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The Holy Sponge is one of the Instruments of the Passion of Jesus Christ. It was dipped in vinegar (or in some translations sour wine), most likely posca, a favorite beverage of Roman soldiers, and offered to Christ to drink during the Crucifixion, according to Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36; and John 19:29. An object that was identified as the Holy Sponge was later identified and venerated in Palestine, in the Upper Room of the Constantinian Basilica, where St. Sophronius spoke of it, c. 600 AD:
- "And let me go rejoicing
- to the splendid sanctuary, the place
- where the noble Empress Helena
- found the divine Wood;
- and go up,
- my heart overcome with awe,
- and see the Upper Room,
- the Reed, the Sponge, and the Lance.
- Then may I gaze down
- upon the fresh beauty of the Basilica
- where choirs of monks
- sing nightly songs of worship." (Sophronius)
Though a piece of the Holy Sponge, brown with blood, is preserved in Rome in the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, and held in great veneration, this should not be confused with the sponge of Saint Praxedis, which is not the Holy Sponge. When 23 Christians were discovered in the home of St. Praxedis, they were martyred before her very eyes. She had the presence of mind to collect their blood with a sponge and placed it in a well, where she herself was later buried, marked by the disk in the Basilica's floor. The Holy Sponge itself is in the Chapel of the Relics at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.
Of all the churches in Rome, Santa Croce has one of the richest collections of relics. A special chapel was therefore built for them in 1930. A staircase to the left of the choir leads to this chapel, where one can see three pieces of the True Cross, one of its nails, a fragment of the INRI ("Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") inscription, two thorns from Christ's crown of thorns, a piece of the sponge that was held up to him, one of the silver pieces paid to Judas, St Thomas's finger which touched the wounds of Christ, and the crossbar from the Good Thief's cross. The paving stones are said to have been laid on a substantial amount of earth from Golgotha.
Aside from the Basilica of St. John Lateran, more pieces of the Holy Sponge are preserved in Rome at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, at Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, and at St. Mary in Campitelli.
There is an alternate narrative regarding the Holy Sponge, as it is said that in the 7th century, Nicetas, who took part in the conquest of Egypt from the usurper Phocas, was famed for bringing the Holy Sponge and the Holy Lance (the "Lance of Longinus") to Constantinople from Palestine in 612; from 619 to 628/9 he appears to have been exarch of Africa. His daughter Gregoria was betrothed to her cousin Heraclius Constantine, the heir of Emperor Heraclius.
The Holy Sponge remained in Constantinople until it was bought from the Latin emperor at Constantinople, Baldwin II, for an exorbitant sum, by Louis IX of France, among the relics he needed for the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. There it remained, with the Crown of Thorns and a bit of the True Cross, until the French Revolutionaries ravaged the Sainte-Chapelle and dispersed the relics, some of which went briefly to the Bibliothèque Nationale, but before long they were no more seen. Later however they were restored to Notre-Dame de Paris.
Part of the Holy Sponge is said to be still preserved at the church of St. Jacques de Compiègne in France. Charlemagne also is said to have acquired a piece of the sponge, which is venerated in the cathedral at his capital, Aachen.
- Knopf (1994). Guide to Rome.