Post-classical history

II

Behold the man!

A peculiar sacredness

Once we have cleared the field of all the confusion and ascertained the origin of the charges of Islamism and black magic, the other descriptions of the Templars’ idol seem suddenly very concrete; it’s simply a human portrait, made of diverse materials and representing an unknown man. It’s in this group of realistic observations, descriptions of simple objects of sacred art, that we find the most interesting data. The idol is a simple object, although for some reason the Templars seem to see it as incomparably valuable. That it was a portrait came out immediately, during the very first interrogations that followed the arrests of October 1307; but the sensationalism with which the Templars’ arrest had been advertised confused everyone’s ideas. People had started yelling about heresy and sorcery, and now they saw them everywhere.

Sergeant Rayner de Larchent saw it twelve times during twelve separate general chapters, and the last was the one held in Paris the Tuesday after the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the July before the arrest. As he described it, it was a bearded head that the monks kissed, calling it their “saviour”; he did not know where it was placed or who kept it, but he guessed that it was the Grand Master or the officer who oversaw the general chapter. It was also seen in Paris by brothers Gautier de Liencourt, Jean de La Tour, Jean le Duc, Guillaume d’Erreblay, Raoul de Gisy and Jean de Le Puy. The ceremonial display was presided over by the Grand Master, or more often the Visitor of the West, Hugues de Pérraud, who was the second in the Templar hierarchy and became the most powerful templar in Europe when the Grand Master happened to be in the East.[1] When questioned, Hugues de Pérraud admitted the existence of this idol and its cult, but said precious little to help us in our modern historical research.

Of the head we just mentioned, he said under oath that he saw, held and touched it near Montpellier during a chapter. Both he and the other brothers worshipped it: he, however, only pretended adoration, acting with the mouth but not with the heart, and could not say who else offered adoration from the heart. Asked where the idol was, he said that he left it with brother Pierre Allemandin, who was preceptor of the mansion of Montpellier: but he could not say whether the King’s agents would find it. He said that this head had four feet, two in front on the side of the face, and two behind.[2]

The testimony does not specify what kind of simulacrum this was. However, it states that it had four feet, which points at a three-dimensional object held up by supports.

At the end of his and the Roman Curia’s inquest in the summer of 1308, the Pope removed the investigations from the inquisitors and decreed that they were to be handed over in each territory to special commissions formed by the local bishops. These were not dependent on the King of France and did not have to follow the plans of his legal strategists; the Pope only tasked them with shedding light on that thorny affair. Some of these bishops may not have loved the Templars for personal reasons; it is well known that there was widespread envy towards this rich and powerful religious order with its many privileges: but they had no direct interest in persecuting as was the case with the King and with Guillaume de Nogaret’s group. It’s hardly surprising that it is during the investigations carried out by diocesan bishops many of the accusations thrown in the previous period started to totter, while others suddenly took a more rational and credible aspect. The diocesan bishops swiftly came to understand that the Templars’ notorious idol-head was in fact a reliquary, an upper bust sculpture containing the remains of some saint, a very widespread class of object in mediaeval sacred art: this comes out clearly as soon as the management of interrogations was handed over to the Pope, and in the very inquiry held in Poitiers in June 1308, Clemens V was able to come to the conclusion himself. In his presence, the sergeant brother Étienne de Troyes said:

Concerning the head, he said that it was the Order’s custom to celebrate each year a general chapter on the day of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and one of those was held in Paris the year he was admitted into the Order. He took part in the Chapter all the three days it lasted: they would begin in the first watch of the night and went on until the first hour of day. During the first night of the chapter they carried a head: it was borne by a priest, who was preceded as he moved forth by two brothers who held large torches and burning candles in silver candelabra. The priest laid they head over the altar, on two pillows and a silken carpet. The witness thought it was a head of human flesh, from the top of the skull to the knot of the epiglottis; it had white hair, and nothing covered it. The face also was of human flesh, and seemed to him very livid and discoloured, with a beard of mixed white and dark hair, similar to the beard that Templars wear. Then the Order’s Visitor said: “Let us worship him and pay him homage, for it is he who made us and it is he who can dismiss us”. They all approached it with the highest reverence and paid it homage and worshipped that head. He heard someone say that that skull had belonged to the first Master of the Order, brother Hugues de Payns: from the Adam’s apple to its shoulder blades, it was covered in gold and silver and studded with precious stones.[3]

The same object, in all likelihood a reliquary of the founder, Hugues de Payns, was also seen in the Temple of Paris by brother Bartholomé Bocher of the Chartres diocese, who joined the order in 1270; according to him, the reliquary did not stay in that place, but was only carried there during special occasions, and was then taken off and put away elsewhere:

The Templar who welcomed him into the order showed him a certain head that someone had placed on the altar of that little chapel by the sanctuary and the vases with the relics; he was told that when he was in difficulties, he should call on the help of that head. Asked how that head was made, he answered that it looked like the head of a Templar, with the head cover and a hoary and long beard; but he could not tell whether it was made of metal, wood, bone or human flesh, and his preceptor did not explain whose head it was. He had never seen it before nor did he see it afterwards, although he must have been in that chapel at least a hundred times.[4]

There was a certain suggestive power about this tale, told in the Pope’s presence, as he had for the first time the opportunity to personally listen to the Templars after nearly a year of hearing accusations and dreadful rumours. The scene of that mysterious cult, emerging from the dark in the shaky light of candles, indubitably could not make a positive impression on him. But in and of itself, the witness was not very serious. The Templars paid special cult to their founder Hugues de Payns, revering him as a great saint during certain nocturnal liturgies, and exposed his head, whether mummified or naturally preserved, within a large and precious reliquary. Hugues de Payns had never been officially canonized, and to the Church of Rome he remained simply a conversus who had chosen to serve God in the same way as countless other unknown priests and monks. Hugues de Payns had never been raised to the honour of altars, and Clemens V, as a specialist in canon law, could not look kindly on such solemn veneration; but in the Middle Ages people used to regard some people as saints purely for their simple lifestyle, even during their lifetimes. As soon as they died, their bodies and the objects they had owned immediately became precious relics, people started coming to pray on their graves, asking for miracles and intercessions with God, without waiting for the Church to complete its long, prudent bureaucratic process. Saints were made by popular acclamation. When the rumour spread through Assisi that Francis was dying in the Porziuncola, the people started praying, waiting impatiently to be finally allowed to see and worship the stigmata on his body: this is a famous and peculiar case, but many more could be mentioned.[5]

The idea that contact with the body of saints had beneficent effects was certainly no mediaeval innovation. It belonged to the most ancient Christian tradition: the Book of Acts tells that people approached Paul as he was preaching, and the faithful would touch his clothes with silken handkerchiefs, because they were certain that they were making relics for themselves. The Apostle’s divine charisma passed from his body to clothes and kerchiefs.[6] It might be that their worship of their founder Hugues de Payns, whom they held to be a holy man, may have led Clemens V to admonish them to reduce the cult to more sober proportions; but it was very, very far from evidence of heresy. As a matter of fact, in the Cyprus interrogations, carried out by a commission of local prelates a thousand miles from Philip the Fair and his pressure, the Templars absolutely denied any charge to do with deviant behaviours or ideas where religion was concerned. Furthermore, many secular nobles, priests, and religious from other orders offered to testify, declaring that the Templars observed the cult with exemplary devotion. It seems that they practised very peculiar and beautiful liturgies of adoration of the Cross during Good Friday, in which others who were not Order members would also take part. A priest said that he would celebrate Mass in Temple churches, and had from time to time celebrated jointly with Order chaplains: the formulas of consecration of the Host were spoken exactly as required. A Dominican who often carried out religious service with the Templars said that he had heard many of them in Confession, both in Cyprus and in France, and none of them had heretical attitudes on their conscience.[7]

The charge of idolatry and disbelief in the Eucharist soon proved utterly hollow. And yet Guillaume de Nogaret and his assistants had gone about building it just as they had done with the other charges: the method of half truths. They had started from a core of actual facts, a breadcrumb of truth suitably amplified and distorted.

Intuitions

In 1978, Ian Wilson published an essay titled The Turin Shroud: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? It was a well written and a rather well researched book, following the story of the Shroud over almost 2,000 years, from Gospel descriptions to the latest scientific investigations from 1973. Out of this broad panorama, the author dedicated a chapter of some 15 pages to the investigation of a rather bold theory of his: there was in the history of the Shroud a “hole”, an empty space of about a century and a half (from 1204 to 1353) during which this object seems to disappear from historical sources. On the basis of evidence drawn both from documents and from objects the Templars had owned, the author maintained that the mysterious “idol” worshipped by the Templars was in fact the shroud kept at present in Turin, folded on itself and kept in a container designed to show only the face. The theory made a great impression, because in its light several obscure points in the story of the Templars also became easily understandable; Wilson, however, did not specialise in this subject, knew only the most famous sources on the trial, and much precious data escaped him. In any case, those 15 pages contained an intuition of immense historical interest, and left the scholarly community with a burning curiosity that the few bits of evidence used could not possibly satisfy. In recent years, the sources on the trial against the Templars have been investigated both in much greater depth and more systematically than had been the case in the past, and this has led us to bring to light historical truths that once seemed dubious, out of focus, indeed shadowy. Can they also tell us something about the relationship between the Templars and the Shroud? Luckily, yes, quite a bit; thanks mainly to some testimonies left as it were “hidden” in an authentic document little known to the experts. A document that seemed to have little to offer to the study of the political and judicial aspects of the trial, but that could not matter more in the study of Templar spirituality. Templar experts barely mention these facts in their studies, and the same happens in another area that has been investigated by scientific methods for over a century: that is, sindonology, the complex of studies about the Shroud of Turin. I think it better to show the reader this new evidence from Templar matters by discussing it on its own, that is, without reference to Wilson’s theory: this is to avoid that two strands of argument should superimpose themselves on each other, and condition each other. We shall therefore see the bare sources, just as they appear to the researcher who first reads them, without influences gained from reading other studies. Later the material will be compared with Wilson’s intuitions and we can verify what historical scenario arises from it.

Throughout the second phase of the trial against the Templars, the one which took place after summer 1308 when the investigations were being carried out by diocesan bishops, the investigators began to be certain that the Templars’ “head” was in fact the reliquary of some saint, and started asking clear-headed questions to this purpose. A significant case is that of sergeant Guillaume d’Erreblay, a sometime almsgiver for the King of France, who was questioned by the commission of bishops who managed the Paris investigation in 1309-1311. This man had often seen a handsome reliquary in silver used in the normal Temple liturgies, exhibited to the veneration of the faithful who came to pray in the Order’s churches. Some said that it was the reliquary of the Eleven Thousand Virgin companions of St.Ursula who were martyred in Cologne, and that was what he too had used to believe. However, after the arrest, and under the psychological power of the prosecution, it occurred to him that there were many odd things: for he seemed to recall that that reliquary had a monstrous aspect, with two faces, even, of which one had a beard.[8] A modern historian will suspect that the witness has been badly affected by the context of the trial, to the point of talking nonsense: how could anyone exhibit to the veneration of the faithful the portrait of a girl saint – with two faces, and a beard besides? In fact, this Templar must have described two different objects. It was only from other brothers that he heard of the reliquary of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, while what he saw himself with his own eyes may indeed have had two faces. His description is identical to the miniatures painted by the painter Matteo Planisio on the manuscript Vaticano latino 3550, where the Creator is shown with two faces, one bearded and masculine (the Person of the Father) and one of an adolescent youth (the Son), who may well look like a woman’s. The superb Neapolitan miniature is one instance, who knows how many similar objects existed in mediaeval churches.

The commissioner bishops took the statement and immediately ordered a check; it was thus found that the Temple of Paris really did hold a reliquary with the bones of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, but that far from being monstrous; it was handsome and represented a perfectly normal young woman’s face.

At that point, the designated guardian of the Order’s goods after the arrest, a certain Guillaume Pidoye, who held the crates containing the relics found in the Templar mansion of Paris, was called to the hearing. The guardian was ordered to take to the trial every object shaped as a head, whether of wood, or metal, that was found in that building; he then handed over to the Commissioners a large, handsome gold-plated silver reliquary that represented a girl. Inside they found bones that seemed to be part of a skull, sewn in a white linen cloth and then placed in another red cloth. Along with the cloth there was a small ticket that said “testa LVIII M”: the head seemed to belong to a girl child and some said they were relics of one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Since the guardian stated that there was no other head-shaped object, the Commissioners summoned Guillaume d’Erreblay and showed him the reliquary: but the Templar said it was not the same, and that he doubted he had ever seen that one in the Temple’s mansion.[9]

To discover that the Templars’ mysterious head was in fact a silver reliquary weakened the prosecution’s structure of accusations, since it roused suspicions that the other charges against the Templars could be the result of similar distortions. It is however true that the commissioners noticed that the order had peculiar liturgies and cults which the brothers did not clearly understand. Sergeant Pierre Maurin had been inducted into the Order by Grand Master Thibaut Gaudin in about 1286, in a room of the great Templar mansion of Château-Pélerin in the Holy Land; on that occasion he was shown no simulacra of any kind, but he became very curious when he was handed the little linen strand, which he had the duty never to take off although nobody seemed clear on just what it was for. When two or three years had gone, one day, while he was in Château-Pélerin he found out from fellow brother Pierre de Vienne that a mysterious cult object was preserved in the central treasury of the Temple in Acre, and that this object was in the shape of a head; all the Templars’ linen strands were consecrated by touching this head. The reliquary was said to contain remains from the head of St. Blaise or of St. Peter; but from that day on he started feeling strong unease and no longer wanted to wear the strand on his body.[10]

On the other hand, the treasurer of the Paris Temple, Jean de la Tour, saw a portrait painting on a board that was hung in the Order’s chapel near the central crucifix. He could not find out who the person represented was, and he thought that it must be the image of some saint: he was however certain that the man could not be a Templar, for he did not wear the typical Templar dress. Anyway it was certainly not monstrous, and though he refused to worship it, the sight of it caused no kind of fear.[11]

The trail of the male portrait, with the figure of a man whose identity was unknown to the Templars themselves, is surely the most interesting; it seems to point straight to the notion of a most sacred figure, worshipped by the Templars with the highest devotion, even though only a very few among them know who he is, and in fact he is not easy to recognize: those who saw him have trouble describing him. What is it?

A man’s image on a cloth

The records of the interrogations carried out on the Templars jailed in Carcassonne in the winter of 1307, that is a few months after the arrests, has survived in a single document kept in the Paris National Archives: a copy on paper made to be sent to Philip the Fair. The material is much darkened and is not in a good state of preservation, but it is perfectly readable to anyone who is familiar with the sources of the trial against the order of the Temple. Early in the 20th century, Heinrich Finke tried to publish it, but found it exhausting and finally made a somewhat questionable decision to transcribe into his edition of Templar trial documents only the few passages he had identified. These were bitten-off chunks of sentences, stitched together with dotted lines to indicate the many things he had not managed to read. These brief gobbets of Latin in the middle of a flow of academic German form a bizarre linguistic patchwork: the whole thing is most remote from the norms of today’s historians and really quite enough to confuse anyone. That may be why this has been so far practically ignored by historians as a source. I have presented and discussed this source, along with many others, in my doctoral thesis in history at the University of Venice (1996-1999), when I was collecting all surviving evidence from the trial to make a systematic analysis of the data and compare them with each other. Its content struck me immediately as of immense interest, because I think that, together with so much other data, it proves that the mysterious idol of the Templars was a very famous object with a well-defined identity. It was effectively a portrait, but the least that can be said is that it was not just any portrait.

The Templar brother Guillaume Bos, received about 1297 in the Templar command of Perouse near Narbonne, was shown an “idol” of peculiar shape, a very different image from the others, which were mostly reliquaries worked in bas-relief. It was a kind of monochromatic drawing, a dark image on the light background of a cloth that seemed to his eyes like cotton cloth (signum fustanium):

and immediately a kind of drawing on a cloth was taken to the same place and spread out in front of him. Asked whose figure it represented, he answered that he was so astonished at what he had been told to do that he could hardly see it, nor could he distinguish very well what person was represented in the drawing; it seemed to him, however, to be made of white and black, and he paid it worship.[12]

Jean Taylafer, heard in Paris during the long inquiry of 1309-1311, saw the same kind of object: it also was a kind of drawing with an ill-defined shape, made of a tint that seemed reddish to him, and he could only distinguish the image of a face that had the natural dimensions of a human head. Like Guillaume Bos, he could not be sure whether it was a painting or not, but in that case too it was an image made from a single colour. Another Templar called Arnaut Sabbatier, on the other hand, said explicitly that he had been shown the whole figure of a man’s body on a linen cloth, and the was ordered to worship him three times, kissing his feet (quoddam lineum habentem ymaginem hominis, quod adoravit ter pedes obsculand).[13]

The document is authentic, and, in spite of its less than perfect condition, the passage can clearly be read. Unless we reject the reality of the historical source, it shows that some Templars in southern France were shown an “idol” identical to the Shroud of Turin, which is exactly a linen cloth showing a man’s image. Nor can there be any doubt that the figure contained the entire body, not just the head; the witness says in so many words that the Templars worshipped him by kissing his feet. Nobody can deny that the Shroud, if seen for the first time by someone who has no idea what it is, will seem just like some kind of imprint or large, ill-defined stain over a long piece of linen, a clear imprint with no holding line or contour, showing the features of a man’s body. It is a characteristic of the image that it becomes visible or invisible according to the distance from which it is seen, which immediately reminds us of Templar witnesses who remembered that the idol “appeared and disappeared” suddenly. There really are many clues to suggest that the various descriptions of the Templar idol are nothing but an account of the Shroud of Turin, rendered in an imprecise and fragmentary manner by persons who could only look at it for a short time, most often in a container that only showed its head; we should not forget that the Templar ceremonies took place in the earliest hours of the morning, before the Sun had yet risen; so this object was seen, practically speaking, in dark rooms, and above all without the faintest idea of what it was. Arnaut Sabbatier’s evidence, on the other hand, describes explicitly an obstension (a religious exhibition or display) of the actual Shroud, when the cloth was fully unfolded to show the image of the whole body. It also describes a precise liturgy of worship which involves a threefold kiss on the mark of the feet; curiously enough, the same gesture, offered with the highest devotion, by St. Charles Borromeo and his company of priests during their famous pilgrimage on foot from Milan to Turin to see the Shroud in October 1578. The Jesuit Francesco Adorno, who went with St. Charles and wrote an account of events, knew perfectly well what he was going to see, and yet stated that he was completely astonished and as if dumbstruck before the cloth: the same kind of emotion described by so many Templars in the trial. Indeed, the Jesuit had already seen a fine copy of the Shroud, made by order of its owner, Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy. Yet the original was something else: the picture on the cloth of Turin left the impression of a living, suffering man giving up his last breath.[14] The Templars worshipped the Shroud in the same way as St. Charles Borromeo did three centuries or so later, at least those among them who had the privilege to contemplate the original relic and not one of the many copies scattered around the commands of the Order. According to Adorno, St. Charles and a few others also kissed the wound in the side, besides those of the feet; and by the regretful tone easily felt in his words, one can guess that he did not have that great privilege. As of now, we don’t know whether the Templars used to kiss the side as well; the monk who left his account of this cult was fairly low in Templar hierarchy, and everything leads me to think that the privilege of kissing the wound in the side would be, if anything, kept for the highest dignitaries.

The wounded side of Jesus, from which according to the Gospel of John had come blood and water, has moved Christian emotions deeply from the most ancient times. They were certain that it had an immense value, and that it was in some way a mark of the divinity of Jesus: some scholars argue that the evangelist himself who tells the story also ascribes to it a strong theological significance, since in his culture water is the symbol of the Holy Spirit. Christian tradition claims that the Church itself had been born from that wound, just as a child is born from the pain and the love of a mother. Most monks were ignorant, but among the dignitaries there were some educated persons; we can mention, for instance, the poet Ricaut Bonomel, who wrote a poem on the fall of the Holy Land that became and remained famous; or the chaplain Peter of Bologna, an outstanding legal expert who struggled to defend his Order during the trial. At any rate it took no great intellectual to understand that that wound on the side was the source of the Eucharist, which the priest celebrated on the altar exactly by mixing wine and water in memory of that Gospel passage.[15]

For several reasons I will explain comprehensively later on, the Templars were deeply fascinated by that wound through the ribs, and in their eyes it had incomparable value. Perhaps they thought it too holy for anyone to dare to touch it, at least anyone who was not a Templar of the modest rank of the man who had left his witness to the Carcassonne enquiry.

The information that the Templars worshipped the image of a man on a linen cloth clearly spread and ended up rousing the curiosity of the commons, perhaps much more widely than the sources would let us know today. In fact, it was even recorded in the Chronicle of Saint-Denys, the vast book of memories written by the Parisian abbey that was particularly bound with the Crown of France. The monks of St. Denys did not see the Templars’ idol either as a likeness of the Devil or as a portrait of Mohammed, but rather described it in essentially two different forms:

And shortly after they began to worship a false idol. According to some of them this idol was made from a very ancient human skin, that seemed embalmed [une vieille peau ainsi comme toute embasmeé], or else in the shape of a washed cloth [toile polie]: in it do the Templars place all their most vile faith, and in it they believe blindly.[16]

In the end, the matter of the notorious Templar idol was a real fiasco for the prosecution, especially when they tried to colour this object with the dark tints of sorcery. Nogaret had felt it from the beginning: during the first interrogation, carried out in Paris by the Inquisitor of France, the ground had been tested, but Templars who knew anything about it were too few and gave wildly confused descriptions. So the royal lawyers had decided to pass over the matter and aim instead for charges that nearly every brother would be ready to admit. The inquisitors of the Midi, true professionals of the witch-hunt, gave the Templar idol the connotations of incarnate evil according to their own peculiar mentality: maybe they acted in the most complete bad faith, or maybe they had themselves somehow fallen under the spell of their ghastly profession, prisoners of the spectres created by their minds even as they heard out the confessions of unfortunate victims. At any rate, the idol as an image of the Devil or a portrait of Mohammed did not travel very far beyond the grand inquiry of Languedoc, which was beyond argument the most bloodthirsty in the entire trial. Later on, when, after the summer of 1308, Pope Clemens V managed to hand the investigations over to commissions made up of local bishops, the idol’s nature grew clearer, an increasingly detailed compound picture of two liturgical objects: the first was a reliquary in bas-relief containing the remains of some saint or other, the other a very strange linen cloth which bore the mark of the whole figure of a man in monochromatic drawing, a kind of imprint with ill-defined features.

The power of contact

Whoever the mysterious man worshipped by the Templars may have been, he was regarded as so sacred and mighty that someone, at some still unknown point of Templar history, had thought it best to make sure that his charisma should reach and protect Templars physically throughout their lives. And this even without their knowledge, thanks to a small object that kept and passed on his power. The trial sources include many statements ascribing to the Templars’ little linen strand a very special kind of sacredness, derived from contact with an object worthy of the highest reverence: very few of them knew that it had been consecrated by the power of a most highly venerable object, and within this narrow circle someone was aware that the strands were themselves potent relics, for they had been made holy thanks to contact with the “idol”.[17]

The use of wearing always, even at night, a little strand of linen above one’s shirt had been introduced as early as St. Bernard’s Rule, approved in Troyes in 1129. It meaning was chiefly symbolic, for it was a kind of warning to keep the vow of chastity. Sleeping with one’s pants on and with the tight belt over one’s shirt was seen as a very decent thing, since the brothers slept in dormitories with their beds next to each other; the light of little lanterns would burn all night, to protect honest intimacy and discourage the ill-intentioned of any kind, including persons looking for undesirable encounters.[18]

As time went on, though, the awareness of this ancient meaning was lost, to the point where at the time of the trial only a few remembered it. At some point in the 13th century, a new symbolic tradition to do with the linen strand arose and spread, because the original tradition was at this point obsolete; by 1250, the Templars used to consecrate the strands in their habit by placing them into contact with the most important places in the Holy Land connected with Jesus’ life, or else with individual relics kept inOutremerand greatly venerated in the Order.

The knight Guy Dauphin, Preceptor of the Temple in the French region of Auvergne and member of the General Staff, explained it clearly during the trial:

he said they would wear a thin strand over their shirts with which they slept as a sign of chastity and humility; the strands he himself wore had touched a pillar that stood in Nazareth, exactly in the place where the angel made his annunciation to the Virgin Mary, while others had touched precious relics kept beyond the sea, such as those of Sts Polycarpus and Euphemia.[19]

Guy Dauphin had been received among the Templars in 1281, but the habit of consecrating the strands through contact with relics was older. The knight brother Gérard de Saint-Martial, an old man at the time of the trial, had joined the Temple in 1258 and said that it was usual to turn the strand into a relic by consecrating it with the sacred charisma of the Basilica of Nazareth, in the place where the archangel Gabriel had taken to the Virgin the news of Incarnation.[20]

How is this habit to be explained? The answer is very simple and may already be found in the Bible, which expresses the religious mentality of Hebraism, from which comes that of Christianity. When God appeared to Moses on Mount Horeb in the shape of a burning bush that was not consumed, he ordered him to remove his sandals, for that was holy ground (Ex 3, 1-6). The place would always have kept some of the power of that Supreme Being who had manifested Himself there, and to touch the holy soil would always have been of great benefit for the faithful. After 1250, Jerusalem having been lost for decades and the chance of recovery growing ever more remote, the Templars felt the need to keep physical contact with the place of Christ’s life; so they got into the habit of making individual relics to carry constantly on their bodies, as a defence against sins of the soul and dangers of battle. This, after all, suited well their nature of military and religious order, and St Bernard also had underlined that the Templar is always fighting, on two fronts, all the days of his life. During the previous decades, when Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre had been guarded by Christians, the Templars would go to the great basilica to celebrate particular nocturnal liturgies of which the sources tell us nothing: probably they consecrated their linen strands, the symbol of the religious vows of the Temple, resting them on that very stone where the corpse of Jesus had been placed after the Crucifixion.[21] If that is the case, they would make them priceless relics of the Passion of Christ, to be kept for ever on oneself, guarding one’s physical and spiritual salvation. Later, having lost the Sepulchre to Saladin’s re-conquest, they had to resign themselves to consecrating their strands with something different; other Holy Places of the Christian Kingdom, which however certainly did not have the same value of the Sepulchre, or else relics that the Order had acquired, which in the second half of the 1200s formed a treasure kept in the city of Acre.

Among the Templars, a rumour kept going around that the mysterious “idol” was kept exactly in the treasury of Acre, and everything leads us to believe that its identity was kept secret from most of the monks. [22] Whatever it was, there were several copies owned by the Order and scattered among its commands; these simulacra seem to have been exhibited to be worshipped by Templars, but also by secular faithful who used the Order’s churches, as if they belonged to some mysterious sacred figure who protected the Order especially. The portrait was considered more like a relic than a simple image, it was kept and exhibited together with other Templar-owned relics, and the liturgy by which it was honoured included the ritual kiss traditionally given to relics.[23]According to some Templars, the idol was called “the saviour”; it was prayed to not for material benefits such as wealth, success in love, or worldly power, but rather for the highest Christian goal, salvation of the soul.[24]

Can we know with any degree of certainty who the man represented in the portrait was? Fortunately, we can. In 1268, Sultan Baibars conquered the fortress of Saphed from the Templars; he was certainly astonished to find, in the fortress’ main room – the one where the order’s charter was held – a bas-relief featuring the head of a bearded man. The Sultan could not understand who that man was supposed to be, and unfortunately modern historians are no better off, for the monument was destroyed. There are however other figurations of the same character, found on objects that certainly have belonged to the Templars, objects preserved to this day and which allow us to see, we might even say touch with our hands, the identity of the mysterious man: some seals of Temple Masters kept in German archives, and bearing on the verso nothing else than a portrait of a bearded man, and a wooden panel found in the church of the Templar mansion of Templecombe, in England.

Without any doubt, these are copies of the Face of Christ, represented without aureole or neck, as if the head had been somehow separated from the rest of the body. It is a fairly rare iconographic model in mediaeval Europe, but extremely widespread in the East, for it reproduces the true aspect of Christ such as it appeared in the mandylion, the most precious of all relics owned by the Emperors of Byzantium. A very ancient tradition told that it was a portrait of Christ made not by human hands, but created miraculously when Jesus had passed a towel (Greek, mandylion) over his face; that is, it was not properly speaking a portrait, but an imprint. Kept in the great sacred treasury of the Imperial palace in Constantinople, the mandylion was copied in countless frescoes, miniatures, icons on wooden boards, and the tradition of this miraculous portrait eventually spread slowly to the West. To this day, some of Europe’s greatest basilicas have works of art that reproduce it, such as the icon on cloth known as the Holy Face of Manoppello, those kept in Genoa, Jaen, Alicante, the one preserved in St. Peter’s Vatican inside the chapel of Matilda of Canossa; all copies of the mandylion, made in the East.[25]

What is particularly interesting about the table of the Templar church of Templecombe is that it reproduces the very shape of the display reliquary in Constantinople, as it is shown in many representations, of which the best is the magnificent miniature on the codex Rossiano greco 251 of the Vatican Apostolic Library: the Face seems to be inserted in a kind of rectangular container that has the very dimensions of a towel, more long than broad, and this container has an opening in the centre that allows only the sight of the Face of Jesus, separated from the neck and from the rest of the body. In the icon of Templecombe, this opening that shows the human features of Jesus and separates them from the cover, is an elegant geometric four-leaf-clover motif widely appreciated in the east, and used by Byzantines at least since the ninth century.[26]

The Templars’ mysterious idol, then, was nothing more in and of itself than a portrait of Jesus Christ, of a most unusual type; but in the mess of interrogations, tortured or even only terrified by inquisitors, many monks ended up describing anything that could somehow resemble that strange male head on which the torturers wanted information at all costs. It was a portrait that followed an Eastern iconography, imported from Constantinople but little known in Europe, and it was present in many commands of the order in different forms: as an icon painted on wood, as a bas-relief, as a linen cloth which however bore the representation of the whole body. The last of these was only seen by a few monks in southern France: it did not look like a painting, but rather an image with ill-defined limits, and monochromatic. This was an absolutely peculiar kind of portrait, impossible to understand for anyone who was not aware of certain facts: it represented Christ in a tragically human dimension, enormously distant from that of the Risen Saviour to which the Templars were used. And everything suggests that the leaders of the Order had good reasons of their own to keep its existence secret.

A Physical Icon

Ian Wilson argues that the Shroud, folded so as to show only the image of the face, had actually been an object once owned by the Eastern Roman emperors, and considered as one of the most precious and venerable icons of Christianity: an authentic image of Jesus’ face, reproducing faithfully its physiognomy. Stolen during the terrible sack of Constantinople in April 1204, the priceless relic ended up in the hands of the Templars, who kept worshipping it in its original container but preferred to keep silent about its existence, since it had reached them by less than clear methods.[27] The next pages will follow Wilson’s reconstruction in its essential lines, but I thought it necessary to discuss several points over again and open a few new parentheses, to make the context clearer.

There was a very long theological tradition connecting this portrait closely to the Gospels and to the life of Christ; in a way we might say that to many authoritative theologians of the ancient world that object was almost a manifesto of Christianity itself.[28] In the ancient town of Edessa, present-day Urfa in Turkey, there was worshipped an image of Jesus on a cloth that was said not to have been made by human hands (acheropita); the portrait, always called mandylion (in Greek, “hand towel” or “handkerchief”), was the holiest of objects to the local Christian community. In 943, the emperor Romanus I Lecapenus sat on the throne of Byzantium, and just in that year the city was celebrating an especially important anniversary. One hundred years before, in 843, an important Imperial decree had finally outlawed and declared heretical the theological current called Iconoclasm, literally “image-smashing”, which had been favoured by several previous Emperors over a matter of decades, and which had destroyed through religious fanaticism an incalculable amount of works of art. The iconoclasts, the image-smashers, based their views on an interpretation of Jesus Christ that was not the one defined by the Council of Nicaea of 325, which had fixed the Christian statement of faith. The Nicene creed stated that Jesus was true man and true God, that he bore in himself both a human and a divine nature; but the iconoclasts were monophysites, from the Greek monophysis or “one nature”; according to their view, the human nature of Jesus, mortal and base, had been absorbed and taken into the divine one, eternal and infinitely superior. The Christ, that is, had only one nature, the divine one. Like God in all things, Jesus was not to be represented visually, because it was not legitimate to represent God; hence all his images were to be destroyed. On 25 March 717, Leo III Isauricus was crowned Eastern Roman Emperor. He had reached the throne from the army, having previously been the commander of the great unit of Anatolia. Leo was of Syrian origin and had took with him from his native country a certain tendency to look with suspicion on image-worship, for it could contain the seeds of idolatry, which Christians and other Eastern peoples had always been concerned to avoid. When he became familiar with the usages of Constantinople, Leo III realised that the cult of images had taken a fundamental role even in liturgy, and had practically become one of the main forms of Byzantine religiosity. That hurt the sensibilities of some extreme theologians, who saw Christianity as a spiritual religion and therefore condemned the cult given to images, which are objects made of matter. Leo III embraced this doctrine, but his choice made the public hostile to him; on 19 January 729, some fanatics even defaced one of the capital’s most famous icons of Christ, and the people rose in revolt, which Leo III had bloodily suppressed. This also led to a break in relationships with the Church of Rome, led in those years by Popes Gregory II (715-731) and his successor Gregory III (731-743): both believed that the human nature of the Christ deserved without any doubt to be represented and worshipped by the faithful through the contemplation of sacred art.[29] In actual fact, the worship of images was rooted in a very ancient tradition, going back to the very beginnings of the Church. In the fourth century AD, bishop Athanasius of Antioch extolled the images of Jesus by quoting the Gospel passage in which Christ had said: “He who has seen me, has seen the Father”; therefore, owning faithful portraits of Jesus was a patrimony for the Christian community, and to contemplate his human form could be a valid help in prayer.[30] Not much later, St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea (330-379 AD), the founder of a monastic movement that spread all over the East, had written a work titled A Treatise on the Holy Spirit in which he explained this theological concept with a very effective example. According to St. Basil, when the subjects pay homage to the statue of their Emperor, the affection and admiration they bear goes from the statue to the person of the Emperor himself; so too the cult that Christians offer to the portrait of Christ is aimed to the Person of Jesus, that is, it is not idolatrous. In another work, St. Basil maintained that the images of martyrs are able to drive demons off, an idea shared with his brother St. Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, according to whom representations of saints induce the faithful to imitate them: therefore “the silent pictures painted on church walls can in fact talk, and are of great advantage”.[31]

But probably the most passionate defender of image worship was the monk John of Damascus (about 650 -749 AD), one of the most brilliant minds in 2,000 years of Christian history. He had lived in Syria when it was ruled by Muslim Arabs, and paradoxically this had left him free to express his religious views with much greater freedom than his brother monks living under the power of Constantinople: for the Arabs forced Christians to pay a special tax, after which they were free to follow their own cult without their rulers meddling in dogmatic issues. John’s Treatise on Images described these practices of devotion with great theological subtlety and a most agile, even poetic language: in a word, he had been able to reflect the warm love borne by the common people to the most important representations of Christ, of the Virgin, and of the saints. John of Damascus started from a very simple truth, which everyone could understand: to the Christian believer, Jesus was also a terrestrial, concrete and material reality. In his life, he had walked through the roads of Palestine, and his feet had left their prints in that sandy land; after his death and resurrection, through the power of the Spirit, Christ went on living and acting in the lives of his faithful, as he had promised in the Gospel of Matthew: “Behold, I am with you all days, until the ending of the world”.[32]

The portrait of Jesus preserved by tradition symbolises and reminds the Christian of this physical, daily and terrestrial presence, and that contact is the greatest comfort in the difficulties of life. This opportunity of a personal relationship could not be taken from the people in the name of a very abstract piece of reasoning. It was not right; besides, that strange view of faith promoted by certain ultra-refined thinkers was not even close to the original dictates of the Gospels, which had clearly stated that even after his resurrection, Jesus had a concrete and tangible body that could be seen and touched. According to John of Damascus, Jesus is a “physical icon” of the Father (èikon physikè), a living image full of Holy Spirit and capable of bringing man closer to God by purifying his soul and thoughts. [33]

“Et habitavit in nobis”

In the early eighth century, the theological line that extolled the spiritual value of icons found a strenuous supporter in the monk Theodore, abbot of the monastery of Studion in Constantinople, one of the most splendid centres of Byzantine culture. Theodore the Studite was able to fight both intellectually and politically to reassert the need to worship images: if man had been created in the image of God, then surely there was something divine in the art of making sacred images. With amazing insight, he was able to underline a perennially valid, timeless fact: forbidding the cult of images can be very dangerous, for it lays the groundwork for the growth of heresies. Rejecting images in the name of a religion made only of ideas, of mental concepts, prevents contact between the faithful and the human aspect of Jesus: this leaves the faithful exposed to the ever-lurking danger of taking Jesus Christ as nothing but a spiritual entity, a symbol of the possible contact between man and God. Jesus, though, was also a concrete flesh-and-bones person; it was nothing but his human suffering that have brought about the redemption of others: “As a perfect Man, Christ not only can but must be represented and worshipped in images; deny this, and the whole economy of salvation in Christ is virtually destroyed”. [34]

Theodore’s thought triumphed in the great Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea of 787. At the centre of debate was placed, exactly, the mandylion, the most ancient and venerated image of Christ. The term used to describe it is “print” (charactèr), the same used for coining money: the word describes the negative image formed thanks to the contact of an object. The Council of Nicaea was also highly concerned with the precise regulation of the role of images in the life of the Church, so that their cult should not issue in the end in the sin of idolatry: it specified that it was forbidden to worship them, for worship belongs exclusively to God, but it recommended a carefully balanced honouring. It insisted that God is certainly not a matter for images: faith is born from Scripture, that is the Word of God, and nobody must ever feel at ease with his conscience for the fact alone of being devoted to a sacred image, whichever it is. Sacred representations have essentially an educational function, useful to make dogmas somehow accessible to the majority of the faithful with insufficient cultural resources; furthermore, they belong to the Christian tradition, which is itself venerable and a carrier of truth. For all these reasons, there was a detailed settlement of the kind of liturgy to be followed when holy icons were venerated, the same used for relics: it was based on kissing, lighting lamps and proskìnesis, kneeling with one’s forehead to the ground, still in use today among Muslims. That was how the Christians of the Holy Land venerated the relic of the true Cross, and the same did the Templars with their “idol”, prostrating themselves with their faces to the ground: certainly, in 14th century Europe this practice must have left the curious astonished.[35]

The achievement of the Council of Nicaea was the theology of the icon, which is still in place and widely popular to this day: an icon is not merely a portrait of Jesus or of other characters in sacred history, but rather a place of the Spirit, a sanctuary in itself, approaching which the faithful step with one foot in the dimension of the divine. Contemplation of the icon is communication with God. Only a few people are allowed to paint icons, and they must follow a very ancient ritual governed by cast iron rules, because the result must be faithful to traditional models. Everything begins with a period of fasting and spiritual purification that the painter is obliged to undergo before he so much as starts the work, and it ends with the addition of the writings: they can only be done by using a liturgical language. The writing seals the truth of the portrait to its original and declares that what can be seen with human eyes is verily and indeed present, and takes part in the heavenly liturgy. Of course these captions that appear on icons are subject to absolutely fixed rules established by Church doctrine. Some cannot be touched: no painter was allowed to alter them even with the consent of a bishop or of a patriarch, because they had been studied to render synthetically certain unarguable dogmas of religion. The first and probably the most ancient is the one shortened as IC-XC, which refers to the image of Jesus and is formed by the first and last letters of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, “Jesus Christ”. It appears in icons as early as the ninth century, and contains in itself a whole confession of faith – that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah (in Greek, exactly, christòs) awaited for centuries by the people of Israel, that was the first, essential, untouchable truth of Christianity, the basis itself on which the Church had been built.[36]Possibly the second most ancient and widespread motto was the one that accompanied the image of Mary, MP-TY: it stood for MHTHP TEOY, “Mother of God”, and it was also obviously the codification in a simple form of a dogma. It came from the Council of Ephesus of 431, in whose sessions had raged a furious debate exactly because this title, born among the ordinary people and used from time out of mind, had been placed in doubt. Bishop Nestorius, who held the important office of Patriarch of Constantinople, wanted to change Mary’s title from theotòkos (“mother of God”) to christotòkos, that is “mother of Christ”: for in his view the Virgin had given birth to the human nature of Jesus, but it could not be possible that a young woman, herself a created thing, could possibly give birth to the divine nature of Jesus, that is to the Logos, that was immensely superior to her.

Nestorius’ proposal did not at all go down well with theologians such as St. Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, because in practice it amounted to breaking in two parts – one weaker and the other perfect – the unity of the Person of Jesus Christ. Even less did it please the commons: tradition had it that it was just to Ephesus that the Apostle John had taken Mary, entrusted by Jesus on the cross to his care. The people were long used to honouring her as Mother of God: all those abstruse reasonings they neither understood nor wanted to understand. The proposal to downgrade the Virgin from “Mother of God” to “Mother of Christ” was rejected under a hail of excommunications, and the city was lit up as if for a festival. The bishops who had defended the traditional title of theotòkoswere escorted to their homes by a solemn procession with torches and incense smoke, as if they were themselves icons of saints.[37]

The expression Jesus Christ (in Greek, Ièsus Christòs) on the other hand was never challenged, because it was too ancient, too vital, and too central. The Gospels took it back to the time itself of Jesus’ preaching: one day the Nazarene had asked his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” Peter had eventually answered: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” That had been the first Christian profession of faith, synthetic but complete. In the circle of the first Christians, what today’s exegetes and theologians call the “post-Paschal Church”, already a very short time before the death and the events that followed, the two words Jesus (a very widespread man’s name) and Christ (a sacred adjective) had become indissoluble, one and the same.[38]

In March of 843, the empress Theodora, widowed from a husband who had once more persecuted the defenders of images, made a wholly opposite choice and established a solemn ceremony, the Feast of Orthodoxy, meant to remember for ever the final victory of the holy icons.[39] And in the year 943, first centenary of the Feast, the emperor Romanus I decided to solemnise that anniversary by taking into the capital city of the empire the most famous and venerated of all images of Christ, the one kept in Edessa; he therefore entrusted the recovery mission to the best of his generals, John Curcuas. The town was then held by the Arabs, and Curcuas was forced to negotiate the handover of the mandylion. In exchange for this single object, the Byzantine emperor set free 200 high-ranking Muslim prisoners, paid 12,000 gold crowns, and furthermore gave the city a guarantee of perpetual immunity. After long examinations – for the Arabs had tried to stick the general with a fake – the famous image was taken into Constantinople on 15 August, the day of the Dormition of Mary, in a memorable procession, and placed in the church of the Blachernae, dedicated to the Virgin. The following day it was placed on an imperial ship on which it sailed around the city, being finally placed in the imperial chapel of Pharos. This inaccessible sanctuary was a colossal reliquary, where the emperors had been collecting for centuries all the most precious relics of the lives of Jesus, of the Virgin and of the saints. Several mediaeval visitors who had been allowed in, and had been able to contemplate the collection, stated that the collected objects included all the relics of the Passion, from the bread consecrated in the Last Supper to the sponge with which the soldiers had offered Jesus vinegar, apart from a number of other important memories; the long result of a centuries-old campaign of tooth-comb searches that had started as early as Helena, mother of Constantine.[40] This patient, continuously and wildly expensive operation is easily explained: since at a certain point in history contact with the Holy Land had become difficult, it was necessary to keep in any situation a physical and concrete relationship with the testimonies of Christ’s life. Within barely four years (636-640 AD) the Arabs, led by Caliph Omar tore from the emperors of Byzantium most of Lesser Asia, including the region of Syria and Palestine; from that moment on, visits to the Holy Sepulchre and to the other Holy Places only became possible under special diplomatic agreements between the court of Constantinople and their new masters, and at any rate it was impossible to stop the basilica of Anastasis itself, where the Sepulchre was, from being utterly devastated. So they studied ways to transfer everything from the life of Jesus that could possibly be moved away, so as to create a new Jerusalem on the Bosporus, with all the fundamental proofs. In 1201 the imperial guardian of relics, Nicholas Mesarites, had to defend the great Byzantine sanctuary from the danger of looting when a palace revolution was trying to seize power; he managed to calm the spirits of rebels because he told them that that chapel was an utterly sacred place, a new Holy Land to honour and respect beyond any political issue:

This temple, this place, is a new Sinai; it is Bethlehem, Jordan, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethany, Galilee, Tiberias; it is the basin, the Supper, Mount Tabor, the praetorius of Pilate, the Place of the Skull called in Hebrew Golgotha. Here Christ was born, here was He baptized, here did He walk on water and here He has walked on the land, He made wonderful miracles and lowered Himself to washing feet [...] Here He was crucified, and those who have eyes can see the rest for His feet. Here he was also buried, and the rolled stone by his grave bears witness to it to this day. Here he rose again, and the shroud with the grave-linens prove it to us. [41]

After being transferred to the capital, the mandylion remained in Constantinople and soon became the symbol itself of the city, a kind of supreme protector that featured even on the army’s standards; the Byzantine religious mind identified it with the Eucharist; that is with the Body of Christ, and reproduced it in countless copies. From then on, the Byzantine world developed a great passion for the physical features of Jesus: it was a bit like reacting against centuries of a culture that had for so many different reasons ignored if not even refused it. Through the study of relics they had worked out how tall he was: outside the Hagia Sophia cathedral they had erected a life-size reproduction of the Cross, called “Cross of the measure” (crux mensuralis), which allowed everyone to envisage him as he was.[42]

The imperial collection at Pharos filled with testimonies of every kind, including some (like the nappies of Baby Jesus or the milk of the Virgin) that make us smile today; but this must not make us forget the huge historical value of their presence. It had certainly not been ignorant peasants who had wanted them there and made them precious, but the greatest intellectuals of their times. There was something like a sense of deep emotion in rediscovering this human dimension of Jesus, something that the Eastern Christian world had neglected for centuries. After all, the absolute novelty of Christianity was that God had come to walk among ordinary people: the Greek text of the gospel of John says literally: “the Word was made flesh, and pitched his tent among us”.[43] To contemplate Baby Jesus’ nappies was to be reminded that Christ had been a new-born baby like everyone else, and that Mary, whom the Byzantines called the Mother of God, had looked lovingly after him just as other mothers did with their children. Some objects show that God looks after man from close by, and is within his reach. And those of the Passion also had another thing to say: there is surely something of the divine in the sick, the dying the person crushed by suffering – in the faces of all those whose faces, in the adversities of life, can be superimposed on that unrecognisable face of Christ.

The transfer of the mandylion to the capital was a memorable event, during which a considerable amount of writings was produced. The study of all these sources proves of special interest: for the description of the mandylion and of its history, as narrated in the days of Constantine VII, does not quite agree with what we know from the oldest sources. Several different things appear in it: details that seem custom made to “update” the legend in the light of a new and disconcerting truth.

Of flesh and blood

In 1997, the Roman historian Gino Zaninotto noticed that inside a 10th century Greek manuscript of the Vatican Apostolic Library there was preserved a solemn speech written by Gregory the Referendarius, the archdeacon of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople who looked after the relationship between the Emperor and the Patriarch. Gregory went himself to Edessa in John Curcuas’ mission to recover the mandylion in 944 and carefully investigated the city archives looking for the ancient documents telling the story of the image; he then wrote this homily, in which he celebrated the relic’s importance and gave a synthetic account of its history. The Referendarius’ account was thus far unpublished, one of many unknown treasures in the Pontiffs’ library, and it was published by Byzantine scholar André-Marie Dubarle in the specialist periodical Révue des Études Byzantines.[44]

According to archdeacon Gregory, the image is in fact an imprint, and is beautified by the drops of blood that fell from Christ’s wounded side: precedent tradition usually described the mandylion as a small piece of linen, as large as a hand-towel, as the name itself implies, which bore the only imprint in existence of the face of Jesus. But the homily of codex Vaticanus Graecus 511 describes it as an imprint showing the chest with the mark of the spear and the flow of blood that had issued from that wound, that is, there was an image of the body at least from the waist up. According to the most ancient tradition, the mandylion had nothing to do with the death of Christ: it was simply his portrait when alive. The first records of this legend spoke of an exchange of letters between Jesus and Abgar King of Edessa, identified as Abgar V the Black; the sovereign had heard stories of Jesus’ great fame as healer, he knew that he was being sought to be killed, and so had a messenger to offer him a safe refuge in his city.

Eusebius of Caesarea, the very learned bishop who was Constantine the Great’s spiritual adviser, inserted the episode in his Church History, but with no mention of any image. In fact, this may well be due to Eusebius’ own intervention, selecting from tradition only what he appreciated, and eliminating (or simply ignoring) what struck him as less worth sharing. We know that the bishop of Caesarea was strongly opposed to image-worship. There is a famous letter of his to Empress Constantia, who had heard that some Christian groups owned the true portrait of Jesus of Nazareth and asked the bishop to use his influence to let her have a copy. His answer was an undiplomatic, unmitigated reproof:

And yet if thou now declarest that thou askest me not for the image of the human form turned to God, but the icon of His mortal flesh, just as it was before His Transfiguration, then I answer: knowest thou not the passage where God commands that no image should be done of anything up in the heavens or down on earth?[45]

Such an attitude may strike us as over-cerebral, indeed unpleasant; but we must try to put ourselves in those people’s shoes and watch carefully the realities of their time. Eusebius was certainly no unbeliever, but both a great theologian and most devout person: his basic concern was to ward off the danger of idolatry, a risk which Christians felt to be most serious and ever lurking. In the Roman Empire it was a widespread custom to make realistic portraits of the dearly departed, and the tablets found in the necropolis of Fayyum in Egypt show that they worked hard to make these portraits as close to the original as possible; many are so accurate that they seem like photographs. The monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai preserves a couple of superb icons from the age of Emperor Justinian (527-565) representing Jesus and Saint Peter, which clearly come from this very tradition of Roman imperial-age portrait. Even a layman can tell that they are drawn from realistic portraits: the icon of Peter bears on top three round frames which hold the portraits of Saint John (shown as a young man of about 15), then Jesus and Mary, whose facial features are strikingly similar.[46] From the earliest days, Christians used to keep portraits of Jesus, and also of Peter and Paul, in their homes, but Eusebius did not approve: for many Christians were freshly converted from paganism on account of Constantine’s religious policy, and tended to worship these images no differently from the pagan idols they had worshipped until shortly before then. Christianity required a total change of mentality, of the way to look at the world, and that could hardly be done in a few months. Meanwhile, as long as the neophytes had not developed a wholly Christian conscience, it was wiser to break altogether away with what had been part of their old pagan cult. Following this reasoned judgment, Eusebius preferred not to have realistic figures of Christ at all, only ideal and symbolic figurations. Maybe for the same reason, Christian art from centuries I-IV preferred not to portray Jesus, but rather represent him by symbols (the fish, the anchor), by particular figures that hearkened back to the parables (the Good Shepherd), or again as a young god like Apollo, impersonally and perfectly beautiful, with a beauty that has nothing to do with the portraiture of an individual. [47]

Around the year 400, the legend of Abgar reappeared in a new version, inside an unknown author’s text called The Doctrine of Addai: besides writing a letter to Jesus, according to this tale, King Abgar had sent him a painter who was able to make a very faithful portrait, “picked out in marvellous colours”; then, about a hundred years later, Armenia’s historian Moses of Korene spoke of the mandylion as of an image painted on a silk curtain. In the course of the sixth century, and particularly when Edessa suffered a Persian conquest, people began to speak of the mandylion no longer as of a painter’s portrait, but as of an acheropita, an image made not by human hands but by miracle; according to the Byzantine historian Evagrius, who lived in that period, the people of Edessa thought it a relic of immense power and used it in certain rituals thanks to which they had been saved from the enemies.[48]

It was only with the expedition of General John Curcuas under Romanus I in the year 943, and the transfer of the image to Constantinople, that the mandylion’s tradition started to be filled with references to the Passion of Christ. These references were very clear, yet there was a clear attempt to gloss over them in embarrassment: clearly they had found out that the image of Jesus on cloth was the image of a dead Jesus, a detail of no small importance which tradition had left unmentioned. Gregory the Referendarius and Curcuas the general had gone to Edessa with an army to bring back to their homeland a truthful picture of Jesus of immense fame; what they surely expected was an effigy of “Christ Pantocrator”, the mighty Lord of the Universe, smiling and bless the faithful from the shining gold of the mosaics on the wall of great churches: an image on whose pattern the Emperor of Constantinople had been represented since the days of Justinian, and in a way since Constantine had been celebrated as Christ’s Vicar on Earth and equal to the Apostles.[49] Gregory the Referendarius and John Curcuas expected to see the portrait of a divinely handsome face, a portrait of a living Jesus capable of developing the most profound sense of majesty, such as pertains only to the Lord of the World and his earthly follower, the Emperor. Instead they were faced with the frightful imprint of a dead man, the corpse of a man killed by the cross, with his whole body tormented with wounds. There was blood on the mandylion: not a few drops here and there, but a vast flood, as visible as what can come out of a human chest torn open. Instead of the King of Kings, they met in Edessa the Man of Sorrows. Nothing could have been further from the glory of the Byzantine Emperor than that pitiful view, almost the very symbol of mankind defeated by suffering and by death. And yet the mandylion had an ineffable quality the sources don’t describe for us, and that something gave the two officials the nerve to appear before the Emperor with an object so radically different from anything that had been expected. The documents telling of its arrival contain curious details, hard at first to understand: the children of the Emperor Romanus look at the relic but cannot distinguish the details, while his son-in-law Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who was to inherit the throne, immediately sees every detail and feels an immense emotion. What does that mean? When compared with the Shroud of Turin, as Ian Wilson wishes, this account seems very credible, because it is well known that the image of the Shroud has the curious optical property already mentioned: it is visible only if one stands at least two metres from it, but swiftly vanishes when one tries to get closer. It is my own personal view that there is something more to be read there: that is, that Constantine VII can see the image because he can accept it as it is: for a special reason, unlike so many of his contemporaries before him, he can appreciate a portrait of Christ with the unmistakable signs of suffering and death. Discovering the mandylion’s “true identity” was surely a shock, and also raised the delicate issue of explaining and justifying how tradition seemed to have kept it hidden behind the notion of a simple portrait; nonetheless Gregory the Referendarius certified it as authentic, for he was sure that the Emperor would have welcomed it with great satisfaction, even after he had discovered the incredible news. Romanus I had had a long hard struggle against Paulicians and other heretical groups that sprang up here and there throughout the Empire and exploited religious ideas to challenge the imperial authority. Paulicians and other sects of the same kind derived their beliefs from the ancient Gnostic heresy that had spread great confusion in the first centuries of the Christian era, especially among eastern churches. Though divided into separate groups that followed different Gospels, Gnostics had in common one strong belief: Jesus had not really been a man of flesh and bone, but a pure spirit, a kind of angel who appeared on earth who did not possess a human body but only a human appearance. The Christ was both a symbol and a celestial messenger who had become manifest among men to teach them how to reach the knowledge of God (in Greek, gnòsis); and once his mission had been accomplished, he had returned to his original dimension. According to the Gnostics, the Christ had never been incarnated, had never suffered Passion, had never died, and of course, he had never been resurrected.[50] The Emperor Romanus I had understood that a religious struggle could not only be fought by armed power, but that a confrontation on the level of ideas was also necessary. Even the famous mandylion of tradition could have helped refute the heretics, since it was a realistic portrait of the face of that Christ of whom they said that he had never had a real human body; this weird, disquieting object from Edessa also showed him in the form of a dreadfully human nature, a stunning and agonized realism. Owning his funeral shroud with all the marks of the Passion, to the point of being soaked with the flow of blood from his ribs, meant proving to the whole world that the heretics preached a falsehood.

Gregory the Referendarius was a regular at Romanus’ court because of his diplomatic duties, and he certainly knew the mind and attitudes of the whole imperial family. He was a diplomatist and an expert in politics; he judged that the relic could also be a most powerful weapon in the ideological struggle against the proliferating heresies, and at least a few of Romanus I’s relatives was sure to appreciate it. It was a smart decision: within a few months, young Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus rose to the Imperial throne of Byzantium and made the mandylion the most worshipped and celebrated object in the whole Empire.

It is in fact during this man’s very long reign that Byzantine religious thinking experienced a remarkable development, which placed to the forefront in both liturgy and theology the figure of the suffering Christ, the dead body tormented by the Passion, whereas before it had extolled practically only the risen one, shining with glory. They also introduced a new piece of liturgical apparel called epitàphios, a cloth bearing the embroidered or painted image of Christ in the Sepulchre before the Resurrection, with its hands joined over the pubis just as they are seen in the Shroud of Turin.[51] It is very difficult, perhaps even historically impossible, that this change should be independent from what they had just discovered about the nature of the mandylion. What could be seen on the cloth once unfolded impressed contemporaries so strongly as to stimulate theological research towards hitherto unexplored directions, so powerful as to change the religious sensitivities of a world. Byzantium rediscovered the Crucifix as the image of a man annihilated by the violence of other men, naked, bloodied, his head fallen down on a no longer breathing chest. For centuries they had represented him with the open eyes of a living man and with a serene face showing no hint of pain, often even richly dressed in purple and wearing a golden diadem instead of a crown of thorns. For nearly a thousand years the faithful had worshipped the illogical image of an emperor in sumptuous dress, finding himself near the cross almost by chance, majestic and impossible; in the end, even without having to drift into heresy, the idea that the Chosen of God could be executed like a common criminal had trouble being accepted. Now, however, the theologians looked to a new dimension of the faith, and mystics found themselves weeping at the wounds of Jesus.[52]

Four times double

Once this new reality with its valuable political aspects was accepted, the problem remained not to make gaping breaks with tradition: the ancient tale of the mandylion could hardly be discarded and on the other hand there was no desire to renounce what had just been newly discovered. In 944 an anonymous intellectual at the court of Constantine VII, or possibly even the Emperor himself, who was a talented writer, wrote a new version of the legend of Abgar. The ancient tale was preserved, but the miraculous formation of the icon was now set exactly during the Passion: no wonder, then, if the linen cloth of the mandylion showed thick drops of blood. The new version had a very sick Abgar resolving to send to Jesus a messenger of his, one Ananias, who also happened to be a painter; Jesus cannot go to Edessa because his mission in Jerusalem is coming close to its fulfilment, so he decides to let Ananias paint his portrait for the King to have. Ananias tries desperately to render his features and fails, because that Face seemed to change mysteriously in shape; then Jesus, touched and wishing to help the ailing King, takes a handkerchief and, on his way to Golgotha, rubs it over his face, so that his features remain miraculously impressed. An interesting and possibly not casual coincidence: a magnificent Byzantine miniature from the 14th century represents the arrival of the mandylion in Constantinople, and the Emperor Constantine VII receives from Gregory the Referendarius, not a simple towel, but a very long cloth where can be seen the image of the Holy Face.

The new version of the legend of Abgar sought to reconcile as much as possible the discrepancies between the tangible form of the mandylion, bearing the imprint of a man with his chest torn by a spear-blow, and the older tradition, which made of it only a realistic portrait for which Jesus had sat while alive.[53] The result is naïve and hardly believable: Jesus is staggering towards Golgotha, surrounded by mocking soldiers who will not let anyone near him, and those are the conditions in which he would have a towel handed to him to be able to leave his portrait to the King’s envoy. At that time the image was supposed to have formed by miracle; but the spear-thrust that can be seen on the mandylion was only inflicted later, after Jesus had died on the Cross. That it was judged acceptable to manipulate the story to this extent surely has an important historical significance. What meaning does this curious contradiction have?

Ian Wilson has noticed that as early as the Doctrine of Addai, the mandylion was described by a strange adjective, tetràdiplon, that is to say “folded double four times”. It is an adjective that cannot possibly make sense if the mandylion had really been a piece of linen the size of a towel or of a handkerchief: once that had been folded eight times, what would be visible would be smaller than a school notebook, and could not allow anyone to see anything. When folded in eight parts, as the ancient sources describe themandylion, the Shroud of Turin takes exactly the appearance of a towel, and all that can be seen is the imprint of the face alone. Linen, if kept long enough folded in the same way, will keep its imprint in the shape of slight deformations that can be seen very well by a grazing, sideways light source: the Shroud keeps the marks of these ancient foldings, and among them there is precisely an eightfold one which, once completed, shows only the face just as it appears in ancient reproductions of the mandylion.[54]

Therefore, Ian Wilson feels that in Edessa the cloth was kept in an eightfold form and concealed inside a wooden case covered by a textile covering which bore on its front an opening through which the head alone could be seen. It was a reliquary, but at the same time also a kind of mask designed to show only the most indispensable features, and above all conceal the most striking bloodstains, which it left inside. We are allowed to have a fairly clear idea of the form of this case, which bore decorations similar to those of royal clothes in ancient Turkey: according to Ian Wilson, it was Abgar V himself, or else one of his descendants, who prepared this purpose-made reliquary to disguise the real nature of the object and make it seem a towel.[55]

This trick was probably thought up because the Edessa region was rife with Monophysite ideas, and tended to see Jesus as a being of wholly and only divine nature: an image showing him as a corpse riddled with wounds would have seemed disgraceful, and risked even being destroyed. One of the finest representations of the mandylion can be found in the manuscript Rossiano Greco 251 of the Vatican Apostolic Library, and presents it curiously twice over in a peculiar manner, as if it were the negative imprint of a positive real object. This expensive Codex was made in Constantinople in the 12th century, and at that time the theology of icons had triumphed long since, even so, a vandal’s hand has ripped into the magnificent Byzantine miniature. This tells us much about the long survival of a certain kind of bitter hostility against the cult of images.

Once it had been triumphantly placed as the central and most precious part of the imperial collection of relics, the mandylion was not touched again even by the Emperor himself, and its obstension only took place rarely and in special circumstances. The sanctuary of Pharos chapel was inviolate, its security awe-inspiring. Experience taught that it had to be defended both from the greed of potential thieves and from the fanaticism of believers. After Helena, the mother of Constantine, had rediscovered the pieces of the True Cross in Jerusalem, these relics used to be freely exhibited to the faithful, who could touch and kiss them without protection; but it was soon realised that this freedom needed limitation, since a pilgrim pretending to kiss the Cross managed to bite off a bit of wood. Sometimes, during ceremonies of particular solemnity, the Emperor could grant some illustrious guest, ambassador or head of State, the supreme honour of a visit to the chapel of Pharos; a privilege certainly granted in 1171 to Amaury, the King of Jerusalem, when he visited the court of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos, according to the chronicle of William of Tyre, while an Arab writer called Abu Nasr Yahya had been able to see the mandylion exhibited in Hagia Sophia during a solemn procession in 1058.[56]

The original container made in Edessa was probably preserved, to judge by the many artistic reproductions, but it is possible that at some point the Emperors may have chosen to have an identical copy of the Shroud’s face to place in this ancient reliquary, so as to be able to exhibit the Shroud wholly open, for the purpose of showing the whole picture of the body; in fact, many ancient authors describe a shroud in Constantinople’s imperial collection that looks much like that of Turin, and speak of it and of themandylion as of two different objects. This however might have a very simple explanation. According to some Byzantine sources, the usual place for the mandylion was the imperial chapel at Pharos, where it was kept together with another famous relic: thekeramion, that is the tile which, in the city of Edessa, closed the hideout where the miraculous icon of Jesus had been kept for a long time. According to tradition, the image of Christ’s face had been miraculously impressed on the tile’s terracotta, so the keramionhad also been taken to Constantinople to be exhibited to the veneration of the faithful; placed one next to the other, the two relics formed an impressive whole that focused minds on the Passion. But the Flemish crusader Robert de Clari, the last witness who ever saw the shroud before the great looting, describes a peculiar ceremony of obstension:

Among these is also a monastery called Our Lady of Blahernae, where is found the shroud wherein Our Lord was shrouded: all [Good] Fridays, it is raised wholly upright so that the figure may be seen. Nobody, neither Greek nor French, knows what happened to this shroud when the city was conquered. [57]

In the church of the Blachernae, the shroud was opened in a frame thanks to a mechanism that slowly lifted it, so that the faithful could see body of Jesus as though he were slowly and gradually rising from the grave. The cloth, therefore, was earlier kept folded, then very slowly spread out. According to Robert de Clari, the Blachernae ceremony took place every Friday, but it is more likely that he intended to mean only Good Friday rather than every week; his description, together with the other sources, suggests that on special occasions the Shroud-mandylion was removed from its holder in the chapel of Pharos and taken to Blahernae where the faithful could contemplate it, even spread out, in the impressive liturgy of the “ascent” (in Greek anàstasis, “resurrection”).[58]

At the present stage of our knowledge it is clear that the Shroud of Turin had once belonged to the Byzantine Emperors, since the descriptions of ancient authors are fairly precise; on the other hand, it is certain that until the time of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos the traditions about the mandylion speak of a head-and-shoulder portrait of Jesus alive, while later – as I will point out shortly – this object is always described as a cloth on which is outlined the image of a full body. At present we have no clear idea how this change could come about; a credible idea suggested by historians is that there was in Edessa an attempt to mask in any possible way the funeral nature of the mandylion, because the marks of suffering and death on the figure of Christ might create a scandal that would not be endurable in that particular historical context. But this explanation might be incorrect, or might be accompanied by other issues unknown to us at present. It is evident that we know some moments of the Shroud’s millennia of history in detail, while we know nothing of others. To strain to tell its vicissitudes date after date is in my view unhelpful, because it means, over so many stretches, dressing up as ornately as possible incomplete or highly dubious notices; rather, it is wiser to arrange in their place the pieces of the puzzle on which we can rely, waiting for further discoveries to give us other convincing information.

In effect, the religious tradition that went into the making of some icons of the mandylion associates this image to Christ dead in the sepulchre, as shown for instance by a superb item in the St. Petersburg Russian State Museum, painted by Prokop Tehirin in the early 1600s: the dead body of Jesus, with his hands joined over the pubis as in the Shroud, arises from the sepulchre, while two angels above him display the mandylion, which is not a towel, but a fairly long sheet.[59]

Thanks to public showings and the narratives of foreign ambassadors who had been able to be present at private ones, the fame of the mandylion spread as far as the West as early as the 11th century; but in Europe it was never described as a towel and, as soon as it was mentioned, it was a sheet that bore the image of the whole body of Jesus Christ. To the text of a sermon ascribed to Pope Stephen III (768-772 AD), someone added in the 11th century a bit of a speech retailing the “updated” version of the legend of Abgar with the extra bits added on in Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ time:

So, fully to please the sovereign, the mediator between God and men lay the full length of his body over a sheet of snow-white linen; and upon this linen, wonderful to relate or to hear, the most noble form of his face and of his whole body was divinely transfigured, so that to be able to see the transfiguration impressed upon that linen should be enough even for those who had not been able to see the Lord in the flesh.[60]

More or less at the same time, between 1130 and 1141, the monk Orderic Vitalis clearly stated, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, that the mandylion of Edessa bore the image of Jesus’ whole body:

Abgar reigned as toparch of Edessa. To him did the Lord Jesus send [...] the most precious linen, wherewith he dried the sweat from his face, and upon which the features of the Saviour appear, miraculously reproduced. It showeth to those who behold it the image and proportions of the body of the Lord;[61]

and in Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia, written in 1218, the fact was asserted again:

It has been ascertained, thanks to the story told in ancient documents, that the Lord lay the whole of His body down upon the whitest of linen, and so thanks to divine power there remained impressed on the linen the fairest image not only of the face but also of the body of the Lord.[62]

In 1957, historian Pietro Savio pointed out that a Vatican Library manuscript contained a different testimony, going back to the twelfth century, with an “altered” version of the legend of Abgar. Jesus had written to the king: “If thou truly desirest to see my face as it physically is, I shall send thee a piece of cloth; know about it that upon it is divinely transferred, not only the image of my face, but of my whole body”.[63]

Around 1190, Pope Celestine III received from Constantinople the gift of a luxurious liturgical canopy for use in solemn processions, a masterpiece of sacred art which represented the mandylion as a sheet bearing the image of the dead Christ with his hands joined over his pubis; and Gino Zaninotto has recently found in another tenth-century Greek codex a further confirmation that the famous Byzantine relic bore the image of the whole body.[64]

From Byzantium to Lirey?

Ian Wilson believes that the Shroud-mandylion vanished from Constantinople during the terrible sack suffered by the city in the days of the fourth crusade (1204). It remained hidden over long decades, then reappeared in the year 1353 near Lirey, a small town in north-central France: in that year, the knight Geoffroy de Charny, Bearer of the Oriflamme in the army of King John the Good, and widely popular at court, made a gift of the singular relic to the collegiate church he had just founded in the town. The Shroud started being exhibited to popular veneration as the true shroud of Jesus with a series of solemn obstentions that drew the enthusiasm of the faithful and the jealousy of the local bishop; in the end, after several events, it passed into the hands of the Dukes of Savoy, who had it kept first in their then capital Chambéry, in the sumptuous Sainte-Chapelle of the Ducal Palace, then moved to their new capital Turin, where it is to this day. The link with the Templar order was first suggested to Ian Wilson by the fact that the man who died at the stake together with Jacques de Molay was called Geoffroy de Charny, the exact same name of the owner of the Shroud in Lirey.[65]

Someone objected to this on the ground that the first owner of the Shroud is found named as Geoffroy de Charny, while the surname of the Templar preceptor appears in the various documents naming him in different forms, that is as Charny, but also Charneyo, Charnayo, Charniaco. In the objectors’ view, that is, there is a little difference in sound which would be enough to suppose that the two names were different. I take the liberty to reply that in an administration register from the age of King Philip VI of Valois, the surname of the first owner of the Shroud is given in the forms de Charneyo and also Charni, Charnyo or else Charniaco, just as is found in the case of his kinsman Geoffroy, dead at the stake on 18 March 1314 together with Jacques de Molay.[66]

This kind of hair-splitting on the basis of mediaeval Latin spelling variants can only be fed to someone who has no practice of mediaeval documents. It would work out if our characters had lived in the France of Napoleon or Victor Hugo, that is in a world dominated by printed paper and in a culture which is officially French-speaking.

For mediaeval society things are quite different. The acts of the Templars’ trial, like a countless amount of other contemporary documents, were hand-written, which means that it was easy to make small mistakes; but above all, they were composed in Latin by teams of notaries who translated simultaneously into Latin while they heard the witnesses speak in their native language, in this case French. All French surnames did not have Latin forms, and yet the way had to be found to render their often peculiar sounds into Latin; so adaptations were made, and they could well be different from notary to notary.

For this reason we find the same character quoted in quite different forms, whose variety can seem downright ridiculous to us. Jacques de Molay’s surname can also be found written as Malay, Molaho and Malart, while the Visitor of the West, Hugues de Pérraud, is also called Parando, Peraudo, Penrando, Penrado, Peralto, Peraut but even Peraldo, Paurando and Deperando. In the case of Templar leaders who lived before the trial, the situation can be even more curious: Gilbert Erail’s surname is also found written Roral,Arayl, Herac, Eraclei and Eraclius, while that of Robert de Sablé turns up as Sabolio, Sabluillio, Salburis, Sabloel and Sabloil. And this phenomenon is just as common in the registers of mediaeval Popes: in one and the same letter, written by the same notary, it often happens that the same surname is spelled differently.[67] If we are to assess facts within their historical context, I would say that the notaries transcribed the name of Geoffroy de Charny fairly faithfully, indeed better than many other cases.

What we can deduce from the records of the trial against the Templars strengthens Wilson’s theory. Geoffroy de Charny belonged to the narrow circle of Jacques de Molay’s loyalists, and he was the only compaignon dou Maistre reckoned by Nogaret as powerful enough within the Temple to lock him up in the dungeons of Chinon together with the members of the Templar headquarters, the kind of isolation selected for him, and the attempt to keep him from the Pope when the Pope had asked to question them, leads us to suppose that Charny and the others were able to give an important witness. Geoffroy came from a family of knightly rank and had become a Templar in 1269 at the mansion of Étampes, in the diocese of Sens: his ceremony of admission was celebrated by a high Templar officer called Amaury de La Roche, of whom we shall speak later, a front-rank figure in the Temple, but also very closet to the crown of France. It must have been an important ceremony, since even the preceptor of Paris, Jean le Franceys, left his mansion to attend.

Born about 1250, the knight Geoffroy de Charny was in 1294 in charge of the mansion of Villemoison, in Bourgogne, and one year later, at no more than 45 years old, received the responsibility for the Templar province of Normandy; he had an outstanding career, but it is not only his hierarchic rank that determined power and prestige in the Temple. Templar sources show that this man was always very close to the person of Jacques de Molay; in 1303 he was in the mansion of Marseille, where he witnessed the admission of a young servant of the Grand Master, charged with the care of his harness and horses, who was received by Symon de Quincy, the then supervisor of the sea journeys to Outremer. Marseille was France’s main port for the East, and both testimonies assert that the monks present at that chapter then left for Cyprus: a norm of the hierarchic statutes forbade preceptors of western provinces from going to Outremer except in obedience to a specific order from the Grand Master, so it is certain that Geoffroy de Charny was in that place while travelling with other brothers to reach Jacques de Molay.[68]

There certainly was a strong tie of personal friendship between the Grand Master and Geoffroy de Charny: the chronicle known as the Continuation of Guillaume de Nangis remembers that it was only the Preceptor of Normandy who chose to follow Molay to the stake, shouting to the crowds, during the last appeal they had been granted, that the Temple was innocent and had not betrayed the Christian faith. Geoffroy de Charny seemed to be constantly among the most important dignitaries of the Temple.[69]

There is another detail, too. If we look at the trial documents as a whole, we find that the Preceptor of Normandy Geoffroy de Charny was known to his fellow-monks by a nickname connected to his area of origin. Just as we would call someone “the Tuscan” or “the Sicilian”, Charny was also called le berruyer, which in 14th century French meant “the man from Berry”: it is the area known today as Champagne berrichonne, which lay in the later Middle Ages pressed between the two great powers, the Count of Champagne and the Duke of Bourgogne. This was exactly the area where the de Charnys lived and prospered, always having to cope with the difficult games forced by the presence of these mighty lords.[70]

The Templar preceptor of Normandy, Geoffroy de Charny and the Bearer of the Oriflamme of France who owned the Shroud in the mid-thirteen hundreds, belonged in all likelihood to the same family, even though the sources don’t allow us to check in detail the exact degree of kinship. The De Charnys had connected themselves with the order of the Temple towards the end of the 12th century; in 1170 Guy sold a wood to the Temple, but his sons Haton and Symon, 11 years later, were to donate to the Order 15 arpenta of land, while in 1262 another member of the lineage, Adam, will make a gift to the order of the fief of Valbardin. It is to be noticed that these gifts often were made as “dowries” for a son about to enter the Order. The Templar domain in Charny was only a quarter of a league away from the command. Thanks to the cartulary of Provins we are informed that in 1241 a Templar by the name of Hugues de Charny was living, and he may well be an uncle of the future Preceptor of Normandy.[71]

The family were also concerned (though indirectly) with another event that concerned the Shroud closely: the fourth crusade, with the dreadful sack of Constantinople during which the relic vanished. Count Guillaume de Champlitte, one of the leading barons who took part in the storming of Constantinople and then became Prince of Achaia, sought the hand of Elisabeth of the lineage of Mont Saint-Jean, lords of Charny. Already by the mid-twelfth century the fief of Charny was very closely connected to the de Courtenay family: Peter I de Courtenay, lord of Charny among other fiefs and youngest son of Louis the Fat, King of France, was the father of Peter II de Courtenay, who would become Emperor of Constantinople in 1205; one year after the conquest of the Greek metropolis, a member of the de Courtenay lineage resided in Charny castle. Later, even after the Greeks had recovered the Eastern Empire, the de Charnys kept significant contact with the fiefs they had built up over there; early in the 1300s, the knight Dreux de Charny married the noblewoman Agnès, heir of the Greek lordship of Vostzitza.[72]

Known sources anyway suggest that the family de Charny did not come into the Shroud’s possession immediately after the great sack, but many decades later.

The tragedy of the fourth crusade

On 10 October 1202, the army of the fourth crusade sailed from the strand of Venice under the leadership of Marquess Boniface of Montferrat. It was a vast contingent, made up of about 33,000 crusaders, largely of French origin, and about 17,000 Venetians. The strand of the mighty sea power was as far as the French barons with their feudal levies had been able to come; they had been forced to wait far longer than anyone had imagined: apart from sincere intentions to recover Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, the accounts had been very badly drawn up, and organisers had ended up with getting in heavy debt with the Republic’s dockyards. The shipbuilders had dedicated whole months to the Crusade and now wanted to be paid. So the expedition was being born with a grave weakness: economic interests placed a mighty control over religious ideals, a control that would eventually prove able to stifle them. In previous months, when it had become known that the Crusade was intended to attack Egypt, the Venetians had grown very reluctant to accept it, because they saw no advantage in investing in an idea that would not have been particularly profitable for their city. The Doge kept the delegates waiting no less than two weeks, then made a counter-proposal: Venice would provide the transport ships for the crusaders and one full year’s supplies in exchange for costs being covered in advance and the right to a half of what would be conquered. The French barons accepted without delay, showing some considerable naivety.[73]

After stopping in Pola to clear the shore from pirates, on 10 November the fleet attacked Zadar (Zara): that was a grim omen of the future, for the Venetians compelled the army to loot the city, which was Christian but belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary and was a prime target for Venice. They wintered near Zara, the sea being too stormy to risk travelling on; then, when the fair seasons returned, the fleet struck a course towards Corfu. Meanwhile, the other half of the Christian army was waiting in the Holy Land; after Pope Innocent III’s call, all the forces of the Christian kingdom had mobilised, and the military orders, the Templars and Hospitallers, had worked out a plan of operation: as soon as it reached the coast of Syria, the army from Europe was to organise an expedition to shore up Christian presence in northern Syria and up to Armenia. Then Egypt would have to be attacked, because that was where the reinforcements to Jerusalem’s Muslim masters were coming.[74]

By the spring of 1203, the army was preparing to sail away from Corfu, but a change had been made: the leaders had decided to alter their route and go through Constantinople, the mighty capital of the Greek Empire that stretched on both sides of the Bosporus. Several reasons were mentioned, but the most popular was to do with the sad fate of the legitimate Greek Emperor Isaac II Angelos, who was blinded and overthrown. His son Alexius had escaped to Europe and taken refuge with his sister, who had married Philip of Swabia, the brother of Emperor Henry VI; Philip had then asked for the Crusader troops to make their way to Constantinople and help his brother-in-law Alexius to recover power. It was just a matter of helping the legitimate dynasty, who would then, in gratitude, help the Crusade by placing at its disposal a considerable slice of the Byzantine army. Many lords were not convinced, however, they may have perceived that matters were getting out of hand, and so they abandoned the expedition and made their way to the Holy Land on their own.[75]

Both the goals and the purpose of the Crusade were already compromised. When the Roman Curia heard of the storming of Zara, Pope Innocent III formally excommunicated the Venetians, guilty of the aggression. But the operation was no longer under the Pope’s control and had not been for months: Apostolic Legate Pietro Capuano had been rejected by the Venetians, who no longer accepted him as the Pope’s representative because of the excessive distance between his views and theirs. The Cardinal had to go back and eventually reached the Holy Land by himself. On 18 July 1203, the host reached Constantinople. The reasons that had been used for that bizarre detour were no longer valid, since the legitimate Emperor Isaac Angelos, blinded though he had been by his enemies, had been set back on the throne by his own Greek subjects. A few months of peace and quiet broken by occasional episodes of violence: the army had made camp outside the city walls, and the crusaders were inspecting the magnificent capital looking greedily at all its treasures and thinking of potential loot. Some leading figures were invited by young Alexius, crowned Emperor jointly with his father on 10 August 1203, and visited the monumental imperial palace with its inconceivable collection of relics: the French knight Geoffroy de Villehardouin declared in his Chronicle that Constantinople contained as many relics as the whole rest of the world put together.[76]

The debts made with the Venetians hung heavily over the expedition’s future. Emperor Alexius tried to bring together what he could, but could only cover half the enormous sum for which he had made himself liable; understanding that the situation was out of control, he went as far as to expropriate the patrimonies of noble families and had church vessels of silver and gold melted down. In August, a Greek mob had assaulted the Latin quarter, taking advantage of the Emperor being out of town, and had set fire to the shops of Venetian, Genoese and Pisan merchants. A few days later, a mob of Flemish, Venetians and Pisans stormed the Muslim quarter and set the mosque on fire. A strong wind drove onward the flames and a whole quarter of Constantinople was destroyed; about 15,000 Latins who were stable residents in Constantinople took refuge with the Crusaders and swelled their ranks. By the end of 1203, the Crusader leaders sent the Emperor an ultimatum: if Alexius did not fulfil his obligations at the earliest, their alliance would have been considered as broken and they would hold themselves to have the right to wage war against him. In January 1204 the imperial official Alexius Murzuphlos overthrew the emperor in a coup; he then caused the crusaders to understand that he did not intend to pay his predecessor’s debts and that he meant to chase them out of Byzantine soil. In March, the French barons and the Venetians met to plan the conquest of Constantinople and the division of the future empire they would conquer once the capital had been forced to surrender. Firstly, Venice had to be compensated for the expenses she had suffered; then the Doge would have had first picks among the loot up to three quarters of the total; they also made the plans for the election of a new emperor, entrusted to a commission of six Frenchmen and six Venetians. The defeated party would have had the right to nominate the future Latin rite patriarch.[77]

In three days of horror, from the 14 to 16 April 1204, Constantinople was subjected to an unprecedented sack, that spared nobody; even the churches were desecrated, even though the expedition that had taken those men to the Bosporus was supposed to follow the flag of religion. The butchery was atrocious, even though Byzantine civilisation later recovered and still had some periods of splendour, the sack of 1204 left a terrible wound and irreparably compromised that union of the Greek and Latin churches that Innocent III so longed for.[78]

The violence and looting were followed by a more systematic stripping of all other treasures in the capital, precious objects that the Crusaders had been able to study in detail in the previous months; Greek monks had tried to make relics and furniture safe, but all their hideouts were discovered. The conquerors had reached a preliminary agreement: the whole booty was to be gathered in the house of Garnier de Traynel, bishop of Troyes, under pain of excommunication; after which it would be properly shared out. It seems that the Doge craftily offered to the French barons an efficient guard service for the small sum of ten marks per person; but this time he had overrated French naivety, and he was politely turned down. Anyway the Venetians were the first to break the pact, taking several precious objects into their ships on the quiet, under cover of darkness – but they weren’t the only ones. The official reckoning went on in parallel with a clandestine and wholly autonomous one, which fed a wholly repulsive trade. The notion took hold that to obtain at least one relic would mean to be freed of the vow to go to Jerusalem; they actually thought that once they had got the precious pieces of loot, they would be entitled to turn their backs on the Holy Sepulchre and go home with an easy conscience. Nobody wanted to be left empty-handed, and no sanctuary was spared. The rumour of these unworthy transactions led the IV Lateran Council of 1215 to excommunicate anyone guilty of trafficking in relics.[79]

Individual crusaders found ways to secretly get hold of these eagerly desired objects, intending to take them home to enrich the family churches. In no more than four years, the immense sacred treasury of relics kept in Constantinople was sent to Europe. Crusaders often sent them as gifts to persons from whom they expected favours, or used them as investments: owning an illustrious relic seemed like an actual guarantee of future earnings, for the faithful were expected to come in crowds to venerate it, taking fat alms with them. That was the expectation that led the crusader Nivelon de Quierzy, bishop of Soissons, to mortgage the future income of an object he owned to rebuild the cathedral and bridge of the French town of Châlons-sur-Marne; the restorations of Troyes cathedral were also paid with the income from some relics donated by bishop Garnier de Traynel, and the same happened in many other cases. When they reached Europe, these relics were expected with great trepidation and were delivered to their addressees in solemn and elaborate religious ceremonies, accompanied by hymns and poems composed for the occasion.[80]

Obviously, the relics from the great imperial collection housed in the chapel of Pharos and in the Blachernae basilica were given special treatment. The whole operation concerning them was carefully recorded in an official report; they were sealed in purpose-made crates to prevent thefts and fraudulent substitutions, which were entrusted to the most trustworthy of carriers. They had a general passport and a certificate of authenticity that guaranteed their origin, a certificate bearing the golden seal of Byzantine emperors.[81]

In 1241 when the Latin Empire of Constantinople, after a long decline, entered into a full-blown economic crisis, the last priceless few relics of the Passion left the capital. They had been acquired by an exceptional buyer, the King of France, Louis IX, a man of great and sincere faith, who had paid out an absolute fortune for them. In the heart of Paris, near Nôtre-Dame cathedral, an exquisite little church, a jewel in and of itself, had been put up for the express purpose of guarding such treasures: the Sainte-Chapelle. Carefully crated up, sealed, certified, and handed over to trustworthy persons, a fragment of the True Cross, the Spear, the Sponge, the Crown of Thorns and a number of other relics of Jesus, sealed in their valuable original reliquaries, moved off towards France.[82]

If the Templars ever held the Shroud, they cannot have failed to know its history and the fact that it had been stolen during a frightful massacre against which Innocent III had flung his curses. The sheet was valuable beyond reckoning, but owning it involved many risks.

More precious than rubies

The theory Ian Wilson offered years ago could close the gap between the Byzantine witnesses of the Shroud before the sack of April 1204 and those which find it in France about 150 years later. Attractive and based on some credible documentation, it raised some enthusiasm early on, but some scholars also raised serious objections: in effect, the author tended to take as fact certain things that only arose from his own deductions, brilliant and credible though they might be. Over time, the best known experts in Templar history have had a wide range of reactions to Wilson’s theory, and after an original stage of prevailing scepticism, it seems to have been cautiously but increasingly re-evaluated.

A few years after the publication of Wilson’s book, in 1985, Alain Demurger of the Sorbonne declared himself fairly sceptical, while Malcolm Barber of Cambridge showed himself more open to its possibilities. In a 1982 article on the specialist magazine Catholic Historical Review, Barber assessed Wilson’s theory as weakly supported, since not a single one of these mysterious Templar idols has been preserved. The other evidence Wilson had gathered seemed to him to lack a strong connection, amounting in effect to a sequel of scattered and not very coherent fragments. However, Barber had already had a definite impression, during his own analysis of the trial records, that the Templars were actually worshipping some sort of portrait of Christ done in the Byzantine manner. He closed by remarking that the idea seemed possible to him, but still needed a sufficiently strong explanation.[83]

Some time later, Francesco Tommasi of the University of Perugia carried out a broad and extremely detailed research on the relics the Templars had acquired. The Italian historian decided not to study the trial records, which are the most abundant source of evidence about the Templars to have reached us, but a great deal of whose information is vitiated by torture; this left him with a much narrower area of research, but also one that could not be suspected of manipulation. Tommasi discovered that the Order of the Temple had carried out a genuine policy of systematically combing for relics, building up a treasure-store of such objects, which in contemporary culture were of great economic as well as religious value. More than a thousand years earlier, the acts of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarpus (about 165 AD) stated that the bones of its hero could be much more precious than gems.[84] The author certainly meant only a spiritual value, but that was one sentence that was to have an incredible career.

The Templar’s favourite way to acquire them was simply to buy them: either they made a straightforward purchase, or else they took relics in pawn against hefty loans made to persons in trouble, loans that never were returned and left the pawn as a Temple property. The Temple had money to spend, and in the matter of relics it was quite happy to spend it.

A very interesting fact pointed out by Tommasi is that the sacred treasury of the Templars was full of saints worshipped mainly in the Byzantine East, such as Polycarpus of Smyrna, Plato, Gregory, Anastasia, Euphemia; but the central place in this collection was obviously taken by direct testimonies of the Passion of Jesus Christ. The order had owned a great Cross-holder in Jerusalem that held a fairly large fragment of the True Cross, from which had been cut several small bits that had been then sent throughout the Templar world; many Templar commands had their own reliquary with a Cross fragment, which must have represented to the monks a physical link with Christ and the Holy City. The Templars seem to have been more devoted to the Cross than other religious orders, and they offered it special liturgies, both in Syria and later in Cyprus.[85]

The Templar collection’s centre piece was a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, which was said to flower miraculously on Good Friday. A curious fact is that when the Hospitallers took over Templar goods after the Order’s dissolution, they inherited the Thorn as well, and became used to its annual miracle. On Good Friday of 1497 the Thorn flowered no less than three hours before its usual time of midday, and the Grand Prior Jacques de Milly immediately called for a public notary to make a legal record of that unusual event. The same wonder was recorded by the last Grand Master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, during the trial, as he testified in defence of his order: God would never have granted a similar miracle to unworthy persons or to heretics. Another important relic was a cross inside a little cup that had belonged to Jesus. Kept by the Templars of Jerusalem, it was borne in procession when drought threatened, to beg God for the gift of rain. According to this evidence, it also had the power to heal the sick and free the oppressed.[86]

Apart from what they owned themselves, the Templars in general were held to have a particular link with relics and were regarded as among the greatest experts in recognising true ones; in fact, when great personages have something to do with relics, it is to the Templars that they turn as to trustworthy and authoritative people. In 1164, Louis VII, King of France, charged the Templar knight Geoffroy Foucher, who was about to travel to Syria, to consecrate a ring of his by placing it physically in touch with the sanctuaries he was to meet during his mission. In 1247, the Patriarch of Jerusalem wanted to send to Europe an ampoule containing some of the Most Precious Blood to be given to King Henry III of England: Grand Master Guillaume de Sonnac of the Temple and Grand Master of the Hospital Guillaume de Chateaunef were summoned to underwrite in person the certificate of authenticity that went with the relic. Thirty years later, Grand Master of the Temple Thomas Bérard and some faithful from the Holy Land sent some particles of the wood of the True Cross to England, along with relics of Saints Philip, Helena, Stephen, Lawrence, Euphemia and Barbara, besides a fragment from Jesus’ table; the archbishop of Tyre was called to sign the certificate of authenticity together with Bishop Hubert of Banyas, who was a Templar.[87]

Before the fall of Jerusalem, this core of sacred goods was almost certainly kept in the mother-house of the Holy City, near the ruins of the Lord’s Temple; when Jerusalem fell back into Muslim hands, all the Templar treasures were transferred to Acre headquarters, which became the Order’s central point in the East. When Acre too fell in 1291, the collection of relics and of the most valuable objects found a place in Cyprus in the church of the chief mansion in Nicosia. The never-ending danger, however, had long since made it advisable to send many relics westward, and several such transfers are known to Italy, to England and in all likelihood to France as well, to the Paris headquarters. The picture reconstructed by Tommasi agrees perfectly with the statements of Jacques de Molay in the trial: the treasury of relics and liturgical furniture that adorned Templar churches was far superior to that of other religious orders and found its equal only in the treasuries of cathedrals. Two of these centre pieces, that is the body of Saint Euphemia and the Thorn of the Crown, came certainly from that collection that had been the pride of Byzantine emperors, and there was also kept the basin for Jesus’ foot-wash during the Last Supper: these are relics which vanished with many others during the sack of Constantinople, and as things stand it is not possible to understand how the Templars managed to gain their possession.[88] I would like to add a curious coincidence: according to the account of Bishop Anthony of Novgorod, who visited Constantinople only a few years before the terrible sack, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia kept two slabs of stone that came from the Holy Sepulchre. During the trial against the Templars of England, an old man was called to testify who had served for 20 years in their mansion of Sumford, who described a relic that sounds exactly like one of these small slabs of stone.[89]

He said that he could not find anything bad to say about the Templar monks, except for one oddity he had seen and that had greatly surprised him: when the monks of the house had to carry out some important or demanding piece of business, they used to get up very early in the morning and go to the chapel of their church. There they approached the altar, and from the table of the altar they would draw a smaller stone table, cut so thin that it could be replaced back into the altar so that no outsider could have noticed it was there. Having lifted this stone tablet so that it could stand upright over the altar, everyone knelt and adored it, falling down to the ground before it. Nobody was allowed into that chapel who was not a Templar or at any rate closely connected with the Order.[90]

We should add that the Templars used to own a precious icon covered in gold and silver, which featured the Face of Christ, something analogous to the images on the verso of the seals of Germany’s Masters and the face on the Templecombe panel.[91]

It is hardly surprising at the end of this long excursus that Francesco Tommasi is decidedly more optimistic than his colleagues from outside Italy about the idea of the Shroud passing into the Temple’s possession:

For it is quite possible that the Templars might know the image of the man in the Shroud, without for that reason being the owners of the relic. Besides, there is an undeniable resemblance between the Christ’s face (without the traditional aureole) as it appears on a wooden panel discovered in 1951 in Templecombe (Somerset), former home of a Templar community, and the face in the Shroud [...].Nonetheless there are overall elements enough not to treat Wilson’s intuition as groundless; so the hypothesis that iconographies of the Christ of the Shroud type should have a special place in Templar devotional practice seems to me hardly to be rejected.[92]

The new data that has arisen make Ian Wilson’s theory the likeliest one; Tommasi’s balanced opinion is very valid, one might even go further. Certainly not every Templar testimony on the idol referred to this cult of the Holy Face, and in fact it is legitimate to think that many people confessed because of torture or other forms of violence. It is, however, a fact that within the order images of the Face of God circulated and were venerated, which were represented in an unusual way, without aureole and not showing the neck, that is exactly as it appears on the Shroud and in the Byzantine tradition of the mandylion.

Most recent Templar research add the confirmation that in some regions of southern France a full-figure portrait of a man on a linen sheet was offered to the brethren’s adoration. The characteristics of this image on cloth that the Templars venerated in south France (full-scale life-sized body, reddish colour, ill-defined outline) seem in effect to recall nothing so much as the shape of the Turin Shroud. So many hints furthermore converge to indicate that the Shroud left a very strong imprint in the religious sensitivities of these warrior monks, and this is hardly surprising; according to science, the relic has some decidedly unique features, which it is not exaggerated to call stunning.

From the amphoras of Qumran to the nuns of Chambéry

The shroud is a linen artifact that, before the restoration of 2002, was made of pieces of material from cloths of different ages, styles, weaving techniques; to use an effective image, it was a patchwork quilt. As a whole, it is 4.36 metres long and 1.11 metres wide, but this data is in the nature of an average, which can vary by several centimetres if the cloth is stretched: for the linen is very yielding, due to its great age; it is crossed by the marks – never, at this point, to be removed again – of some folds that tell us how it was stored in certain stages of its history, and in time it has grown so thin as to be almost worn through because of the countless manipulations and even misfortunes it has endured. It has been suggested that whoever cut the stuff did so on the basis of a definite and commonly used unit of measurement, so that the cloth must have had a length equal to a multiple of this unit. The only such unit known that gives any sort of result is the Syrian cubit, used in the ancient Middle East, in whose terms the cloth is eight cubits long and two cubits wide.[93]

During its frequent obstentions to the faithful, the sheet was opened and hanged by pegs; it would hang in this pose for days, remaining stretched, touched by numerous hands, rubbed with many objects that became relics as soon as they touched it, sometimes even kissed. To prevent the linen from tearing under so much mechanical stress, in 1534 the original stuff was sewed on to another cloth of Dutch linen to make it thicker; then the margin was covered by a border in turquoise silk that allowed it to be handled freely without further touching the ancient material. At various times yet to be determined, there have been several minor repairs with fragments of other linen at points where the weave was broken by holes of various sizes; where the cloth was in danger of tearing, it was mended by the kind of artistic mending once used for precious lace, that is sewn with the same kind of thread by hands so expert that the most recent repairs are worked into warp and woof to the point of being almost invisible.

The ancient cloth is made of linen fibre worked according to a fairly complex technique that demanded the contemporary use of two spools instead of the more common one; as a result, the fibres show a counterclockwise twisting called “Z-shaped torsion”. It was woven on a four-pedal craftsman’s frame, using the so-called chevrons or fishbone technique, and a knot called “3-1” because the thread goes three times under the woof and only once over. Each square centimetre of the Shroud has 40 threads and weighs on average 23 grams. The short sides have no selvage, the strip of cloth that stands at the start and end of every piece and has a special structure designed to prevent the stuff from unweaving itself when manhandled: this shows that it was cut from a longer roll of cloth.

Z-shaped torsion, fishbone technique and 3-1 knots belong to very ancient techniques of cloth-making and can be found in several artifacts from pre-Roman, Roman and mediaeval origin. The fishbone style is found in middle-eastern weaves from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, highly expensive materials meant for decorative purposes (pillow covers and embroidered borders): for that technique creates a stuff which reflects light differently according to the position from which the eye looks at it. There is a certain innate luminousness in linen cloth, and in the case of this particular work the superimposition of threads creates a design of repeated V-shapes in relief alternating with V-shapes in depression; that is, the weave has a bright-opaque variation effect that reminds us of certain ancient brocades with simple geometric designs. The German scholar Maria Luisa Rigato has recently confirmed the opinion already stated by other experts in ancient cloths, that the Shroud’s stuff belongs to an expensive and not at all commonplace kind.[94]

It is a curious feature of the Shroud that it contains no trace whatever of wool fibre, a strange fact when you consider that it was by some distance the most widely used thread and that normally frames were used to weave every kind of thread; its fibres however include traces of cotton from the bush variety Gossypium herbaceum, the only one cultivated in the Middle East during antiquity, before the discovery of America allowed us to bring in all from the New World all the other varieties we now know. The cotton fibres are from other weaves woven on the same frame before the cloth of the Shroud was started, and which remained stuck to the machine and eventually ended up woven into the linen cloth. The total lack of wool suggests that that particular frame, for some special reason, had never used wool at all; now, the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament (22, 11) includes a norm that forbids weaving wool and linen together, because the mix of the two would produce ritual impurity, so it has reasonably been concluded that the frame had belonged to members of the Jewish religion, who did not violate the rule and made what their culture designated as a pure cloth.[95]

Besides the cotton fibre, the oldest weave also contains a large number of diverse materials, traces of objects it must have met in its long story: pollens from various vegetables, spores and the remains of insect bodies caught in the weave as it was left to weather itself in the open, wax, traces of aloe and myrrh, dye particles, red and blue silk once used to wrap it, ink and powders. Traces of pigments found include ochre, Venetian red, and vermilion, along with proteins that once were used to fix and dissolve colour dye powders; they are present on the cloth in trace amounts, due to the fact that painted copies were rested on the Shroud to make them become relics. In 1973, the criminologist Max Frei carried out a study using the forensic science techniques in use among the scientific squad of the Swiss police, and identified traces of pollen belonging to 58 vegetable species originating from the Middle East, of which some were found in the Dead Sea area and in Jerusalem. Traces have also been found of at least 28 species of flowers laid on the body, most of which grow in Palestine and flower in the spring. The humus includes Aragonite, a fairly rare material which can however be found in the soil of caves near Jerusalem; and the presence of natron, used in Palestine and Egypt to preserve dead bodies, also points to a middle eastern origin.[96]

On one of the long sides, someone has sewn on a narrow strip of cloth that is shorter than 46 cm; some experts feel that it had been part of the larger cloth but that it had been unwoven and woven again. The reason is unknown; it was probably cut from the cloth, which was longer than required, to make a long band that could be used to tie the shroud around the corpse, about the feet, knees and neck, so that it could stay tight. It was only later that the band was retrieved and sewn again along the border from which it had previously been cut; for it was seen as a part of the Shroud, and it was wished to preserve it too. An interesting fact is that the technique by which it was sewn back on to the Shroud, called the false border, demands great expertise, and that it is only found twice in all our knowledge of ancient textiles: the Shroud and a linen fragment found in Masada, the fortress where a few Jewish rebels took refuge in the Jewish War and which the Romans destroyed in 73 AD. It is also interesting that the thread used for the sewing is not of the same kind as those that make up the Shroud, with their complex Z-shaped torsion structure, but belongs to a simpler and more ordinary kind (S-type torsion); it may be that the person who sewed it back was no longer able to obtain the same kind of thread, which were surely of uncommon quality, and had to be satisfied with what she or he found.[97]

The upper left hand side shows another glaring lacuna: it is the part that was destroyed in the radio-carbon test. Near this lost rectangle of material we can see clear traces of burning in a double strip, that run through the Shroud for all its length. In fact, these show the position of a fold that was part of the way the cloth was stored in the sixteenth century, when it was kept in Chambéry, then the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, now a French provincial town. In 1532 a fire burst out in the ducal palace’s chapel heated the invaluable silver casing where the Shroud was kept almost to melting point, and a few droplets of metal – or possibly a sharp and heated object – burned the cloth. The Poor Clare nuns then repaired it, adding many patches of linen in those parts where no material had been left at all; the accident also left four holes in a rhomboid shape near the middle of the cloth, as well as a quantity of stains left more or less everywhere and due to the impurities in the large amounts of water used to extinguish the fire. It may however be that someone had accidentally water-stained the Shroud much earlier.

In April 2008 Aldo Guerreschi and Michele Salcito published in the specialist magazine Arch the results of a research they had carried out on the water-stains left on the Shroud. Until then it had always been thought that they were the result of the water used in Chambéry to extinguish the fire, but analysis showed a different truth. The very shape of the Chambéry scorch marks allows us to reconstruct the way that the Shroud was put away in the 1500s: it was a most careful and precise folding, with the edges accurately lined up with each other, done by first laying the Shroud down on a long table. The water stains, however, speak of a wholly different folding, the kind called concertina, but above all one that was far less precise: the edges did not match, and the central fold did not fall in the exact centre of the cloth. This is more reminiscent of a housewife snatching a sheet from the rain and folding it in a hurry to run back inside before the storm reaches its height; that is, it leaves the feeling of a rushed, provisional arrangement. Turned in on itself in a concertina shape, and then closed, the cloth was not in even tension, but the forward part was sagging under its own weight. By the way it was arranged, it is also possible to deduce the shape of the container where it had been placed: a cylindrical object, narrow, long, and not very large. It was not a case like its Chambéry silver reliquary and it did not, either, resemble the lovely Byzantine container decorated in lozenges which we see from the representations of the mandylion: rather, it was a container designed for other purposes, where the Shroud was perhaps only provisionally housed. The shape of the object is exactly like that of the terra-cotta amphoras found in Qumran, which held the 800 or more manuscripts of the Essene library: in effect, amphoras were very versatile containers where anything could and would be stored, from oil to grain to books. At the very bottom of that container there was some water, a small amount but enough to dampen the lower part of the cloth.[98]

This reconstruction seems to open a new and promising path of research. No doubt that kind of earthenware container was a highly commonplace object, made all over the Middle East and certainly not only in Qumran: but no doubt the community that lived in isolation on the Dead Sea shore had several features that might make it a safe refuge for the earliest Christians, persecuted by the Jerusalem authorities almost from the time of Jesus’ death. At any rate, if Salcito and Guerreschi’s reconstruction is correct, it argues for a phase in the Shroud’s history in which this object was not exhibited to the veneration of the faithful, but, on the contrary, hidden: whoever raised the lid would not have seen anything but a featureless mass of cloth, too tightly turned in on itself to show even the abundant marks of blood. As is known, Jewish tradition held blood in horror and saw it as necessary to destroy anything that had come into contact with corpses, as being in the highest degree impure and able to pollute people, things and places.[99]

Between the 12th and 13th centuries, the Templars held dozens of establishments in the Syro-Palestinian territories, but there is no evidence that they ever had any direct contact with Qumran: what archaeology currently tells us is that the Essene citadel was abandoned in 68 AD and never re-opened until almost twenty centuries had passed. On the other hand, that the Shroud may have spent some time in the Qumran over a thousand years before it ended up in the Templars’ hands – this does seem possible.

[1] Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 279, 299, 300, 313, 315-316, 364, 367.

[2] Ibid., 363.

[3] Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Reg. Aven. 48, ff. 449-450r.

[4] Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 192-193.

[5] Tommaso da Celano, San Francesco, pp. 130-138; see also Cardini, Francesco d’Assisi, pp. 231-273.

[6] 19, 11-12 (Nestle-Aland, p. 1167).

[7] Schottmüller, II, pp. 375-400, pp. 379-380, 392-398.

[8] Michelet, Le Procès, I, p. 502; II, p. 218.

[9] Ibid.; Gugumus, Orsola e compagne, coll. 1252-1267.

[10] Michelet, Le Procès, II, p. 240.

[11] Ibid., I, p. 597.

[12] Du Fresne, Glossarium, p. 447.

[13] Michelet, Le Procès, I, pp. 190-191; Paris, Archives Nationales, J 413 n. 25, unnumbered folios (f. 9); Finke, II, pp. 323-324.

[14] Savio, Pellegrinaggio di san Carlo, pp. 447-448.

[15] Demurger, Vita e morte, pp. 220-221; Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 287-293; Brown, La morte del Messia, pp. 1330-1338; Id., Giovanni, pp. 1181-1195.

[16] Dupuy, Histoire, pp. 26-28.

[17] See for instance the statements made by the monks questioned at Pont-del’Arche, in Prutz, Entwicklung, pp. 334-335, and Dupuy, Histoire, p. 22.

[18] Curzon, La Règle, §§ 21, 37.

[19] Michelet, Le Procès I, p. 419.

[20] Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Reg. Aven. 48, f. 443r; Schottmüller, II, pp. 64-66.

[21] Curzon, La Règle, § 40.

[22] Sève, Le procès, p. 192.

[23] Michelet, Le Procès, I, p. 502, II, pp. 191, 279; Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Reg. Aven. 48 c. 443v; Schotmüller, II, p. 67.

[24] Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Reg. Aven 48, f. 444r, lines 15-17.

[25] These images, which belong to the Byzantine tradition of iconography, have been studied by Wilson, Holy Faces.

[26] Sterlingova, The New Testament Relics, pp. 88-89. I am grateful to Emanuela Marinelli for informing me about this object.

[27] Wilson, Le suaire de Turin, pp. 152-253.

[28] The theology of icons is a particularly fascinating chapter of Christian thought. This study has taken as reference the fine volume by Cardinal Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo.

[29] Jugie, Iconoclastia, coll. 1538-1542; Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 131-158.

[30] Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 15-36; Uspenskij, La teologia dell’icona, pp. 101-132.

[31] St. Basil the Great, A treatise on the Holy Spirit, 18, 45; PG 32, col. 149; Homily for Gordianuss the martyr, PG 31, col. 490; St. Gregory of, Solemn Encomium for the great martyr Theodore, PG 46, coll. 737-739.

[32] Mt 28, 20 (edizione Nestle-Aland, p. 285); Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 169-175

[33] St. John Damascene, A treatise on images, I, 19, in PG 94, col. 1249 d: but the idea had already been stated by St. Gregory of Nissa, cfr. Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 27-36; Gordillo, Giovanni Damasceno, coll. 547-552; Ozoline, La théologie de l’icône, p. 409.

[34] Weitzmann, Le icone, pp. 5-6; Kazhdan, Bisanzio e la sua civiltà, p. 96-98; Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 194-210.

[35] Johannet, Un office inédit, pp. 143-155; Auzépy, L’iconodulie, pp. 157-165; Marion, Le prototype de l’image, p. 461; Shalina, The Icon of Christ, pp. 324-328; Curzon, La Règle, § 342; Cronaca di Imad ad-Din, in Storici arabi delle crociate, p. 135; statement of Raoul de Gisy, Preceptor of Champagne, Paris Inquiry, Autumn 1307, in Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 363-365; Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Reg. Aven. 48, cc. 441r e 443r, edito in Schottmüller, II, pp. 30, 68.

[36] Icone, pp. 19-21.

[37] Jugie, Concilio di Efeso, coll. 114-119.

[38] For instance 1 Ts 2, 15; 3, 11; 3, 13; Col 1, 3; 1 Cor, 1, 2; 2, 9; 6, 14, 9, 5. Légasse, Paolo e l’universalismo cristiano, pp. 106-158; Trocmé, Le prime comunità, pp. 75-105; Jossa, Introduzione, pp. 15-29; Ratzinger-Benedetto XVI, Gesù di Nazareth, pp. 333-352.

[39] Ostrogorsky, Storia dell’impero bizantino, pp. 139-202; Jugie, Iconoclastia, coll. 1541-1546.

[40] Riant, Exuviae, ad esempio pp. 216-217, 218-224, 233-234.

[41] Ostrogorsky, Storia dell’impero bizantino, pp. 97-98; Dubarle, Storia antica, pp. 39-41.

[42] Riant, Exuviae, p. 220.

[43]Gv 1, 14: (Nestle-Aland, p. 758).

[44] Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. Gr. 511, cc. 143r-150v; Zaninotto, La traslazione a Costantinopoli, pp. 344-352; Dubarle, L’homélie de Grégoire le Référendaire, pp. 5-51.

[45] Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 74-75.

[46] Belting, Il culto delle immagini, pp. 105-132.

[47] Schönborn, L’icona di Cristo, pp. 58-63; Dulaey, I simboli cristiani, pp. 52-69; Crippa e Zibawi, L’arte paleocristiana, pp. 69-108.

[48] Emmanuel, The Holy Mandylion, pp. 292-293.

[49] See passim Farina, L’Impero e l’imperatore cristiano.

[50] Zaninotto, La traslazione a Costantinopoli, pp. 344-352

[51] Wilson, Holy Faces, pp. 149-151; Dubarle, Storia antica, p.51.

[52] On this subject, read through Grondijs’ magnificent work, L’iconographie byzantine du crucifié, and also Shalina, The Icon of Christ, pp. 324-336, and Jászai, Crocifisso, pp. 577-586.

[53] Emmanuel, The Holy Mandylion, pp. 291-292.

[54] Dubarle, Histoire ancienne, pp. 105-106; Baima Bollone, La sindone e la scienza, pp. 89-94.

[55] Wilson, Le sainte suaire, pp. 152-165.

[56] Egeria, Diario di viaggio, p. 83; Frolow, La relique, pp. 21-152; Wilson, Le sainte suaire, pp. 200, 208.

[57] Wilson, Holy Faces, p. 156, gives a reproduction of the original manuscript that contains the description (Royal Copenhagen Library, ms. 487, fol. 123).

[58] I thank Marco Palmerini for pointing me towards this reconstruction; about the matter see also Lidov, The Mandylion, p. 268, and Shalina, The Icon of Christ, pp. 333-334, featuring a scheme of how the elevation was performed.

[59] Lidov, The Mandylion, pp. 268-280; Bacci, Relics of the Pharos Chapel, pp. 234-246; Zocca, Icone, coll. 1538-1542.

[60] Dobschütz, Christusbilder, p. 134, discussed in Wilson, Holy Faces, p. 152.

[61] Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica, III, lib. IX, 8.

[62] Gervasio di Tilbury, Otia Imperialia, III, pp. 966-967.

[63] Savio, Ricerche storiche, p. 340, nota 31.

[64] Wilson, Le sainte suaire, pp. 207-208; Wilson, Holy Faces, pp. 145-148, figg. 17, 26-27; Zaninotto, L’immagine edessena, pp. 57-62.

[65] Wilson, Le sainte suaire, pp. 215-253.

[66]Les Journaux du Trésor, for instance p. 156 e p. 195, dated May 31, 1349: in societate domini Gaufridi de Charneyo militis et consiliarii Regis.

[67] Frale, L’ultima battaglia dei Templari, pp. 19-20; cf. Archivio Segreto Vaticano, for instance Reg. Lat. 818, ff. 51r (de Cuenca) and 52r (de Cuencha), f. 293r (de Pugdorfila) e 294r (de Purdeifila); Reg. Lat. 819, f. 6r (Palmiero) e f. 7v (Palmerio), ecc.

[68] Léonard, Introduction au cartulaire, p. 160; Michelet, Le Procès, II, pp. 289-290; I, p. 295; Curzon, La Règle, §87.

[69] Géraud, Cronique, pp. 402-404.

[70] Godefroy, Dictionnaire, I, p. 628.

[71] Michelet, Le Procès, I, p. 628; Mannier, Ordre de Malte, pp. 181-184; Carrière, Histoire et cartulaire des Templiers, pp. 69-70.

[72] Dijon, Archives Départementales, Charny 12-LXIII e H 1169 (Petit Temple de Dijon), quoted by Léonard, Introduction, pp. 331-332; Langlois, La Bible Guiot, p. 65; Anselme de la Vierge Marie, I, p. 473 A e B, II, p. 481; Cronique de Morée, p. 137.

[73] Carile, Per una storia, pp. 103-110; Flori, Culture chevaleresque, pp. 371-387; Nicol, Venezia e Bisanzio, pp. 167-179.

[74] Goldstein, Zara, pp. 359-370; Frale, La quarta crociata, pp. 468-470.

[75] Tucci, La spedizione marittima, pp. 3-18; Nicol, Venezia e Bisanzio, pp. 169-171.

[76] Maleczek, Innocenzo III e la quarta crociata, pp. 389-422.

[77] Nicol, Venezia e Bisanzio, pp. 186-193.

[78] Ducellier, Il sacco di Costantinopoli del 1204, pp. 368-377.

[79] Riant, Des dépouilles, pp. 7, 18-19, 27-35.

[80] Ibid., pp. 4-5; Claverie, Un “illustris amicus Venetorum”, pp. 506-510.

[81] Riant, Exuviae, pp. 44-45.

[82] Ibid., pp. 48-52; Durand, Reliquie e reliquiari, pp. 386-389.

[83] Barber, The Templars and the Turin Shroud, p. 225; Id., The Trial, p. 273.

[84] Tommasi, I Templari e il culto delle reliquie, pp. 191-210; Acta Polycarpi, Ian. III, p. 319, in Riant, Exuviae, p. 2.

[85] Schottmüller, II, pp. 157-158.

[86] Michelet, Le Procès, I, pp. 646-647.

[87] Tommasi, I Templari e il culto delle reliquie, p. 202.

[88] Mention of the presence of the pelvis, the bowl of the Last Supper, appears in several description of the sacred treasure of Constantinople; cfr. Riant, Exuviae, for instance pp. 211, 213, but according to others it was a marble basin (cfr. pp. 219, 223).

[89] Ibid’, pp. 48, 220.

[90] Schottmüller, II, pp. 91-92.

[91] Tommasi, I Templari e il culto delle reliquie, p. 197.

[92] Ibid., pp. 193-194.

[93] On these values cf. Wiseman and Wheaton, Weights and Measures.

[94] Timossi, Analisi, pp. 105-111; Pastore Trossello, La struttura tessile, pp. 64-73; Jackson, Jewish Burial, pp. 309-322; Vial, Le Linceul, pp. 11-24; Whanger and Whanger, A Comparison, pp. 379-381; Baima Bollone, Sindone e scienza, pp. 83-106; Flury-Lemberg, Sindone 2002, pp. 25-48; Rigato, Il titolo della croce, pp. 198-217.

[95] Raes, Rapport d’analise, pp. 79-83; Jackson, Hasadeen Hakadosh, pp. 27-33.

[96] Baima Bollone, La presenza della mirra, pp. 169-174, e Id., Sindone e scienza, pp. 5-31; Scannerini, Mirra, aloe, pollini; Upinsky, La démonstration, pp. 313-334; Curto, La Sindone, pp. 59-85; Frei, Il passato della sindone, pp. 191-200; Id., Identificazione e classificazione, pp. 277-284; Danin, Pressed Flowers, pp. 35-37, 69; Kohlbeck e Nitowski, New Evidence, pp. 23-24.

[97] Baima Bollone, La sindone e la scienza, pp. 60-61, 83-86.

[98] Guerreschi and Salcito, Tra le pieghe, pp. 62-71.

[99] Lipinski, Sangue, p. 1161; Sacchi, Storia del Secondo Tempio, pp. 417-421.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!