Face Cloth

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Face Cloth (of Jesus)

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Far less known than the Shroud of Turin, which is the cloth or “napkin” many believe was used to wrap the body of Jesus following his crucifixion, the sudarium or face cloth that was reputedly used to cover and clean the face of Jesus after the crucifixion (cf. John 20:6–7) emerged in the last half of the twentieth century as an important element in establishing the authenticity of the shroud. The face cloth is approximately 32 inches by 20 inches. Unlike the shroud, there is no image on this cloth, only a few blood stains are visible to the naked eye.

According to the story that had developed about the cloth in the Middle Ages (prime sources being the Book of Testaments, a twelfth-century volume by Pelayo, the bishop of Oviedo, and the thirteenth-century Chronicle of the World by Lucus, the bishop of Tuy), the sudarium was kept in Jerusalem in an oak chest until the beginning of the seventh century. Around 614, when the Persians sacked Jerusalem, the box containing the cloth and several other relics was secreted out of the city by one Philip the Presbyter. He went first to Alexandria in northern Egypt, then on to Spain. In the seventh century, the box was received by Fulgentius, the bishop of Ecija (Spain), who passed it to Seville, where it was initially kept by Saint Isidore (c. 560–636). In 657 it was moved to Toledo, where it remained until 718, by which time the Muslim armies had entered and conquered most of Spain.

King Alfonso II (r. 791–842) was able to establish a Christian enclave in northwest Spain and brought the box to his capital at Oviedo after having kept it in a cave outside the city for some years. Alfonso built a chapel, the Camara Santa, to house the chest and its contents. The chapel was then incorporated to the new cathedral at Oviedo. Two centuries later, on March 14, 1075, the box was formally opened in the presence of King Alfonso VI (r. 1065–1109), his sister Doña Urraca, and Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (aka El Cid, c.1043–1099). The items in the chest, including the face cloth, were catalogued. Then in 1113, King Alfonso I (r. 1104–1134) saw the chest covered with silver that had an inscription calling for veneration of the face cloth.

The face cloth has remained at Oviedo since the eighth century, and the cathedral became a favorite stopping place for pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostelas. (The same Alfonso II who built the Camara Santa had also established the church at Santiago de Compostela and declared Saint James the patron of his kingdom).

In the controversy over the results of scientific testing of the Shroud of Turin, the face cloth at Oviedo was made available for testing. In the late 1980s, Msgr. Giulio Ricci, president of the Roman Center for Sindonology, called for a systematic study of the cloth. Early studies included the gathering of pollen from the cloth. Species from Palestine and North Africa were found, both consistent with the legends concerning the travel route the cloth took to Spain. These findings were discussed at the First International Congress on the Sudarium of Oviedo in 1994. Subsequent studies have found a variety of consistencies between the cloth and the shroud, including the same blood type being found on each. Ongoing testing of the sudarium is being largely handled by Guillermo Heras, who heads the Spanish Center for Sindonology.

The testing of the face cloth has thrust it into the midst of the shroud controversy, with champions on both sides of the issue. The cloth is relatively well documented from the eighth century, but there is still a seven-century gap between its surfacing in Spain and its reputed origin in the Holy Land. As the controversy emerged on the face cloth, in 1989 Pope John Paul II showed his favor with a visit to the sudarium in Oviedo.

It should also be noted that the cathedral at Oviedo also is home to a thirteenth-century statue of Jesus that attracted pilgrims for the healing associated with it and at one time displayed a vial of the Virgin Mary’s blood (a relic also found in the chest housing the sudarium) and other relics associated with her.


Bennett, Janice. Sacred Blood, Sacred Image: The Sudarium of Oviedo; New Evidence for the Authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Littleton, CO: Libri de Hispania, 2001.
Guscin, Mark. The Oviedo Cloth. London: Lutterworth Press, 2000.
Heras Moreno, Guillermo, José-Delfin Villalain Blanco, and Jorge-Manuel Rodríguez Almenar. “Comparative Study of the Sudarium of Oviedo and the Shroud of Turin.” Paper presented at the III Congreso Internationale de Studí sulla Sindone (Alencia: Centro Español de Sindonlogía, 1998), held at Turin, Italy. June 5–7, 1998.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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