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Reliquary Crown of Thorns (Cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur)

Reliquary Crown of Thorns (Cathedral of Saint Aubin in Namur)

Not all crowns are meant to be worn by monarchs and princes. These are reliquary crowns from northern Europe—the opulent gems and precious metals exist purely in a supporting role to add gravity and ornament to the truly important sacred objects allegedly within. These sacred relics were usually pieces of the bones of Saints or splinters of the true cross—somewhat common sacred artifacts in the medieval world where bones and splinters were plentiful and provenance was dodgy. The crown at the top is in St. Aubin Cathedral in Namur, Belgium, and it is said to contain a splinter of the true cross. The very lovely crown below is the reliquary crown of Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor from 1014 AD until his death in 1024 AD. Henry II worked ceaselessly during his reign as king and later as emperor to minimize the power of greedy nobles by making bishops more influential. The Catholic Church greatly appreciated this support and Henry II was canonized in 1146 AD by Pope Eugene III. Presumably the crown, (which is today kept at the Cathedral of Bamberg in Bavaria) contains some piece of Henry II—although there is an outside chance it was his actual crown. It is worth enlarging the photo of Henry’s reliquary crown to better see all of the strange little details such as the antique cameos, the fleur-de-lis, and the angels standing on acanthus leaves.

Reliquary Crown of Henry II (Bamberg Cathedral)

Reliquary Crown of Henry II (Bamberg Cathedral)


The Iron Crown of Lombardy

I have written about the ancient Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Europe’s other truly ancient crown is the Iron Crown of Lombardy, which doubles as a reliquary containing a nail reputedly used to crucify Jesus.  Myth relates that the nail was originally the property of Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great.  It is said that the sacred nail was later given to Princess Theodelinda of the Lombards in some unfathomable act of Byzantine diplomacy and she then incorporated it into her crown (which was given to her by Pope Gregory the Great in recognition for converting the Lombards to Christianity).

Although the actual age and make of the Iron Crown are unknown and shrouded in myth, laboratory tests performed on bits of wax and caustic from the crown seem to indicate it was made in the middle of the 8th century AD.  It is constructed of six segments of gold and enamel hinged together.  In addition to its famous band of iron, it is decorated with 22 jewels set inside relief forms of flowers and crosses.  The crown is small and may be missing segments (or may have actually been intended for some other use).

An illustration of the Iron Crown of Lombardy

It seems the Iron Crown was a sort of afterthought to the Holy Roman Emperors who traditionally traveled to Rome for their imperial coronations.  On the way back to Central Europe they would stop in Lombardy to be crowned as Kings of Italy. Napoleon followed this tradition and placed the crown on his own head in 1805 in Milan.  He even went so far as to proclaim the ancient ceremonial (grabby) words of coronation which go with the throne of Lombardy, “Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche. (God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it.)” Admittedly he said the phrase in French.

Whoever wears the crown is King of Italy (albeit not always a united Italy), but it has not been claimed since 1838 when Emperor Ferdinand I proclaimed himself King of Lombardy and Venetia .  It can still be found in the cathedral of Monza near Milan where it has been for more than a millennium (except for the years when it was kept in Vienna among Ferdinand’s crown jewels).

Monza Cathedral where the Iron Crown is located today

The Iron Crown also has a rich literary tradition and appears in many stories and fables.  My favorite allusion comes in Moby Dick when Ahab watches a sunset and fantasizes that he is wearing the Iron Crown of Lombardy as he contemplates his own madness.

Speaking of craziness, although I have no evidence, I know in my heart that Silvio Berlusconi has found a way to spend some time with the Crown of Lombardy and a mirror.  If you think about the nature of the current Prime Minister of Italy (who is also Italy’s wealthiest private citizen and a Lombard from Milan) you will come to the same conclusion.  The real question is whether he was wearing anything else when he put it on and how many other people were involved.

"Thats-a not nice! What did-a Silvio do to you, eh?"

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

June 2023