Next to it 'I feel I'm not alone,' says guardian of Jesus' crown of thorns in Paris

A reliquary containing what tradition holds is Jesus' crown of thorns is displayed during a ceremony at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris March 21, 2014. The crown, the most precious of the relics in Notre Dame's treasury, was saved from the flames of the April 15, 2019, fire. (OSV News photo/Philippe Wojazer, Reuters)

PARIS (OSV News) -- In December 2023, Christophe Grunenwald, a knight of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem since 2000, was given a special task of representing his order at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. His task is in fact a major duty -- he is responsible for watching over Jesus Christ's crown of thorns when it is on display.

"I have a long history with this crown," he told OSV News. "My mother used to take us to pray in front of it at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Good Friday, when I was a little boy, 60 years ago."

The crown of thorns takes the form of a circle, 8.3 inches in diameter. It is the most precious of the relics in Notre Dame's treasury. It was saved from the flames on the evening of the cathedral fire April 15, 2019, by the Parisian fire brigade's chaplain, Father Jean-Marc Fournier.

It is believed that the artifact contains actual pieces of the crown worn by Jesus ahead of his crucifixion.

Since the April 2019 inferno, the famous Louvre museum has been the crown's temporary home, where the relic arrived along with other objects from Notre Dame's treasury: monstrances, chalices, reliquaries, crosses and sacred vessels. Louvre's teams of experts took charge of cleaning and restoring them. From October 2023 to this January, they organized a special exhibition to showcase them.

But the crown of thorns was not part of the exhibition. "It is not a work of art, but an object of veneration," Grunenwald pointed out. "All these objects are prestigious, but none is as valuable as the crown of thorns."

Throughout Lent, the faithful had the opportunity to venerate the crown in the Church of Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, not far from the Louvre. This is where the daily liturgical services, usually celebrated by the canons of Notre Dame, take place as the cathedral prepares for the Dec. 8 reopening.

Knights of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre have been present at the side of the crown during moments of veneration for over a century, since Cardinal Louis-Ernest Dubois, the archbishop of Paris at the time, entrusted them with this mission in 1923. They can be recognized by the white mantle they wear, on which the Jerusalem cross is embroidered in red.

"Venerators come in large numbers," Grunenwald said. "This year, we counted 1,200 to 1,400 people every Friday." The crown has been displayed for two hours every Friday, with an all-day display taking place on Good Friday.

The crown of thorns is venerated in its crystal case adorned with gold foliage. It rests on a velvet cushion.

"I am impressed to think of the number of important people, kings and popes, who have come to pray in front of it. When I hold the crown in my hands, I feel I am not alone," Grunenwald told OSV News.

At the end of the venerations, Grunenwald puts the crown back in its case.

"When I close it, I always think of Christ's words: 'All is accomplished,'" he said. "I am always very moved when I think of the immense physical suffering he endured, which opened the door to victory over death."

"The crown is entrusted to the canons of Notre Dame, but it is state property," Grunenwald pointed out.

In the 13th century, the emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II, pawned it to bankers in Venice, Italy, because he needed money. After learning this, French King Louis IX, now St. Louis, collected a considerable sum of money, which enabled him to purchase it by compensating the Venetian bankers. In 1239, the king entered Paris carrying the crown himself, barefoot and dressed in a simple tunic.

"By acquiring this crown, the king of France acquired a special status in the eyes of the Christian West," Grunenwald explained. "It placed him in a tradition of Christian ancestry that gave him a privileged place within Christianity in Europe".

To house the crown, Louis IX ordered the building of Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) within a few years. The architectural gem can still be visited on the Ile de la Cité, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral.

During the French Revolution, "clever people placed it in the Museum of Natural History with a 'curiosity object' label, so that it would go unnoticed," Grunenwald recounted.

At the beginning of the 19th century, once civil and religious peace had been restored in France, Emperor Napoleon handed it over to the archbishop of Paris, who had it placed in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Since then, it has been part of its treasury.

"Careful checks have been carried out each time it has changed owner and assignee," Grunenwald told OSV News. "From the fourth century, it has been historically proven that it is the same crown."

Prior to the April 2019 fire, the crown was kept in the axial chapel located behind the choir of Notre Dame. It was protected in a glass reliquary that evoked the red cloak worn by Christ during his passion. "Members of the order had contributed financially to this reliquary," Grunenwald told OSV News. "But it was destroyed in the fire."

A new, contemporary-style reliquary shrine is now under construction. It consists of a very large openwork wooden panel, surrounded by illuminated glass blocks, in the center of which the crown will be placed at eye level. It also will house a fragment of the wood of the cross and a crucifixion nail.

The crown's return to the cathedral is scheduled for Dec. 13. On that day, a large number of knights and dames of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre will take part in its transfer, in a grand ceremony. From December until June 2025, the crown will be presented to the faithful every first Friday of the month, as part of Notre Dame's six-month reopening festivities.

Until then, special venerations will be offered at Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois during the summer of 2024 for those coming to Paris for the Olympic Games.


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