Spread throughout the world, in cathedrals and chapels, are perhaps three dozen rough iron nails claiming to be the nails that pierced the flesh of Christ. With so many claimants, there’s a temptation to dismiss them all as pious frauds and be done with it, but do any have a legitimate claim to authenticity? Even if they don’t, does that mean they are not relics?
Relics of the cross have a single point of origin in church history: St. Helena’s pilgrimage to the hold land (326-328). St. Ambrose tells us that she
sought the nails with which the Lord was crucified, and found them. From one nail she ordered a bridle to be made, from the other she wove a diadem. [Emphasis added] She turned the one to an ornamental, the other to a devotional, use. … She sent to her son Constantine a diadem adorned with jewels which were interwoven with the iron of the Cross and enclosed the more precious jewel of divine redemption. She sent the bridle, also. Constantine used both, and transmitted his faith to later kings. And so the beginning of the faith of the emperors is the holy relic which is upon the bridle. From that came the faith whereby persecution ended and devotion to God took its place. (Funeral Oration on The Death of Theodosius, 47)
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 doesn’t support this. Ambrose only accounts for the use of nails in creating two things, but that doesn’t mean there were only two nails. Naturally, there’s also the question of whether Helena did, in fact, recover the genuine nails in the Holy Land, or if helpful locals simply passed off some random ironmongery as the genuine article.
As we trace the progress of these relics, it’s important to keep in mind the various levels of “genuine.” Confirming the actual nails used in the crucifixion is beyond us at this point in time, and indeed was already beyond the ability of Helena in 326. However, the nails recovered by Helena are themselves an important piece of history. Due to their role in history and intersection with myriad saints throughout the centuries, they are true relics of the faith even if they can’t be verified as relics of the crucifixion. Furthermore, even replica nails my be authentic first class relics if they include shavings from a genuine nail, or third-class relics if they merely touched a genuine nail.
Archaeological evidence may provide some clues to determining which nails have plausible claims. In 1968, tombs discovered in an area called Givʿat ha-Mivtar revealed the remains of a young man named Yehoḥanan, who probably died around 7 AD. The remains showed evidence of crucifixion, with a single nail still piercing both heels. This provides a nail of the era for comparison, and helps eliminate certain candidates. For example, a nail kept in Notre Dame is too short, while one kept in Trier is not old enough and also too short. Others kept in Toul, Cologne, and Essene have weak claims to authenticity.
Some nails, however, are similar to Yehohanan’s nail, with those in Rome, Siena, and Milan having fair claims to being the three nails recovered by Helena. Whether those are in fact the nails of the crucifixion is more than we can say for sure, but it’s 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 Holy Cross Nail (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. Hence, the name “in Jerusalem” refers not to the cross or location, but to the Basilica itself, which is “in Jerusalem” because it sits on soil from Jerusalem. According to tradition, the Basilica was built around St. Helena’s personal palace chapel, which itself had been built on the former site of a temple to Sol Invictus (the Invincible Sun). A chapel houses various relics of the crucifixion, and at one point the nail was kept there together 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, significantly shorter. This appears to be because the original head and the point broke off. Other pieces were probably removed over the years as relics. Some of the nails that claim to be real are very similar to the Holy Cross nail, so it’s quite possible filings or whole pieces of the original were integrated into replicas made to look like the Holy Cross Nail.
Given the continuous history of the Basilica and connection to Helena, the Holy Cross nail has the best claim to being one recovered by Helena. The location is right, and it appears to be the correct material, shape, and, size. Indeed, the width of the Yehonanan nail and the Holy cross nail (0.9cm) are almost identical.
The Siena Nail
The remaining two nails were sent by Helena to her son in Constantinople, where one was held for many centuries in the Byzantine imperial treasury. In 1354, it was purchased by a Venetian merchant, who sought the opinion of the papal nuncio in Constantinople. Confirmation came from the empress Irene Asanina, who had sold it after the abdication of her husband, Emperor John VI. Since selling relics was forbidden, the nail was signed over as a “gift” to the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital in Siena. It arrived in Siena in procession in 1359, and the Manto Chapel was eventually built to house it.
Is it genuine? Again, the chain of custody is strong. The nail itself is similar in size and shape to both the Holy Cross nail and the nail of Yehohanan, and that’s as much as we can really say.
The Bridle Nail (Milan)
The other Constantine nail was said to have been forged into a bridle and a helmet for the emperor. Writing in the 5th century, Theodoret of Cyrus claimed that this was a single nail, split in half, with one part embedded in the helmet, and another melted into a bridle.
Today, Milan and Carpentras both claim the bridle. Milan’s claim is stronger, because it was where emperor Theodosius I died in 395, leaving his imperial insignia to St. Ambrose.
The piece of twisted metal could certainly be a piece of a horse’s bridle. It resided continually in the Church of St. Thecla until 1389, when it was moved in procession to the Cathedral of Milan, where it is kept today. When a plague hit the city in 1567, St. Charles Borromeo processed barefoot through the street 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 canopied lift, painted to look like a cloud and festooned with angels, was created. Through an ingenious serious of ropes and pulleys, the basket is raised to the cathedral vault 45 meters above, where the reliquary of the nail is kept most of the year. Every year for the past 400 years it is brought down in the annual Rite of the Nivola. This was on May 3rd (the feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross), until the holy day was dropped from the calendar. It now takes place on September 14th. Locals claim Leonardo designed the lift. (He didn’t.)
As for the helmet of Constantine, history is silent.
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