The relics of the Passion presented at Notre-Dame de Paris include a piece of the Cross, which had been kept in Rome and delivered by Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, a nail of the Passion and the Holy Crown of Thorns.
Of these relics, the Crown of Thorns is without a doubt the most precious and the most revered. Despite numerous studies and historical and scientific research efforts, its authenticity cannot be certified. It has been the object of more than sixteen centuries of fervent Christian prayer.
Saint John tells that, in the night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Roman soldiers mocked Christ and his Sovereignty by placing a thorny crown on his head (John 19:12).
The crown housed in the Paris cathedral is a circle of canes bundled together and held by gold threads. The thorns were attached to this braided circle, which measures 21 centimetres in diameter. The thorns were divided up over the centuries by the Byzantine emperors and the Kings of France. There are seventy, all of the same type, which have been confirmed as the original thorns.
The accounts of 4th century pilgrims to Jerusalem allude to the Crown of Thorns and the instruments of the Passion of Christ. In 409, Saint Paulinus of Nola mentions is as being one of the relics kept in the basilica on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In 570, Anthony the Martyr found it exhibited for veneration in the Basilica of Zion. Around 575, Cassiodorus, in his Exposition on the 75th Psalm, exclaimed, Jerusalem has the Column, here, there is the Crown of Thorns! In 870, once again in Jerusalem, Bernard the Monk noted it as well.
Between the 7th and the 10th centuries, the relics were moved progressively to the Byzantine emperors’ chapel in Constantinople, mainly to keep them safe from pillaging, like that suffered by the Holy Sepulchre during the Persian invasions. In 1238, Byzantium was governed by Latin Emperor Baldwin of Constantinople. As he was in great financial difficulty, he decided to pawn the relics in a Venetian bank to get credit.
Saint Louis, the king of France, took over and paid back the Venetians. On 10 August 1239, the king, followed by a brilliant procession, welcomed twenty-nine relics in Villeneuve-l’Archevêque. On 19 August 1239, the procession arrived in Paris; the king took off his royal garments. Wearing only a simple tunic and with bare feet, assisted by his brother, took the Crown of Thorns to Notre-Dame de Paris before placing the relics in the palace chapel. He built a reliquary worthy of housing these relics, Sainte Chapelle.
During the French revolution, the relics were stored in the National Library. After the Concordat in 1801, they were given back to the archbishop of Paris who placed them in the Cathedral treasury on 10 August 1806. They are still housed there today.
Since then, these relics have been conserved by the canons of the Metropolitan Basilica Chapter, who are in charge of venerations, and guarded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
Napoleon I and Napoleon III each offered reliquaries for the crown of thorns. They are on display at Notre-Dame.
These relics are presented to the believers for veneration on the first Friday of each month, every Friday during Lent at 3 pm, and on Good Friday from 10 am to 5 pm.
This practice unifies believers in contemplation of the Mystery of Easter, which is the source of their faith, both as the expression of Christ’s unbounded love for men and his solidarity with their suffering.