This reliquary was made to house a relic of the Crown of Thorns, the wreath of thorns placed on the head of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion.
The thorn is displayed behind a crystal window and is identified by a Latin inscription: Ista est una spinea corone / Domine nostri ihesu cristi ("This is a thorn from the crown of Our Lord Jesus Christ").
Who was the original owner of this outstanding object? Research has indicated that the two enameled plaques on the front of the castellated base relate to Jean, duc de Berry (1340-1416). An inventory dating from 1401-3 describing the possessions of the Duc de Berry mentions a grand, imperial crown set with four Holy Thorns which was broken up and its components re-used.
Pearls, rubies and sapphires
The reliquary is a wonderful example of the art of émail en ronde bosse. Pearls and rubies are arranged alternately around the compartment which holds the relic. Two sapphires are incorporated into the design: one at the apex and the other used as a mount for the thorn itself.
A dramatic scene of the Last Judgement surrounds the relic, featuring the Virgin Mary (to the left), St John the Baptist (to the right) and Christ (center). Around the outside are arranged figures of the twelve Apostles with God the Father at the top.
At the bottom, four angels sound trumpets as the dead emerge from their tombs.
Angels blowing trumpets, and the dead emerge from their tombs (detail), Holy Thorn Reliquary of Jean, duc de Berry, before 1397, 30 x 14.2 x 6.8 cm, gold, enamel, rock crystal, pearls, rubies, sapphires (The British Museum)
Behind the figure of God is a gold relief of the Holy Face on the cloth of St Veronica, a fragment of which may have been held in the secondary compartment at the reverse. This is protected by two gold doors decorated with reliefs of Saints Christopher and Michael. The doors are delicately stippled, suggesting that they too were once enameled. A sensational story supports this suggestion.
The reliquary's history
When the reliquary came to the British Museum in 1898, its full history was unknown. However, it had been on loan from the Geistliche Schatzkammer, Vienna to the 1860 Exhibition. After the exhibition it was sent with four other items to the workshop of Salomon Weininger for restoration. Weininger made fakes of each item to take the place of the originals, which he sold. Only in 1959, when the fake reliquary was brought to London and compared with the original, was the truth established. The fake reliquary has enameled doors on the reverse—a detail which a forger would not invent—indicating that the original enamel must have been lost or removed between 1860 and 1898, when it came to the British Museum.
J. Bowker, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Religion (Cambridge, 2002).
J. Cherry, The Holy Thorn Reliquary (London, 2010).
J. Evans, "The Duke of Orleans reliquary of the Holy Thorn," Burlington Magazine, 78 (1941), pp. 196–201.
H.A. Klein, "Eastern Objects and Western Desires: Relics and Reliquaries between Byzantium and the West," Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 58 (2004), pp. 283–314.
H. Tait, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Beqeust (London, The British Museum Press, 1986).
D.H. Weiss, "Architectural Symbolism and the Decoration of the Ste.-Chapelle," The Art Bulletin, 77 (1995), 308–320.