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

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

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

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. 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. 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. 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

If you'd like to receive the FREE e-letter (about every 1 to 2 weeks), which includes regular updates about articles, reviews, excerpts, and author appearances, please click here to sign-up today!