A term used to designate the nails with which the Roman soldiers fastened Jesus to the cross. Although their history and present location are uncertain, the holy nails are regarded with veneration by Christians because of their connection with the crucifixion of Jesus.
The Roman manner of crucifixion was by means of ropes or nails or both together. The narratives of the passion of christ in the Bible, with their bare statement of the event, do not specify whether ropes or nails were used in the Crucifixion of Jesus. More informative are the accounts of the resurrected Christ; that of John explicitly states that Jesus' hands carried the mark of the nails (Jn 20.25, 27), while that of Luke, according to the commonly accepted text, states that the feet, too, carried such marks (Lk 24.39). The Septuagint translation of Ps 21 (22).17 (traditionally taken as a messianic psalm) as "They have dug [ὤρυξαν] my hands and my feet" helped to establish the view that the feet of Jesus were also nailed to the cross.
In regard to the feet, the iconography of Christian tradition shows three successive stages: the earliest representations of Jesus on the cross (on the carved door of Santa Sabina, Rome, and the crucifix in St. Martin's cathedral, Lucca, Italy—both from the fifth century) show only the hands of Jesus nailed to the cross; from the sixth to the 12th century each foot is represented as nailed separately to the cross; from the 13th century onward the image of Jesus on the cross is generally depicted with only one nail piercing both feet, with one foot on top of the other. Yet the witness of iconography, far removed from the actual event, has followed custom based on uncertain traditions. The Holy shroud of turin indicates that the feet of Jesus were nailed, but it does not give clear evidence whether they were nailed separately or together. However, it would have been difficult for executioners to pierce both feet of a condemned man with a single nail; hence it seems probable that Jesus' feet were nailed separately.
The history of the holy nails is less certain than their number. St. helena is credited with having found the holy nails when she discovered the true cross of Jesus. According to St. gregory of tours (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 71:710) two of the nails were used to make a bit for the bridle of Constantine's horse, and another was used to decorate his statue. At present some 30 nails, each purporting to be one of the original holy nails, are venerated throughout the world. Which, if any, of these is authentic will probably never be determined because of the maze of devotion and emotion that has accumulated around them.
Bibliography: j. w. hewitt, "The Use of Nails in the Crucifixion," Harvard Theological Review (Cambridge, Ma. 1908–) 25 (1932) 29–45. l. h. grondijs, L'Iconographie byzantine du Crucifié mort sur la croix (2d ed. Brussels 1947). c. e. pocknee, Cross and Crucifix in Christian Worship and Devotion (London 1962). j. blinzler, The Trial of Jesus, tr. i. and f. mchugh (Westminster, Md. 1959) 264–265. p. barbet, A Doctor at Calvary, (New York 1954). w. bulst, The Shroud of Turin, tr. s. mckenna and j. j. galvin (Milwaukee 1957) 38, 49, 62.
[m. w. schoenberg]