Holy Shrouds (Joe Nickell, 2007)

NOTE: This article is taken from Relics of the Christ, pp. 111-121

Among the most revered—and disputed—relics of the Passion are those associated with the burial of Jesus. Such relics include bits of the angel’s candle that lit Jesus’ tomb and the marble slab on which his body was laid, complete with traces of his mother’s tears (Nickell 1998, 52); most, however, are burial linens. This chapter examines Jewish burial practices, the various alleged winding sheets of Jesus, the controversial Holy Shroud of Constantinople, and what are known as liturgical shrouds.

Jesus’ Jewish Burial

The synoptic Gospels are in agreement about Jesus’ burial but give scant information. The Gospel of Mark, believed to be the first written, states that Joseph of Arimathea requested and received custody of Jesus’ body: “And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in the sepulcher” (Mark 15:46). Luke (23:53) follows Mark almost verbatim, and Matthew (27:59) states that the body was wrapped “in a clean linen cloth.”

For “linen” or “linen cloth,” the synoptics use the ancient Greek word sindon, a linen cloth that could be used for a garment, shroud, or other purpose. For instance, sindon is used to describe the garment worn (like a robe) by the “young man” who fled Gethsemane at Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51–52). In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), Samson uses the word to describe a linen garment worn with a coat or a tunic (Judges 14:12). Toward the end of the first century, a tunic, possibly with a sindon wrapped around it, was used for burial by Coptic Christians in Egypt. The body was then wound with ribbons of cloth, like a mummy. In a collection of such burial tunics in the Louvre in Paris are some facecloth-size linens, which are significant in light of the Gospel of John (Wilcox 1977, 60–62; Nickell 1998, 31–32), which provides the fullest account of Jesus’ burial (19:38–42):

“Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.”

These spices (Mark refers to “sweet spices” and Luke to “spices and ointments”) were used to embalm the body. (See figure 7.1.)

JN Figure 7.1

First, however, the body was ritually washed. (This issue becomes important in the discussion of the Shroud of Turin image in chapter 9.) Both the washing and the anointing are expressly mandated by the Jewish Mishnah (Humber 1978, 62). In Acts 9:37 we find a mention of the ritualistic pre-burial washing of the deceased. John continues:

“Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden: and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid.

There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulcher was nigh at hand.

Note John’s use of the plural “clothes”—another important issue in the question of the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

When the tomb is later found empty, John again refers in the plural to “linen clothes.” He says that Simon Peter and “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved,” came to the entrance; then Peter “went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in place by itself” (John 20:6–7). John clearly refers to multiple burial garments, using the plural othonia. These are generally understood by biblical scholars to be “strips of linen cloth” or “wrappings” or “linen bandages,” indicating that the body was wrapped mummy style. According to one scholarly source, the “bandages” would be “wound fold upon fold round the body” (Dummelow 1951, 808). Some believed that the sindon, or sheet, was torn into strips for this purpose (Wilson 1979, 57–58). Another possibility is that othonia could include a sindon, wound mummy style with ribbons of cloth (as in the case of Coptic burials). Although Luke uses the singular sindon, he later reports (24:12) that upon coming to the empty tomb, Peter “beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves.” Luke here uses the plural othonia, thus reinforcing John’s account.

We know that various burial garments were used by the early Christians. According to Pierre Barbet (1950, 161):

“The custom of the first Christians, which must have been inspired by that of the Jews, is confirmed for us by the Acta Martyrum, where we always find references to shrouds, linen fabrics, plain linen garments or others more or less ornamented. . . . In the loculi of the catacombs one finds linen cloths, cloths dyed purple, figured and ornamented fabrics and silks, cloth of gold and precious garments, such as those in which St. Cecilla is clothed in the cemetery of Domitilla.

Returning to the “napkin” mentioned by John, he employs the Greek word sudarium (“sweat cloth”), that is, a handkerchief or napkin (reminiscent of the Coptic facecloth-size linens mentioned earlier). That the sudarium refers to the face veil is clear from John’s statement that the napkin “was about his [Jesus’] head”; also, in describing the burial of Lazarus, John (11:44) notes, “his face was bound about with a napkin.” John states that Jesus was buried “as the manner of the Jews is to bury,” and the sudarium was used in ancient Jewish practice (Nickell 1998, 33).

The weave of such burial linens was almost certainly plain (unlike, for instance, that of the Shroud of Turin, which is a complex herringbone pattern). Most linens of Jesus’ time—whether Roman, Egyptian, or Palestinian—were of a plain weave. States David Sox, “All of the extant Palestinian linen, including the wrappings from the Dead Sea Scrolls, is a regular weave” (quoted in Brown 1981, 31).

Holy Winding Sheets

Regarding the fate of Jesus’ burial wrappings, John Calvin (1543, 67) observed, “the evangelists do not mention that either of the disciples or the faithful women who came to the sepulcher had removed the clothes in question, but, on the contrary, their account seems to imply that they were left there.” Surely the Gospel writers would not have omitted mentioning that the othonia were saved—if indeed they were. Yet there is no mention of a shroud of Jesus being preserved, nor of one being discovered by St. Helena in the Holy Sepulchre, where she allegedly found the True Cross and so many other reputed relics of the Passion.

Nevertheless, certain apocryphal texts later claimed that Christ’s othonia had been preserved. The apocryphal writers made many such additions. For example, to rectify the embarrassment of Christ appearing after his resurrection to some of his disciples but not to his mother, some apocryphal texts (including Pseudo-Justin and Acts of Thaddeus) “remedied this serious oversight of the canonical Gospels” (Craveri 1967, 424).

Hence, in the now-lost second-century Gospel according to the Hebrews (in a fragment quoted by St. Jerome), it was said that Jesus himself had presented his sindon to the “servant [puero] of the priest.” Some took puero to be an error for Petro and supposed that Peter had received the cloth. A fourth-century account mentioned that Peter had kept the sudarium, although what subsequently became of it was unknown. The narrator (St. Nino) alleged that the burial linen had been obtained by none other than Pilate’s wife. This then passed to Luke, who supposedly hid it away—but neglected to mention that fact in his Gospel. Another account (about 570) averred that the sudarium was in a cave convent on the Jordan River, even though the anonymous chronicler had not viewed it himself.

Approximately a century later, a French bishop, Arculf of Périgueux, was shipwrecked near the island of Iona (off the coast of Scotland) and reported seeing a shroud of Jesus on the island. Arculf spun a tale about how this shroud had been stolen by a converted Jew, subsequently fell into the possession of infidel Jews, and was finally claimed by Christians—with an Arab ruler judging the dispute. He subjected the cloth to trial by fire, whereupon it rose into the air, unscathed, and fell at the feet of the Christians, who placed it in a church. According to the credulous Arculf, the shroud was “about eight feet long” (Wilson 1979, 94; Nickell 1998, 53).

A shroud of the same length surfaced in 877 and was presented by Charles the Bald to the St. Cornelius Abbey in Compiègne, France. This Holy Shroud of Compiègne was venerated for more than nine centuries—being the object of great pilgrimages and many state occasions—before perishing in the French Revolution.

A rival shroud was taken in 1098 as crusaders’ booty from Antioch to Cadouin. It was revered as the Holy Shroud for centuries and survived the French Revolution, only to be proved a fake in 1935. The Holy Shroud of Cadouin, it turned out, was of eleventh-century origin, its ornamental bands actually consisting of Kufic writing bestowing Muslim blessings (Wilson 1979, 94–95).

Also in the eleventh century, othonia of Christ were listed among the relics kept at the emperor’s palace in Constantinople. In 1201 these were described by the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas Mesarites, as still fragrant with the myrrh used in the anointing of Jesus’ body. The cloths were said to have been “of linen, a cheap material, such as was available.” To explain their excellent state of preservation, Mesarites claimed, “they have defied decay because they enveloped the ineffable, naked, myrrh-covered corpse after the Passion” (quoted in Humber 1978, 78).

Over the centuries, there have been some forty-three “True Shrouds” of Christ in medieval Europe alone (Humber 1978, 78). John Calvin, in his Treatise on Relics (1543, 66), decries the “wicked impostures set up to deceive the public by the pretense that they were each the real sheet in which Christ’s body had been wrapped.”

For nearly twelve centuries, such reputed burial garments had not borne any image of Jesus’ body. However, in 1203 a French crusader may have encountered such a cloth in Constantinople. The Holy Shroud of Constantinople (discussed in the next section) was apparently divided into pieces and distributed in Europe. A century and a half later, another putative sindon, now known as the Shroud of Turin, surfaced in Lirey, France. It has been the subject of controversy and even scandal that continue to this day (see chapter 8).

Yet another alleged sindon, the Holy Shroud of Besançon (see figure 7.2), appeared in that French city as early as 1523. Proof is lacking that it existed before that time (Panofsky 1953, 364–65); indeed, it was obviously “a mere sixteenth-century copy of that at Turin” (Wilson 1979, 300). Like the Holy Shroud of Compiègne, it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

JN Figure 7.2

Shroud of Constantinople

In 1203, a French crusader named Robert de Clari visited the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae in Constantinople, “where was kept the sydoine [sic] in which Our Lord had been wrapped, which stood up straight every Friday so that the features of Our Lord could be plainly seen there. And no one, either Greek or French, ever knew what became of this sydoine after the city was taken” (quoted in McNeal 1936, 112). Although some understood Robert to be describing a shroud with a body imprint, an authority on his text states: “Robert seems to have confused the sudarium (the sweat cloth or napkin, the True Image of St. Veronica) with the sindon (the grave cloth in which the body of Jesus was wrapped for entombment). Both relics were in the Church of the Blessed Virgin in the Great Palace, and not in the church in the palace of Blachernae, as Robert says” (McNeal 1936, 112). Not surprisingly, there are other instances of the confusion between the sudarium and the sindon (Nickell 1998, 54, 55).

Regarding the image on the cloth, Robert de Clari’s word translated above as “features” is the Old French “figure”; whether it carried the modern connotation of “face” is debatable. So is the question of whether Robert himself actually saw the cloth. Wilson (1979, 169) argues that he did, but Humber (1978, 79) seems nearer the truth when he notes that, since Robert arrived with the crusaders, “it would seem that he did not see the relic with his own eyes.” Humber’s view gains support from Robert’s confusing the sudarium (facecloth) with the sindon (shroud).

Robert de Clari’s statement that the cloth “stood up straight every Friday” might suggest a trick, much like the one the same church effected with its alleged Virgin’s robe. The robe “was made to appear and miraculously part to reveal an icon of the Virgin beneath,” and “it would have been a shrewd psychological move to display the cloth to the superstitious Byzantines for the first time, just as the Virgin’s robe was displayed” (Wilson 1979, 169–70). One theorist, Dr. John Jackson, has described how the cloth—if it indeed bore a full-length figure—could have been wound around a batten for this purpose. It could then be lifted by a mechanical device so that the imaged cloth seemed “to raise itself jack-in-the-box style from its casket in exactly the manner Robert de Clari reported of what he saw at the church of St. Mary at Blachernae” (Wilson 1998, 156).

In any event, Robert de Clari could not say whatever became of the cloth. In 1204 the crusaders launched a determined attack on Constantinople. The Byzantines’ resistance was soon overcome, the walls were breached near the Blachernae church area, and crusaders streamed into the city. Sacred items were trampled, treasures looted, and wine cellars broken into, whereupon drunken Christian crusaders perpetrated further outrages in the name of religion, representing “one of the most shameful episodes in Western history” (Wilson 1979, 171). (See figure 7.3.)

Although the fate of the Holy Shroud of Constantinople is unknown, we do know that alleged pieces of it were distributed throughout Germany and France. One portion was retained for a time at Constantinople before passing in 1247 to the king of France, who then divided it into smaller parts to be exchanged for other relics (Humber 1978, 79).

Although it is clear (and will become clearer in the following chapter) that the Shroud of Constantinople was not the Shroud of Turin, Robert de Clari’s description might have suggested the creation of such a shroud imprinted with Christ’s body. Or a later French artist might have gotten the idea of producing an image-laden, double-length shroud, like the Turin one, from other sources—including artistic ones.

Shrouds in Art and Liturgy

The concept of what Jesus’ burial garments, or othonia, should look like evolved in art. As noted earlier, the synoptic Gospels are vague on this issue, and John’s more specific account is open to interpretation. In addition, knowledge of ancient Jewish burial practices dimmed over the centuries in Byzantium and Europe.

Thus, the earliest depictions of Christ’s burial showed a mummy-style method of wrapping the body, consistent with that of Lazarus (John 11:44) and Jesus (John 19:40, 20:5–7). When shrouds were depicted, they tended to be only a little longer than a body (approximately eight feet long), like the previously mentioned shrouds of Iona (sixth century) and Compiègne (ninth century). By the eleventh century, artists began to represent the use of a double-length cloth, sufficient to go under the body, turn over the head, and cover the front (like the later Shroud of Turin). Such depictions appeared in certain artistic scenes of the Lamentation (a gathering of Jesus’ followers grieving over his body after its removal from the cross) and the Deposition (the placing of Christ’s body in the tomb), some of which were rendered in fresco (Wilson 1979, 160).

Also important to the discussion of the evolution of depictions of Jesus’ shroud are epitaphioi, or liturgical cloths, which were symbolic shrouds. The earliest surviving examples are from the thirteenth century, although Wilson (1979, 160) argues that their similarity to shrouds in Lamentation scenes suggests that they may have emerged in the preceding century. Similar ceremonial shrouds, he notes, remain in use in the Eastern Orthodox Church, covering Christ’s ceremonial bier in Good Friday processions. Images on the ceremonial shrouds were full-length depictions of the dead Christ with his hands crossed over the loins. These were typically embroidered onto linen (Sox 1978, 57; Wilson 1979, 160–61).

In addition to artistic depictions and ceremonial shrouds, there is a third source that has relevance to Christ’s othonia. From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries came exaggerated accounts of the so-called True Image (or veronica). It was claimed that Christ had imprinted not merely his face but the length of his body on white linen cloth. Veronica’s Veil was sometimes termed the sudarium (facecloth), including in at least two references in the twelfth century (Wilson 1979, 109). The same word was used by John to describe the cloth that covered Jesus’ face in the tomb. But we have already seen that the burial sudarium was sometimes confused with the sindon.

With all these cloths came a merging of traditions: blank, double-length linen holy shrouds (shown in art since the eleventh century) on the one hand, and whole-figured non-shroud linen cloths (liturgical shrouds) from the thirteenth century on the other hand, plus the twelfth- and thirteenth-century veronicas. These were combined and extended in the Shroud of Turin into a “real” shroud with both a front and a back image of Christ’s body. That concept was then copied to produce the Shroud of Besançon. In 1624, I. I. Chifflet published his history of Jesus’ burial linens, De Linteis Sepulchralibus Christi, Servatori’s Crisis Historica. He regarded the Shroud of Turin as having wrapped Christ’s body ante pollincturam—prior to the performance of full burial rites—“thus enabling [Chiffl et] to recognize the Besançon Shroud as also authentic” (Wilson 1998, 294).