Friday, 30 March 2012

Treasures of Heaven

When I was in Paris at Easter last year, I went into Notre Dame.  Whilst I was there, a ceremony took place which had at its centre a large round glass case held by the priests, which a line of people were approaching to venerate, some on their knees.  As I sat and watched, I realised that the object in the case was the Crown of Thorns.

It gave me quite a jolt when I realised what it was I was seeing.  Having studied Fine Art, which is all bound up with the patronage of religion, I've seen a lot of reliquaries and unusual holy objects, from parts of the cross to bits of saints.

I've been to Jerusalem, to the Dome of the Rock, the exact location where Christ is said to have been crucified, and to Bethlehem, supposedly where the stable was.  Bethlehem was rather an underwhelming and unromantic place, but in Jerusalem, you could put your hand into the indentation in the rock where the cross would have been held upright during crucifixtion.  The intense atmosphere of everyone in the confined space of the vaulted room where the rock is was highly charged, and some people actually fainted when they felt the rock.

In Notre Dame, some approached the Crown of Thorns on their knees, and almost passed out when they were in front of it, such was the intensity of the moment.

Whether or not you believe that you can place your hand in the indentation of the stone of the exact spot where Christ was crucified, or that that object in the glass case in front of you in Notre Dame truly is the Crown of Thorns that touched the head of Christ, is not actually the point of a relic.

The potency and power of the object lies in the fact that it is the focus and embodiment of human belief and faith.  As such, it is a direct conduit to heaven, and therein lies its power. Instead of being separated from God, you are by your faith directly connected, just for a moment.

I don't know if you caught the BBC4 programme Treasures of Heaven, in which Andrew Graham Dixon looked at reliquaries, including the Crown of Thorns in Notre Dame.  Unfortunately it's no longer available on i-Player, although you can see more details and a small clip at Treasures of Heaven.  

It's a really interesting little programme, a gem in itself.  However the most memorable and moving moment is also the bit which you will need the strongest stomach for - I'll just say it's a very visceral moment involving an eye.

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