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Holy Thorn Reliquary

Holy Thorn Reliquary - British Museum - Joy of Museums 2

Holy Thorn Reliquary

The Holy Thorn Reliquary was created to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns. It is one of a small number of significant works that survive from the extravagant world of the courts of the Valois royal family around 1400. It is made of gold, lavishly decorated with jewels and pearls, and a total of 28 three-dimensional figures, mostly in white enamel.

The front view shows the end of the world and the Last Judgement, with the Trinity and saints above and the resurrection of the dead below, and the relic of a single long thorn believed to come from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified. The rear view is mostly in plain gold in low relief and has doors that opened to display a flat object, now missing, presumably another relic.

King Louis IX of France bought what he believed to be the authentic Crown of Thorns in Constantinople in 1239, and individual thorns were distributed as gifts by subsequent French kings. John, Duke of Berry (1340–1416), brother of King Charles V of France, had this reliquary made to house a single thorn. The reliquary later becomes part of the Habsburg collections from at least the 16th century until the 1860s, when it was replaced by a forgery. The reliquary eventually reached the British Museum as part of a bequest in 1899.


A reliquary is a term usually used to refer to a container of relics. These may be the purported or actual physical remains of saints, such as bones, pieces of clothing, or some object associated with saints or other religious figures. The authenticity of many relics is often a matter of debate.

Relics have long been important to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and many other religions. In these cultures, reliquaries are often presented in shrines, churches, or temples to which the faithful make pilgrimages. The term is also used loosely for containers for the body parts of non-religious figures. In particular, the Kings of France often specified that their hearts and sometimes other organs be buried in a different location from their main burial.

The use of reliquaries became a part of Christian practices from the 4th century, initially in the Eastern Churches, which adopted the practice of moving and dividing the bodies of saints much earlier than the West, probably in part because the new capital of Constantinople, lacked buried saints. Relics are venerated in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and some Anglican Churches.

The 16th-century reformers such as Martin Luther opposed the use of relics since many had no proof of historic authenticity, and they objected to the cult of saints. Many reliquaries, particularly in northern Europe, were destroyed by Calvinists during the Reformation, being melted down or pulled apart to recover precious metals and gems.

Reflections on Reliquary and Relics

  • Does modern non-religious culture have any equivalents to a Reliquary? Or Relics?
  • Why were so much wealth and effort put into such a small object of devotion?
  • What happened to the relic that was housed in this Reliquary?
  • What does the superb quality of the goldsmith tell us about the 1400s in Paris?


Holy Thorn Reliquary

  • Title:                Holy Thorn Reliquary
  • Created:        1400 (circa) – Paris
  • Materials:      Gold, sapphire, ruby, rock crystal, pearl, enamel
  • Dimensions: H: 30.5 cm; W: 15 cm (max); D: 7 cm; W: 1405 gm
  • Museum:      The British Museum


“Any relic of the dead is precious if they were valued living.”
― Emily Bronte


Photo Credit: 1)   JOM

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