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Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: An interview with Janice Bennett about the Sudarium of Oviedo | August 6, 2005

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Inspired by her profound interest in Spanish literature, culture and relics, Janice Bennett has written two books on sacred relics, and is currently working on a third. Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: The Sudarium of Oviedo was originally published in 2001 and then redistributed by Ignatius Press in 2005. It unfolds the historical, scientific, cultural and Biblical investigations surrounding the Sudarium of Oviedo (the ancient blood-stained cloth believed to have covered the Head of Christ after the crucifixion).

Currently running her own publishing company in Littleton, Colorado, Libri de Hispania, Bennett devotes her efforts to publishing non-fiction books about relics and religious sites. She has a strong background as a graphic artist, typographer, and reporter, holding degrees in Graphic Design and Journalism, as well as in Spanish, Spanish Literature and Theology.

She has taught university-level Spanish Literature, and is a member of the National Hispanic society, Sigma Delta Pi, the Modern Language Association, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, and Catholic Book Publishers Association. She also holds a certificate in Advanced Biblical Studies from the Catholic Biblical School of Denver.

IgnatiusInsight.com recently spoke with Janice about Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: The Sudarium of Oviedo and its possible connection to the Shroud of Turin.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the Sudarium of Oviedo? How did you first become aware of it and interested in it?

Janice Bennett:
The Sudarium of Oviedo is a small linen cloth — about 34 by 21 inches — that is believed to have covered the head of Jesus after the Crucifixion, as mentioned in Scripture and in accordance with Jewish law and custom. It contains washed-out bloodstains that manifest the wounds of a crucified man, and has been in Spain since the beginning of the seventh century, where it was taken when the Persians invaded Jerusalem in 612 AD, after being safeguarded for short time in the large Christian community at Alexandria, Egypt.

I became aware of this important Christian relic after reading an article about it in the Spanish magazine !Hola! in December of 1993. I was immediately captivated by a cloth that I had never even known existed, and was now being studied by scientists because of its possible relation to the Shroud of Turin. I desperately wanted to find out more, but it took years for that to happen. Three trips to the Cathedral of Oviedo yielded nothing, because those involved still knew little about what this relic actually was, or how it had been used. I’m sure that some of them even doubted its authenticity. I was later told that the Archbishop of Oviedo granted permission to study the relic in 1986 so that he and the other priests involved in using it for public benediction three days each year would know if it had any chance of containing the blood of Christ. They wanted to know if they were using a fake relic.

When I discovered the website of the Spanish Center for Sindonology in 1998, I immediately obtained copies of their studies published in Spanish in 1994 and 1997, and painstakingly began to translate them. The work was overwhelming at times. I would say that my motivation was primarily personal, but underlying my individual quest for information and affirmation was a deep sense of its importance for Christians all over the world. It wasn’t until I had spent more than a year working on it that I became convinced that this knowledge was too important not to share with others.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What is some of the evidence – historical, scientific, biblical, cultural, etc. – that the Sudarium was the cloth that wrapped Jesus’ head?

As it turns out, the evidence in all of these areas is overwhelmingly in support of the traditional belief that the Sudarium was indeed the actual cloth that wrapped Jesus’ head after the Crucifixion. Historically, there are many documents of great importance. Two mention that St. Peter was the first custodian of the Sudarium, and one of these, written by Isodad of Merv around A.D. 850 , states that Peter took it from Joseph of Arimathea and put it on his head whenever he laid hands on someone, as an aid in curing the sick. According to another manuscript, San Antonino Mártir, the chronicle of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land written by an anonymous Italian pilgrim in 570 , the Sudarium was being cared for by seven religious women in a cave close to the Monastery of St. Mark, on the other side of the River Jordan. This verifies the existence of the relic in Jerusalem not long before the Persian invasion of 612, when the cloth was first taken to Alexandria in Egypt for safekeeping, and then to Spain after the Persians followed them. This odyssey to Spain is mentioned in so many documents that it is indisputable, as is the history of the relic once it arrived in Spain.

The events that occurred after the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711 have been repeated in similar fashion with many other relics, including the Holy Cup of the Last Supper. I know from personal experience in climbing Monsacro that this mountain would have provided a perfect hiding place for the Sudarium. The vantage point from its summit is such that its caretakers could see for many miles in all directions, and there is even mention in an Arabic manuscript that the Christians fled to the north with their relics, hiding them in a well on a mountaintop. The well can still be seen in the tiny hermitage on its summit.

The profound respect displayed toward this relic throughout its history in Spain makes it quite evident that it was always believed that this was the true Sudarium of Jesus. King Alfonso II opened the chest for the first time in 1075 with great fear and trepidation, after ordering the entire population to fast and pray. After donating many expensive gifts to the Cathedral, King Alfonso XI’s request to see the Sudarium in 1345 was denied. No one even attempted to open the chest again until Bishop Cristóbal de Rojas y Sandoval in 1547, but he became so fearful that he changed his mind. It is written that it seemed as if his hair was standing on end as he attempted to insert the key, and he felt faint. In fact, scholars are not aware of a single case of the chest being opened until Ambrosio de Morales did another inventory of its contents in 1765, the only one to do so since King Alfonso VI in the eleventh century. For those who like to devise strange scenarios of falsification, this is very significant. The relic was not accessible to anyone, not even kings, particularly during the time when some argue that the Shroud was fabricated.

Culturally speaking, there is also ample evidence for the case of authenticity. Christ has never been portrayed wrapped in a sudarium, which indicates that, although mentioned in the Gospel of John 20:7, no one has ever really understood how it was used. We now know that in the case of Jesus, Jewish law and custom mandated use of the sudarium. The use of a sudarium was required when blood flowed at the time of death, because blood was believed to contain the soul of the individual as the "seat of life," and was considered just as much a part of the body as the flesh. Any blood spilled at the time of death had to be buried, which would have included clothing, soiled linens and blood-soaked earth. The scene in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ that portrays Jesus’ mother mopping up his blood after the scourging is not pious fiction. This practice was necessary so that the blood could be buried.

In the case of crucifixion, death is caused by suffocation from pulmonary edema, and this bloody serum produced in the lungs is then forced through the nose and mouth after death occurs. It was therefore critical to cover the head to avoid losing the blood, and this cloth would have then been placed in the tomb, as mentioned by John. Furthermore, a disfigured corpse could not be moved from the place of death to the tomb without being covered first, for reasons of propriety and decency.

Two questions inevitably come to mind. First, why would Jesus’ disciples save and venerate a worthless and unclean bloody cloth unless they believed that their Master had risen from the dead and was therefore truly the Son of God? Secondly, if later no one understood exactly what John was referring to when he spoke of the "cloth that covered Jesus’ head," why would anyone try to fabricate a relic that no one knew anything about, especially one that would necessitate killing someone? The fact is that by the eleventh century all of Christianity knew that the Sudarium was in Oviedo, long before the time of Leonardo da Vinci and medieval forgeries. Even if they didn’t know exactly what purpose it had served, they did believe that it contained Christ’s blood, as King Alfonso VI had engraved in 1113 on the silver plating that still covers the chest. This knowledge greatly contributed to the popularity of the Camino of Santiago, the third most important pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages, after Rome and Jerusalem.

It would have been utterly impossible to fabricate the Sudarium to match the Shroud of Turin for many reasons. Aside from being found together in the tomb, the Shroud and the Sudarium were never in the same place, and the Sudarium was not accessible to pilgrims. There is absolutely no possibility whatsoever that Christians crucified a living person in order to create a fake shroud, as even the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests, because they would have had to fabricate the Sudarium at the same time so that it would match. In the Middle Ages this companion cloth was being venerated in Oviedo, Spain by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, hidden from view in the Holy Chamber. The first-century linen cloth contains the human blood, type AB, of a crucified man, and it has been safeguarded and venerated as the Sudarium of the Lord since the time of St. Peter. Its bloodstains do not match those found on the Shroud by coincidence.

The scientists involved with the Spanish Center for Sindonology have discovered an abundance of information since they began their investigation in 1988, and they have not found a single thing that might indicate that this relic is not authentic. On the contrary, all the evidence fits together so well that the odds that this cloth did not cover the head of Jesus of Nazareth are astronomically small, as is the possibility that it did not cover the same crucifixion victim as the Shroud of Turin.

The pollens are a silent witness to the authenticity of its documented historical route, the bloodstains are those of a crucified man from first-century Jerusalem, the wounds match those mentioned in the Bible as suffered by Christ, and we know of no other individual in history who was crowned with thorns and then buried. Even such details as the length of time the cloth remained on the head, the two positions required for formation of the bloodstains, and the time required for transfer of the body to the tomb — all evidenced on the cloth itself — are consistent with Scripture and what we know about Jesus’ passion and entombment. Based on these scientific studies, the estimated timetable of events for crucifixion, death and burial have been calculated with great accuracy. Every single detail coincides with Christ’s passion as written in Scripture.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the history of the Sudarium compared with what is known of the history of the Shroud of Turin?

As mentioned, we know that the Sudarium was safeguarded in the vicinity of Jerusalem in A.D. 570, where the priceless relic was not venerated publicly, but rather cared for by women who apparently spent their entire lives in this service. In 612 it was taken to Alexandria to avoid profanation at the hands of the Persians during their destruction of Jerusalem, and when they attacked Alexandria only two years later, the relic was already on its way to Spain where St. Isidore took custody of it, bringing it to Seville. When he died in 636, St. Ildephonsus transferred it to Toledo, the city that had become Spain’s new Christian capital.

Some of St. Ildephonsus’ relics were placed in the ancient chest believed to have been carved by Jesus’ disciples, including the chasuble that was said to have been given to him during an apparition of the Blessed Virgin. The chest came to Spain filled with many other relics, including one of the wine jugs from the wedding at Cana. The large clay jug is kept in the Cathedral of Oviedo, but is only exposed to the public one day each year. The deep scratches on its face testify to the fact that medieval pilgrims were allowed to touch it, because they used their scallop shells to scrape off bits of the clay. Oviedo’s other famous relics included one of St. Peter’s sandals, and its two famous crosses. The Cross of the Angels was believed to have been made by angels during the time of King Alphonso II, and the Cross of Victory’s gold and jewels cover the original wooden cross used by Pelayo during the first battle of the Spanish Reconquest in A.D. 718 .

Read part two of this interview with Janice Bennett >>


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