The Sudarium, the Face-Cloth of Christ

Notes for a Pilgrimage to Oviedo, Spain

by Fr. Tommy Lane

The Sudarium is in the Cathedral of San Salvador in Oviedo, Spain. It is displayed to the public three times a year, on Good Friday, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14th and its octave on September 21st. Please verify this before setting out on pilgrimage. It is displayed after the main concelebrated Mass and people remain in their seats while venerating the relic. You may be interested in the book by Mark Guscin entitled The Oviedo Cloth. You may be interested in the Sudarium website

The Sudarium is sometimes called the other Shroud, or more correctly the face-cloth of Christ. Scientists believe it was put over the head of a corpse as part of a Jewish custom when the death was awful so that the family would not see the face going into rigor mortis. The Sudarium is referred to in John 20:5-8. It was placed over Jesus’ face on his way to the tomb so that his mother especially would be spared more anguish. Unlike the Turin Shroud which has an image of a crucified man, there is no image on the Sudarium. It contains stains of blood and lymph. The linen of the Shroud is a fine herringbone weave but the Sudarium is rough weave and looks like muslin. Very few people even in Spain knew of the Sudarium until recently. It was only when Msgr. Ricci, who was studying the Shroud, went through church archives and discovered that there was another cloth which had been in Oviedo since the 800’s. Msgr. Ricci decided it had to be tested because if it had similarities with the Shroud it would be important corroborating evidence. That was 1969. With the coming into being of the Spanish Society for the Study of the Sudarium in 1987 it became popularly known. Before that it was known only by very few. Now the Sudarium is preserved in the Camara Santa (special chapel built for the Sudarium) of the Cathedral in Oviedo, Spain.

John 20 says this cloth was separate from the other linens. He says it was the one over the face of Jesus. There are three sets of stains on the Sudarium.

  1. 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 would have gone to Pilate and the body would have been removed from the cross. We don’t know if the crossbar of the cross was taken down or only the body taken down.

  2. When the body was taken down a second set of stains was made. The cause of death in crucifixion is asphyxiation, fluid building up in the lungs. When the body is put in a horizontal position this fluid exits through the mouth and nose. This fluid is six parts lymph and one part blood. From the Sudarium scientists can calculate how long the body was in the horizontal position.

  3. A third set of stains was made the body was lifted and taken to the tomb. There is a thumb mark on the Sudarium pushing it against the face of Jesus, probably put there by Joseph of Arimathea or John or somebody else. People can judge the size of that person by the size of the thumbprint.

The Shroud was placed over Jesus in the tomb because the women intended to come back on Sunday morning and wash the body. There is no imprint on the Sudarium because the Sudarium was not on Jesus at the moment of the Resurrection. We believe that the Shroud received its image due to the burst of radiation energy at the moment of the Resurrection.

This Sudarium speaks to unbelieving scientific men. The markings on the Sudarium show distinct facial geometry, e.g. cheekbones and eyebrows. Because Jesus had been so beaten there are precise blood marks of the face on the Sudarium. NASA scientists placed the image of the Sudarium and the shroud over each other and they match perfectly. For most of us the pattern doesn’t make sense but scientists can judge the size of the skull, the length of the nose etc. In one corner there are three dots from the three puncture marks from the crown of thorns.

The Sudarium and Shroud have the AB blood type and also the miracle of Lanciano. AB blood type is common for Jews but not for Europeans. The scientists have proved that both cloths touched the same head shortly after death.

The movement of the Sudarium from Jerusalem to Spain tells us about its importance. There are extra-biblical references to Peter putting a napkin over his own head when appointing someone a leader in the Church. The documents do not say that it was the Sudarium but many have wondered if Peter, standing in the persona of Christ, would put the Sudarium on his head as if it was Christ ordaining the new priest.

In 614 the Persians were invading Palestine. Philip the presbyter had been the leader of the Christian community in Palestine at that time. He led them south to Africa. The bishop of Alexandria mentions that he welcomed them and they were carrying relics, including a precious relic of Jesus. It does not say what the relic was. When Persia invaded Africa a group of Christians crossed to Spain and then up to Toledo where there is an account that the fleeing Christians were received who carried with them “the holy ark.” At this time the reliquary chest was simply a large oak box. Then Islam rose, invading Spain in 711 AD, and the Moors, i.e. Moslems, pressed north. The Moslems wrote, “the Christians are fleeing north and taking their precious relics with them.” The Moslems had precious relics of Mohammad so it is significant that they referred to Christian relics. A regional council of bishops in Bravo, Portugal, refers to the relic of Christ being kept in the north of Spain in the mountains in the sacred ark. In 813, Alphonso II, the King of Asturias, began the reconquest of Spain from the Moors and he had the reliquary that had been hidden in the mountains. He established Oviedo as his court and built the Camara Santa, a special chapel in his palace to hold the Sudarium. (He is also the king who had the basilica built over the tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela) The Sudarium has been there in Oviedo since then.

In 1075 El Sid knew the Sudarium was in the Camara Santa. King Alphonso VI, his sister and El Sid, knew this precious reliquary held relics from the apostles, the sole of Peter’s sandal and the Sudarium, and also it is claimed a piece of Mary’s garment. They prepared themselves to see the relics by fasting for 40 days and after Easter they opened the reliquary and found inside it a document attesting to the genuineness of the Sudarium. That document is in the Cathedral archives now.

Three species of pollen on the Sudarium match the pollen on the Shroud. The Sudarium contains pollen from Palestine, Africa, and Spain, tracing its journey. The history of the Sudarium is not as well documented as the Shroud. There is pollen from Syria, Turkey, Greece and France on the Shroud showing that it took a completely different route into Europe than the Sudarium.

Large numbers of Catholic and non-Catholics come to view the Sudarium when it is displayed and used to bless the people. The Sudarium is a love letter from all eternity. It is as if God reserved this relic until the time when our faith was flagging and when science could help unravel its significance. Its significance would not have been known centuries ago.

This was delivered when I was Spiritual Director for a pilgrimage while engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.