Quick Links: Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four
The Shroud of Turin's Earlier History is a four part review of the historical evidence for the Shroud of Turin from the 1st century to the beginning of the 15th. In Part 1 a mysterious picture slowly emerges from antiquity as a cloth on which Jesus supposedly imprints his face and sends to a king in the northern Mesopotamian city of Edessa. But during the 8th through 10th centuries additional evidence suggests that this is a large, folded cloth depicting Christ's full, bloodied body.
Special thanks to Professor Emeritus of History, University of Southern Indiana, Daniel Scavone for reviewing this paper and making suggestions for improvement. Special thanks also to Mr. Ian Wilson for his historical reconstruction which this article follows.
The 8th through mid-10th centuries were to make the Holy Image of Edessa the most famous icon in the Christian world, offer clues as to its physical appearance, but also reflect predictable contradictions stemming from the great secrecy in which it was kept. John of Damascus (d. 749), a defender of image veneration, wrote “he [Jesus] took a cloth (rakos) and applied it to his face and impressed on it his own likeness (charakter), which is preserved until the present day” (Cameron 1998: 40). This description, similar to and perhaps derived from the Acts of Thaddeus, appears to be the most common way of understanding it during these centuries. Pilgrims traveling to the Holy Lands and Syrian-educated churchmen migrating elsewhere would undoubtedly spread what they heard about the Image. It is said that Pope Stephen (752 – 757) remarked “that he had often heard the story from those coming from the eastern parts of how Christ imprinted his face on a linen cloth and sent it to Abgar” (Chrysostomides 1997: xxxiii). Texts from outside greater Syria mentioning the Image are few before the later 8th century, but the great iconoclastic controversy (726 – 843) gave a major boost to its notoriety. Iconodules (“image lovers”) used it to argue Christ sanctioned pictures by making one himself. In the image-friendly atmosphere of the Second Council of Nicaea (787) the Edessa Icon was noted several times, and Evagrius’ history was used to help explain its past. The assembled ecclesiastics were concerned “with establishing the proper degree of respect for religious images-veneration (proskynesis), but not worship (lateria)” (Cameron 1998: 45). Theodore Abu Qurrah, from the same monastery and with the same theological views as John of Damascus, wrote (very early in the 9th century) “As for the image of Christ ... it is honored by veneration especially in our city, Edessa, the blessed, at definite times, with its own feasts and pilgrimages” (Cameron 1998: 46). By the early 10th century Alexandrian Patriarch Eutychius assigns a lofty status to the Image writing “the most wonderful of His relics which Christ has bequeathed to us is a napkin in the Church of ar-Ruha [i.e., Edessa] .... With this Christ wiped His face and there was fixed on it a clear image, not made by painting or drawing or engraving and not changing” (Cameron 1983: 90). Eutychius uses the Arabic word mandil, usually understood to mean a handkerchief-sized cloth; other writers sometimes used “sweat-cloth” (soudarion), again suggesting modest size. These writers certainly imply that Christ’s imprint (ektypoma) was only of his face.
A 7th century painting found in Rome’s catacombs with several “Vignon Markings” including a transverse line and open top box on the forehead, one eyebrow lifted higher than the other, and one nostril larger than the other. Was there an original model for these unusual Shroud-like features? Wilson, 1991: VIIIb
The new style Christ images produced during these centuries appear to have a strong relationship to the Shroud face and Edessa Image. Wilson believes that artists copied the facial area within the circular opening of the Image’s slip cover and used it for a variety of different Jesus pictures (Wilson 1979: 141). Vignon had already deduced that the numerous Pantocrator (Christ Enthroned) pictures had the strongest semblance to the Shroud face, with many “Vignon markings” to be seen (Wilson 1991: 161). One in particular, in Rome’s Catacomb of St. Pontianus dated to the 7th century, caught his attention. It has a very unnaturalistic open topped square between Christ’s eyebrows (Wilson 1991: 167-168) as well as such other Shroud face characteristics as a raised eyebrow, transverse line on forehead, and long nose with one especially enlarged nostril. Two particularly noteworthy 6th century Christ Enthroned pictures in Rome, the mosaic in St. John Lateran and a painted panel in the Sancta Sanctorum Chapel of the Lateran Place, were called acheiropoietos strongly suggesting their model was an original “not made by hands” image. No representations of the Image in its frame are known to exist before the 10th century, but certain works do appear to capture the Christ face in a circular halo like seen on later depictions of the Icon. Wilson identified two pilgrims’ flasks from the late 6th century (believed to be based on a lost mosaic from Jerusalem) and a 7th century icon of the saints Sergius and Bacchus in Kiev, each having a rigid front-facing face in a circular field (Wilson 1979: 142-143). The famous Veronica portrait, a prized Vatican relic, may date as early as 8th century (Wilson believes early 11th) and is frequently understood by scholars to be a derivative of the Edessa Image (Meagher 2003). The commonly seen Veronica image showing a very naturalistic face was almost certainly not what the icon originally looked like; better copies showed a more blurry, impressionistic texture similar to the Shroud (see illus. VII in Wilson 1991). In the church of the Holy Cross in Telovani, Georgia (former USSR), there are also the faint remains of a mural dated to the 8th or 9th century with the inscription “Holy Face of God.” It represents what was once the face of Christ in a halo, probably a representation of the actual Edessa Icon, but without the frame (Skhirtladze 1997: 72-73). All these demonstrate the impact the Edessa Image was having on Christian art.
The superficial view during this period that the Edessa Icon was a small cloth containing just Jesus’ face is challenged by other descriptions obviously dependent on special knowledge (someone’s personal observation) and suggesting a semblance to the Turin Shroud. Mention has already been made of Wilson’s notice of tetradiplon in the Acts of Thaddeus. It surely is remarkable that anyone should be concerned whether Christ’s towel was folded or not, and especially that it was “doubled in four,” occurring in a short story not concerned primarily with the Image but rather the city’s evangelization. It strongly encourages the opinion that there was an eyewitness to that unusual feature, a feature that suddenly becomes very sensible if the cloth were large and contained a face at the same position as on the Turin Shroud. Andrew of Crete in the early 8th century describes the Image as “the imprint ... of the bodily [somatikou] appearance” of Christ, an interesting departure from those versions mentioning only a face (Scavone 2001: 14). And if in fact the cloth had to cover a whole body, did anyone believe it was larger than a mandil? In a second reference John Damascene reports Christ pressed his facial image onto messenger Hanan’s himation, a Greek outer garment measuring about two yards wide and three yards long (and similar in size to the Shroud) (Drews 1984: 39). The image color and texture also has been hinted at vaguely in the story of Athanasius bar Gumoye’s painter “dulling” the colors. In the 9th century a writer in Constantinople attributes to Patriarch Germanos 100 years earlier a description of the Image’s face as “sweat-soaked” (Wilson 1979: 115). Other contemporary texts also use this same description, one which anyone familiar with the colors of icons at the time might have to resort to characterize the Shroud’s oddly diffuse, monochrome, moist-like appearance. The 10th century Moslem historian Massoudi, who apparently knew little of the Abgar tale, understood the cloth was used to dry Christ after emerging from baptism; Scavone opines “the historical elements remain still simple, natural, and comprehensible: Christ, a [necessarily] large cloth, an application on a damp body” (Scavone 2001: 27). Another researcher also notices that Massoudi knew that the Icon “circulated” before its arrival in the Edessa cathedral (Palmer 1988: 130), a hint that more was once known about its early history but not preserved. However, all these references are only hints; what is needed for a stronger identification of the Icon with the Shroud is a very plain assertion that there was a full-body image, and that it depicted Christ’s Passion. And such evidence exists.
When Wilson did his initial research in the 60’s and 70’s he discounted any substantial evidence indicating that the Image of Edessa’s Syrian guardians knew the truth behind the hidden folds in the Icon’s frame. He had concluded that the cloth had been folded and framed in Abgar’s time and remained that way until the 11th century. A 12th century Latin text from the monk Odericus Vitalis reporting a full-body image was one of the earliest evidences of the truth’s disclosure. However, 19th century historian Ernest von Dobschutz had already observed that this and similar Latin documents reporting a full-body image from about this time could trace their source to a Syriac text from about 800. In 1993 Italian classical scholar Gino Zaninotto announced the discovery of such an earlier Latin text from the 10th century, Vossianus Latinus Q69. These related manuscripts contain the “Oldest Latin Abgar Legend” asserting that the Edessa Image was of Jesus’ full-body and probably derive from a Syriac text even before 769. (Scavone 1999: 18) In them Jesus denies Abgar’s request for a visitation, but writes he will send him a linen “on which you will discover not only the features of my face, but a divinely copied configuration of my entire body.” The story then continued:
Vossianus Latinus Q69 is a tract dating to the 10th century that translates a probable 8th century Syriac text describing the Edessa cloth as containing a whole-body Christ image – was the truth about the icon finally beginning to leak out? Adaptation by author.
[Jesus] spread out his entire body on a linen cloth that was white as snow. On this cloth ... the glorious features of that lordly face, and the majestic form of his whole body were so divinely transferred .... This linen, which until now remains uncorrupted by the passage of time, is kept in Syrian Mesopotamia at the city of Edessa, in a great cathedral (Scavone 1999: 18).
Assuming the original “Oldest Latin Abgar Legend” source to have been an earlier Syriac text, it elevates the Edessa Image’s true nature, one consistent with the Shroud image, to a legitimate possibility. Additionally, elsewhere in some of these tracts (e.g., Vos. Lat. Q69) is the barest suggestion that in some vague way the cloth might have had a connection to Christ’s Passion:
on Easter it used to change its appearance according to different ages: it showed itself in infancy in the first hour of the day, childhood at the third hour, adolescence at the sixth hour, and the fullness of age at the ninth hour, when the Son of God came to His Passion ... and ... cross (Scavone 1999: 5).
A wounded, bloodied, whole-body image such as on the Shroud that was slowly raised from its chest during a day long Easter ritual might explain this strange passage, and has suggested itself to a few Shroud scholars. But only additional evidence, hopefully from eyewitnesses, could clarify these mysteries. By later in the 10th century more such witnesses emerge who provide that clarification.
In addition to describing the Edessa Icon as containing a full-body image, Vos. Lat. Q69 also briefly refers to a mysterious Easter ceremony in which the Image changed throughout the day to depict Christ in his Passion – what was occurring in this ritual? Adaptation by author.
Constantinople and its empire endured periods of decline and resurgence like most great states. In the early 7th century Emperor Herakleios had just restored Byzantium by a series of military victories when militant Islam undid some of his successes, including placing Edessa under Moslem control in 639. After enduring two Arab sieges of Constantinople and making a modest recovery, the empire was wracked in parts of the 8th and 9th centuries by serious internal strife, iconoclasm (“image breaking”). Iconodules venerated religious pictures, while iconoclasts were opposed to the practice, often supported by the emperor’s police powers. Many thousands suffered injury or banishment and much of the empire’s religious art destroyed. Iconodules eventually triumphed in 843 and, once again, the pictures of saints adorned homes, churches, and monasteries. The imperial family played an important role in Byzantine religious life and welcomed the prestige major icons and relics would bring. To celebrate 100 years of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” the aging Byzantine emperor, Romanus Lacapenus, dispatched an army in 943 to wrench the famous Image from Edessan hands. As Moslem martial resources were in decline, no serious opposition prevented a Byzantine siege and a likely fall of the city. Although Islam was also iconoclastic, Moslem rulers enjoyed the fame and prosperity pilgrims brought to a city in possession of so great an attraction. But in 944 the city’s emir accepted a Byzantine offer of money, freed prisoners, and exemption from further attack in exchange for the Image. The Christian population resisted and tried to pass off two copies before a bishop from a nearby city, visiting with the Byzantines and acquainted with the original, made the correct identification. Even then an Edessan crowd followed the withdrawing Byzantines protesting the robbery. Wilson tells the above story (1979: 147 – 150), leaving the reader to wonder how this mysterious object could generate such intense devotion and sacrifice.
The Empire of the Eastern Christians was near its height in 944. Its capital, Constantinople (renamed from the earlier Greek City of Byzantium), was easily the greatest in Europe:
In the Middle Ages Constantinople lay at the eastern end of Europe like a remote fairy-tale palace in a wilderness of hovels. As a center of art, culture, and commerce it was unrivaled, having preserved intact all the knowledge and experience of the old Roman Empire. Trade poured into it from all quarters. Its palaces, churches, and shrines were the envy of the world (Wilson 1979: 151).
10th century Constantinople was the greatest city in Europe and the seat of the Orthodox Christian world. In 944 the Great City received the most renowned Christ picture into their relic treasury, the Holy Image of Edessa. From that time almost all Orthodox churches included a representation of it on the walls among their church art. December, 1983 National Geographic.
It was to the Church of St. Mary Blachernae in the city’s northwest corner that the Image was first brought in the evening of August 15, 944. After celebrating the Mass for the Assumption of the Virgin (on the Orthodox calendar for that date), a small group of very privileged clergy and nobility anxiously waited to preview the most famous picture in all Christendom. This event, either that night or another a day or two later, was captured by a small painted miniature, one of originally more than 600 done in the 12th or 13th century to illustrate a history by the Greek John Skylitzes. It shows the old emperor embracing a clearly visible, typical Jesus face on a cloth stretched in its picture frame housing; a long cloth adjacent to the Image might be the artist’s attempt to signal that the cloth was really very large, or a separate handling cloth used to protect precious objects (Crispino 1992). However, there is a major mistake made by this later artist: the Jesus face did not look like the artist’s clearly depicted rendition. The 10th century writer Symenon Magister reported that the emperor’s two ruffian sons, who were in attendance, “could see nothing but a [faint] face” but their brother-in-law, and soon future emperor Constantine VII (and an artist himself), could discern various facial features (Scavone 1989a: 86). They obviously were having difficulty interpreting the image. These kinds of tenuous observations would be expected if what the assembled nobility, who were familiar with the best art in Christendom, actually viewed were a blurry image like on the Shroud. The following day it was welcomed officially into the city as the metropolis’ new palladium with, in the words of a contemporary history, “high psalmody, hymns ... and boundless light from torches” among “a procession of the whole people.” That history continued:
It is impossible to describe in words all the weeping for joy and the intercession, prayers, and thanksgivings to God from the whole city as the divine image ... passed through the midst of the city (Wilson 1979: 152).
Soon after the Edessa Image arrived in Constantinople in August, 944 Emperor Romanus, sons and entourage had a private showing. Although this picture (made perhaps two hundred years later) depicts a clearly imprinted Jesus face on the cloth, one contemporary writer recorded difficulties viewers had in perceiving the face. The Catholic Counter-Reformation in the XXth Century, No. 237 (March 1991): 19
Wilson knew that during the tumultuous August 16th celebration the Holy Image was placed on the Mercy Seat in Hagia Sophia, the most prominent church in Constantinople. Afterwards it found a resting place in the secret Pharos Chapel, a depository for precious treasures inside the emperor’s Great Palace. What he did not know in 1978 was that about that same time another special viewing was held, again probably for only the privileged. Almost forgotten by researchers, an 11th century copy of a sermon preached on that occasion was discovered by Shroud sleuth Gino Zaninotto in 1986. The speaker was an important cleric and archdeacon of Hagia Sophia, a priest named Gregory, and he may have been in charge of the Icon’s reception in Constantinople (Scavone 1999: 3–4). In his sermon Gregory reveals that “we went to Edessa [probably accompanying the army] ... hoping to find in the manuscripts there what [1st century King] Abgar had done. And we found a great number of manuscripts written in the Syriac language, from which we copied what was asked of us and translated it into Greek” (all translations of Gregory’s sermon in this paragraph by Mark Guscin 2004). There Gregory learned that the Image was not produced during Christ’s ministry, “But Jesus, undergoing the passion ... taking this linen cloth he wiped the sweat that was falling down his face like drops of blood in his agony.” As he lectured the Image was almost certainly visible to his audience, and possibly more unveiled than on any other known public occasion. At one point Gregory informs his listeners:
This reflection [Jesus’ image] ... has been imprinted only by the sweat from the face [of Jesus], falling like drops of blood, and by the finger of God. For these are the beauties that have made up the true imprint of Christ, since after the drops fell, it was embellished by drops from his own side. Both are highly instructive – blood and water there, here sweat and image.
Gregory continues later “... the origin of the image made by sweat is in fact of the same nature as the origin of that which makes the liquid flow from his side.” The import of these observations is clear. Once again we hear of “sweat,” an attempt to describe a color and texture unusual to Gregory and his audience. But now there appears to be blood to be seen on the Image, and causes Gregory to reflect on the blood and water the Gospels report flowed out of Jesus’ side when lanced on the cross. A simple English translation of this portion of the sermon makes it appear that the archdeacon is pointing to a side wound (“blood and water there”) on the Image for his audience. When this document was noticed by Shroud researchers twenty-five years ago this was the opinion of many. But recent scholarship understands that the Greek construction only has Gregory thinking back to the side wound on Christ in the Gospel narratives and not seeing such a wound on the Image (Guscin 2009: 208). While this interpretation may be correct, a soon-to-appear new relic in 958 raises the possibility that the Image may still have carried a side wound, seen or not. Nevertheless, Gregory is a close up, eyewitness to an Image connected to Jesus’ Passion, moving nearer to a Shroud identification.
In a privileged exposition of the Image after its arrival in Constantinople, a knowledgeable cleric, Gregory, recognized “sweat ... falling like drops of blood” from Christ’s head causing him to think of the wound in Jesus’ side. A few years later the new Emperor Constantine VII admitted to having “blood from his side” in his relic treasury. How did he obtain that? Author
One year later the Icon had its own feast day, August 16th, on the Orthodox calendar. To help celebrate this occasion a detailed history was written for it, ostensibly by the new emperor, Constantine VII. Called the Story of the Image of Edessa it is the first lengthy description of the Image’s 900 year history to survive, and is another, close up eyewitness account since it was welcomed into Constantinople the previous year. Wilson obtained a translation for his 1978 book (Appendix C in Wilson 1979: 272 –290), and it was to play a crucial role in his historical reconstruction. Also known as the “Festival Sermon” it claims to be based upon “painstaking inquiry into the true facts” from historians and Syrian traditions (Wilson 1979: 273). In light of what is now known in Gregory’s sermon the year before, it probably drew upon the same Syrian manuscripts as did the archdeacon. The Story informs that King Abgar suffered from arthritis and leprosy and had heard of Jesus and his miracles. He sent his messenger Ananias to invite Christ to live in Edessa and heal him. Jesus declines but promises to send a disciple to Abgar after he returns to his Father; he also “washed his face in water, wiped off the moisture that was left on the towel that was given to him, and in some divine and inexpressible manner had his own likeness impressed on it.” But the author of the Story found another version “which is neither incredible nor short of reliable witnesses.” Jesus was in his Gethsemane agony where “sweat dropped from him like drops of blood” when “they took this piece of cloth which we see now from one of the disciples and wiped off the drops of sweat on it. At once the still-visible impression of that divine face was produced” (Wilson 1979: 278). Thaddaeus was the disciple sent by Christ and brought both the Gospel proclamation and the Image to Edessa. Abgar could see “that it did not consist of earthly colors” and Thaddaeus explained “that the likeness was due to sweat, not pigments.” King Abgar fastened the cloth to a board and decorated it with gold “which now is to be seen ....” The city enjoyed a growing evangelization while Abgar lived, but under the kingship of a grandson Christians were persecuted and the Image had to be hidden away atop a city gate, and was then forgotten. In 544 during the Persian siege a bishop had its location revealed to him in a vision and then the Icon aided in the victory described by Evagrius. Numerous miracles are sprinkled throughout the narrative, which may have been a lecture (hence the “which we now see” passages), as Gregory’s sermon, and again before a privileged audience. Once again the Image did not appear to have been removed form its frame and covering, and was not equated with a burial shroud. Nevertheless, it was another epiphany for Wilson.
Historians place little credence in much of what the Story narrates of the cloth’s earlier history. Wilson also recognized the semi-legendary nature of its contents, but believed it represented a serious attempt by the Byzantines to understand its unusual nature and mysterious past. He did not believe that at this time the Icon had been opened to expose more of its hidden figure. Nevertheless, something about the face, like the blood marks on the Shroud face, forced Byzantine officials to consider the possibility that the bloody sweat from the Gethsemane agony was responsible for what they saw (Wilson 1979: 116 – 117). But if the Shroud was to be equated with the Image, and the evidence was becoming stronger, then its largely silent first 500 years had to be explained. Wilson agreed with the Story’s “hidden away, then re-discovered” scenario, but not with all the details. As Evagrius did not mention the discovery in 544 during the Persian siege, Wilson noticed that the 525 destruction by flood of Edessa and subsequent rebuilding of the city may have afforded the actual opportunity for its recovery (Wilson 1979: 138 –139). This would accord well with the observed origin of the Shroud-like Jesus faces in the Ravenna mosaics in the early 540’s. At a much later date Wilson also learned of Assyrian monks associated with the Edessa Image traveling to surrounding lands as “icon evangelists” earlier in the 6th century. There is no surviving textual evidence for a re-discovery somewhere between 525 and 530, but it makes good sense with the evidence at hand. Wilson also relates another revealing event, this time from Edessa’s later history, with apparent implications for any “lost, then found” theory. In 1146 Turkish forces destroyed the Christian civilization in Edessa, and “for a whole year they [Turkish looters] went about the town digging, searching secret places, foundations and roofs. They found many treasures hidden from the earliest times of the fathers and elders, and many treasures of which the citizens knew nothing” (Wilson 1979: 151).
The possible hints of a more than face image in earlier documents, the bold assertion of such in the “Oldest Latin Abgar Versions,” and the signs of Jesus’ Passion clearly seen by Gregory and others privileged enough to get close to the Image, were eventually going to persuade the Icon’s new guardians that what they actually acquired in 944 was Christ’s burial shroud. Although Wilson believed in 1978 that this occurred sometime later in the next century, there was another knowledgeable 10th century account asserting it came much sooner. No one knew better what was in the emperor’s treasure chamber than the emperor. In 958 Constantine VII wrote a letter to encourage his troops in the field near Tarsus, announcing he was sending a supply of holy water blessed by contact with relics of the Passion kept in Constantinople. Scavone documents these as
the precious wood, the unstained lance, the precious inscription (titulus?), the reed which caused miracles, the life-giving blood from his side, the venerable tunic, the scared linens ... the sindon which God wore, and other symbols of the immaculate Passion (Scavone 1989b: 316, 318).
Scavone advises that this is “the earliest text mentioning any burial cloth(s)” in Constantinople. Although “The precise identity of this sindon has been enigmatic” –especially because there was no celebration welcoming such a fabulous artifact or explaining to the faithful from whence it had come, it nevertheless “acquires some clarity with Zaninotto’s rediscovery of the Gregory Sermon” (Scavone 2001: 31). If the Edessa Image was the Turin burial shroud, the emperor and chief clerics were not going to miss the opportunity of a millennium to use it for just that purpose. From this time froward a shroud is documented in the capital at least once each century, but kept in great secrecy and, until the eve of its 1204 departure, never directly shown to the public at large. (In Part 3 new art motifs will make clear it was revealed indirectly). Astute Shroud researchers have not missed the obvious conclusion to this sindon’s mysterious appearance so soon after the Edessa Image’s arrival, a judgement aided by knowledge of “the life-giving blood form his side” also in the relic treasury.
Readers familiar with this subject will have noted that the word “Mandylion” has not been used for “Edessa Image.” Mandylion is the common name passed down through the centuries when referring to the Icon, and appears to derive from the Arabic word mandil (“handkerchief”). The word mandylion may have been known in Greek before the Icon’s arrival in 944, but apparently not used as a name for it until later in the 10th century, and even then not by its care-takers (Drews 1984: 38 – 39). The late 10th century writer Leon Diaconos still describes a large cloth when he calls it a peplos (robe). Additionally, those bastions of Eastern Orthodoxy, the Mt. Athos monasteries, record (about this time or a little later) the old Abgar stories with the king now asking for a full- body painting of Christ (Guscin 2009: 91). Once the Image reached Constantinople a painted picture of it became standard in most eastern churches, with the original regarded by the Eastern Orthodox as the source of Christ’s true appearance (Wilson 1986: 110). Most of the early depictions show Jesus’ face in a circular opening of what appears to be an ornate, trellis pattern slipcover (Wilson 1991: illus. 25 a-d). Wilson noted that the pattern looked remarkably similar to the trelliswork of a 2nd century statue of Parthian King Uthal (Wilson 1979: illus. 224f.), a motif of which Abgar (who in the Story of the Image of Edessa was responsible for mounting and decorating the cloth) would have been familiar. Mention has already been made of the icon’s horizontal, landscape shape in many of its earliest pictures, consistent with what the Shroud would look like if “doubled in four.” Another closely related type of Christ picture is the “Holy Face,” usually just Christ’s face in a roundel and depicted on cloth, the Mandylion face without the surrounding cover. If the face of Christ was the first art motif to be traced to the Shroud’s influence, then the Mandylion/Holy Face was the second.
Two questions remain for discussion in this Part 2. First, why such subterfuge? Why when the Holy Image of Edessa was introduced (from hiding in the 6th century?) didn’t its custodians in Edessa and later in Constantinople, simply announce it for what it was – the NT sindon with an imprint of Jesus’ whole body? Unfortunately, there might not be a “good” answer to this question, especially for modern western ears in the age of Mike Wallace and Dan Rathers, when it seems impossible to keep mega secrets, and when nudity and violence in cultural expression are common place. But there is an “adequate” answer. The Jesus depicted on the Shroud is brutally beaten, bloodily wounded, and obviously dead. He is also naked – butt naked. All of these characteristics were not just disagreeable to early Christianity, they were abhorrent, especially to sensitive, spiritual minds. Ephrem, who spent the last part of his life in Edessa, addressed Christ’s nakedness figuratively:
When he was stripped, the sun and the moon blushed with modesty. As soon as Christ was stripped, all creatures were covered with darkness ... all creatures wept and cried out with anguish ... Since He who clothes all creation was made naked, the stars hid their light (Savio 1982: 12).
Rev. Edward Wuenschel, the first important American sindonologist (1930’s to 1960’s), noted that early Christian artists were very reticent to depict Christ realistically on the cross. Only in the 13th century, and in the West, did this occur.
Now on the Shroud the effects of Christ’s crucifixion are visible in all their stark reality, more vivid and more appalling than in any artistic work .... It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that the Shroud was kept more or less hidden for centuries and a prudent silence observed about its imprint... Those who imagine that the guardians of the Shroud should have gone about waving it like a banner show little understanding of the Christian Orient (Humber 1978: 91).
In a conservative region like Syria there was little chance of the Shroud being shown in a very public way. Even in a somewhat more liberal Constantinople, it was unlikely to be revealed. Additionally, the authorities in the Great City had another problem to resolve.
Question two: What was to become of the most revered icon and relic in Christendom? The face cloth on which Jesus left his imprint had become one of the most celebrated extra-biblical stories of the first millennium, a pillar in Orthodox tradition. It would have been embarrassing to emperor and patriarch alike to suddenly announce that the Image had been something else all along. The Edessans had obviously decided to encourage the Abgar facial portrait-turned imprint stories to deflect the truth, although such hints as tetradiplon, himation, and “The Oldest Latin Abgar Legend” (full-body image) versions demonstrate that the truth was leaking out. New Emperor Constantine VII, now faced with a similar dilemma, appears to have decided upon a more byzantine solution. Wilson surmised:
But in order that the old Abgar tradition should be maintained, what seems to have happened is that a copy of the original form of the Mandylion was introduced into the [emperor’s relic] collection ....this seems to be the only explanation for the mysterious way in which, from the late eleventh century on, burial linens are recorded ...while a Mandylion is also recorded as an independent object (Wilson 1979: 166).
As we will learn in Part 3, both a Mandylion and a shroud were recorded in Constantinople, especially in the 12th and early 13th centuries. Although the original Edessa Image may have served both functions for some time, choosing to make a painted copy to serve on as the original allowed the Byzantines to have it both ways. It also explains why there is no history, ceremony, or explanation whatsoever in the textual evidence for the arrival of a shroud, surely a fabulous addition to their collection and ordinarily deserving such. The truth was to be guarded by maintaining the old Abgar traditions and remaining tight lipped about their new shroud’s origin.
Finally, one last observation on the Edessa Image, now Mandylion and probably shroud of Constantinople. If it did spend centuries folded or “doubled in four” there might still be some traces, even though faint, among the cloth’s creases. Dr. John Jackson, one of the scientific leaders in the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research team, has noticed “a series of fold marks which argue strongly for the identification of the Shroud as the Mandylion ...” (Jackson 1995: 303). These occur at one-eighth length intervals on the Turin Shroud and, as Dr. Jackson discovered, no such folding arrangement is known during its “good” history since the 14th century. Jackson also noted a series of other crease lines which help tell another story for Part 3 of this survey.
This concludes Part 2 of the Shroud of Turin’s Earlier History. In Part 3 we will summarize briefly the evidence so far for the sindon of Jesus being quietly preserved as the Holy Image of Edessa, but actually the Turin Shroud. It also will note reactions by modern academia, and follow in texts and art the documentation for a shroud in Constantinople through the early 13th century.
Quick Links: Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four
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