The Relic of Christ’s Passion That Really Isn’t

Now that Lent has begun, many visitors to Rome are actually Christian pilgrims, who make a point of searching out those relics which pertain to Our Lord’s sufferings and death on Good Friday. And in a little-known medieval church here, they often wrongly think that they’ve found one.

This column has traditionally been billed as the pillar to which Christ was tied when He Columnwas scourged. It was brought to Rome in 1223 by Cardinal Giovanni Colonna, a member of a noble Roman family who had been sent as papal legate to Constantinople. Heaven only knows how many millions of devout Christians have prayed and meditated on the Passion of Christ in front of this column over the centuries.

There’s just one problem with this column: it can’t possibly be authentic, for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the column is less than three feet (one meter) high.  Tying an adult male to a column in order to scourge him would naturally require that the column be much, much taller. There is no conceivable way that this short column could have been used for such a purpose! And no, the column isn’t broken: there’s a carved lip at both top and bottom, indicating that whatever its original purpose was, the column was always this tall.

Another issue is the stone of which the column is made: a fairly uncommon (and therefore rather costly) variegated green marble. Can you imagine a Roman garrison, stationed in a far-away outpost of the Empire, using something so expensive for the purpose of punishing criminals?

And finally, let’s not lose sight of the era in which this column was brought to Rome as a relic. In the Middle Ages, devout Catholics routinely transformed ordinary items into “relics”–not because they were intent on committing fraud, but simply because they were focused on fostering devotion rather than historical accuracy. Think about it: as already mentioned above, millions of Christians have looked at this column over the past 800 years and been prompted to meditate on the sufferings of Our Lord during His Passion. That’s exactly what Cardinal Colonna was thinking when he brought this “relic” home with him! It’s meant to be an aid to Christian piety, not an authentic artifact.

The truth is, nobody is sure what happened to the column to which Jesus Christ was tied when He was scourged. Remember that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Army in 70 A.D., under the future Emperor Titus, and so it probably went missing then and has been lost ever since. That doesn’t mean, however, that this short, fancy marble column isn’t worth a look; it could very well prompt you too to ponder for a moment or two the great sufferings which Our Lord endured for our redemption.