A little-known relic in Oviedo, Spain, called the Sudarium, the cloth said to have covered Jesus’ face after He was crucified, may be the key to unveiling the mystery of the Shroud of Turin. The history and scientific findings respecting the Sudarium, often called the “Cloth of Oviedo,” provide an unfolding story that rivals the most pious fiction.
As debates have intensified about the Shroud, the 14-foot swath of linen enshrined in the Cathedral of Turin, Italy, that is believed by many to be the burial cloth of Christ, it appears that the Sudarium may be evidence of the authenticity of the Shroud. Hidden from public view for more than a millennium, the Sudarium of Oviedo is thrusting into the modern world fresh testimony about the suffering and death of a man crucified many centuries ago.
New investigations of the two burial cloths have compared blood types, patterns of stains, facial geometry, and pollen in an effort to find scientific data from the Cloth of Oviedo that might prove whether it covered the same man whose tortured image is preserved on the Shroud.
Debates about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin focus on two stumbling blocks: Carbon-14 dating tests in 1988, which placed the origin of the Shroud in the 14th century; and lack of documentation to support theories about what happened to Christ’s shroud after the resurrection. Those who doubt the authenticity of the Shroud reject all evidence other than the Carbon-14 results, which coincide with the date of the first recorded exhibition of the Shroud in 1357 in Lirey, France. Clearly, if the Shroud of Turin is a 14th-century artifact, it cannot be the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth. Some Shroud doubters go further; they attempt to speculate on the identity of the man so cruelly crucified to achieve the “fraudulent” image.
While historians sift through lurid alternative theories about crucified Templars and a Masonic Grail, ongoing artistic studies and forensic pathology research on the Shroud of Turin still suggest it may truly be an artifact of first-century Palestine. Thus, the various methodologies of investigation have yielded conflicting conclusions, and the mystery remains. To many skeptics, the Shroud is at best a pious icon and at worst a medieval hoax.
However, the Cloth of Oviedo, venerated in its own right for centuries in this city in Asturias, in north-central Spain, without reference to the Shroud of Turin, stirs far less controversy over its provenance. The documented whereabouts of the Sudarium have been undisputed since at least 718 A.D., which explains its tremendous significance: If forensic evidence can prove that the Shroud and the Sudarium were in contact with the same body at the time of death, it would tend to invalidate the Carbon-14 results that date the Shroud only to the 14th century.
While the assumed chronology of the Shroud is veiled in the mists of medieval history, the Sudarium is a revered relic that could well have been preserved from the days of Christ’s crucifixion.
In Latin, sudarium means “face cloth.” The Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates sudarium as “napkin,” a clear indication that this smaller cloth was not identical to the longer burial shroud called the sindon in the New Testament’s Greek. The smaller cloth was used to cover the face of the body immediately following death, a Jewish practice of respect and compassion for the family of the dead.
According to Liber Testamentorum (Book of Testaments), written by Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo in the twelfth century, a “holy ark” made out of oak by followers of the twelve apostles was said to contain the Sudarium, along with several relics of the Virgin Mary and the apostles and a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. According to Pelayo, the ark remained in Jerusalem for the first 500 years following the resurrection.
Philip “the Presbyter,” a leader of the Christian community in Palestine, fled Jerusalem with the oak chest when Chosroes II, king of Persia, sacked the holy city in 614 A.D., according to Pelayo’s chronicle. John the Almoner, bishop of Alexandria, welcomed Philip and his precious cargo. When the Persian invasion continued into Egypt, the chest was said to have accompanied the faithful into Spain, where St. Fulgentius received it and sent it to Seville. In 657, according to Pelayo, the ark traveled north to Toledo where it was protected until 718. Citing slightly different dates from those in Pelayo’s chronicle, Lucas, the bishop of Tuy, wrote in his 13th-century Chronicum Mundi (Chronicle of the World) that the ark was taken north from Toledo to Monte Sacro in Asturias in 711, to escape the advancing Moors. History and Description of Spain, a text completed in 977, corroborates this move, at least obliquely, with a description of Christians fleeing the Muslims to the mountains of Asturias and burying their relics underground.
From atop Monte Sacro, Alfonso II, king of Asturias, turned back Spain’s Moorish invaders and established his court at Oviedo. The 800-year Reconquista, or reconquering of Spain from the Moors, began with Alfonso’s victory. He built a Cámara Santa (holy chamber) in 840 A.D. to shelter the relics in the ark. Later kings built Oviedo’s cathedral of San Salvador (Holy Savior) around this tiny chapel.
A record from the year 1030 reports that some hapless clerics opened the reliquary in the Cámara Santa without prayer or fasting and were struck blind. This account is dismissed by historians as legend. Rev. Rafael Somoano, the current dean of the cathedral, summarizes the contents of a document recording a second opening of the reliquary at Easter in 1075 by King Alfonso VI, his sister, Doña Urraca, and Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, popularly known as El Cid, the Spanish hero:
They prepared all 40 days of Lent with prayer, fasting and penance. The chest was opened with great fear because of the story from the time of Alfonso III, which told of unprepared priests blinded by the holy light emanating from the ark. The date was March 1075, and here in the Cámara Santa, in the company of bishops, the king and El Cid examined the contents of the chest. There is a document in the cathedral archive that describes the ceremony. But for our day, we find what is most important: the official court record of what the king found inside. The document names each relic seen by the king and El Cid and Doña Urraca in the presence of the bishops.
The Sudarium is there! The king ordered the chest to be encased in this resplendent silver coffer, and the inscription on the outside lists all that was found. It invites all Christians to kneel and revere the Holy Blood.
Other references to the Sudarium are scattered throughout medieval European literature. Among the most intriguing are a mention of a mysterious ark in Spain in the documents of the Third Council of Braga, in Portugal, in 675, and the following reference to Oviedo in a ditty recited by pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, the site of St. James the Apostle’s shrine not far from Asturias (see “Pilgrimage to the Stars” in the February 2000 issue of Crisis):
Qui a este a Sainct Jaques
Et n’este a Sainct Salvateur
A visite le serviteur
Et a laisse le seigneur.
(Who has been to St. James
And not to San Salvador
Visits the servant and
Neglects the master.)
Fascinating evidence of early veneration of the Sudarium also appears in this eleventh-century Spanish poem: “Tell us Mary, what did you see on the road? I saw the tomb of the living Christ, and His glory as He rose,…the sudarium and the linen cloths [emphasis added].”
Since the relic was brought to the Cámara Santa in the ninth century, it has remained undisturbed in Oviedo. Skeptics willing to concede its relative antiquity still question its authenticity as the sudarium of Christ described in John’s gospel (John 20:6-7). Can it be proved that this cloth was used in the burial preparations for Jesus? This question and the related one of proving a correlation between the Sudarium and the Shroud of Turin are the object of ongoing scientific investigations by a team from the Spanish Center for Sindonology, an organization that studies the Shroud of Turin.
The secret of the Sudarium’s preservation, notes Father Somoano, is that its reliquary was rarely opened. Father Somoano himself knew nothing about the Sudarium when he was growing up, even though he was raised in a village near Oviedo. “I never saw the Cámara Santa until after I became a priest, because it was always closed,” he recalls. He first learned about the Sudarium while studying in Rome and “was astounded.”
Formal testing of the Sudarium began 15 years ago. The first to study it was the late Msgr. Giulio Ricci, president of the Roman Center for Sindonology. Father Somoano reports that when Ricci viewed the Sudarium for the first time, he exclaimed, “It’s authentic,” and decided it was a complement to the Shroud of Turin.
Ricci concluded that the simplest explanation for certain symmetrical stains on the Sudarium was that they were made by someone holding the cloth against a bloodied face. He also suggested that a Swiss pollen expert, Max Frei, be given an opportunity to search for botanical evidence. Frei found two species of pollen typical of Palestine; significantly, these same pollens were found on the Shroud. However, he also found pollen from North Africa, which is consistent with the Sudarium’s legendary travels. While this African pollen is not present in the Shroud, the Shroud contains pollen from species found in Turkey and France that were not found on the Cloth of Oviedo. Advocates of the authenticity of both the Sudarium and the Shroud contend that the two cloths exhibit pollen evidence consistent with their differing routes into Europe.
In the late 1980s, Ricci urged a systematic study of the Cloth of Oviedo that would compare it with the Shroud. Early investigations included a photographic study of ultraviolet and infrared images of the cloth. This preliminary study confirmed that there is no underlying image of a face on the Sudarium—unlike the Shroud, which contains a bodily image that looks like a photographic negative. The Sudarium presents only a pattern of successive stains from perspiration, blood, and lymph. In the testing, video images were digitized so that the images on the two cloths could be highlighted and compared.
The First International Congress on the Sudarium of Oviedo, held in 1994, sponsored further testing. The findings indicated that the Sudarium had been placed against the face of a man who had been beaten on the front and back of the head. Although there is no facial image on the Sudarium, it does contain a distinct facial impression, the 1994 study showed. The cloth is impregnated with blood and lymph that match the AB blood type on the Shroud. (This was a crucial test, for had the blood types not matched, any subsequent testing would be pointless.) The pattern and measurements of the stains indicate a placement of the cloth over a face. Measurements of facial features were also made. These patterns were extensively mapped to enable researchers to compare the markings and measurements with those on the Shroud.
Alan Whanger, professor emeritus of medicine at Duke University, found similarities in the blood stains on the two cloths by using a polarized image overlay technique. He noted 70 congruent patterns on the face and more than 50 on the back of the head and neck. Furthermore, when the image on the Shroud was placed over the stains on the Sudarium, there was an exact correlation between the stains on the Sudarium and the image of the beard of the man on the Shroud.
According to the gospels, at the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pontius Pilate for permission to remove His body from the cross. Following the custom of the time, the Sudarium would have been placed over Jesus’ head at that time. The pattern of stains suggests that it was then wrapped back on itself, because the victim’s head seemed to have been lying at an acute angle against his right arm. Author Mark Guscin explains in his book The Oviedo Cloth (Lutterworth Press, 2000) how the effects of a crucifixion are recorded on the Sudarium:
The main stains consist of one part blood and six parts pulmonary oedema fluid. This is very significant because it helps confirm that Jesus died from asphyxiation. It is the generally accepted opinion that people who were crucified died from asphyxiation…. When a person dies this way his lungs are filled with fluid from the oedema. If the body is moved or jostled, this fluid can come out through the nostrils.
It is precisely this kind of stain that forms the central group of stains on the Sudarium. The stains were superimposed on each other, i.e. after the first stain was formed, enough time passed for it to dry before the cloth was stained again, leaving the borders of each stain clearly visible.
The first set of stains on the Sudarium indicates that the victim’s body was in a vertical position with the head at an angle. There are also stains from deep puncture wounds on the portion of the cloth covering the back of the head that are consistent with similar marks found on the Shroud, presumably made by Jesus’ crown of thorns. A separate set of stains, superimposed on the first set, was made when the crucified man was laid down horizontally and lymph flowed out from his nostrils. Scientists are able to calculate the time that elapsed between each new set of stains based on the pattern of stains and the measurements of a model head used in the experiments.
According to Guscin, “the third stain was made when the body was lifted from the ground about forty-five minutes later…. The marks (not fingerprints) of the fingers that held the cloth to the nose are also visible.”
Once the body was in the tomb, the Sudarium, stained and bloody, would have been set aside. The victim was then placed face-up on one-half of the long linen (presumably theShroud of Turin) that Joseph of Arimathea had purchased (Mark 15:46). The linen was folded longitudinally over the body, which was only cursorily prepared for burial because the Sabbath was near, according to the gospels. The women planned to return after the Sabbath to prepare the body properly.
A comparison of the two cloths reveals an important difference between them. While the blood types match, the wound marks match, the facial features and measurements coincide, and pollen studies help confirm the cloths’ histories, researchers point out that the Sudarium does not have the “scorched” fibers present on the Shroud. Those who believe that both cloths are genuine attribute this difference to a powerful event that later took place in the body and hence in the Shroud, but not in the Sudarium, which was “rolled up by itself (John 20: 6-7). Christian believers maintain that this event was the resurrection.
Despite all the evidence, the question remains: What about the Carbon-14 data? The answer is partly to be found in the complex methodological and technical considerations with which reputable scientists on both sides of the issue are still grappling.
The controversy over the carbon-dating evidence with respect to the Shroud centers on the validity of tests performed on three samples snipped from it in April 1988. When the results of testing by the three international laboratories selected to run the newly refined accelerated mass spectrometry method of carbon-dating were made public, all three labs concurred: The Shroud dates sometime between 1260 and 1390 A.D.
Many in the academic and scientific communities were stunned. The great preponderance of other data suggests that the Shroud is a relic from first-century Palestine. Some even called into Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, Spain, where the Sudarium is housed today question the integrity of the samples: Had they been cut from an area charred during a fire in 1532, thus compromising the carbon-testing? Similarly, carbon-testing on the Sudarium sets its origin in the seventh century, but those who contend it is older say the test results were distorted by the effects of a terrorist bombing inside the cathedral in 1934.
Reams of paper have been devoted to trying to invalidate carbon-dating and its use on textiles. Shroud advocate Ian Wilson reported in his 1998 book, The Blood and the Shroud, that Egyptologists have produced Carbon-14 test results that date the wrappings of mummies as 1,000 years later than they are known to be. Some even question the quasi-religious belief of some scientists in the infallibility of carbon-dating. They cite famous and often hilarious examples suggesting that carbon-dating may be among the least accurate methodologies for assessing the age of the Shroud. For example, the head of the Swiss laboratory that participated in the Carbon-14 tests on the Shroud also ran a Carbon-14 test on his mother-in-law’s 50-year-old tablecloth. The results of the test set the age of the textile at 350 years. He theorized that soaps used to wash the tablecloth were the compromising factor.
Complicating the Carbon-14 question is the problem of the Shroud’s chronology. The Carbon-14 date of the Shroud closely corresponds to its first documented appearance. There is, however, a possible earlier history for the Shroud that awaits further research before it can provide the chronological documentation that accompanies the Cloth of Oviedo.
According to some theorists, including Wilson, the Shroud of Turin is actually the precious piece of cloth known in the Byzantine world as the Mandylion. Early Christian iconography brims with images of Jesus’ face on the Mandylion that closely resemble the image of the man on the Shroud—an image that was not revealed until the age of photography. Where did these ancient artists find their model?
Tradition holds that Jesus’ disciple Thaddeus took the Mandylion—perhaps the Shroud—with him to Edessa in Mesopotamia at the invitation of King Abgar V of Edessa (the Church historian Eusebius chronicles a supposed exchange between Jesus Himself and Abgar that is probably apocryphal). Later, Christians were persecuted in Edessa, and the “Cloth of Edessa,” as the Mandylion was called, was hidden in the city walls. By 550 A.D., the Mandylion had reportedly been recovered, and it was brought to Constantinople in 944. It was described as “the divinely wrought likeness which human hands have not made.”
Travelogues, diaries, liturgies, hymns, and even coins attest to the existence of a mysterious image of Christ in the Near East. Shroud advocates believe this cloth was pirated during the infamous Fourth Crusade of the 13th century, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople, and brought to France by the Knights Templar. Scant solid evidence has been found to support this theory, however.
Naysayers scoff at such suppositions as fanciful. But Shroud devotees point to an equally vexing question: How is it that science and technology cannot provide a method to duplicate the Shroud, if it is in fact a hoax? What is the explanation for the most studied holy relic in history?
Juan Ignacio Moreno, a magistrate in Burgos, Spain, and a leading advocate of the Sudarium’s authenticity, offers this answer to the mystery of both the Shroud and the Cloth of Oviedo: “The Sudarium is a relic rediscovered for Christians fighting a new fight. It is a love letter to our time from God: a tantalizing puzzle saved for the minds of men that have made science and knowledge their god.”
Author’s note: Pope John Paul II visited the Sudarium in 1989.