Saint Louis and the relics of passion

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Louis IX, the future Saint Louis, brought relics of Christ’s crucifixion back from Jerusalem in 1239 to be placed in Notre-Dame Cathedral. The “relics of the Passion” are objects presumed to have been used in the crucifixion of Christ. Notre-Dame Cathedral houses the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross and a nail.

From Jerusalem to Paris 

The relics have their origins in Jerusalem, with Christ’s death sentence. Indeed, the day before his crucifixion, a Thursday, the Roman soldiers laugh at him, putting on him a purple cloak and a crown adorned with thorns. From the 4th century, the stories of pilgrims mention the veneration of the instruments of the crucifixion. 

Between the 7th and 10th centuries, these relics were transferred to Constantinople, kept safe from looting. In 1238, Baudouin II de Courtenay, the Latin emperor of Byzantium, who was in financial difficulty, sold the crown of thorns to Louis IX. 

Saint Louis

On August 19, 1239, the relics arrived in Paris in a great procession. To mark the occasion the king abandoned his royal robes, put on a simple tunic and, barefoot, wore the crown of thorns to Notre-Dame de Paris. To preserve these relics, he had the monumental Sainte-Chapelle reliquary built. 

After the French Revolution 

During the French Revolution, the relics were housed first at the Abbey of Saint-Denis and then at the National Library. Following the Concordat of 1801, the Archbishop of Paris received the crown of thorns along with other relics. They were deposited in the cathedral treasury on August 10, 1806, where they are still preserved and placed under the statutory custody of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. 

Notre-Dame’s Relics 

The crown of thorns is arguably the most precious and revered of the relics kept at Notre Dame. According to the wish of Saint Louis, it is not shown until Easter, the day of celebration of Christ’s resurrection three days after his death on the cross. This crown is made up of a circle of 21 cm rushes held in place by gold threads. Over the centuries the thorns have been scattered as various gifts. Seventy thorns are listed as coming from this crown. The crown of thorns is shown for adoration the first Friday of each month, every Friday during Lent and each day of the Holy Week until Easter.

Since 1896, a crystal and gold tube has protected the crown. The openwork frame features a branch of zizyphus or Spina Christi, a thorny shrub common in Palestine. This reliquary, donated by the faithful of the diocese of Paris, is the work of the goldsmith Poussielgue-Rusand (1861-1933) after drawings by the architect Astruc (1862-1950). 

The fragment of the wood of the cross comes from the treasury of the Sainte-Chapelle. Taken during the destruction of the reliquary during the French Revolution, a member of the Temporary Arts Commission saved the wood fragment and gave it to the Archbishop of Paris in 1805. Preserved in a crystal case, this fragment measures 24 cm. At its end it has a mortise (a hole or recess cut into a part, designed to receive a corresponding projection on another part so as to join or lock the parts together). This element would correspond to one of the crossbars of the cross. 

The nail, measuring 9 cm, comes from the treasure of the Holy Sepulcher. The Patriarch of Jerusalem gave it to the Emperor Charlemagne in 799 along with other relics of the crucifixion. Previously housed in in Aix-la-Chapelle, King Charles II removed it to offer it as a gift to the Abbey of St Denis. During the French Revolution, a member of the Temporary Arts Commission saved this nail, along with the fragment of wood. It is kept in a nail-shaped reliquary, a simple crystal tube adorned with a gilt silver head and tip.