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.
Read more at Catholic World Report