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

Part two | Part One

The Muslims invaded Spain in A.D. 711 , and they arrived very quickly in Toledo. The Christians fled to the north with their relics, and hid the chest of relics in a well on the summit of Monsacro, where they remained for fifty years. They were transferred to the primitive Monastery of San Vicente in 761, and King Alfonso II built the Holy Chamber as their permanent residence in 812, adorning it with the famous cross that had been mysteriously constructed by two men several years earlier. The room was originally part of his palace, and the relics have been there ever since. The Gothic Cathedral was later built to incorporate it.

The chest has never been opened to satisfy the curious, but we do know that the relic has traditionally been removed three days each year for public benediction. The ceremony lasts only a few minutes. No one knows exactly when this tradition began, but it is written that many pilgrims would come on these days in hope of a cure. They would hold up bread and other small objects that they believed would acquire medicinal properties from the cloth that could be beneficial to others. The blessing originally took place from a small balcony, but it is now done from the main altar after evening Mass, on September 14 and 21, and Good Friday.

The Sudarium is, of course, first mentioned by St. John as the cloth that covered Jesus’ head, and was found in the tomb by John and Peter, in the same place where it had been left on Good Friday. Theological and linguistic studies have demonstrated the importance of this short biblical passage in John’s Gospel, because if the burial linens were lying "collapsed" in the very same place where the body had been placed, and the Sudarium was still lying there, exactly where it had been left in the tomb, the possibility of theft could be ruled out. It was no wonder that the placement of the burial linens was what led John and Peter to believe in the Resurrection. Without even considering the existence of an image on the Shroud, it would have been impossible to steal a body without unwrapping it first.

The burial linens were returned to Joseph of Arimathea, and the Sudarium was later given to St. Peter, who used it to heal the sick and eventually hid it, according to historical documentation from the fourth century. The only serious mishap since the Muslim invasion occurred just prior to the Spanish Civil War. In 1934 the revolutionaries placed dynamite in the Crypt of St. Leocadia, directly below the Holy Chamber, and destroyed it, scattering the relics. The Sudarium was found in the rubble unharmed, and the room was soon reconstructed using the original stones. The chest and the two famous crosses have been restored.

Little is known about the history of the Shroud of Turin prior to the tenth century, which is not unusual because it contained an image of God, strictly forbidden in Jewish culture. Many of the first Christians were Jews, of course, and therefore no one should be surprised that its whereabouts were unknown for so long in order to avoid its destruction, which would have been required by Jewish law. At the same time, because of the Christians’ profound respect for relics, it is certainly not strange that it was safeguarded, and many scholars believe that the cloth being preserved in Edessa, Turkey, in 544 was in fact the Shroud, folded in such a way that only the face was visible.

Early Christian icons from this period, which appear to have been copied from the Shroud of Turin, are an indication that the face manifested on the relic was known around that time. The Edessa cloth no longer exists, and many scholars believe that it was taken to Constantinople in 944 where it was shown full-length. After Constantinople was occupied by the Crusaders, many relics were dispersed, and in 1353 the Shroud is reported to have been in Lirey, France. It was taken to Turin in 1578. Pollens found on the Shroud confirm this traditional route.

When the histories of the two relics are compared, it is quite evident that although both were found in Jesus’ tomb, it is unlikely that they were together for any length of time. The Sudarium remained in Jerusalem for several centuries before its transfer to Spain across the Mediterranean, and the Shroud went north to Turkey, and later to Constantinople, France and finally Italy. Both histories are confirmed by tradition, historical documentation and pollen studies.

IgnatiusInsight.com: A large section of Sacred Blood, Sacred Image is devoted to the relationship between the Sudarium and the Shroud. How much a relationship can be established between the two? What does the Sudarium reveal about the Shroud?

One of the most convincing pieces of evidence that the Shroud and the Sudarium did indeed cover the same person is the fact that a unique pattern of puncture wounds at the nape of the neck matches on both relics. This would be extremely significant even if the crowning with thorns were standard punishment for crucifixion victims, but is absolutely staggering when we consider that Jesus is the only person we know of who was ever "crowned" in such a way. It is also important to keep in mind that normal procedure was to leave the corpse on the cross until wild animals devoured the remains. Burial itself was unusual, so to find two burial cloths from a crucified man that match is astounding, even more so because they both manifest all the wounds suffered by Christ. There are no other burial cloths in existence like these two relics, which tradition has always maintained are those of Christ.

Perhaps even more amazing, however, is the fact that the characteristic trickle of blood in the shape of the Greek epsilon that is so prominent on the Shroud of Turin, appears on the Sudarium of Oviedo in the very same place, including the drop that appears just below it. Not only that, on the Shroud there is evidence that this drop of blood was previously blotted by another cloth. All of the major blood stains match, there is evidence of a swelling or contusion on the right cheek, and there is vital blood from puncture wounds that cover the entire head. The nose is exactly eight centimeters long on both. It is flattened to the right and appears as though someone put similar pressure on it in an attempt to contain the flow of blood.

There are pollens from Jerusalem, and ample evidence of aloe, used in first-century Jewish burials as a blood preservative. In the case of the Sudarium, the aloe was placed directly on the cloth itself, on top of the bloodstains. The blood flows along the beard are more copious on the Sudarium, indicating that this cloth was placed on the head before the Shroud. The two relics were never on the body at the same time. The Sudarium was removed and set apart in the tomb, as mentioned in John’s Gospel, and the body was then shrouded for burial.

The linens themselves are quite different, however. The Shroud is a long cloth, with an expensive herringbone weave, required by Jewish law for shrouding the body of the deceased. The Sudarium, on the other hand, has an inexpensive taffeta texture with many defects, indicating that it was made on a first-century vertical loom with weights. This small linen was used traditionally as a towel, apron or handkerchief, could be wrapped around the head as a turban, and for funerary purposes, was employed either as a chin band or to prevent the loss of blood.

When the stains from both relics are superimposed, one on the other, the similarities are amazing, although imperfect because of the nature of the two relics. The image found on the Shroud is a perfect, three-dimensional representation of a human body, while the Sudarium, because the bloodstains on the cloth conformed to a three-dimensional head while still wet and are now flattened out, presents unusual difficulties in comparative photographic studies. There is an additional two centimeters of space, for example, between the tip of the nose and the mouth, formed by the base of the nose.

The Sudarium has been called a silent witness to the events of Christ’s passion, and reveals a great deal concerning the pain involved with crucifixion. It is indisputable that the "Man of the Sudarium," as he is sometimes called, actually died, because the flow of pulmonary serum through the nose and mouth allows for no possibility of respiratory movement. Traditionally and now scientifically, the Sudarium serves as a witness to Christ’s death on the cross, which is denied by many today. By its close association with the Shroud of Turin, the Sudarium also serves to authenticate the linen shroud that many believe is a silent witness to Christ’s Resurrection, with its perfect image believed to be that of Christ at the very moment in which He arose from the dead. Belief in Christ’s death and Resurrection are the two key ingredients for salvation. Denying either one is a denial of Christ himself — who He was and why He was born. Authenticating both relics is therefore an important affirmation for our faith.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What has been the reaction from scholars – especially historians, archaeologists, and biblical scholars – toward the Sudarium? Toward the evidence and arguments you outline in your book? Do the reactions reveal a Christian/non-Christian split, or something else? 

The reaction from scholars has been overwhelmingly positive, especially because in this case science has supported history, tradition, archaeology and Scripture in such a marvelous way. The Spanish Center for Sindonology has done a painstakingly accurate and professional work of investigation. The forensic criminologist who conducted the blood studies on the Sudarium is world renowned, the geometric and photographic studies were brilliant, the investigation of ancient manuscripts was very thorough, and the theological studies are remarkable. I don’t know of a single case where someone has offered evidence that might contradict any of these studies and arguments, and I don’t believe that it would be possible to offer serious arguments en contra.

I am not aware of a non-Catholic Christian/Catholic split, although generally speaking, Christians of other denominations are not as enthusiastic about relics as Catholics. They tend to argue that relics have nothing to do with their faith, which is of course true for all of us. Relics have often been viewed as a morbid, Catholic preoccupation, even though this was not the case for the early Christians, who saw them as a tangible witness to what had been. As for non-Christians, there have always been those who would go to great lengths to disprove the Shroud because of what it says about the Resurrection, because it would thus authenticate their disbelief in God and right to live as they please, but the existence of the face cloth offers surprising and irrefutable evidence indicating the authenticity of both. It is becoming increasingly difficult — perhaps impossible — to make claims of fraud. I am not aware of any arguments against the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin that take into account the studies done on the Sudarium of Oviedo.

IgnatiusInsight.com: If the Sudarium is the cloth that wrapped Jesus’ head and that is established as best it can be, what does it mean for Christians and the Christian Faith?

I think that many people tend to look at the Bible as a collection of books that have little to do with historical events, and if establishing the authenticity of this relic does nothing more than increase confidence in Scripture as the Word of God, it will have accomplished a great deal. I did an interview several years ago with the Miracle Channel in Lethbridge, Canada, a television station directed toward an Evangelical audience. Although I was not aware of it at the time, they displayed a question on the television screen, asking viewers the question, "If the Sudarium of Oviedo were proved a fraud, what effect would it have on your faith?" They immediately began to phone in, stating emphatically that it would have absolutely nothing to do with their belief in God.

This, of course, should be the case with everyone. Faith involves a personal relationship with Christ that is possible only through prayer and the sacraments, not whether or not a relic is authentic. At the same time, I believe that if the authenticity of the Sudarium were widely accepted, it could certainly lead nonbelievers to seek and find Christ, especially those who have rejected even the historical reality of his life on earth. Establishing the connection of the Sudarium with the Shroud of Turin supports the nature of Christ as both man and God, a unique individual in history who died as human, but rose from the dead because he was God. Faith in Jesus is so important because as humans tainted by original sin we are not capable of conquering death on our own, but only by being united to Christ, who still lives and intervenes in our lives.

For me personally, it has been extremely enriching to my faith to study the historical, cultural, Biblical and scientific aspects of both the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Holy Chalice of Valencia. In both cases, it has been fascinating to discover the profound respect shown toward relics by the early Christians, to such an extent that they were so often willing to sacrifice their own lives to save them. Relics were a silent witness to their faith, as they still are today for many Christians. The Holy Chalice and the Sudarium provide powerful, firmly-grounded testimonies that serve to counteract the blasphemous allegations against Christ and Christianity that have become so commonplace. These bizarre theories are without historical or scientific basis, wouldn’t have been tolerated by medieval society, and shouldn’t be condoned by Christians today.

In the case of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, we are dealing only with the receptacle that once held Christ’s blood — even if it is the long-coveted Holy Grail. The Sudarium of Oviedo is especially significant, because if authentic, this cloth contains the actual blood of Christ, a priceless and extremely important relic. Although associated with many miracles throughout history, the bloodstained Sudarium is still not the Eucharist, the flesh and blood of Christ that we must consume to have eternal life. I think this is very significant. The very fact that these two relics — both intimately associated with the Body of Christ — have been so carefully safeguarded and preserved for two thousand years says more about what they represent than what they are in and of themselves. They bear witness to the profound respect and awe that we should have for the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, our means of becoming so intimately united with God that we will live forever. Nothing can replace the importance of that Sacrament in our lives.

So many seem to have lost this belief, perhaps because they assume that a vague belief in some sort of God, unaccompanied by spiritual nourishment and transformation through Christ, is sufficient. Even among Catholics, we so often witness a rather lackadaisical attitude toward Mass and the Sacraments, demonstrating a lack of faith that they have any real importance in our lives. The fact that both of these relics are the focus of public attention at this very moment, during the year of the Eucharist and at a time when heresies are flourishing, with the disseminators often pointing to Christ’s burial linens and the Holy Grail as "proof," is a magnificent sign of God’s providence. The Sudarium is a living witness to Christ’s death on the cross, supports our belief in the Resurrection, and provides all Christians with a tangible sign of Jesus’ love for humanity, a love so profound that He was willing to suffer the terrible pain and humiliation of crucifixion so that we might have eternal life

Related link: Interview with Janice Bennett about her second book, St. Laurence and The Holy Grail: The Story of The Holy Chalice of Valencia | October 2004

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