The original Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus during his crucifixion. And you are free to smooch it.
The Crown of Thorns must qualify as one of the most famous pieces of headgear ever worn.
And this may come as a big surprise to many: it's still around (although no longer worn.)
Few people know that it can be visited, and even fondled, in what's one of the world's most famous churches: Notre Dame in Paris.
A close encounter with the Crown proves that you don't have to travel to exotic locales for a deeply mysterious, deeply bizarre, and, for many people, deeply moving religious experience.
In Notre Dame de Paris, in the heart of Paris, every first Friday of the month. Map.
WHO WOULD HAVE thunk? 14 million tourists float through Notre Dame every year, selfie stick in hand, and we're guessing 95% of them is unaware that the church holds one of the most cherished relics of Christianity: the original Crown of Thorns.
|As imagined by Titian.|
Amazingly, this crown still survives- and if you want to, you can even kiss it. How's that for a bucket list experience? It's as close to Jesus as you will ever come...
The Crown of Thorns has a fascinating, and rather bizarre, history. Of course nobody knows if this is the real crown worn by Jesus. The first reference pops up in the 5th century. It's entirely possible that some enterprising bishop in the 3rd or 4th century wrapped together a few twigs and pawned them off as the True Crown, with the aim of securing a lucrative pilgrim business for his church. (Pilgrims were, and still are, Big Business. Ask anybody in Lourdes.)
What we do know is that Notre Dame's Crown has been considered to be the True Crown for almost a millennium. Its history is well-documented.
We know that in the 11th century the Crown was held in Constantinople. This is no surprise, as the city on the Bosphorus was the most important center of Christendom in the world, and held an eye-watering collection of riches and relics.
In 1204, in what must have been the biggest act of backstabbing ever, Western crusaders on their way to the Holy Land plundered and then occupied Christian Constantinople. This treacherous raid was bankrolled by the Venetians, and with the Frankish crusaders firmly installed on the Byzantine throne, they wanted a return on their investment. The crusader king, Baldwin, couldn't cough up the required dough (about 13000 gold ducats) and instead dropped off the Crown of Thorns in a Venetian pawnshop.
You know how pawn shops work- if you don't pay your debts, somebody else can buy your pawn. And that's what happened. The French King Louis IX sniffed an opportunity, and snapped up the Crown from the Venetians, after paying off the outstanding loan.
Mightily pleased with his catch, he hauled the Crown back to Paris were he had a little shrine built to house it: the Sainte Chapelle, still one of the most sublime examples of Gothic architecture this side of Jerusalem, consecrated in 1248.
Funnily enough, over the years the Crown has lost its thorns. It was quite common for relics to be chopped up in order to stretch them a little. (There were enough pieces of the True Cross of Jesus's crucifixion in 16th century Europe that Erasmus quipped that if they were all put together, there would be enough wood to fill a merchant ship.)
The thorns of the Crown, separated from the branches, turned into relics of their own and were frequently gifted to curry favour with foreign dignitaries or as royal wedding presents ('What would you like for your wedding, my queen?' 'Well, we received a bit of the True Cross for our engagement shower, so how about putting a thorn of the True Crown on our wedding list?'). There's 60 or 70 of them around the world- none of them remain in Paris but they can be found in, amongst others, Rome, Pisa, Ghent, and Prague.
The Crown is not on regular display. It's hauled out only on the first Friday of each month (and every Friday during Lent). It takes a bit of planning and dedication to see it. But when you do, you can really get up close and personal.
On these Fridays, at 3 pm, the Crown is ceremoniously brought out into the Cathedral for veneration. It is carried in procession by the Knights (and Dames) of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, you also get to see real knights: the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre are members of a crusader order founded around 1099, to protect the Holy Land from infidels. Flash forward almost 1000 years, and these modern-day knights don't wear harnesses, but don fancy capes, and rather than slashing infidels, they excel at crowd control, shepherding the faithful that line up to venerate the Crown.
|Knight in shining cape.|
This is your chance to get up close and personal with the Crown. And when Catholics use the word 'veneration' they mean it: you are supposed to kiss the Crown (or rather the glass tube in which it is held) and fondling, kneeling and tearful sniffing are common too. No need to worry about communicable diseases: a helpful Knight stands behind the Crown, cleaning the glass surface with a wet wipe after every faithful smooch. Even the most germophobic pilgrim should be reassured.
|Many worshippers go down on their knees before the kiss.|
Most pilgrims know why they are here: when Minor Sights visited we were surrounded by Indian, African, Russian, Armenian, as well as French and American believers. The mass is held in the center of the Church at the main altar, while 100s of tourists mill about, snapping selfies and mostly ignorant of what's on display at this unique mass, right under their nose.
Well, we're going to assume you're able to find Notre Dame by yourself. It's hard to miss, after all.
If the queue to enter the cathedral looks daunting, it may be worth checking if there is a special entrance for those who wish to attend mass (which there was when Minor Sights visited.)
The official website of Notre Dame de Paris has the lowdown about how and when to visit.