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The Holy Crown of Thorns on display at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2014.
Reuters/Philippe Wojazer
The Holy Crown of Thorns on display at Notre Dame Cathedral in 2014.
ZIZIPHUS SPINA CHRISTI

Meet the man responsible for restoring the art in Notre Dame cathedral. He’s the insurance agent

By Ephrat Livni

On this Easter Sunday, Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ following his crucifixion. For Catholics in Paris, the holiday is especially poignant this year, as the Cathedral of Notre Dame stands scorched and scarred from a fire on April 15—a reminder of the impermanence of all things, even the most seemingly enduring of edifices. 

But there is also cause for celebration. Contemporary events mirrored religious history. The destruction at the start of Holy Week was accompanied by an outpouring of love from people around the world and pledges to rebuild the cathedral that inspired literary geniuses and spiritual seekers alike, promising a rebirth of sorts. Like Christ, Notre Dame will be resurrected.

Plans for restoration were underway even as the flames still blazed. Michel Honore, head of fine arts at Sedgwick, is among those tasked with restoring the beloved ancient cathedral to its former glory. He is the insurance assessor for Le trésor de Notre-Dame, or the Treasure of Notre Dame, a collection of holy relics and artworks that reside in the cathedral, including the crown of thorns that Jesus wore on the cross and that is kept in a special chest.

Officially, Honore’s job is to assess the damage caused by the fire for the purpose of insurance claims. But to perform that role properly, he must understand the value of the art himself and assemble a team of artisans to help with the restoration.

“Often, people believe that our job is just to go and say no, to deny claims, but that is most certainly not the case,” Honore says. “We’re here to help. Our first job is to help. We are on the scene. We are there to accompany in a difficult time and to provide guidance.”

A moment of relief

Honore says that watching Notre Dame burn was heartbreaking. “It’s a masterpiece, a part of my history and France’s history,” he explains. “It was a difficult psychological moment for France and for the world.”

Yet he had little time to contemplate the pain. As firefighters worked to stop the blaze, Honore was already assembling a team of 30 specialists in sculpture, stained glass, fabrics, painting, frames, ancient instruments, and more. These are the people who will work on assessing the state of the Treasure and restoring the cathedral’s damaged altar.

Honore says that thanks to a detailed plan that was “perfectly executed,” and to the fine work of firefighters, it seems now that about 90% of the Treasure was saved. 

Paris’ Deputy Mayor for Tourism and Sports, Jean-Francois Martins explained to CBS This Morning on April 16, “We made a human chain, with our friends from the church…Very quickly a team was fully dedicated to save all these holy pieces, and specifically the relics and the crown.”

Still, there are masterpieces inside the cathedral that could not be removed, like an organ and the altar at the heart of Notre Dame and some of the artwork. These were probably damaged by smoke and water, Honore imagines, although he wasn’t able to enter the cathedral last week to start his assessment.

He rushed to the scene immediately, and hoped to enter with his team of experts on April 17, two days after the blaze, but it was too soon. Honore was forced to watch the smoldering historical building from a safe distance, along with Parisians who lined the streets and stared. He expects his team’s work will begin in earnest in the coming days and that they will start to take stock of the damage and formulate a detailed restoration plan.

Each object or work, whether removable or fixed in the cathedral, has already been rigorously assessed by art experts. While it’s difficult to put a monetary price on things with a profound spiritual value that are essentially priceless to people of faith, Honore says that his work today is made relatively easy by the expert valuations. These describe each artifact in great detail, including providing where to find the specialists who can restore an ancient painting or frame, say, in the precise way that these arts and crafts were practiced in the past.

Ziziphis spina christi

Of course, not every object can be restored or replaced. Honore points out that he’s deeply relieved that the crown of thorns, for example, was saved from the recent blaze. Otherwise, this holy relic would be gone forever, and with it, an important piece of Christian history.

Today, the crown of thorns is revered by Catholics. But its origins are bittersweet. This painful wreath that Jesus wore on the cross when Roman soldiers crucified him in Jerusalem in the early first century was a punishment, a mockery, and a form of torture. It’s one of the instruments of the Passion, a symbol of Christ’s  suffering, and its story is told in the Book of Matthew in the New Testament:

The soldiers of the governor took Jesus… And they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. When they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand. And they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:27-29) 

 The crown is said to be made from the branches of a Jujube tree, the Ziziphus spina christi (pdf), a deciduous tree native to much of Africa from Mauritania through the Sahara and Sahel deserts in the west all the way to the Red Sea. According to the World Agroforestry Center, the tree is not native to Jerusalem; however, the exotic torture instrument has long grown throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It has a light gray bark, cracked, scaly and twisted trunk, and lots of flexible branches that grow thorns in pairs, one straight, the other curved, which can grow longer than an inch. 

Today what remains of the crown that was held in the treasury of Notre Dame is the naked wreath. Normally, it’s kept in a round rock crystal reliquary and displayed to the public on the first Friday of the month and on every Friday during Lent. And it’s not entirely certain that this is actually the wreath that Jesus is said to have worn.

Texts from the early sixth century through the ninth century indicate that the crown was on display in the Basilica of Mount Zion, near the Old City of Jerusalem. It was transferred to Constantinople, now the Turkish city of Istanbul, in the early 11th century. Over the years, thorn by thorn it was shorn. In 1238, Baldwin II, the latin emperor of Constantinople offered the French king Louis IX the relic in exchange for support for his teetering empire, which is how the wreath made its way to Paris

Still, it’s impossible to determine whether this is the real thing, and many have laid claim to portions of this instrument of the Passion, quite possibly fraudulently in order to inspire holy pilgrimages. Churches in Belgium and Germany historically boasted thorns. Italians claim two thorns, branches, and a small part of the crown in Gerusalemme, Rome, Pisa, and Naples. Spanish bishops dispute the French and Italian remains, claiming they have seven thorns in three cathedrals. In England, three locales display thorns and, across the pond, there is a single thorn in St. Anthony’s Chapel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

What’s certain now is that the crown of Notre Dame’s Treasure will only be more legendary and special after surviving the fire that threatened to destroy one of the world’s most memorable buildings. When the cathedral is restored, inside and outside, and Honore and his team are finally done with their work, the holy relic will continue to inspire cultural and religious pilgrims, as it has done for centuries, their memories blazed by the devastating scene in Paris last week.

As Notre Dame rector Patrick Chauvet told the Associated Press, “I believe that from this suffering there will be a renaissance.”