by: Jim Dunning
(This article was originally published in "Irelands Own" magazine. The webmaster would like to gratefully thank the author, Jim Dunning, for his kind permission in reprinting it here.)
The Sudarium of Oviedo is traditionally believed to be the small cloth which was used to cover the face of Jesus of Nazareth immediately after his death on the cross. Nothing is known of its whereabouts for the first 600 years after the disciple John saw it in the empty tomb.
The reason for the silence about its existence is probably related to its function. The Jewish people have always had a strong distaste for anything to do with blood. The very idea of a cloth covering the face of a corpse with blood coming out of its nose and mouth would have horrified all concerned. The disciple would have retrieved it and kept it hidden from sight out of reverence, but little would have been said. So much is conjecture, but what is known for certain is that the cloth has always been venerated and its authenticity has never been in doubt.
For a very long time the Sudarium has been kept in the cathedral of San Salvador at Oviedo in northern Spain. Although nothing is known of the first 600 years, according to Bishop Pelagius writing in the twelfth century, the Sudarium was in Palestine until shortly before 614 when Jerusalem was attacked by the king of Persia. To protect it from invaders the cloth, already revered as ‘the Sudarium of the Lord’, was conveyed in a chest, generally referred to as the Ark, to Alexandria.
Two years later the Sudarium was moved on again when Alexandria came under threat, this time to Cartagena in Spain. Later the Bishop of Seville (Saint Isidore) took it to Seville and thence to Toledo. The year 718 saw it moved north with Christians fleeing from the Arab armies which had invaded Spain in 711. King Alfonso II had a special chapel built for the Ark called the «Camara Santa», which duly became incorporated into the cathedral of Oviedo. Certainly, pilgrims travelling to Santiago are known to have made a detour to Oviedo to see the Sudarium, or at least the Ark in which it was kept.
The Sudarium is still preserved in the Camara Santa (Holy Chapel) in the cathedral, being displayed to the public three times a year, on Good Friday, the 14th September (the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross), and its octave on the 21st September. Unlike the Turin Shroud, the Sudarium holds no image. It contains only stains of blood and lymph (a colourless fluid from the tissues), but significantly, the blood group is AB positive, the same as that found by scientists during tests carried out on the Shroud of Turin.
Other similarities exist. Three species of pollen on the Sudarium match the pollen on the Shroud. It contains traces of pollen not only from Palestine, but from Africa and Spain, indicating the journey it took on its way to Oviedo. On the Shroud there are also traces of pollen from Syria, Turkey, Greece and France, revealing a completely different route. Of great significance is a table showing the regions of provenance of the plants whose pollens have been found on the Shroud. No fewer than 48 of them are typical of, and in some cases exclusive to, the environs of Jerusalem. The European representation of pollen is completely outweighed, which is not what one would expect if the Shroud were a fake created in Europe.
Scientists believe both cloths touched the same face within hours of each other. A technique known as Polaroid Image Overlay, applied to the frontal stains on the Sudarium produced no less than 70 points of coincidence with the corresponding area on the Shroud. Bloodstain patterns indicate that the Sudarium was placed over the head of the man on the cross before he was taken down from it. It was then removed before the body was placed in the shroud.
The Sudarium was subjected to Carbon 14 dating by a Professor Baima Bollone and the resulting date was the 7th century, but the Professor himself was unable to vouch for the test’s validity. His actual words in his contribution to the First International Congress on the Sudarium of Oviedo were : ‘The result is not easy to interpret due to the well known difficulties of dating textiles and to the conditions under which the sample was kept when it was taken in 1979 until it came to us in 1983.’ A supporting statement from the Conference reads : ‘Textiles left alone in normal atmospheric conditions are prone to becoming highly contaminated…. The Carbon dating should be nothing more than a stimulus to more precise investigation under better conditions.’
Since then more precise investigations have taken place. In particular, scientific comparisons have been made of the bloodstains on the Sudarium with those on the Shroud of Turin. Tests have shown that the man whose face the Sudarium covered, like the man of the Shroud, had a beard, moustache and long hair tied up at the nape of his neck into a pigtail. Since there were no signs of breathing he must already have been dead. The stains show a series of wounds produced in life by some sharp objects, such as thorns.
One report suggested that : ‘The only position compatible with the formation of the stains on the Oviedo cloth is that of a body having both arms outstretched above the head, with the feet in such a position as to make breathing very difficult, i.e., a position totally compatible with crucifixion. The man appeared to have been wounded first (by scourging, for instance), and to have had something sharp placed on his head, producing blood on the head, shoulders and back, and then crucified.’ Clearly, such a description of ‘something sharp’ would fit the crown of thorns described in the Gospels.
The most important conclusion of the First International Congress on the Sudarium of Oviedo, held there in 1994, taking into account the above findings, was that a complete joint study of the Sudarium and the Shroud was necessary. A later conclusion after scientific evaluation was that in both cases it seems much more possible that the cloths are genuine than the opposite.
The Third International Congress, held in 1998, actually had as its title : ‘A Comparative Study of the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Shroud of Turin’. In an interesting finding by Monsignor Giulio Ricci is the statement : ‘Comparing the life size photograph of the face on the Shroud taken by Enrie (the official Shroud photographer in 1931) with the one I brought back from Oviedo, and putting one on top of the other…I was taken aback by the perfect fit of the Shroud image with the macroscopic Sudarium outline. This could be «confirmation» for the hypothesis that both the Shroud and the Sudarium were placed on the same face.’
Elsewhere, we are reminded that the Sudarium’s presence on His face is limited to the brief time necessary to take the dead body of Our Lord down from the Cross at Calvary and convey it to the nearby tomb. It would have been taken off before the Shroud was fitted, which explains why the apostles saw it rolled up in a separate place in the empty tomb. Witnessing the face cloth and the empty shroud was a most significant moment for Peter and John, realising as they did that Jesus must have risen from the dead. As John said of himself : ‘And he saw and believed’.
The fact that the Sudarium was kept at all is a sign of its being genuine. A blood-covered rag, it has never had any artistic or monetary value. We are left with one conclusion : the Sudarium of Oviedo was used to cover the head of the dead Jesus of Nazareth when he was taken down from the Cross until he was buried in the Shroud.
Given all the evidence we can feel justified in believing that both the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Shroud of Turin are genuine and can reasonably be linked directly to the death of Jesus of Nazareth whose story is told so vividly in the Gospels. But in considering the cold scientific findings, we should not lose sight of the fact that they chronicle the most terrible sufferings inflicted on our Blessed Lord. If we are to repent of our sins honestly and sincerely, we do well constantly to recall those sufferings.
- Jim Dunning lives in the United Kingdom. His hobbies include watching rugby and writing short stories and religious articles.
Click here for an excellent article on the Shroud of Turin