The True Face of Jesus
Paul Badde – Shamireaders January 6, 2005
What did Jesus look like? A bit like Jim Caviezel in the film "The Passion of The Christ"? Like the portraits by Durer and El Greco and other artists, which hang in the Palace of the Pope? But none of these artists ever saw Jesus. What did he really look like? To these questions, there is an old, old answer: it is the image contained on a cloth which represents the "true face" of Christ -- an image even the Pope has never seen. And this is something which can hardly be spoken about in the Vatican.
This image is different from all other works of art. Up until the year 1600 A.D. it was kept inside the old St. Peter's Basilica built by the Emperor Constantine. Millions saw it there. Since the early 1600s, however, this "true icon" (the literal meaning of “vera icona” which initially formed the name "Veronica") has been seen by almost no one. In the new St. Peter's Basilica, designed by Michelangelo, the cloth was kept locked behind three bars. And "over the course of time, the image became very faint," Cardinal Francesco Marchisano, the Archpriest of the Basilica, told me in a letter on May 31, 2004. But in fact, it has not only grown faint, most probably it is also an ordinary dummy (or hoax / or fake). It hasn’t only become virtually invisible to us: there is not a single reliable photograph of the image either. Devotees of icons of Christ were for this reason in recent times often directed to another image in the sacristy of the Popes, the so-called Abgar portrait from Edessa, which is said to be the oldest painting of Jesus in the world -- and it looks it.
This image has, over the centuries, become almost black, like many ancient paintings, executed in tempera on linen. The "true image" of Christ, however, was made with no colors at all. Before it came to Rome, it was in Constantinople, and before that in the Middle East. A Syrian text from Kamulia in Cappadocia from the 500s tells us that the image was "drawn out of the water" and "not painted by human hand." But not before this image came to Rome, curious pilgrims were drawn to it as to a magnet.
With twigs/branches of palm-trees Pilgrims to Jerusalem decorated themselves on their return in the first half of the second millennium. The sign of the pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela is even today a shell. Pilgrims to Rome, however, adhered miniature images of Christ unto their cape on their way home: little pictures of the "Sancta Veronica Ierosolymitana": the holy Veronica from Jerusalem. The foundation of the new St. Peter's Basilica was thus laid by Pope Julius II as the foundation also for a great treasure chamber to hold and protect this unique treasure.
But, during the construction of the new basilica – which had been highly disputed and controversial in those times - the veil of Veronica mysteriously disappeared from Rome. The only remnant of the veil that remains today in Rome is a Venetian frame with a pane of old, cracked glass, still on display in St. Peter's treasury. But the veil was not lost. For 400 years the most important relic of Christendom, before which the Emperor of Byzantium knelt once a year, held between two panes of glass, has been on display in a tiny Capuchin church which is completely empty for many hours each day, in the town of Manoppello, in Italy's Abruzzi region. It is the missing role model for the entire western civilisation. Today finally it must be regarded as rediscovered. It fades away against light, it darkens in shadow, yet it endures through the centuries, unchanging.
It shows the bearded face of a man with side-curls (jewish peyoth), whose nose has been hit like that of a detainee in the Abu Ghreib prison. The right cheek is swollen, the beard partly ripped off. The forehead and lips have on them hints of pink, suggesting freshly healed wounds. Inexplicable peace fills the gaze out of the wide open eyes. Amazement, astonishment, surprise. Gentle compassion. No despair, no pain, no wrath. It is like the face of a man who has just awakened to a new morning. His mouth is half open. Even his teeth are visible. If one had to give a precise phrase to the vowel and word the lips are forming, it would be just a soft "Ah."
All proportions of the image show 1 : 1 the measurements of a human face, filling the center of 17 by 24 centimeter cloth. The flimsy veil is transparent, like a silk stocking. The image is less like a painted picture than a large slide. Held up to the light, it is transparent. In the shadow, without light, it becomes almost slate grey. A tiny, broken piece of crystal rests in the lower right corner of the frame. In the light of light bulbs, the delicate cloth is gold and honey-colored, just as the face of Christ was described by Gertrud of Helfta in the 13th century. For only in the light and contrast, does the fine cloth show the countenance in three-dimensional, almost holographic clarity – and from both sides, only back to front (“the wrong way round”). It seems so finely woven, that it might fit into a walnut shell if it were folded tightly.
Professor Donato Vittori of the University of Bari and Professor Giulio Fanti of the University of Padua have discovered, through microscopic examinations, that there is no trace of color or paint at all on the entire cloth. Only in the black pupils of both eyes does there appear to be a slight scorching of the threads, as if they had been heated.
All of this cannot be considered a completely fresh discovery. The farmers and fisherman of the Adriatic from Ancona to Tarento have revered this veil for centuries as the "Holy Face," ("Il Volto Santo"). It is said in Manoppello that "angels" brought the cloth to them 400 years ago (citing in this regard an old report). That may be. But it is more likely that some rascals, too, slipped in beneath the angels' wings, who simply swiped and robbed the relic -- in probably the most impudent rascal piece of the entire Baroque era (which had never been poor of rogues and villains). The broken crystal in the old frame of Veronica's Veil in St. Peter's Basilica treasury seems to sing one verse of this larger song until today. The story has elements of a farce, of a crime thriller, of a detective story, of a drama -- and of a fifth gospel for our image-obsessed age.
But when Professor Heinrich Pfeiffer of Rome's Gregorian University for the first time brought to the attention of the scholarly world that the Manoppello Countenance most likely had to be considered as the ultimate point of reference for the oldest pictures of Christ, both in the East and in the West, these sensational news appeared in the back pages of the world press under the category “miscellaneous”. This happened about a decade ago. And no matter how precisely Pfeiffer, a German scholar of early Christian art, had investigated to prove that the image in Manoppello must be acknowledged as a “mother of images” for the entire Christian iconography, his colleagues, too, along with many prelates and cardinals in the Vatican shook the heads over the exuberant professor's imagination.
Sister Blandina Paschalis Schlömer, a German Trappist nun, pharmacist and icon painter, was the one who had initiated Pfeiffer's research and conclusions. She had discovered, years before, after painstaking comparisons of the image on the Manopello cloth and the face of the man depicted on the Shroud of Turin, that the two images were identical: that they were both displaying the very same person. Every detail of both faces was exactly congruent: the same size and shape, the same wounds. The one difference: on the Shroud, the wounds are still open. On the cloth of Manoppello, the wounds have closed.
These results, either, did not persuade or convince other scholars of the authenticity of the image of Manoppello. Quite the opposite. The chief objection was simple and categorical: that the Manoppello image had been painted. The image was just too clear and fine for it not to have been painted, they argued. The eyes, the eyelashes (not visible until photo enlargements were made), the tear sacks in the eyes, the whiskers, the teeth (!), all that simply could not have appeared without the delicate hand of a master artist. In short, the Manoppello image was not a model, but a careful copy of other copies of an unknown original - or even of the original on the Turin Shroud.
A question seldom posed up to now, but a crucial one, concerns the fabric itself. By its consistency, it seems like colored nylon -- though nylon was not invented 400 years ago. What is it, then? Cotton, wool, linen? No, all are much too thick to allow this immaterial transparency. Even silk does not permit this. Meanwhile, the Capuchins of Manoppello have decided to wait before subjecting the cloth to any scientific or chemical tests, or even to take it out of the glass where it has been held for 400 years.
"Not necessary!" Father Germano, the last Guardian of the cloth, said to me a few weeks ago. "Science will progress to meet us. It develops so fast, that we only need to wait." He is probably correct. Many photos, which I took in recent months with my digital camera, show the fabric in a way I have never seen in other photos. What could this cloth be? In the Gospel of John, John speaks of two cloths found in the empty tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. According to that source, Peter and "the other young man" (probably John himself) ran toward the tomb in the early dawn of Easter Sunday. John ran faster and reached the tomb first. John writes: "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 cloth, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed."
It is this second cloth, the small one which had been on Christ's head, which the inhabitants of Manoppello have always regarded as the one they have in their town. This cloth is sometimes known as the "sweat cloth." The Manoppello cloth, however, has not a drop of sweat detectable on it. But then, the cloth is so fine, it cannot hold even a single drop of blood or sweat.
Rome, 1. September 2004, Fiumincino airport. A fresh breeze from the nearby Mediterranean cools the late summer morning. The clock in Hall A reads 7:35 a.m., as the Alitalia flight 1570 from Cagliari touches down outside on the runway. When Chiaro Vigo crosses the barrier, I recognize her immediately, although I had never seen her before. Her fingernails are spindles, long and pointed. Pier Paolo Pasolini might have cast her as the star in any of his films. She comes from the small island of Sant'Antioco off the coast of Sardinia, where she is the last living byssus weaver on earth, heir to an unbroken tradition dating to ancient times.
"To our people, byssus is a holy fabric," she says in the car. What does she mean, "Our people?" Isn't her island simply part of Sardinia? No, she laughs roughly. On her island, Sardinian and Italian are spoken, but they also know many Aramaic songs, for the population is descended from Chaldaeans and Phoenicians. They trace their art of byssus production to the Princess Berenike, one of Herod's daughters, who was a lover of the Emperor Titus, after he had destroyed Jerusalem. -- Then she held out to me a bundle of unspun, raw byssus. In the morning light, it shone more finely than angel hair. The gold of the seas! In her hand, it shone like bronze in the sun. The material is produced from threads a certain kind of sea mussels (“pinna nobilis”) generate to cling to the ground. Every May Chiara Vigo dives under full moonlight five meters deep in the sea to collect and harvest them – before there are combed, then spun and woven into a most precious fabric.
Byssus was the most costly fabric in the ancient world. It has been found in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, and it is mentioned often in the Bible, where it is said to be obligatory for the carpets of the Holy of Holies and for the "Ephod", the vestment of the high priest. Steeped in lemon, it becomes golden. In former times, soaked in cow's urine, it became paler and brighter. We fly down the highway toward Manoppello. Sister Blandina awaits us on the hill just above the church, where she lives. As we walk up the central aisle, the "Holy Face" appears to be a milky, rectangular communion host above the altar. A cross in the window gleems (shimmers, shines) from the back of the choir right through the veil. After we climb the steps behind the altar and draw close to the image, Chiara Vigo falls to her knees. She has never seen a veil so finely woven. "It has the eyes of a lamb," she says and crosses herself. "And a lion." And then: "That is Byssus!" Chiara Vigo says it once, twice, thrice. Byssus can be dyed with purple, she had explained to me in the car. "Yet Byssus cannot be painted on. It is simply not possible. O Dio! O Dio mio (Oh my God! Oh my God!")!" "That is Byssus!" This means: it cannot be any sort of painted picture. Thus, the image on the veil is something else. Something that transcends any picture.
Paul Badde, 29. September 2004
(Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel & Raphael)
Courtesy Israel Shamir
Last updated 13/01/2005