) Ramasses .
    When coins of Alexander The Great were minted depicting him with rams horns on his head it too was actually due to the Amun recognition that he actively sought. How much circumscription was placed on him is debatable but at any rate he charged quickly out of Kemet (Ancient Egypt) with his horns on to wreck greater grief upon the enemies of Amun. And I suppose afterwards a slave king made little difference to the workings of Amun. I don?t recall the Ptolemies carrying on too loudly at any rate.

    From Alexander, circuitously, we can trace the subject to Rome. Whilst still in head long pursuit of absolute power many a Roman emperor, in proclaiming his godhood, has acted similarly to his Ancient Egyptian emperor predecessor Akhenaten.
    Like the priesthood of Amun, was the Christian Church?s great achievement the circumscription of Rome?s imperial head with holding doctrine and from thence to all the other crowned heads of Europe? Surely the intention of the holy martyrs was to curtail the excessive forces of the state?? One doesn?t become a martyr by nodding war ascent like so many corrupt politicians of today do you?
    Of course one can never forget or forgive the tortures that came in the name of the church afterwards, but, at least The Great and The Good did try to halt the tendency of kings and despots to bray, brag and carry on like asses. What a pity it has all gone now. Guilt it seems holds far less a grip on the faithful than the mutterings of Press Barons. And Politicians, Priests, and war mongers these days appear appallingly ignorant on most matters theological.
    Finally, whatever other methods the Amun priesthood employed so successfully for all those Ramasses I have no doubt they would make the subject of intense interest. (Especially: to all those who despair at the endless line of ?sheep? being sent to their deaths today.) But perhaps in history the slaughter of the innocent is all that there has ever been, so if you don?t like it, or find you can do nothing about it, at least the distraction of newly commissioned public artworks and games could becomes a soothing opiate from it, even if, like Akhenaten?s, they have to be taken down later, broken into pieces and hidden, forever. Super series. Many thanks for the opportunity to comment.

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  • 4. At 21:29 on 7 July 2010, and the pharaohs wrote:

    Another correction needed - to the caption "Christ displaying his wounds... while 12 disciple_s_ watch the scene."

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  • 5. At 21:15 on 15 August 2010, Scott I wrote:

    I wish Robert Maniura or another expert might speculate on this webpage as to why the creator or creators of the reliquary chose not to render the Holy Ghost, often symbolized as the dove referenced in the Gospel of St. Luke 3:22.

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  • 6. At 21:27 on 15 August 2010, Scott I wrote:

    I am also wonder if the rounded mouth of the figure of God the Father is seen elsewhere in medieval art. I suspect that he is being shown in the act of calling upon the dead to be be raised, and not in the act of whistling or being startled by the angels' trumpets.

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  • 7. At 21:27 on 15 August 2010, Scott I wrote:

    I am also wonder if the rounded mouth of the figure of God the Father is seen elsewhere in medieval art. I suspect that he is being shown in the act of calling upon the dead to be be raised, and not in the act of whistling or be startled by the angels' trumpets.

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  • 8. At 14:52 on 16 August 2010, Dora Thornton wrote:

    IN reply to comment 5, as curator of the object: the goldsmith making the Reliquary may originally have included the HOly Ghost in the form of a dove of the Holy Spirit, probably enamelled in the round on gold. We can only deduce this by the fact that there is a small hole on the corbel beneath the figure of God the Father which seems the logical place for the third element in the Trinity to be figured, as a dove in the round flying out beneath God's hand, attached by a gold wire into the central core. But this is deduction based on the usual way in which the Trinity is depicted.

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  • 9. At 12:40 on 2 October 2010, Stephen Evans wrote:

    I've always been led to believe that Napoleon was an Athiest.

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