Passiflora and the Crown of Thorns in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires

Published: May 15th 2011 | Updated: 17/01/15

On many occasions I have heard references to the importance of Passiflora as a symbolic plant in the Christian world. Before writing this chapter, I re-read the account of Smith and Stearn in their book on plant names. They write that the origin of the name derives from the observations of the first missionaries who arrived in South America, where many species of the genus grow. The missionaries saw in the flower allusion to the torture of Jesus of Nazareth (= passion).

The flower has a special structure with a “corona” of 1-2 circles of colored sift “thorns.” For those people it resembled the Crown of Thorns. The three styles and stigmas resembled the three nails used for the crucifixion and the five stamens resembled five wounds. Visiting Buenos Aires, I was impressed by the decoration of the floor of the Metropolitan Cathedral, near the famous “Red House” which was the palace of Evita Peron. The two prominent decorative elements in the floor were [Passiflora] and the Crown of Thorns (Figs. 15.2.24 -15.2.28).

There are large areas of mosaic showing simplified flowers of Passiflora seen from above (Fig. 15.2.27). Many species of Passiflora are long-stalked vines with tendrils that assist them in climbing trees. The builders of the cathedral made use of this decorative element in separating the section of the praying stalls from the route for congregants and visitors (Fig. 15.2.25). To show the similarity of the floor decoration and a Passiflora plant, photographs of the adventive [Passiflora morifolia] (courtesy of I. Marta) are presented here. The Crown of Thorns in the cathedral is an artistic work and is not based on a specific plant.

Fig. 15.2.24: Plant elements in the mosaic decoration of the Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires. Two stems of a vine species of Passiflora carry a flower, an opened flowering bud, leaves and tendrils. A “crown of thorns” is illustrated at the lower left corner.

Fig. 15.2.25: The elements described in Fig. 15.2.24 at another corner of the cathedral.

Fig. 15.2.26: The name in Latin – Passiflora and the common English name – passion flower are related to the passion of Jesus of Nazareth according to the belief of early missionaries arriving to South America. The corona of the flower symbolizes the “crown of thorns”; the three styles and stigmas symbolize the three nails and the five stamens symbolize five wounds. (Photograph – courtesy I. Marta).

Fig. 15.2.27: Decoration based on a single flower of Passiflora. This element is used on large areas of the floor.

Fig. 15.2.28: Passiflora morifolia (an alien plant in Israel) and the floor decoration of the Cathedral.

Crowns of Thorns

I did not make a comprehensive study of representations of the Crown of Thorns in Christian faith and art. I will list here only a few examples of using plants that do not belong to the flora of Israel and therefore serve as an unreliable substitute, in my personal view, for crowns of thorns having proof of authenticity. The authentic thorns were reviewed in the first half of the present review (Figs. [usefulplants04 15.1.26-15.1.32]). At the Church of St. John the Baptist in Turin there is a 1:1 photograph of the Shroud. There are Citrus thorns below that photograph. I pointed this out to my Italian colleague who has connections with that church and suggested using the thorns discovered in our investigation. He did not answer me and I do not know if my comments will have any effect.

In many souvenir shops close to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem one may buy a “crown of thorns” that looks like the ones in Figs. 15.2.29-15.2.31. This “crown” is made from long and thorny branches of [Parkinsonia aculeata] (Figs.15.2.33-15.2.32). This is an invasive tree of American origin, introduced into our area during the last 100 years as an ornamental tree and for hedgerows. I saw it growing spontaneously in savannas in Costa Rica, Central America. There are some structural similarities between Figs. 15.2.29 and 15.2.30 and the crown decorating the Cathedral floor in Buenos Aires (Fig. 15.2.24).

Fig. 15.2.29:A crown of Thorn made by folding long stems of the American tree Parkinsonia aculeata which was brought to Israel as an ornamental tree and became an invasive pest along roadsides and abandoned areas. Such “crowns” were sold in the last decades in souvenir shops in the Old Jerusalem.

Fig. 15.2.30: A close-up to the thorns in the Parkinsonia crown.

Fig. 15.2.31: A”crown of thorns” made from twigs of Parkinsonia aculeate and sold with a stamp of “certificate of origin”.

Fig. 15.2.32: A Parkinsonia aculeate tree.

Fig. 15.2.33: A stem and flowers of Parkinsonia aculeata.