Closing in on the Shroud’s Early History -- By: John Long

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 13:1 (Winter 2000)
Article: Closing in on the Shroud’s Early History
Author: John Long


Closing in on the Shroud’s Early History

John Long

Critics have rightly charged that it was impossible for something as extraordinary as the Shroud to have escaped 13 centuries of notice, only to show up in the possession of a member of the lesser French nobility in 1355. The Shroud seemed to have come out of nowhere in a century notorious for faked relics. But in 1969, British writer and historical researcher Ian Wilson noticed strong similarities between the Shroud and medieval descriptions of the most famous icon of the early Middle Ages - “The Holy Image Not Made By Hands of Edessa.”

The Edessa Icon’s recorded history began in the 6th century Christian city of Edessa, in modern eastern Turkey. Believed to be a cloth on which the living Jesus imprinted his face, the Icon was purportedly sent to an Edessan king. It was so long, that it had to be “doubled in four” to be mounted on a backing board. If the Shroud of Turin was folded to disembody the face, it would look very similar to the earliest surviving paintings of the Edessa Icon.

Medieval writers said the Icon was not a work of art, but the faint and “sweaty” imprint of Jesus. Blood was also said to be present on it. Both features can be observed on the Shroud today. In Wilson’s The Shroud of Turin (1978), he noted that after the Edessan image was taken by the Byzantines to Constantinople in 944, they began to quietly admit having a Shroud as one of their relics. It was possibly one of the treasures stolen in the Fourth Crusade (1204) which later show up in France. Thus, the Edessa Icon seems closely associated with the Shroud of Turin.

Predictably, most historians gave Wilson’s theory little notice, believing the Edessan image was just a painted face on a small cloth. But evidence continues to surface. Special raking light photos of the Shroud show old crease lines strongly suggestive of a past “doubling in four.” There are also references from early medieval writers who believed the Edessa Icon had a full body image.

Finally, a sermon by Gregory, archdeacon of Hagia Sophia (the great cathedral in Constantinople) and expert on the Edessa Icon’s history, was recently identified in the Vatican Library. On the night of August 16, 944, the Edessan image, recently “liberated” from Edessa, was brought to the emperor’s palace in Constantinople. This was one of the Icon’s very few recorded public displays. Gregory’s sermon on that occasion strongly implies the image was at least partly removed from its covering (a kind of picture frame) and unfolded far enough to reveal not only a face, but also a bloody side wound. In his sermon, Gregory says the blood and sweat of the face is embellished by drops from Jesus’ side. He also menti...

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