I have been continuing to enjoy the radio 4 series ‘A History of the world in 100 objects.’ It is a great idea- using ancient objects as windows into the culture and circumstances that produced them. It almost (but not quite) justifies all of that Victorian relic collecting in the days of Empire (otherwise known as plundering.)
This object was made some time around the 1390’s to be the receptacle for a thorn from what is claimed to be the crown of thorns that Jesus was made to wear when he was crucified.
It is decorated with scenes of the crucifixion, and an imagination of the return of Jesus on the day of judgement. It is a fabulously expensive object- covered in jewels and gold. The thorn itself is displayed behind some polished rock crystal.
The King of France bought the Crown from Constantinople around 1239- after it had been sold to the Venetians to pay off a debt.
At the time, it was probably the most valuable and expensive object in the whole of Christendom. Its owner was able to use it as evidence of his piety and power, and claim it as a blessing on his nation and Kingship.
In many ways, this object might be seen to objectify a pre modern medieval world view that the coming of the modern enlightenment and the Reformation swept away. All the bad stuff of bloody crusades and rich sinners buying indulgences to atone for terrible crimes.
But perhaps the most venerated object of all is the Crown of Thorns- kept as it is in the centre of the most famous Cathedral in the middle of Paris- Notre Dame. Stained with the blood of Jesus. Forced onto the head of God, come to earth.
Now I know what you are thinking- surely no one really thinks that these objects are genuine?
It certainly seems that people did- from as long ago as 409 AD there are records of people venerating these objects, and the King of France was prepared to shell out a huge sum of money- 5 times the cost of building a cathedral- to get hold of the Crown of Thorns.
What interests me, as ever, is what these objects might have meant to the faith of individuals- indeed, what they might STILL mean to the faith of individuals. Where they just power statements of a faith-gone-wrong, or was there something about them that might have carried the sacred into people’s minds and hearts?
Like all faith, we can only understand from our own perspective. Meaning is always filtered by context and experience.
We POST moderns seem to have a fascination with the pre-modern world. It represents a mystical perspective that we lost for a few hundred years- replaced by hard logic and rational discourse.
And these relics offer a window into other forms of Christian faith…