Anyone want to buy a used crown of thorns?

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.)

Todays programme concerned itself with an object I had never heard of before- the Holy Thorn Reliquary.

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.

And of course, in the brisk trade in religious relics- from the bones of minor saints, right through to the Holy Grail, or fragments of the true cross of Jesus.

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…

The face of Jesus…

Today’s offering from my faithful radio travelling companion- radio 4- was a discussion about one of the earliest surviving images of Jesus, which was the subject of a wonderful programme called ‘A history of the world in 100 objects‘.

This image was discovered not in Israel, or in Rome, but rather in the unlikely environs of Hinton St Mary, Dorset, by a local Blacksmith in 1963. It was laid down as part of a mosaic floor around 350 AD to decorate part of a building that some say was dining room, others believe may have been a chapel. It is a crude image, existing alongside pagan images of characters from Roman mythologyBellerophon killing the Chimera. The idea of putting images of Jesus on the floor that we could then walk over was outlawed soon after- but by then the Romans had abandoned their colony in far off Britain and pulled back to warmer climes- which is how it survived.

The image dates from a time around 40 years after Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and suddenly a faith that had been persecuted and forced underground became the state religion- and so the powerful and affluent began to wear their faith like a badge of success and favour. Western culture (and the church) has been struggling with this unholy allegiance ever since.

The image sets me thinking about how we come to develop an image of the face of Jesus. We have no contemporary descriptions- and the only thing approaching a description in the Bible comes from long before the birth of Jesus in the words to the prophet Isaiah…

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

Isaiah 53:2

What we are left with are images (like the one from Hinton St Mary) that arise out of a particular context. The face of Jesus is then employed as a means of somehow making more real our own ideas, hopes  and prejudices about him. They mirror our failing, fumbling theology…

The rich traditions of iconography are deliberate about using such images as part of Spiritual discipline- something that has always been rather alien to my slightly colourless Protestant background.

(The oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator,encaustic on panel, c. 6th century (Saint Catherine’s MonasteryMount Sinai).)

The tradition that I come from does talk a lot about ‘The face of Jesus’ however- often in the context of rather sickly choruses. Here the face of Jesus in conjured up as a kind of shining radiant king looking down in love from on high.

For the rather unimaginative chorus writer- ‘face’ also conveniently rhymes with ‘grace’…

A much better example of this comes from one of my favourite Christian songwriters- Mark Heard, who sadly died in 1992. Here it is-

If I ever get to see Your face
And if You will spare me
I know that my allegiance to the human race
Will not ensnare me

If I ever get to know Your mind
And I survive it
I’m sure that I will leave a way of life behind
I won’t revive it

Lord, You know I need Your love so bad
I hardly even have the strength
To take Your hand

If I ever get to hear Your voice
And I can take it
I’m certain that I will listen
To the better choice
And I will make it

Written by Mark Heard
© 1981 Bug and Bear Music