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What is lost can one day flourish again

  • Published at 12:00 am April 23rd, 2019
Notre Dame
Rebuilding history REUTERS

The Notre Dame fire risked valuable human history being lost to the flames

When the spire of Notre Dame cathedral collapsed in a fiery blaze on April 15, it looked as if the priceless treasures inside would be lost forever. So it was wonderful to see, the next morning, that the cathedral’s Gothic fabric -- which is more than 850 years old -- held strong.

Its sweeping vaults are damaged but intact -- testifying to the brilliant engineering of medieval masons and the bravery of the Parisian firefighters.

As the news of the destruction unfolded, we learned that Father Jean-Marc Fournier orchestrated the rescue of many relics in the cathedral treasury with the firefighters’ help.

Preserved in a gilded, crystalline reliquary 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. In the wake of the fire at Notre Dame and on the eve of Good Friday, it is important to reflect on the significance of this sacred object and its remarkable survival.

‘Ecce homo’

The Crown of Thorns is named in three of the gospels as one of many tortuous instruments used while Christ is being mocked during his trial and punishment. In John’s gospel, the Passion narrative is extended: Christ is brought before the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, to face the crowd while still wearing the Crown of Thorns.

This passage forms the basis of the popular devotional image called the Ecce Homo, in which Christ is imagined as the rejected Messiah, scourged and crowned in thorns. The gospels do not state what became of the Crown after the mockery.

Interestingly, Christ does not wear the Crown of Thorns in early depictions of the Crucifixion. Christ is shown dying on the cross without the crown (with only a handful of exceptions) throughout the first millennium of Christian art.

Gauthier Cornut, a 13th-century archbishop of Sens, wrote a detailed account of the transfer of the crown to Paris in a text known as the Historia Susceptionis Coronae Spinea. He also orchestrated a number of ceremonies to commemorate the arrival of the relic. Removing his crown and wearing only a humble tunic (another holy relic saved during the fire at Notre-Dame), Louis walked barefoot carrying the relic into Paris in a spectacular procession on August 19, 1239.

The parade ended with a sermon inside Notre Dame cathedral before the relic was locked away in the royal palace. Just nine years later, on April 26, 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle was consecrated in honour of the Passion of Christ. This shimmering, two-storied Gothic edifice enveloped the Crown of Thorns in a dazzling curtain of Gothic glass and colour, providing an extraordinary stage for the celebration of Christ’s presence right in the heart of Paris.

It is here that we first find numerous images of Christ crucified wearing the Crown of Thorns, a thoughtful reinvention of Christian iconography that places the object at the centre of salvation history.

A new home

The Crown of Thorns remained in this royal chapel until the French Revolution. In 1790, some of the relics were safely delivered to the abbey of Saint-Denis and, in 1806, Archbishop Jean-Baptiste de Belloy of Paris oversaw the transfer of the 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 on April 15. It will be housed at the Hotel de Ville during the rebuilding of Notre Dame.

Throughout innumerable wars, disasters, other threats from the vicissitudes of time, this small, sacred object -- a little cluster of ancient branches that signify Christian salvation -- still remains. 

Loved by thousands, 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.

Emily Guerry is lecturer in Medieval History, University of Kent. A version of this article previously appeared in The Conversation UK.