Scattered all over the world, in cathedrals and chapels, there are perhaps three dozen crude iron nails claiming to be the nails that pierced the flesh of Christ. With so many claimants, it’s tempting to dismiss them all as pious frauds and get it over with, but are there any with a legitimate claim to authenticity? Even if they don’t, does that mean they aren’t relics?
The relics of the cross have only one point of origin in the history of the Church: the pilgrimage of Saint Helena to the land of the wedge (326-328). Saint Ambrose tells us that she
sought the nails with which the Lord had been crucified, and found them. With one nail she ordered a bridle to be made, with the other she wove a diadem. [Emphasis added] She transformed one into ornamental use, the other into devotional use. … She sent to her son Constantine a diadem adorned with jewels which were intertwined with the iron of the Cross and contained the most precious jewel of divine redemption. She sent the bridle, too. Constantine used both and passed on his faith to later kings. And so the beginning of the faith of the emperors is the holy relic which is on the bridle. From there came the faith by which the persecution ended and devotion to God took its place. (Funeral oration on the death of Theodosius47)
This mention of two objects created with the nails led to an early belief that only two nails pierced the Lord, one through each hand, but the text does not support this. Ambrose only accounts for using nails to create two things, but that doesn’t mean there were only two nails. Naturally, there’s also the question of whether Helena did, in fact, collect the real nails from the Holy Land, or whether the helpful locals simply passed off a random hardware store as the genuine item.
As we trace the progression of these relics, it is important to keep in mind the different levels of “authenticity”. Confirming the actual nails used in the crucifixion is beyond us at this point, and was already beyond Helen’s ability in 326. However, the nails that Helen retrieved are themselves an important part of the story. Due to their role in history and their intersection with myriad saints throughout the centuries, they are true relics of the faith even though they cannot be verified as relics of the crucifixion. Additionally, even replica nails can be genuine first-class relics if they contain chips of a real nail, or third-class relics if they simply touched a real nail.
Archaeological evidence can provide clues to determine which nails have plausible claims. In 1968, graves discovered in an area called Givʿat ha-Mivtar revealed the remains of a young man named Yehoḥanan, who probably died around AD 7. The remains showed evidence of crucifixion, with a single nail still piercing both heels. This provides a snapshot of the era for comparison purposes and helps eliminate some candidates. For example, a nail kept at Notre-Dame is too short, while the one kept at Trier is not old enough and also too short. Others preserved at Toul, Cologne and Essenes have weak claims to authenticity.
Some nails, however, are similar to the nail of Yehohanan, with those from Rome, Siena, and Milan claiming to be the three nails recovered by Helena. Whether these are in fact the crucifixion nails is more than we can say with certainty, but it is intriguing to find nails with a plausible 4th century provenance matching so closely an early 1st century nail. found in a tomb in the 20th century.
The Nail of the Holy Cross (Rome)
The first place we must turn to is the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem (Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme) in Rome, consecrated in 325 with a floor that included soil from the Holy Land. Therefore, the name “in Jerusalem” does not refer to the cross or the location, but to the basilica itself, which is “in Jerusalem” because it sits on the ground of Jerusalem. According to tradition, the basilica was built around the personal palace chapel of Saint Helena, itself built on the former site of a temple of Sol Invictus (the invincible Sun). A chapel houses various relics of the crucifixion, and at one time the nail was kept there along with pieces of the titulus (the sign placed on the cross) and fragments of the crosses of Christ and the Good Thief.
The Holy Cross nail is similar in shape to the Yehohanan nail, but at 11.5cm it is significantly shorter. This appears to be due to the original head and tip breaking off. Other pieces have likely been removed over the years as relics. Some of the nails that claim to be real are very similar to the nail of the Holy Cross, so it’s entirely possible that filings or whole pieces of the original were incorporated into replicas designed to look like the nail of the Holy Cross.
Given the basilica’s continuing history and connection to Helena, the nail of the Holy Cross has the best claim of being recovered by Helena. The location is okay and it looks like the material, shape and size are okay. Indeed, the width of the Yehonanan nail and the Holy Cross nail (0.9cm) are almost identical.
The two remaining nails were sent by Helena to her son in Constantinople, where one was kept for many centuries in the Byzantine imperial treasury. In 1354 it was purchased by a Venetian merchant, who sought the advice of the papal nuncio in Constantinople. Confirmation came from Empress Irene Asanina, who had sold it after the abdication of her husband, Emperor John VI. The sale of relics being prohibited, the nail was given as a “gift” to the Santa Maria della Scala hospital in Siena. He arrived in Siena in procession in 1359, and the Manto Chapel was eventually built to house him.
Is it authentic? Again, the chain of custody is strong. The nail itself is similar in size and shape to both the Holy Cross nail and the Yehohanan nail, and that’s all we can really say.
The Bridle Nail (Milan)
Constantine’s other nail was forged into a bridle and helmet for the emperor. Writing in the 5th century, Theodoret of Cyrus claimed that it was a single nail, split in two, with one part embedded in the helmet and another fused into a flange.
Today, Milan and Carpentras both claim the bridle. Milan’s claim is stronger, as it was there that Emperor Theodosius I died in 395, leaving his imperial regalia to Saint Ambrose.
The twisted piece of metal could definitely be a piece of horse bridle. It resided continuously in the Church of Santa Thecla until 1389, when it was moved in procession to Milan Cathedral, where it is kept today. When a plague hit the city in 1567, Saint Charles Borromeo walked across the street barefoot with a cross and the reliquary of the nail. The end of the plague was attributed to this act.
To celebrate the deliverance, a special canopy elevator, painted to look like a cloud and adorned with angels, was created. Thanks to an ingenious seriousness of ropes and pulleys, the basket is raised to the vault of the cathedral 45 meters above, where the reliquary of the nail is kept for most of the year. Every year for 400 years, it has been presented in the annual Nivola Rite. It was May 3 (the Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross), until the holy day was removed from the calendar. It now takes place on September 14. Locals claim that Leonardo designed the elevator. (He did not do it.)
As for Constantine’s helmet, history is silent.
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