Sunday 4 April 2010

Easter Sunday

"They returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now they were Mary Magdalene and Johanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. And these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at that which had happened."
- The Gospel according to Saint Luke, Chapter 24

Of all Christianity's many relics, none is more famous, nor more controversial, than the Shroud of Turin, kept for centuries in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. Contrary to popular belief, the Vatican neither endorses nor rejects the authenticity of the cloth which, for centuries, has been venerated as the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. When shown under strong light, the Shroud reveals a haunting imprint of a crucified man in his early-to-mid thirties, the body bearing literally hundreds of wounds from scouring, the forehead pierced multiple times and the hands and feet pierced by nail-sized wounds.

For almost the last half-century, however, the Shroud has been a byword for religious hokum amongst the intelligentsia. Carbon dating tests carried out on the Shroud with the Vatican's permission concluded that the Shroud dated from the 14th century and, as such, was nothing more than a clever forgery. The insistence of those, like textile historian Dr. Lemberg, who argued that the intricate stitching on the back of the Shroud was utterly unknown in medieval Europe and dated from either the 1st or 2nd century AD, was ignored. So too were the queries of those historians who pointed out the technology to actually forge something as intricate and life-like as the Shroud was non-existent in the Middle Ages; a fact corroborated by forensic pathologists who argued that the anatomical details on the figure in the Shroud tally with everything we know of the physicality of death by crucifixion, facts which most people in the Middle Ages did not know due to a life-time of gazing at usually-inaccurate crucifixes. However, the carbon dating on the Shroud which placed it to over a millennium after the death of Jesus Christ was held to be incontrovertible and, for many - myself included - the fact that it was impossible for the Shroud of Turin to be genuine was more or less self-evident.

As with many things, I was rather jolted out of this complacency at Oxford by a tutor who, when I made an airily dismissive comment about the Shroud's authenticity, responded: "Ah, but what about the stitching? What about the folding patterns? What about the blood?" The blood? "Yes, the blood; it's AB. Common enough in Palestine at the time of the Crucifixion. Practically unheard-of in early modern Europeans. They couldn't have know that to 'fake it,' could they? And yet it's all over the Shroud. All over it." What about the carbon dating, I asked swiftly. "Yes, I've often wondered about that. Of course, it's equally possible that they made a mistake and simply analysed the polymers left on the Shroud from the last time it was exposed to the air for a prolonged period of time - which would be the 14th century. Still, I suppose it could be the most ingenious fraud in history, couldn't it? Anything is possible."

The Shroud's track record amongst the written sources, however, is not great. There is no evidence of it being in existence prior to turning up in France in 1360, but evidence or not, the sheer emotional impact of the dead, ghostly imprint on the Shroud was such that once it did come to the Faithful's notice it asserted a collective hold on the hearts of pilgrims that it was never, really, relinquished.

Lying sealed in a magnificent silver ark in the Cámara Santa ("Holy Chamber") of the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, north-western Spain, is another piece of cloth associated with the events of Easter. But this piece of cloth has attracted far less attention than the Turin Shroud. It is known as the Sudarium of Oviedo: a sudarium (Latin for 'sweat-cloth') would have been placed over the face of dead Jews in the time of Christ. In the case of those who died from Crucifixion, it would naturally have caught the blood and sweat of the dying man and, true to its claim, the Sudarium holds small pools of blood congregated around the nasal area, with the sweat and blood stains trailing off around the beard-line of the victim. Unlike the Shroud, however, there is no imprint. (The Sudarium would, in any case, not have stayed on the body for as long as the Shroud.) The Sudarium is simply an ancient, blood-stained piece of cloth, folded over in two unlike most of its kind because whoever it wrapped had died in a state of extreme shock, the head lolling onto outstretched arms already racked with rigamortis by the time the Sudarium was placed over the face.

In a further divergence to the Shroud, the documentary evidence about the Sudarium is a lot stronger. It is first mentioned in a European source by Antoninus of Piacenza, a 6th century Christian pilgrim, who saw the Sudarium being venerated in a cave of the Monastery of Saint Mark the Evangelist, just outside Jerusalem, where, according to locals, it had been kept for several hundred years. Such was the pious love accorded to the Sudarium that it is virtually impossible to believe that it had been forged recently. Moreover, its fame was such that despite being left untouched it was already under the careful watch of the Church hierarchy in Constantinople.

Forty-four years after Antoninus prayed in the presence of the Sudarium, the Persians invaded Palestine. Fearing that the Holy Relic would fall into the hands of non-believers, the monks and the Byzantine hierarchy arranged for the Sudarium to be smuggled out of the fallen province and it commenced its wandering, after the monks charged with its safe-keeping fled south. Moving through northern Africa, they eventually crossed at the Straits of Gibraltar and brought the Sudarium to the Kingdom of the Asturias, the first kingdom on the Iberian peninsula to convert to Christianity. There, the Sudarium was stored in the silver ark which it continues to rest in today and, in the next generation, a Holy Chamber was built for the relic by King Alfonso the Chaste. The Chamber today is part of the Cathedral of San Salvador and for the last thirteen hundred years, the Sudarium has called the Cámara Santa of San Salvador home.

Not long after the Shroud of Turin, the Sudarium too was carbon-dated. The result? That it dated from the 7th century, and no earlier. Yet, we know from the writings of Antoninus of Piacenza and from Byzantine writers that the Sudarium was already old in the 6th century. Perhaps, as one of the dons had suggested to me was the case with the Shroud, the carbon dating of the Sudarium had picked up only on the bacteria left by the last time the relic was properly left in the open air for a prolonged period of time - the 7th century - when it was smuggled from Palestine to Spain.

On the surface, the Sudarium's claim to authenticity - especially in the documentary sources - is much stronger than the Turin Shroud's. Moreover, there is absolutely no evidence in any written source that has survived (and those on the Sudarium are extensive) which places the Sudarium and the Shroud (which would have formed two parts of the same funerary equipment if one believes both their legends) together, at any point in history. Not in the writings of Antoninus of Piacenza, the first European to see the Sudarium, or any subsequent saint, writer or historian since has there ever been a source which even hints that the Shroud and the Sudarium met each other in Palestine, Africa, Byzantium, Spain, France, Italy or the Hapsburg Empire. As far as the written evidence goes, we know the two never met at any point after the sixth century AD.

Today, the Sudarium of Oviedo lies in its magnificent silver reliquary near the tombs of Saint Eulogius, one of the forty-eight "Martyrs of Córdoba," Saint Leocadia of Toledo, Saint Pelayo, King Fruelo the Cruel and three queens - Queen Munia Lopez, Queen Teresa of León and Queen Jimena de Pamplona. Every year, it is exhibited to the faithful on Good Friday, then in September on the Feast of the Triumph of The Cross and once more on the Feast's Octave in October. Then, for the rest of the year, this mysterious, bloody piece of cloth slumbers in the silver ark that was built for it by a pious king over a millennium ago.

And, in one of those rare sets of occurrences which science deplores and history loves, there is one final piece of information of the Sudarium of Oviedo which is perhaps worth considering: the fabric the Sudarium is made of, the geographical origin of the cloth, the type of stitching around the edges and the blood type which stains it? They are all exactly the same as those on the Shroud of Turin. To all intents and purposes the Sudarium and the Shroud, which history tells us never met and science tells us never could have met, may as well have been cut from the same piece of cloth.

Maybe they're both the most ingenious works of fraud in history.

Who knows?

Anything is possible...


  1. Great post! Actually, the earliest reference to the Shroud that they have recently found is in a seventh century manuscript from what is now Hungary. (I found this out just last night.) And the bloodstains on the sudarium of Orvieto match the stains on the Shroud. It is really fascinating. It is impossible to accurately date such relics that in the Middle Ages were displayed for public veneration~ which meant that people were kissing them, weeping over them and so they were "contaminated." Interesting that the Catholic Church recognizes the sudarium but not the Shroud. The church also recognizes the Veronica veil, the cloth used to wipe the face of Jesus. It also has an imprint of His face and is kept at St. Peter's in Rome.

  2. Thank you. I'm so glad you liked it. And fascinating about the 7th century Hungarian source referencing the Shroud - I had no idea about it, but I will definitely track it down for a read. Interesting to think the Shroud must have been in central Europe at the same time the Sudarium was travelling through northern Africa.

  3. History Channel (for whatever value they have), claimed in the special on the Shroud last night that a shroud (which could be the one now in Turin) has documentary evidence of being in Edessa as early as the 2nd century...

  4. Really? Many sources (including the one I was referencing in this article) suggested there is no evidence for its existence prior to the reign of King Jean II in France, yet that does not seem to be the case. It seems the mystery of the Shroud's origins is stretching back a lot further than the original carbon dating would have us believe. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Really interesting stuff... you've got me enthralled! I think there was a documentary aired recently about the shroud, which i'll be digging out now! Owen x


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