In the tiny, hilltop town of Manoppello, just over two hours east of Rome, is one of the most enigmatic relics of Christianity: the Holy Face, or Veil, of Manoppello. Even though the veil is in the heartland of Italy, its rising fame is very much a German affair because of the work of a German nun, a German journalist, and a German pope. The Veil has risen in importance and notoriety with the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. His visit to Manoppello, on September 1, 2006, to see the relic was the first self-selected visit of his papacy, when he also bestowed the title of Minor Basilica upon the church.
The Veil of Manoppello is an enigmatic depiction of a face of what appears to be Jesus Christ on mussel silk. Mussel silk, also known as byssus or sea silk, is woven from the fibers secreted by mussels. It is one of the finest threads in existence and the costliest fabric in the ancient world. It was on sale in Alexandria and Antioch, and anyone buying it was a wealthy person. The fabric is so thin that one can actually see through the veil when a light source—like a window—is placed behind it, something anyone visiting the church in Manoppello will experience.
It is technically impossible to paint on mussel silk, which means that the image of Christ on the fabric cannot be a painting. In fact, just how the image came about is a total mystery. Though mussel silk can be dyed, the process is complex and cannot at all result in the image of the Veil. As a result, there is no known technique or method that can account for just how the image came in existence. It is a true miracle—whether it were to be the face of Jesus or anyone else.
The German Trappist nun, Sister Blandina Paschalis Schlömer, learned about the veil in a book in 1965, and has remained obsessed with the image ever since. Though she had sworn an oath of silence, her superiors eventually released her from this obligation, as it was clear that Blandina’s mission was to spread knowledge about this important relic. Blandina realized that the image of the Turin Shroud and the Veil matched perfectly, and she proved this by creating a set of transparent overlays. For the faithful, and many others, this remarkable demonstration, of course, and goes a long way toward establishing that the man on the Veil is indeed Jesus Christ.
Apart from their dimensions, the two images also share other unique characteristics: the right cheek is swollen; the nose is clearly broken; part of the beard is torn out, and there are wounds on the forehead. The man has clearly been beaten if not tortured, conforming to what is known to have happened to Jesus prior to death. There is nevertheless a remarkable difference: the eyes on the Veil are open; the eyes on the Shroud are closed. The clear suggestion is that one is the image of a living Christ, the other of a dead one.
In theory, the image of the Veil could therefore have been “taken” at any moment in Jesus’ life, were it not for the injuries, which suggest that the Veil was created on Good Friday. As there is only one tradition of a miraculous image that occurred that day, it is, no doubt, the reason why the Veil of Manoppello has become identified with the Veil of Veronica.
According to tradition, Veronica was standing on the Via Dolorosa when she saw Jesus passing and handed a piece of cloth to him to wipe his face. It is said that afterwards, a miraculous image was left on the cloth. The official Veil of Veronica, is however, inside St Peter’s Basilica, under lock and key, seen by very few. Centuries ago, realizing that the Veil of Veronica was actually one of the main reasons Christians undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, various public displays of the image occurred, the latest in 1601. Curiously, on May 29, 1628, Pope Urban VIII forbade, on threat of excommunication, copies of the Veronica to be made. Why this edict was created remains one of the bigger mysteries, as there was no apparent reason for this interdiction. Nor is it known why, after 1601, that the Veil no longer went on public display. Remarkably, the period from 1601 to 1628 is precisely the time-frame in which the Veil appeared in Manopello. Coincidence? Unlikely.
The history of the Manoppello relic is documented since the middle of the seventeenth century, when the object went on public display within the town. There is, however, a legend claiming it was a Sunday afternoon in 1506 when an angel brought the Veil to the spot. A pilgrim, in front of the town’s church of Saint Nicholas of Bari, asked Doctor Giaccomantonio Leonelli to come into the church with him. The good doctor was handed a bundle, inviting him to care for it. Inside was found the Veil.
The object was passed down within the Leonelli family, but in 1608, there was a dispute amongst the descendants. Pancrazio Petruzzi took possession of the relic by force. But when he was thrown in prison in Chieti (on unknown charges), his wife, Marzia Leonelli, sold the cloth to buy his freedom; it ended up in the hands of Donantonino De Fabritiis, who restored it and donated it to the Capuchin monks of Manoppello in 1638, where it has been displayed since 1646. For centuries, it was displayed in a darkish side chapel, currently located next to the shop. In 1923, the Veil was placed above the altar, where visitors can now climb towards the display cabinet and come face to face with the back of the veil—precisely what Pope Benedict did in 2006.
The object therefore came to Manoppello by at least 1646, likely 1608, and potentially as early as 1506. But what are the origins of the relic? Could it be the Veil of Veronica? German journalist Paul Badde has noticed that inside the Vatican Museum is an old display case that once held the Veil of Veronica. The case is broken, suggestive of violence—or possibly theft. The Veil of Veronica in St. Peter’s might not currently be on display, but its dimensions are known; it is quite substantially larger than the Veil of Manoppello. It might come as a shock to some to learn that the display case in the Vatican Museum is too small for the Roman Veil of Veronica—but has the exact dimensions as the Veil of Manopello! This cannot be a coincidence. And the damage to the case might coincide with the moment the Veil was taken from Rome to Manoppello, which would suggest that what is on display in Manoppello is actually the Veil of Veronica.
Though all indications are that the Veil was moved between 1602 and 1608, there are no historical records that speak of an occasion where the veil could have been stolen—implying there was an immediate and very successful cover-up. Some have proposed that the theft occurred almost a century before, in May of 1527, when Rome was sacked and plundered. There are stories that the Veil of Veronica was amongst the relics taken, but there is no mention of the relic being returned. It is merely assumed it was returned, as the church afterwards seemed to have it, and put it on public display until 1601. Though the 1527 date is exciting, the evidence currently suggests 1602 to 1608 as the likelier time frame, even though there is an absence of evidence as to how the relic may have left Rome.
If the Veil of Manoppello is the Veil of Veronica, then we can add several centuries to its known history. The relic first resided in Jerusalem and became known as the Holy Face of Camulia, a town in modern Turkey. In AD 574, the Veil was taken to Constantinople, on orders of Emperor Justinian II. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Callinico I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, sent the Veil to the Pope in Rome for safekeeping. It has remained in Rome ever since—unless, of course, it went to Manoppello. However, it would only be in 1143 that the object became identified as the Veil of Veronica. And it would only be in 1208 that Pope Innocent II began to carry the Veil in public processions. It seems clear, however, that this object is indeed the Veil of Manoppello. Philip II, King of France, visited Rome for the Third Crusade and wrote that Pope Celestine III held “the linen cloth which was placed on Christ’s Face, the imprint of which can be clearly seen today as if it were the very Face of Christ” in front of him.
There is, however, one final question to be asked. If the Veil of Manoppello is indeed the Veil of Veronica, can it be the Veil of Veronica mentioned in catholic tradition?
The answer seems to be: no. For one, it is unlikely that anyone would give a veil of mussel silk to Jesus to wipe his face. The material is simply not suited for this. Equally, one would expect that if Jesus were to wipe his face with it, an imprint of blood and sweat would remain, not a miraculous image clearly showing that Jesus did not wipe his face with this cloth but instead somehow miraculously imprinted his image onto it. In short, the miraculous image of the Veil of Veronica, it seems, could not originate with Veronica but must have originated differently on Good Friday.
Something on Good Friday, it appears, created this miracle. But what? There are no clear answers. As a consequence, the story was shoehorned into the Gospels and the Veil of Veronica was born. But there are hints as to the true origins of this artifact. For example, both Paul Badde and Sister Blandina have referred to this object as “The Veil of the Magdalene.” Interestingly, the islands where the mussel silk comes from are the Magdalene islands, just off the coast of Sardinia. Coincidence or not? Apocryphal documents have shown that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, and for her to possess a miraculous image of her husband would seem not out of the ordinary. The question, however, remains as to how his face was somehow transposed on this most delicate of material. Currently, there’s no scientific explanation for it.
SIDEBAR: Conundrum of the Oviedo Sudarium
The Oviedo Shroud or sudarium is a bloodstained sweat cloth believed to have been wrapped around the head of Jesus Christ after his death—as mentioned in the Gospel of John. Unlike the Turin Shroud or the Veil of Manoppello, it does not show an image but merely blood marks and the like.
The linen is composed of taffeta ligaments, with the threads twisted in the form of a Z, which is the simplest form of weaving. Measuring 34 by 21 inches, the sudarium is kept in the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, where it is put on display three times per year, most prominently on Good Friday.
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 face area. It would take a further two decades before a local organization was created that would begin a series of scientific tests that could prove the veracity of these claims.
It is known to have existed since at least the eleventh century, when it was placed inside the cathedral; few find any problems with 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; there lived seven nuns in seven cells, who “looked after the sudarium of Christ.”
Scientific analysis has shown that the stains of the sudarium match those on the head portion of the Shroud, as first suggested by Mgr. Ricci in 1965. As such, it is clear that both cloths at one point covered the same body. This conclusion is augmented 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, the pollen traces thus confirming the relic’s historical journey. It also contains aloe and myrrh, common and known 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 the cross. If this was a fake (i.e., not Jesus Christ), then someone went through the trouble of duplicating Jesus’ death perfectly.
And because the sudarium is so much older than the date now presented for the Turin Shroud, it clearly suggests that the carbon-dating results on the Shroud are more than likely erroneous—and that the Shroud itself is, indeed, far older than commonly accepted.