Dr Emily Guerry commented: ‘When the spire of Notre-Dame cathedral collapsed in a fiery blaze it looked as if the priceless treasures inside would be lost forever. It was a marvel therefore to see that the Gothic fabric, which is over 850 years old, held strong.
‘As the news of the destruction unfolded, we learned that Fr Jean-Marc Fournier orchestrated the rescue of many relics in the cathedral treasury with the assistance of firefighters. With minutes to spare, they formed an assembly line and managed to save some of the most ancient and holy treasures in all of Christendom, including the relic of the Crown of Thorns.
‘Preserved in a gilded, crystalline reliquary, kissed by visitors at Notre-Dame on the first Friday of every month, and exposed to the faithful every year for a special service on Good Friday, the Crown relic looks like a wreath comprised of brittle but elegantly woven marine rushes. This delicate relic has a long and complicated history and, for the past eight centuries, it has been protected by glittering Gothic spaces and worshipped in Paris as a tangible, physical symbol of Christ’s kingship. In the wake of the fire at Notre-Dame and on the eve of Good Friday, it is timely to reflect on the significance of this sacred object and its remarkable survival.
‘The Crown of Thorns is named in three of the Gospels as one of many tortuous instruments used during the Mockery. After the Flagellation, Roman soldiers wrapped Christ in a purple (or scarlet) robe, forced a sceptre made of a reed in his right hand, “twisted together a Crown of Thorns and set it on his head,” and exclaimed “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:27–30, Mark 15:16–19, and John 19:1–3.) While the robe and staff signified ridicule, the Crown of Thorns also would have elicited physical pain. In the book of John, the Passion narrative is extended to include another encounter before the judge’s seat:
‘It first arrived into the kingdom of France 1239, but it was not until 1806 that Archbishop Jean-Baptiste de Belloy of Paris oversaw the transfer of the Crown relic to the treasury of Notre-Dame, where it could be worshipped by all of the people of Paris as a shared, civic treasure. It has remained in the cathedral, enduring the violence of the Commune and two World Wars, until calamity struck this week. Thankfully, it has survived and it will be housed at the Hotel de Ville during the rebuilding of Notre-Dame. Enduring wars, disasters, other threats from the vicissitudes of time, this small, sacred object – a little cluster of ancient branches that signify Christ’s salvation – still remains.
‘Loved by thousands and thousands of people in three sacred places, the Crown of Thorns relic continues to serve its purpose; to inspire hope, to remind us that what is lost can one day flourish again, and that the things we love, no matter how small, have great power.’
Dr Emily Guerry, of the University’s School of History, is an expert on the relationship between religious devotion and artistic representation in the Middle Ages.