Christ on Mussel Silk

The German journalist Paul Badde speeds with Chiara Vigo from the Roman airport Fiumicino over the highway towards the Abruzzo mountains in the Italian province of Pescara.

Their destination is the little 5,000-soul village Manoppello. Badde wants her to see the Volto Santo (sacred face), which has been venerated there for about 400 years in a capuchin monastery.

Vigo is from the Sant’ Antioco Island near Sardinia, and is the last living weaver of byssus on earth. Byssus is probably the finest and most precious material for cloths, used in ancient times for vestments of pharaohs, kings, high priests and popes. The population of Vigo’s island traces itself back to the Chaldeans and Phoenicians, along with the tradition of harvesting byssus from mussels in the Mediterranean Sea and weaving it to extremely fine material.

Vigo might have something to say about this mysterious silky cloth that has been forgotten for centuries and gained increasing attention over the last decades.

Back in November 1999, Antonio Gaspari reported in Inside the Vatican magazine about the possible rediscovery of Veronica’s veil, and recently there has been an explosion of articles and books about the issue. All this has recently culminated with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the shrine on Sept.1, which, of course, does not signify an official Vatican recognition of the relic’s authenticity, but underscores at least the importance that lies in the possibility that we possess a true image of Christ, and even more: of the risen Christ.

The veil that Vigo, as an expert on mussel silk, is eager to see, possesses some unique characteristics.

It measures 6½-inches-by-9½ inches and is exposed in the little Capuchin chapel within a silver frame over the altar, protected by two sheets of glass.

It has not been taken out of there for about 400 years.

The tissue is transparent and does not show anything but white linen when direct light hits it. If light falls from above or the side, the face of a man becomes visible, and the facial expressions change depending on the direction the light comes from.

The image shows, in brown-yellow colors, a face with open eyes, a swollen nose, slightly curled hair and a thin beard, with some traces of wounds, especially on the forehead and the nose.

The first impression is that it looks painted. However, Gaspari wrote, “in 1977, professor Donato Vittori of the University of Bari examined the veil under ultraviolet light and found that the fibers do not have any type of color. Observing the veil under a microscope, it is clear that it is not painted and not even woven with colored fibers. Through sophisticated photographic technology (digital enlargements) it is possible to see that the image is identical on both sides of the veil.”

Other scholars have made further investigations. Father Enrico Sammarco and the German Sister Blandina Paschalis Schomer (who lives at the shrine and readily leads visitors on tours) have made a detailed comparison of this face and state a stunning equivalence of the dimensions and other details with those of the Shroud of Turin.

Professor Andreas Resch of Innsbruck, Austria, confirms this in a study published in a 2005 issue of Das Antlitz Christi and in addition presents evidence that this image marks the beginning of Christian iconography.

This means that it has been the dominating point of reference for other images painted during the first Christian centuries (like the Mandylion of Edessa, kept in the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican).

The most debated and also complicated issue, however, is the history of the image in Manoppello.

Jesuit professor Heinrich Pfeiffer, an art historian at the Gregorian University in Rome and originally an expert on the Shroud of Turin, has researched this question for many years and published numerous books and articles. In brief, he claims that this image is not the veil which, according to legend, was used by a woman called Veronica (from Latin-Greek vera icon — “true icon”) during Christ’s way of the cross, but rather the sudarium (sweat cloth) put upon Christ’s face over or under the linen shroud for his burial (cf. John 20:6f).

This cloth would have traveled from Jerusalem through Ephesus, Camulia (Cappadocia), and Constantinople to St. Peter’s in Rome, where it attracted huge masses of pilgrims during the Middle Ages. In 1608, while St. Peter’s was under restoration, the image was taken out of the original frame (which can still be seen with a broken glass in the treasure chamber of St. Peter’s). Pfeiffer now assumes that the image was actually stolen and bought in Manoppello by a nobleman who donated it to the Capuchins.

Some secular media jumped on this Vatican crime thriller, since Veronica’s veil is still publicly shown every fifth Sunday of Lent in St. Peter’s — although on the exposed cloth there doesn’t appear any image at all. And the cloth of Manoppello has on its bottom edge a piece of broken glass.

The story is more complex, and critics, especially of the supposed itinerary, are not lacking, such as the British scholar Keith Ward of Oxford or Karlheinz Dietz of Würzburg, Germany. But regardless of the dispute about what exactly happened in 1608, the image of Manoppello escapes natural explanation.

Let’s now hear Paul Badde’s own description of how Chiara Vigo arrives at the image (in my translation from an article in Die Welt, Sept. 23, 2004):

“As we leave behind us in the center isle the dummy organ at the back of the church, the Volto Santo shines against the light like a milky, squared host over the tabernacle. The cross of a choir window shimmers through the tissue. After we climbed the stairs behind the altar up to the image, Chiara Vigo falls on her knees. A veil weaved as fine as this she has never seen before. ‘He has the eyes of a lamb,’ she says and crosses herself. ‘And of a lion.’ And then: ‘That’s byssus!’ Chiara Vigo says it once, a second, and a third time. Byssus can be colored with purple, she had already mentioned in the car. ‘But byssus can’t be painted. That’s impossible. O Dio! O Dio mio!’ That’s byssus — that means: It is not a painted image. It is something different. Something before all pictures.”

We do not know how this positive image was imprinted on the veil, neither do we know how the negative image was imprinted on the Shroud of Turin. But if Christ left us a “true icon” of his face right after his resurrection, we would be able to exclaim like Mary Magdalene: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18). And for those who have faith, it would be a priceless treasure, a tremendous sign of Christ’s love for our generation.

Legionary Father Andreas Kramarz

teaches at the Legionaries’ Novitiate

and College of Humanities

in Cheshire, Connecticut.

‘Tearing Us Apart’ book cover, with authors Alexandra DeSanctis and Ryan T. Anderson

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