Washington Post printed in its 2002 Easter edition on
the first page (not far from its usual glorification of Israel) a feature called ‘The Face of
Christ’, containing a police-style e-fit. It showed a rather
crude and brutish face of a man, with low forehead, darkish
skin, eyes expressive of cunning, a type of lowly menial
worker. It bore a caption, ‘Face of Christ’. Bold
headlines advised the reader that now the latest tools of
science were used in order to find out how Jesus Christ
looked, on basis of some sculls found in Jerusalem. Well, 90 p.c. of the readership does not go beyond the bold headlines,
into petite letters, and they would remain with a feeling that
after all, a scull of Jesus was discovered, and he turned out
to be quite an unpleasant fellow.
careful perusal of the feature article shows the face being a
reconstruction of a Jewish contemporary of Christ, based on a
few sculls found in Palestine. The authors could call the brutish e-fit,
‘The High Priest of Jews’. They could remain neutral and
unbiased and call the e-fit ‘a face of a Jewish (?)
contemporary of Christ’, but they preferred the misleading
legend ‘Face of Christ’, with its implication that Christ
actually looked like a low criminal.
Now the Die Welt correspondent in Rome, our friend Paul Badde,
found another, more likely image:
true face of Jesus
did Jesus look like? A bit like Jim Caviezel
in the film "The Passion of The Christ"? Like
the portraits by Durer and El
Greco and other artists, which hang in the Palace of the Pope?
But none of these artists ever saw Jesus. What did he really
look like? To these questions, there is an old, old answer: it
is the image contained on a cloth which represents the
"true face" of Christ -- an image even the Pope has
never seen. And this is something which can hardly be spoken
about in the Vatican.
image is different from all other works of art. Up until the
year 1600 A.D. it was kept inside the old St. Peter's Basilica
built by the Emperor Constantine. Millions saw it there. Since
the early 1600s, however, this "true icon" (the
literal meaning of “veraicona”
which initially formed the name "Veronica") has been
seen by almost no one. In the new St. Peter's Basilica,
designed by Michelangelo, the cloth was kept locked behind
three bars. And "over the course of time, the image
became very faint," Cardinal Francesco Marchisano,
the Archpriest of the Basilica, told me in a letter on May
But in fact, it has not only grown faint, most probably it is
also an ordinary dummy (or hoax / or fake). It hasn’t only
become virtually invisible to us: there is not a single
reliable photograph of the image either. Devotees of icons of
Christ were for this reason in recent times often directed to
another image in the sacristy of the Popes, the so-called Abgar
portrait from Edessa,
which is said to be the oldest painting of Jesus in the world
-- and it looks it.
image has, over the centuries, become almost black, like many
ancient paintings, executed in tempera on linen. The
"true image" of Christ, however, was made with no colors
at all. Before it came to Rome,
it was in Constantinople,
and before that in the Middle
A Syrian text from Kamulia in Cappadocia
from the 500s tells us that the image was "drawn out of
the water" and "not painted by human hand." But
not before this image came to Rome,
curious pilgrims were drawn to it as to a magnet.
twigs/branches of palm-trees Pilgrims to Jerusalem
decorated themselves on their return in the first half of the
second millennium. The sign of the pilgrims on the route to
Santiago de Compostela is even
today a shell. Pilgrims to Rome,
however, adhered miniature images of Christ unto their cape on
their way home: little pictures of the "Sancta Veronica Ierosolymitana":
the holy Veronica from Jerusalem.
The foundation of the new St. Peter's Basilica was thus laid
by Pope Julius II as the foundation also for a great treasure
chamber to hold and protect this unique treasure.
during the construction of the new basilica – which had been
highly disputed and controversial in those times - the veil of
Veronica mysteriously disappeared from Rome.
The only remnant of the veil that remains today in Rome is a
Venetian frame with a pane of old, cracked glass, still on
display in St. Peter's treasury. But the veil was not lost.
For 400 years the most important relic of Christendom, before
which the Emperor of Byzantium knelt once a year, held between
two panes of glass, has been on display in a tiny Capuchin
church which is completely empty for many hours each day, in
the town of Manoppello,
region. It is the missing role model for the entire western
civilisation. Today finally it must be regarded as
rediscovered. It fades away against light, it darkens in
shadow, yet it endures through the centuries, unchanging.
shows the bearded face of a man with side-curls (jewishpeyoth), whose nose has been hit
like that of a detainee in the Abu Ghreib
prison. The right cheek is swollen, the beard partly ripped
off. The forehead and lips have on them hints of pink,
suggesting freshly healed wounds. Inexplicable peace fills the
gaze out of the wide open eyes. Amazement,
compassion. No despair, no pain, no wrath. It is like
the face of a man who has just awakened to a new morning. His
mouth is half open. Even his teeth are visible. If one had to
give a precise phrase to the vowel and word the lips are
forming, it would be just a soft "Ah."
proportions of the image show 1 : 1
the measurements of a human face, filling the center
of 17 by 24 centimeter cloth. The
flimsy veil is transparent, like a silk stocking. The image is
less like a painted picture than a large slide. Held up to the
light, it is transparent. In the shadow, without light, it
becomes almost slate grey. A tiny, broken piece of crystal
rests in the lower right corner of the frame. In the light of
light bulbs, the delicate cloth is gold and honey-colored,
just as the face of Christ was described by Gertrud of Helfta
in the 13th century. For only in the light and contrast, does
the fine cloth show the countenance in three-dimensional,
almost holographic clarity – and from both sides, only back
to front (“the wrong way round”). It seems so finely
woven, that it might fit into a walnut shell if it were folded
of the University
and Professor GiulioFanti
of the University
have discovered, through microscopic examinations, that there
is no trace of color or paint at
all on the entire cloth. Only in the black pupils of both eyes
does there appear to be a slight scorching of the threads, as
if they had been heated.
of this cannot be considered a completely fresh discovery. The
farmers and fisherman of the Adriatic
to Tarento have revered this veil
for centuries as the "Holy Face," ("Il Volto
Santo"). It is said in Manoppello
that "angels" brought the cloth to them 400 years
ago (citing in this regard an old report). That may be. But it
is more likely that some rascals, too, slipped in beneath the
angels' wings, who simply swiped and robbed the relic -- in
probably the most impudent rascal piece of the entire Baroque
era (which had never been poor of rogues and villains)
. The broken crystal in the old frame of Veronica's
Veil in St. Peter's
Basilica treasury seems to sing one verse of this larger song
until today. The story has elements of a farce, of a crime
thriller, of a detective story, of a drama -- and of a fifth
gospel for our image-obsessed age.
when Professor Heinrich Pfeiffer of Rome's Gregorian
University for the first time brought to the attention of the
scholarly world that the Manoppello
Countenance most likely had to be considered as the ultimate
point of reference for the oldest pictures of Christ, both in
the East and in the West, these sensational news appeared in
the back pages of the world press under the category
“miscellaneous”. This happened about a decade ago. And no
matter how precisely Pfeiffer, a German scholar of early
Christian art, had investigated to prove that the image in Manoppello
must be acknowledged as a “mother of images” for the
entire Christian iconography, his colleagues, too, along with
many prelates and cardinals in the Vatican shook the heads
over the exuberant professor's imagination.
Blandina Paschalis Schlömer,
a German Trappist nun, pharmacist
and icon painter, was the one who had initiated Pfeiffer's
research and conclusions. She had discovered, years before,
after painstaking comparisons of the image on the Manopello
cloth and the face of the man depicted on the Shroud of Turin,
that the two images were identical: that they were both
displaying the very same person. Every detail of both faces
was exactly congruent: the same size and shape, the same
wounds. The one difference: on the Shroud, the wounds are
still open. On the cloth of Manoppello,
the wounds have closed.
results, either, did not persuade or convince other scholars
of the authenticity of the image of Manoppello.
Quite the opposite. The chief
objection was simple and categorical: that the Manoppello
image had been painted. The image was just too clear and fine
for it not to have been painted, they argued. The eyes, the
eyelashes (not visible until photo enlargements were made),
the tear sacks in the eyes, the whiskers, the teeth (!), all
that simply could not have appeared without the delicate hand
of a master artist. In short, the Manoppello
image was not a model, but a careful copy of other copies of
an unknown original - or even of the original on the Turin
question seldom posed up to now, but a crucial one, concerns
the fabric itself. By its consistency, it seems like colored
nylon -- though nylon was not invented 400 years ago. What is
it, then? Cotton, wool, linen? No,
all are much too thick to allow this immaterial transparency. Even
silk does not permit this. Meanwhile, the Capuchins of Manoppello
have decided to wait before subjecting the cloth to any
scientific or chemical tests, or even to take it out of the
glass where it has been held for 400 years.
necessary!" Father Germano,
the last Guardian of the cloth, said to me a few weeks ago.
"Science will progress to meet us. It develops so fast,
that we only need to wait." He is probably correct. Many
photos, which I took in recent months with my digital camera,
show the fabric in a way I have never seen in other photos.
What could this cloth be? In the Gospel of John, John speaks
of two cloths found in the empty tomb of Christ in Jerusalem.
According to that source, Peter and "the other young
man" (probably John himself) ran toward the tomb in the
early dawn of Easter Sunday. John ran faster and reached the
tomb first. John writes: "They both ran, but the other
disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping
to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did
not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into
the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the cloth, which
had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but
rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who
reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and
is this second cloth, the small one which had been on Christ's
head, which the inhabitants of Manoppello
have always regarded as the one they have in their town. This
cloth is sometimes known as the "sweat cloth." The Manoppello
cloth, however, has not a drop of sweat detectable on it. But
then, the cloth is so fine, it cannot hold even a single drop
of blood or sweat.
1.September 2004, Fiumincino
airport. A fresh breeze from the nearby Mediterranean
cools the late summer morning. The clock in Hall A reads ,
as the Alitalia flight 1570 from Cagliari
touches down outside on the runway. When ChiaroVigo crosses the barrier, I
recognize her immediately, although I had never seen her
before. Her fingernails are spindles, long and pointed. Pier
Paolo Pasolini might have cast her
as the star in any of his films. She comes from the small island
off the coast of Sardinia,
where she is the last living byssus
weaver on earth, heir to an unbroken tradition dating to
"To our people, byssus is a
holy fabric," she says in the car. What does she mean,
"Our people?" Isn't her island simply part of Sardinia?
No, she laughs roughly. On her island, Sardinian and Italian
are spoken, but they also know many Aramaic songs, for the
population is descended from Chaldaeans
and Phoenicians. They trace their art of byssus
production to the Princess Berenike,
one of Herod's daughters, who was a lover of the Emperor
Titus, after he had destroyed Jerusalem.
-- Then she held out to me a bundle of unspun,
raw byssus. In the morning light,
it shone more finely than angel hair. The gold of the seas! In
her hand, it shone like bronze in the sun. The material is
produced from threads a certain kind of sea mussels (“pinnanobilis”) generate to cling to
the ground. Every May ChiaraVigo
dives under full moonlight five meters deep in the sea to
collect and harvest them – before there are combed, then
spun and woven into a most precious fabric.
was the most costly fabric in the ancient world. It has been
found in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, and it is mentioned
often in the Bible, where it is said to be obligatory for the
carpets of the Holy of Holies and for the "Ephod",
the vestment of the high priest. Steeped in lemon, it becomes
golden. In former times, soaked in cow's urine, it became
paler and brighter. We fly down the highway toward Manoppello.
Sister Blandina awaits us on the
hill just above the church, where she lives. As we walk up the
central aisle, the "Holy Face" appears to be a
milky, rectangular communion host above the altar. A
cross in the window gleems
(shimmers, shines) from the back of the choir right through
the veil. After we climb the steps behind the altar and
draw close to the image, ChiaraVigo
falls to her knees. She has never seen a veil so finely woven.
"It has the eyes of a lamb," she says and crosses
herself. "And a lion."
And then: "That is Byssus!"
says it once, twice, thrice. Byssus
can be dyed with purple, she had explained to me in the car.
"Yet Byssus cannot be painted
on. It is simply not possible. O Dio!
(Oh my God! Oh my God!")!" "That is Byssus!"
This means: it cannot be any sort of painted picture. Thus,
the image on the veil is something else. Something
that transcends any picture.
Badde, 29. September 2004
of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel & Raphael)