What is the sudarium of Oviedo?

Q: On Easter Sunday, the priest at my parish made a point in his homily about the burial cloths left in the tomb of the Lord. I know about the Shroud of Turn being the burial cloth of Jesus, but is there another cloth that we have? — A reader in Sterling

A: In the Gospel of St. John, we read the account of Sts. Peter and John running to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning: “Presently, Simon came along behind (St. John) and entered the tomb. He observed the wrappings on the ground and saw the piece of cloth which had covered the head not lying with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn 20:6-7).

Therefore, the Gospel account explicitly mentioned first the “wrappings,” which are believed to be the Shroud of Turin and the bindings. The shroud is a long linen sheet about 4.36 meters long by 1.1 meters wide (or 14’4″ x 1’7″). Jesus would have been laid down on top of the shroud, and then it would have been folded over Him. Jesus’ body would then have been bound by narrow linen strips.

The other cloth was the head covering, called the sudarium. After Jesus had died but before He was taken down from the cross, His head would have been wrapped to collect any bloody discharges from the nose or the mouth. For the Jews, all of the bodily parts and even the blood had to be preserved for the future resurrection of the body. For this reason, Jesus’ body was not washed before being placed in the tomb. After the body was removed from the cross, thesudarium would have been removed, Jesus would have been covered with the shroud, and then the sudarium would have been wrapped around His head.

Early Christian sources state that St. Peter took custody of the sudarium, and it was kept in the Holy Land until the Persian and Muslim invasions. Records indicate that it was taken then to Alexandria, Egypt, and then to Cartagena and eventually to Toledo, Spain, where it was kept (636-711A.D.). Again due to the Muslim invasion of Spain, the sudarium was taken to the Cathedral of Oviedo, where it remains to this day.

In 1989, Jose Delfin Guillermo Heras Moreno led a team of about 40 scientists (Investigative Team of the Spanish Center of Sindonology, i.e. EDICES) with expertise in hematology, pathology, palynology, criminology and other fields to investigate the sudarium. Here are some of the findings:

The sudarium is a linen cloth measuring 85.5 by 52.6 cm. (or 34 by 21 in.). It was wrapped around the head of an adult male who had a beard and mustache with his hair tied in the back. Blood stains are present, but no image appears.

The sudarium dates to the time of the Roman empire. The weave of the line uses a “Z twist,” indicating it was produced between 400 B.C. and 500 A.D. The Shroud of Turin uses the same “Z twist.”

Some 141 pollen grains and 10 fungus spores were discovered on the sudarium; 99 percent were endemic to the Mediterranean region. Three plant species were identified that grow only in Palestine — the terebinth, tamarisk and the batha oak. Two other native plant residues found were that of the “Rocks Rose” (Cistus creticus) and Goundelia tournefortii, which may have been used for Jesus’ crown of thorns. All of these can be found within a radius of 20 km. of Jerusalem and blossom in the spring (around Passover time). These pollens also appear on the Shroud of Turin; however, there are pollens of Spain found on the sudarium which do not appear on the shroud (which is kept in Milan) and vice versa.

Traces of myrrh and aloe were found. Remember: Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe for the burial of Jesus (Jn 19:39).

Two kinds of blood are on the cloth: First, around the nose and the mouth, there are traces of blood and other liquid from the pulmonary edema that was caused from asphyxia (the ultimate cause of death by crucifixion); this blood would have been discharged when the body was removed from the cross. Second, traces of blood around the head were found, caused by the crown of thorns. The blood stains of the sudarium and the shroud match. Also, the blood from both thesudarium and Shroud of Turin belonged to a male with type AB blood.

Finally, if the sudarium is placed on the facial image of the Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Manoppello (believed to be St. Veronica’s veil), it is apparent that all of them depict the image of the same man.

The sudarium is kept in a reliquary at the Cathedral of Oviedo. It is displayed three times a year: on the feast of the Exultation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14), the feast of St. Matthew (Sept. 21) and Good Friday.

While belief in the authenticity of the sudarium as well as the Shroud of Turin and the Veil of Manoppello are not articles of faith, these relics aid our appreciation for what Our Lord suffered for our salvation and can only increase our devotion. We are left, then, with that great adage: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, no explanation is possible.”