Holy Thorn Preserved at Foot of Italian Alps; Renewed Studies of Rhamnus Thorns

Published: April 30th, 2012 | Updated: 17/01/15

Later in 2004, Giovanni Milesi contacted me from Italy, asking for my help in determining the origin of the holy thorn present in his village San Giovanni Bianco, in Bergamo, northern Italy. He sent me several photographs (Figs. 16.1.10, 16.1.11). In one of these pictures I saw a projection at the upper part of the thorn and informed Giovanni that there is a more than 50% likelihood that this thorn is indeed from [Rhamnus lycioides]. By the end of 2006 I arrived at a village at the foot of the Italian Alps. I stayed in a lovely hotel near a river flowing through the village center, swollen by water from melted snow. During the first day I sat with a translator who helped me by preparing Italian captions for my presentation. That evening I gave the lecture in English with simultaneous translation into Italian. It took place in the sports hall of the school and I was surprised to see half the villagers in the audience.

Fig.16.1.10: The thorn of the village S. Giovanni Bianco, northern Italy; kept there since 1495

Fig.16.1.11: A medal made to commemorate the holiday of March 25 – a holy day in S. Giovanni Bianco. There is an old legend that the Crown of Thorns will become a grape; the thorn on the lower left side of the medal displays a Rhamnus lycioides thorn I have sent to the village in 2005

Early on the following morning I met Giovanni and the priest responsible for the holy treasures of several villages in that area. In a small ceremony with very few attendants the priest removed the holy thorn from its permanent position, decorated with small gold statues and covered with a glass dome. We selected an improvised laboratory in the dark area at the back of the church and I installed the mobile dissecting microscope I had brought from Jerusalem. While sitting there, I heard slight noises increasing behind my back. Later I found out that the secret of my study of the thorn had been revealed to 20-30 members of the Holy Thorn Guild and a few professional photographers.

Cameras flashed every few seconds. I looked at the thorn without its glass cover (that had been removed “for me”). When I saw the projection, seen in the photographs that I had regarded as a possible lateral bud I understood better. It was a projection of brown translucent glue remaining from the repair of the broken tip of the thorn that was more than 500 years old. The Holy Thorn had been kept in this village since 1495 and its history is written in a book dedicated to it. I wrote a hand written report (in capital letters) in which I stated that I cannot endorse its origin to be of Rhamnus lycioides. I recommended also here to make an anatomical microscopic cross section. My hosts were waiting for a different report and I assume they were disappointed; not even one photograph of the event was sent to me from Italy. However, providing scientific truth is essential for me.

Renewed studies

At the beginning of 2011 we began corresponding with an English company named WAGTV dealing with the production of documentaries for the “National Geographic.” The story behind the new documentary deals with the study of a thorn believed to be part of the Crown of Thorns mentioned in the New Testament. The thorn of Andria was photographed by their team in southern Italy in August 2011. While checking it (Fig. 16.1.12), I recognized that the thorn’s bark had been removed. During my first study of the six thorns I searched for similarity to a living thorn with its prominent lateral buds. This approach is based on finding thorn images on the Shroud. Upon renewal of the studies in 2011 I recognized three parameters that may help to verify the botanical entity of the thorn (Fig. 16.1.13): 1. Peeling off the thorn’s bark with a knife leaves longitudinal flat strips (resembling the flat marks made by a caterpillar tractor or a bulldozer on rugged land during preparation of a road on a hill-side). 2. Removing a lateral bud revealed an elongated depression with a circular depression in the area where the bud center was situated.
3. Red-brown, slightly translucent tip, differing from the opaque white part of the thorn. After discovering these three parameters I wrote to the director of this TV program that I am ready to endorse, with 60% of confidence that the origin of the Andria thorn is from a Rhamnus lycioides thorn.

Fig.16.1.12: The Holy Thorn of Andria, Italy. This is a unique photograph where the brown-reddish tip is prominent

Tips of thorny lateral branches

Fig.16.1.13: Thorny branches of R. lycioides – the left and the central one have their bark and buds; the right one, after removal of its bark and buds by scratching with a knife. A brown-reddish tip is prominent in each branch after bark removal

The first obstacle is in the second parameter. I received photographs that were shot from one angle of the 360 degrees needed in order to decide about the arrangement of buds on the holy thorn. During the days after the recording of the interview in my office I concluded that my negative answers to the keepers of the six thorns needed to be re-examined. Such an examination of the thorns already recorded in Fleury’s book may improve our conclusions about their authenticity. I hoped to include thorns studies with a scheduled visit to Italy in March 2012. Unfortunately I did not have the cooperation of my Italian colleagues and I terminated my studies in this field.

A book on plant morphology (Bell, 1991) informs us that short thorny stems have a typical structure. As a result of harsh local growth conditions (e.g. shortage of water supply), their apical meristem cells and the cells below it die, while their cell walls thicken. I sent Rhamnus thorns to my friend Walter Naenny in Switzerland, with a request to prepare microscopic cross sections of their white and the red-brown parts. He sent many photographs from the white area in October (Figs. 16.1.14, 16.1.15), and from the red-brown tips (Figs. 16.1.16, 16.1.17) in November.

Fig.16.1.14: A microscopic cross-section in the white part of a R. lycioides thorn (by Walter Naenny)

Fig.16.1.15: A microscopic cross-section in the white part of a R. lycioides thorn. The rows of cells with large lumen and thin wall are of parenchyma and tracheas; the cells with thick walls and a small lumen are fibers; (by Walter Naenny)

Fig.16.1.16: A microscopic cross-section in the reddish-brown part of a R. lycioides thorn; outer part of the thorn (by Walter Naenny)

Fig.16.1.17: A microscopic cross-section as in Fig. 16.1.16, but the inner part of the thorn (by Walter Naenny)

A summary of my studies on development of stem thorns

[Rhamnus lycioides] is a winter-deciduous shrub; its hard thorns carry prominent lateral buds. In spring many buds sprout and carry leaf rosettes with flowers. Other buds sprout and produce soft lateral branches. When summer comes, the elongation growth ceases, tips become woody and hard and these short branches (technical botanical term – brachyblasts) become thorns. Shrubs developing in habitats that are not harsh produce branches that keep growing in summer. The branches terminating in long stems (dolichoblasts) are not lignified and keep growing. I found a similar situation in the small shrub [Convolvulus lanatus] in NW Sinai. There are large areas there with thorny shrubs of C. lanatus. It also grows in the sands of the western Negev; in the coastal dunes it grows also in the Ashkelon area.

The environmental growth conditions near Ashkelon and in the western Negev are better than those in NE Sinai sands and C. lanatus shrubs in the former sites do not produce thorny stems. In 1958, the Egyptian botanist, L. Boulos, described the coastal non-thorny C. lanatus as an independent species and named it C. elarishensis. The latter name was included by that author in the list of synonyms of C. lanatus in his later articles and books. We may therefore generalize and say that stem thorns such as those of species of Rhamnus, Crataegus, Amygdalus, and Pyrus are potential thorns that become thorns under harsh conditions, but they remain soft under good growth conditions.