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Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: An interview with
Janice Bennett about the Sudarium of Oviedo | August 6, 2005
Part two | Part
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 Johns 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
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?
Bennett: 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
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 Johns 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 Christs
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 Christs
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 Christs Resurrection,
with its perfect image believed to be that of Christ at the very moment
in which He arose from the dead. Belief in Christs 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?
Bennett: 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 dont know of a single case where someone
has offered evidence that might contradict any of these studies and arguments,
and I dont believe that it would be possible to offer serious arguments
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
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?
Bennett: 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, wouldnt
have been tolerated by medieval society, and shouldnt be condoned
by Christians today.
In the case of the Holy Chalice of Valencia, we are dealing only with the
receptacle that once held Christs 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
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 Christs burial linens and the Holy Grail as "proof,"
is a magnificent sign of Gods providence. The Sudarium is a living
witness to Christs 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
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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