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Unveiling the Visage of Christ: Insights from the Shroud of Turin

What did Jesus Christ look like?

Illustration with the icon “Saviour of Sinai”

Illustration with the icon “Saviour of Sinai”

The New Testament, unlike many ancient biographies, remains silent on the physical description of Jesus Christ. For the Gospel writers, it seems, His teachings and actions held far greater weight than His outward appearance.

However, as Christianity flourished amongst the Gentiles, a question arose: what did the Saviour look like? Early Church writers, from the second to the third centuries concluded that Jesus possessed “an unattractive appearance,” even seeming “unremarkable” or “rather bland.” This perspective stemmed from a literal interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3).

Tertullian, in his treatise “On the Flesh of Christ,” summarised these early views:

“...Only the words and deeds, the teachings and virtues of Christ as a man, caused wonder. Had some peculiarity of body been observed in Him, it too would have caused astonishment. But there was nothing remarkable in His earthly flesh; it merely served to highlight the true worth of His other qualities. For they said: “Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works?”' (cf. Matthew 13:54) — even those who looked with disdain upon His appearance, so lacking was His body in human grandeur, let alone heavenly splendour. Though our prophets are silent on His unattractive appearance, His own sufferings and the reproaches He endured speak of it. The sufferings, in particular, testify to His human flesh, and the reproaches, to its unattractiveness.”

Christ the Pantocrator. Russia, 18th century

Christ the Pantocrator. Russia, 18th century

However, this notion was later revised. By the fourth century, Saint Jerome noted that “the very radiance and greatness of the hidden Deity, which shone even on His human face, might attract those who looked at Him at first sight.”

“The Fairest among the sons of men”

The “Letter to Emperor Theophilus,” attributed to John of Damascus in the eighth century, portrays Jesus as having a “tall stature, arched eyebrows, beautiful eyes, long nose, wavy hair of pleasant colour, black beard, wheat-coloured face like that of His Mother, elongated fingers, and sonorous, sweet, gentle voice, magnanimous and patient.”

Late Byzantine author Nikephoros Kallistos offered in the fourteenth century a yet more detailed account:

“I will describe the appearance of our Lord, as it has come down to us from antiquity, and as far as possible in the description. His face was very beautiful. His height was seven full spans. His hair was golden, not too thick, and slightly wavy; His eyebrows were black, but not completely round. His eyes were dark and seemed to radiate a soft golden light. His nose was elongated; His beard was golden and not very long. His head hair, on the contrary, He wore quite long, because the scissors never touched them, just as no human hand ever touched them except that of His Mother... He was slightly stooped, but His body was well-proportioned. His skin colour resembled that of ripe wheat, and His face, like that of His Mother, was rather oval than round, with a slight blush; but through it shone dignity, the wisdom of soul, meekness and calmness of spirit never disturbed.”

Icon of Christ, painted according to the instructions of the venerable Paisius of Mount Athos

Icon of Christ, painted according to the instructions of the venerable Paisius of Mount Athos

Medieval Europe saw widespread circulation of the apocryphal “Letter of Lentulus,” which offered a detailed description of Jesus’ physical form:

“A man of tall stature and noble bearing, His countenance both dignified and expressive, such that whosoever looks upon Him must both love and fear Him. His hair is wavy and curling, of a shade slightly darker and most lustrous where it falls upon His shoulders, parted in two after the custom of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and marvellously serene; neither wrinkle nor blemish mars the beauty of His face, which is further graced by a becoming flush upon His cheeks. His nose and lips are formed with perfect propriety. He possesses a full beard, brown in colour, matching His hair, not long, but divided in twain. His eyes are clear and appear to change colour according to the light. He is awe-inspiring in His reproofs, gentle in His exhortations, a Man both loving and beloved, lively yet ever serious. No man has ever seen Him laugh, though He has been observed weeping on numerous occasions. His hands and other limbs are without blemish. His speech is measured and weighty. He is humble and gentle, the fairest among the sons of men.”

History of the Shroud of Turin

While the initial notion of Jesus' unattractiveness relied on scripture based on the literal understanding of Isaiah’s prophecies, the later ideas of His beauty likely drew inspiration from established iconographic tradition, where Jesus was typically depicted as possessing a noble and serene appearance.

The tradition of depicting Jesus with a noble and serene appearance did not solely stem from human imagination. The proliferation of iconographic imagery of Jesus Christ dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries. This period also coincides with the story of the discovery of the “Acheiropoieton” (Greek for “Not Made by Hands”) image of Jesus Christ, identified with the Shroud of Turin.

Spas Nerukotvornyy (Saviour Not Made by Hands)

Spas Nerukotvornyy (Saviour Not Made by Hands). Moscow. Third quarter of the 14th century

The Shroud depicts the figure of a middle-aged man of approximately 170 centimetres in height, possessing an elongated face, straight combed long hair, a moustache, and a beard. This physical description aligns closely with how Jesus is portrayed in most canonical Orthodox icons. Additionally, the numerous bloodstains upon the Shroud are interpreted by some as evidence that it once enveloped a man who had been scourged and crucified.

However, the authenticity of the Shroud remains a subject of ongoing debate. Some propose it formed due to moisture evaporating from the deceased's body. Others suggest that radiation or sunlight played a role. However, examinations reveal no traces of paint, eliminating the possibility of a human-made image created with pigments, either in ancient times or the Middle Ages. This strongly suggests the image is not a human creation.

This conclusion is supported by the observation that the image is more vivid in areas where the cloth was in close contact with the body, whereas it appears fainter in areas where there was a gap between the cloth and the body.

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

All three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) mention the Shroud (σινδών) in which Jesus' body was wrapped for burial. John, however, uses the term “linen cloths” (ὀθόνια).

The Shroud’s documented history begins in 1353 when French knight Geoffroi de Charny declared its possession. In 1452, it was acquired by Duke Louis I of Savoy and housed in Chambery, where it endured damage in a fire in 1532. Since 1578, it has resided in the Turin Cathedral.

The debate regarding the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin is still ongoing among academics.

A complication arose in 1988 when radiocarbon dating placed the Shroud’s origin in the 13th century. The validity of these findings has been repeatedly challenged and scientifically refuted. Notably, a 2013 study conducted by Professor G. Fanti of the University of Padua employed a combination of cutting-edge techniques — infrared and Raman spectroscopy, alongside chemical and multiparametric mechanical analysis. This study yielded results suggesting that the Shroud may, in fact, date back to the time of Jesus Christ.

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

Another argument against the Shroud’s origin as a mediaeval forgery lies in the placement of the bloodstains. During the Middle Ages, the common belief was that crucifixion involved nails driven through the palms. Consequently, a forger would likely have depicted the wounds in this manner. However, the bloodstains on the Shroud reside in the wrist area, aligning with the recent understanding that during the time of Christ, nails were typically driven through the wrists, not the palms.

The Mandylion in Edessa and Constantinople

Furthermore, the tradition of the Holy Mandylion pre-dates the declaration of the Shroud’s existence by Geoffroy de Charny. This image held significant importance in the Christian East, with its first documented mention arising during the siege of Edessa in 545 AD. Church historian Evagrius describes desperate citizens using the “God-given Holy Mandylion” in their defence. This act, involving holy water sprinkled on the image and then on the rampart built by Khrosrow, enabled them to set fire to the rampart, leading to Khrosrow’s ignominious retreat three days later.

Spas Nerukotvornyy (Saviour Not Made by Hands). Icon. Novgorod, 12th century

Spas Nerukotvornyy (Saviour Not Made by Hands). Icon. Novgorod, 12th century

For four centuries, the Holy Mandylion served as a revered relic in Edessa, attracting numerous pilgrims. In 944 AD, it was transferred with great ceremony to Constantinople. There, it was placed in the palace temple of the Virgin Mary of Pharos where it remained for centuries. However, its trail fades after the city’s fall to the Crusaders in 1204 AD. It is likely that, similar to other Eastern Church relics, the Holy Mandylion ended up in the possession of Western Crusaders and was taken from Constantinople.

The Shroud of Turin and the Edessa image - same or different?

A question remains: is there a link between the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Mandylion of Edessa (Constantinople)? For a significant period, this connection was rejected. Primarily, this stemmed from the vast difference in their depictions. The Shroud portrays a complete body imprint, whereas historical descriptions and accounts suggest the Holy Mandylion solely presented an image of Jesus Christ's face.

However, a new interpretation emerged in the latter part of the 20th century, proposing that the Shroud and the Mandylion represent the same object. This theory hinges on the presence of transverse folds on the Shroud. They indicate that the Shroud was folded eight times and stored in a folded state for a long time.

Proponents of this theory argue that the Edessa Holy Mandylion could correspond to the facial region of the Shroud. When displayed to pilgrims in Edessa and later Constantinople, it is conceivable that only this section of the folded Shroud was revealed, creating the impression of a solely facial image.

Several literary sources strengthen the connection between the Shroud and the Mandylion by suggesting the presence of Christ’s actual burial Shroud, not just a facial image, in Constantinople until 1204.

Hagia Sofia by Charalampos Laskaris

Hagia Sofia by Charalampos Laskaris

Nicholas Mesarites, the sacristan of the Church of the Mother of God of Pharos, directly mentions the “grave shrouds of Christ” in 1200: “They are made of linen, a cheap, simple material, still imbued with myrrh, rising above decay, because they have enfolded the immeasurable, dead, naked, anointed after the Passion.”

Robert de Clari, in his early 13th-century work “The Conquest of Constantinople,” specifically mentions a church (Virgin of Blachernae) housing the Shroud “in which the Lord was wrapped.” This Shroud, according to de Clari, displayed a visible image of Christ every Friday: “which would rise every Friday so that the likeness of Our Lord would be visible.”

Theodore Angelos, writing to Pope Innocent III in 1205, further strengthens the claim: “The Venetians divided among themselves treasures of gold, silver, and ivory, while the French did the same with the relics of saints and the greatest relic — the Shroud, in which Our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after His death and before His resurrection. We know that these relics are kept by their captors in Venice, in France, and other places, and the Holy Shroud is in Athens.”

Further indicating the potential link, several sources suggest that the Edessa Mandylion depicted not just the face, but Christ's entire body.

A 10th-century Latin manuscript contains an account originating in the 8th century, mentioning the presence of a cloth in Edessa displaying “not only the face but the whole body” of Christ.

Additionally, the presence of bloodstains on the Holy Mandylion is documented in various sources. A particularly compelling piece of evidence comes from Archdeacon Gregory of Hagia Sophia in 944, notably, his discourse for the transfer of the Mandylion from Edessa to Constantinople. Gregory explicitly refers to the Holy Mandylion as a “supernatural image”:

“For it is not painted by the means with which the art of painting creates images, granting the mind the ability to grasp the original form: painting creates a complete likeness with various colours, highlighting the cheeks with a blush, the lips with bright scarlet, drawing the first down of youth with a shining black colour, the brow with a beautiful colour along with the eye; combining colours (it depicts) ears and nose, mixing colours — the hollows of the face, shading the chin with a circle of hair threads. ... But this image... is impressed only by the agony of the pre-death struggle on the life-giving face, streaming like clots of blood, and by the finger of God. They are truly beautiful colours that have created the imprint of Christ, adorned with drops flowing from His side. Both are filled with teachings: there is blood and water, there is sweat and form. Oh, the resemblance of these things! For they have come from the same. But the source of living water should also be seen in His image, and it, teaching, moistens the formative moisture of sweat, which every body emits, like a spring that gushes forth as if from vessels, moistening the tree of life.”

Archdeacon Gregory’s statement clearly mentions blood traces not only on Christ’s face but also corresponding to the wound in His side (John 19:34). This suggests that the Shroud bears an image of Christ’s entire body, not just His face.

Holy Shroud by Victor Vasnetsov

Holy Shroud by Victor Vasnetsov

A potential counter-argument arises: given the Jewish tradition of washing the deceased before burial, wouldn't this negate the presence of bloodstains on the Shroud? Researcher R. Jackson addresses this:

“Jewish law outlined four circumstances where washing the deceased was prohibited. Firstly, violent deaths with bloodshed prevented pre-burial washing. Secondly, this applied when a non-Jew inflicted the death, which aligns with Jesus’ Roman crucifixion. Thirdly, those executed for religious crimes were exempt from washing. Finally, the outcast category, encompassing those no longer considered part of the community, also faced this exemption. Therefore, fulfilling all four conditions, washing the body would have been strictly forbidden.”

The available evidence strongly suggests that the Edessa Mandylion and the Shroud of Turin are the same, albeit folded eight times. However, the possibility cannot be entirely dismissed that they are distinct objects.

The Gospel of John provides intriguing details, mentioning both “the burial cloths” and “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (John 20:7). Perhaps a separate cloth covered Christ’s face during burial, acquiring an image similar to the Shroud. In this scenario, the facial image on both cloths would be identical.

The Shroud of Turin, a fifth Gospel

The Shroud of Turin transcends a mere relic, often referred to as the “fifth Gospel.” It offers strong corroboration for elements within the Gospel’s narrative of the crucifixion, adding crucial details. The Shroud reveals evidence of at least two distinct floggings, aligning with the mentions in Matthew, Mark, and John. Contrary to popular depictions, the Shroud suggests the nails were driven through Jesus’ wrists, not his palms.

The Shroud embodies the image of the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). We see a wounded body, hands crossed at the waist, the face bearing a majestic serenity.

Icon “Do Not Weep for Me, O Mother”

Icon “Do Not Weep for Me, O Mother”

This depiction resonates with the Russian icon, “Do Not Weep for Me, O Mother,” and the corresponding Greek iconographic type, “Extreme Humility.” Here, Christ lies partially unclothed, “as if truly laid upon the Shroud,” presented frontally with crossed hands upon his abdomen. The wounds of the crucifixion are evident, His head lies straight, and a cloth partially covers his lower body. This imagery portrays Jesus prepared for his entombment, not as a deceased figure standing upright, but as one lying down, viewed from above.

The widespread adoption of this iconographic type around the 12th century suggests a strong connection to the image once visible in the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos in Constantinople.

March 27, 2024
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