Along with the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns, the Holy Sponge is a relic known as an "Instrument of the Passion."
There are many relics that have survived the 2,000 years since Christ’s moment of ultimate victory. Known as the Arma Christi (“Weapons of Christ”), or the Instruments of the Passion, these important items include the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the nails, the Holy Lance, and even the Holy Sponge.
There are few sources that have traced the history and movements of the Holy Sponge, but Shawn Norris from Rome Across Europe — a site that focuses on all things concerning the Roman Empire’s conquest of the European continent — has done an excellent job of gathering what information is available into one spot.
The Holy Sponge was famously soaked in sour wine, most likely a cheap wine or vinegar known as posca, that was consumed by the lower soldier and slave classes and which was raised to Christ’s lips just before he commended his spirit to the Father. The Holy Sponge is mentioned in Matthew 27:48, Mark 15:36, and John 19:29.
Little is known of the Holy Sponge’s whereabouts for the 300 years after the Crucifixion. When Helena of Constantinople visited Jerusalem, between 325 and 330, she discovered the site where Jesus was crucified in Golgotha. While Helena was practicing ancient archaeology, her maid is said to have discovered the Holy Sponge.
The Holy Sponge was taken to Jerusalem, where it was venerated, but then taken to Constantinople for safe-keeping after the Persians took Jerusalem, in the early 7th century. At some point during this time frame the Holy Sponge made its way back to Jerusalem, because Venerable Bede (672-735) claimed to see it in a silver tankard in Jerusalem.
The earliest writing on the Holy Sponge is found in the writings of St. Sophronius, from around 600. The object identified to be the Holy Sponge was taken to Palestine, where it was venerated in the Upper Room of the Constantinian Basilica, where St. Sophronius observed it and later wrote:
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.
The relic was eventually purchased by Louis IX of France, who brought it back to France and housed it in the Sainte-Chapelle, Paris. There it was placed beside the Crown of Thorns and pieces of the True Cross, until the French Revolution saw the plundering of the church’s relics. These artifacts were lost for many years, but were later restored to France and housed in Notre-Dame Cathedral.
Today there are fragments of the Holy Sponge housed in several Roman churches: the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran (stained brown with blood), the Basilica of St. Mary Major, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Santa Maria in Campitelli.
It should be noted that there is an alternate theory, which claims Nicetas was responsible for bringing the Holy Sponge and the Holy Lance to Constantinople after wresting the relics from Palestine. It is quite possible we will never know the full extent of the Holy Sponge’s travels during the last two millennia.