Friday, March 30, 2012


Sudarium of Oviedo

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

In our last post we looked at Veronica’s Veil, which was used to wipe the face of Jesus on his way to crucifixion. If you missed it, you can see it HERE. Today we examine the second relic of Our Lord’s crucifixion, death and burial…the Sudarium. Latin for sweat cloth, it is sometimes referred to as the other shroud. It is the cloth placed over Jesus’ face and head after he died.  

Scientists believe such a cloth was placed put over the head of a corpse as part of Jewish custom…the functional equivalent of a closed casket. When a person’s death was so awful that the family did not wish to see the face going into rigor mortis, they covered the head and face with a cloth prior to burial. 

The Sudarium is mentioned in John 20:4-7. “They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself.

Demonstrating the Use of a Sudarium
The cloth would have been placed over Jesus’ face after he died to spare his mother additional anguish. They undoubtedly left his face covered as they carried him to the tomb. When they were ready to place the body in the shroud for burial, the Sudarium would have been removed. This explains John’s comment that it was rolled up and off to one side. 

As we know from the Bible, the custom at that time required a strict observance of the Shabbat. The Pharisees criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath and also complained about his disciples “winnowing” grain when the plucked a few heads of wheat and rubbed off the husks with their fingers. No work of any kind was allowed on the Sabbath. This required a lot of pre-planning since anything forgotten had to be left undone. 

This necessitated a day of preparation —Friday, since Shabbat was Saturday— at the end of each week. However, earlier in John’s Gospel he tells us it was the day of preparation for the most solemn Shabbat of the year. This would have been the Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach ―the Sabbath that occurred during the feast of Passover― the most sacred Shabbat of the year. 

Some people assume the many blood stains on the shroud indicate the individuals preparing him for burial were in too much of a rush to stop and wash the body. By Jewish reckoning the day ended at sundown, so they were clearly working against the clock, if you will. However, that is not why they didn’t wash Jesus’ body.  

The Jews believed that life was in the blood. When a person died a violent death, and his lifeblood saturated his clothing, there was no taharah — washing. The corpse remained unwashed because blood is part of the body and cannot be separated from it in death. This also explains why the Sudarium was set aside in the tomb rather than disposed of. It was being buried with him just as a person’s bloody clothing would have been buried with them. 

Archaeologist Exploring a Burial Niche in Ancient Tomb
Tombs of the Second Temple Period were caves cut into hillsides designed for multiple burials. Inside, they had niches along one or both side walls, somewhat like the catacombs in Rome. In Jesus’ day the practice of secondary burial was common. The body would remain in the niche for a year and then, after decomposition had occurred, the bones would be gathered and placed in an ossuary or bone box. The box would be labeled with the name or names of the deceased inside.  

The box would be stored on a shelf in the back of the cave freeing the niche for another burial. Thus a tomb could be used for entire families over several generations. Tombs were sealed with a large stone – typically round and flat like a millstone. The stone was fitted into a sloping groove cut in front of the tomb’s entrance allowing it to be rolled back and secured with a chock. Once the work inside the tomb was completed, the chock was released and the stone rolled back over the entrance. 

Typical Ossuary or Bone Box
For additional information on ossuaries and the co-mingling of bones, refer to our previous post The Men Who Tried Jesus — Joseph Caiaphas HERE. 

Unlike the Veil and the Shroud, the Sudarium has no image on it. Instead, it contains multiple stains consisting of blood and lymph fluid. The linen of the Shroud is a fine herringbone weave, while the Sudarium is a rough weave and looks like muslin. There are three sets of stains on the Sudarium.  

The first set of stains is coagulated blood from the crowning of thorns. The Sudarium would have been over the head of Jesus for about 45 minutes. During that time Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate for permission to remove the body from the cross. We don’t know if the patibulum, the crossbar of the cross, was taken down or only the body removed.  

Taking the body down resulted in a second set of stains. The cause of death in crucifixion is asphyxiation, fluid building up in the lungs. This fluid is six parts lymph and one part blood. When the body is placed in a horizontal position following asphyxiation, this fluid exits through the mouth and nose. Scientists can calculate how long the body was in the horizontal position from the stains on the Sudarium. 

Lifting the body to transport it to the tomb caused yet a third set of stains. There is a thumb print on the Sudarium where someone, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, held it against the face of Jesus. Scientists can estimate the size of that person from the size of their thumbprint. 

As we said in our post on Veronica’s Veil, nothing will convince the skeptics. In the final analysis relics are more about faith than science. Recall also that Veronica’s Veil has been measured and compared to the Shroud of Turin and experts concluded they were images of the same man.  

Even thought it displays no image, the markings on the Sudarium do show distinct facial geometry, i.e. cheekbones, brow ridge, eyebrows, etc.. Because Jesus had been so badly beaten, there are precise blood marks of the face on the Sudarium. Using special 3-D technology, NASA scientists placed the image of the Sudarium and the shroud over each other and they aligned perfectly. For most of us the pattern doesn’t make sense, but forensic scientists can use the stains to judge the size of the skull, the length of the nose, etc. In one corner of the Sudarium there are three dots from three puncture marks of the crown of thorns. 

Though it originated in Jerusalem, the Sudarium has been in Oviedo, Spain since the 800’s. The trail it took to get there and the protection it received along the way is an interesting tale of close calls and narrow escapes reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie.  

When the Persians invaded Palestine in 614, Philip the presbyter led the Christian community south to North Africa. The bishop of Alexandria mentions he welcomed them and they were carrying relics, including a precious relic of Jesus. When Persia invaded Africa a group of Christians sailed to Spain. There is an account in Toledo that says the fleeing Christians they received brought a holy ark with them. At that time the Sudarium was kept in a large oak box.  

In 711, the Moors —Muslims— invaded Spain. Islamic writings state, “The Christians fled north taking their precious relics with them.” The Muslims had their own relics of Mohammad so it is significant that they mentioned Christian relics. A regional council of bishops in Bravo, Portugal, refers to the relic of Christ being kept in the north of Spain in a sacred ark and hidden in the mountains. In 813, Alphonso II, the King of Asturias, began the recovery of Spain from the Moors. When he established Oviedo as his court, he brought the reliquary from the mountain hideaway to his palace. He built the Camara Santa, a special chapel within his palace to hold the Sudarium.  Interestingly, he is also the king who had the basilica built over the tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela. The Sudarium has remained in Oviedo ever since. 

Over the centuries, knowledge of the Sudarium’s existence was gradually lost. Then Msgr. Ricci, who was studying the Shroud, went through church archives and discovered references to another cloth which had been in Oviedo for over a thousand years. He went there in 1969, saw it, and decided to have it tested. As we noted earlier, this testing corroborates its authenticity and congruence with the Veil and the Shroud. In 1987 they formed the Spanish Society for the Study of the Sudarium which has greatly increased awareness of the Sudarium’s existence. 

The next and final post in this group on the Relics of Christ’s Passion & Death will deal with the more famous Shroud of Turin.  

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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