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
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
IgnatiusInsight.com: What is the Sudarium of Oviedo? How did you first become
aware of it and interested in it?
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. Im 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 wasnt 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
Bennett: 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 XIs 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 Gibsons 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 didnt know exactly what purpose it had served, they did
believe that it contained Christs 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
Christs 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?
Bennett: 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 Spains 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. Oviedos other famous relics included one of
St. Peters 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 Victorys 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 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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