One of the most controversial relics ever, the Turin Shroud, is said to be the burial cloth of Jesus. For some, it is the ultimate relic, proving the reality of his resurrection. For academics, it remains an enigma, since the image embedded on the cloth has never been fully reproduced. For others, it is nothing more than a medieval fake, for which a 1988 carbon-dating result provides the only evidence. And yet, recent research has indicated that the swatches taken for dating the shroud came from sections which had been rewoven into the original material as part of a medieval repair campaign, implying that the date of the original shroud material remains to be determined.
The Shroud, therefore, acts very much like a mirror: if you believe in Christ and the Resurrection, you are more likely to believe it is genuine. If you are an atheist, you will likely adhere to the official conclusion that it’s a medieval fake. As for the official position of the Church: there is none. Individual Christians are left to believe or not. There is, of course, also a scientific position to consider, but, alas, it turns out that the “scientific position” is not very scientific. It relies on the 1988 carbon-dating, which placed the shroud’s origins between 1260 and 1390, but one very important problem remains: there is no conclusive evidence that the material submitted for carbon-dating originates from the actual shroud. Indeed, mysteriously, for the key part of the sample taking process—in which pieces of the shroud were placed in containers to be sent out for analysis—the Vatican, for unknown reasons, demanded that the video cameras, set up to record the entire process—this key sequence in particular—be turned off.
If this were a forensic investigation for an actual trial, the carbon-dating results would be inadmissible in court. That would mean we would have to rely on other evidence, most, if not all, of which suggests that the shroud is much older than the fourteenth century. It is known, for example, that there is pollen present which shows the Shroud was once in Palestine. We know the weaving technique is contemporary with Jesus. And we know there is genuine blood on the shroud, blood group AB, rare in Europe, but common in the Middle East. Moreover, the position of the hands is consistent with a crucifixion. There are many other examples, and some scientists now argue the carbon-dating— being the odd-one out—should be treated with skepticism. Few, though, dare to point the finger of suspicion directly to the Vatican, instead arguing that other problems with the tests might have occurred.
The story of the Shroud has inspired dozens of books and documentaries, most of which treat it in isolation. What is little known, but completely true, is that the shroud has a little brother: the Oviedo sudarium, which has been residing in Spain for more than a millennium.
The Oviedo Shroud or sudarium is a bloodstained sweat cloth, believed to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus after his death—as mentioned in the Gospel of John. Unlike the Turin Shroud, it does not show an image, merely blood marks and the like. Interest in the Oviedo sudarium came about when Mgr. Ricci visited Oviedo in 1965. He was, in fact, the first to suggest that there was a correspondence between the stains on the cloth of Oviedo and those found on the Shroud’s facial area. It would take another two decades before a local organization could be formed to begin a series of scientific tests to determine the veracity of the Gospels.
The Oviedo Shroud was meant to be used only for a short period. The linen is composed of taffeta ligaments with the threads twisted in the form of a Z, which is the simplest form of weaving. It is fairly coarse, inexpensive cloth, unlike the Turin Shroud, which would have been intended to remain about the dead person’s body for a year or so, after which the bones would have been collected for placement in an ossuary. Unlike the Turin Shroud, the sudarium has no image; it is stained only with blood and bodily fluids. Measuring 85 by 53 centimeters (34×21 inches), the sudarium is kept in the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, where it is put on display three times a year: Good Friday, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14, and its octave on September 21, the Feast of St. Matthew.
Part of the problem with the Turin Shroud is that its history is fully documented only from the late fifteenth century onwards, after it came into the hands of Marguerite of Austria, who ordered a special chapel to be built for it in the castle of Chambery. But the history of the sudarium, it turns out, is far better known. Its existence has been known since at least the eleventh century, when it was first placed inside the cathedral; and few object to pushing its date back to the eighth, or even seventh century.
Some go as far back as AD 570, when a manuscript by Antoninus of Piacenza mentions that the sudarium was being cared for in a cave near the monastery of Saint Mark. In the vicinity of Jerusalem, it was said, there lived seven nuns in seven cells, who “looked after the sudarium of Christ.” Soon afterward, though, the sudarium was moved. In AD 614, Jerusalem was attacked and conquered by the Persian King Chosroes II, but the cloth had been spirited away in anticipation of the invasion. It journeyed first to Alexandria but remained threatened even there. Chosroes conquered that town in AD 616. To protect the relic, it was taken across northern Africa, and it possibly entered Spain at Cartagena. The bishop of Ecija, Fulgentius, it is reported, welcomed the refugees fleeing from the Persians as well as the chest of relics which they brought with them.
Containing the sudarium and other precious artifacts, the chest was known as the “Arca Santa.” Fulgentius surrendered it to Leandro, bishop of Seville, where it remained for a number of years. Later, it was taken to Toledo; but when the Muslims invaded Spain in the eighth century, the chest was once again moved, this time to be secured in a cave or well on the mountain known as Monsacro, near Oviedo.
Some of the details of how the Arca Santa reached Oviedo are open for speculation, but there is hard evidence on how this cloth arrived in the Northern Spanish region. A key date and a key man is King Alfonso II of Asturias, who had a special chapel, the Cámara Santa (also known as the Chapel of St. Michael), built for the chest in AD 840, which served as the royal chapel and which was later incorporated into Oviedo Cathedral. Alfonso II is the king who had the bones of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela ligitimized by the Pope and Charlemagne. Afterwards, he created the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago de Compostela and made sure that Oviedo, his new capital, was on one of the routes.
Even though a chapel had been built for the chest, for a very long time, there was great fear of actually opening it. In fact, the sudarium did not officially enter the annals of history until March 13, 1075, the fourth Friday of Lent, when the chest was officially opened in the presence of King Alfonso VI, his sister Doña Urraca, as well as the Infanta Doña Elvira, several bishops and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid. All had arrived in Oviedo on February 2 and had, by fasting for forty days, prepared themselves to behold the relics. When opened, the chest included, as expected, the sudarium. It has not left the cathedral since. Other relics included were the sole of Peter’s sandal, a piece of Mary’s garment, some of Mary Magdalene’s hair, the hands of St. Stephen (the first martyr), and much more.
After 1075, the chest once again remained closed for centuries, with no opening until 1547-56, when Don Cristóbal de Rojas y Sandoval ordered it opened for him. Then, as now, no one was overtly promoting the sudarium’s existence, and then, as now, it was only exhibited three times a year. But even though obscure, it did not escape skirmishes with disaster. Like the Turin Shroud, it survived an almost fatal fire in 1532. The Holy Chamber in which the sudarium was kept was almost destroyed on October 12, 1934, when dynamite that had been placed in the crypt, exploded. The sudarium was unharmed, though severe damage had occurred to the chapel.
As mentioned, the Gospel of John speaks of a sudarium present in the empty tomb (John 20:7): “The handkerchief, which had been on His head, was not lying with the linen cloths, but was rolled up in a place by itself.” It was common usage for the Jews to take care of the dead this way. A sudarium was placed over the head of a corpse so that onlookers and the family of the deceased would be spared the horror of seeing the face go into rigor mortis. Jewish culture also had a specific code of conduct for dealing with blood, and all accounts agree that Jesus had been bleeding severely on the cross. Most interestingly, scientific analysis has shown that the stains of the sudarium match those on the head portion of the Shroud, a notion first suggested by Mgr. Ricci in 1965. The clear implication is that both cloths at some point covered the same body. This conclusion is supported by the fact that the same blood group (AB) can be found on both relics, as well as identical pollens (e.g. Gundelia tournefortii). In fact, the sudarium contains pollen from Palestine, Africa, and Spain, thus confirming the relic’s historical journey. It also contains aloe and myrrh, known to be common ingredients in the preparation of the dead for burial. The scientific analysis of the sudarium has also shown that the person who was laid inside the sudarium and the Shroud was tortured and died on a cross. If this was a fake, i.e., not the covering of Jesus Christ), then someone went to a great deal of trouble perfectly simulating Jesus’ death.
Given that the sudarium has a recorded history from AD 1075 onward, the conclusion has to be that the sudarium and the shroud predate AD 1075—if not the sixth century, thus falsifying the carbon-dating report.
One of the principal researchers into the Oviedo shroud is Mark Guscin, who in 1999 presented the conclusion of the scientific committee that both the sudarium and the Shroud had covered the same injured head. The analysis also revealed that the man for whom the sudarium had been used had been dead and had suffered wounds before death, while the formation of the stains showed that both arms had been outstretched above his head and that the feet were in such a position as to make breathing very difficult—in short, that he was likely crucified. Finally, Guscin added that the man had a beard, moustache and long hair tied up at the nape of his neck into a ponytail. This conforms to other research carried out on the Turin Shroud, including the recent work by Ray Downing—creating a three-dimensional reconstruction of the face from the image on the Shroud—which reveals a beard, a moustache, and long hair.
The scientific evidence compiled from the sudarium follows the Bible’s timeline: it would have been over the head of Jesus for about 45 minutes, when Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate to have the body removed from the cross and to allow it to be buried. From the position of the blood and fluid stains, scientists have been able to show that the sudarium covered the head of a dead man who was first in a vertical position and later in a horizontal position—for another hour or so. The cause of death in crucifixion is asphyxiation, i.e., fluid building up in the lungs. When the body is put in a horizontal position, this fluid exits through the mouth and nose as seen on the sudarium.
Jewish custom also allows that during the transport to the tomb, a cloth was wrapped around the body, which would have been removed and exchanged for the burial cloth. The gospels argue that a new, clean linen was indeed wrapped around Jesus for transport. This “transport shroud” might have been the cloth given to Charlemagne in ca. 797, brought to the Abbey of St Cornelius in Compiègne a century later—where it became the object of many pilgrimages—and where it was destroyed during the tumult of the French Revolution.
Three shrouds were reported, two of which survived the ages but whose whereabouts, for most of two millennia were unknown and which are, therefore, the subject of great controversy. Though the Gospel of John makes reference to both a sudarium and the shroud, it seems that after their discovery in the empty tomb, both objects took different trajectories. Most sources argue that Peter had taken charge of the sudarium and had hidden it, while the burial cloth itself was given to Joseph of Arimathea. Interestingly, Isodad says that Peter used the cloth in a rite known as the imposition of the hands, in which the relic was used to obtain cures (Peter placing the sudarium on his head, like a mitre). Interestingly, the miraculous powers of the sudarium might also be fact, not legend. Janice Bennett, who has had a long interest in the sudarium, wrote how in 1988 she was given an image of the sudarium, which had touched the blood on the sudarium. She reports how on a number of occasions, when she used it, it was able to heal. Indeed, other relics having to do with the Passion are said to have similar abilities.
Some relics, though, are more interesting than others, and the Turin Shroud could be the most interesting of all. When we read the Gospel of John, it is clear that when “the other disciple”—John—entered the empty tomb, it was from the position in which the shroud was seen, that he “believed.” Maybe he also saw the image on the shroud, though this is unconfirmed. But from that position alone, John was convinced something out of the ordinary had occurred.
The anomalous image on the Turin Shroud, the creation of which science still cannot explain, is further evidence to substantiate this theory. Indeed, scientists agree that the shroud and the testimony of John argue that a paranormal event had occurred. The methodology of just how the image on the Turin Shroud was created, cannot, at present, be reproduced. The closest that one has come has been outlined by Ray Downing, namely that a state-of-theart computer scanner is best able to create a similar image; but that fails to account for just how the tiny dots became attached to the actual cloth, since, of course, there were no such scanners at the time the Shroud was created.