Painting in Sacred Blood

Almost four centuries after its mysterious disappearance, Fr. Heinrich Pfeiffer reported that he has rediscovered one of Christendom’s most intriguing relics: the Veil of Veronica, the cloth with which Jesus wiped His face on the road to Calvary.

Sanctuary of the Holy Face

Fr. Pfeiffer, a professor of Christian Art History in Rome, found the relic in the Abbey of Manoppello, Italy. The German Jesuit invested 13 years of searching through archives to prove that this is the same cloth that disappeared from the Vatican in 1608.

Manoppello is a small, ancient town in the Abruzzo region of Italy, about 150 miles from Rome in the Apennine Mountains. The Capuchin friary there is appropriately named the Sanctuary of the Holy Face. A piece of stained, pale cloth kept in this tiny village has long been regarded by the Capuchin monks as a sacred icon with wondrous properties.

The story of St. Veronica and her veil appears in various early Christian writings. Most notably, the apocryphal “Acts of Pilate” from the sixth century, identifies Veronica with the hemorrhaging woman who was cured by touching the hem of Jesus' cloak. Veronica is described as a pious matron from Jerusalem, and numbered among the holy women who accompanied our Lord to Calvary.

During the Passion, she is said to have wiped sweat from His brow. Jesus rewarded Veronica for her charity by leaving her an imprint of His face on the “veil.” She later traveled to Rome, bringing with her this image of Christ, which was long exposed to public veneration.

The almost transparent white veil measures about 6-1/2 x 9-1/2 inches and bears dark red features of a serene bearded man with long hair and open eyes, patiently enduring suffering. Bruises and other scars are apparent on his forehead. Clotted blood is on his nose, and one pupil is slightly dilated.

The sacred veil is so thin one can easily see through it. In fact, the image becomes invisible depending on the angle from which the cloth is viewed, something that was considered a miracle in itself in medieval times.

Stolen, Sold and Donated

Documented history of the mysterious relic dates back to at least the fourth century. On the occasion of the first known Jubilee year, 1300, we know that the veil was kept in the Vatican Basilica as a popular goal of pilgrims, as it is mentioned in Canto XXXI of Dante's Paradiso. Fr. Pfeiffer believes the sacred relic was stolen during the restoration of the Basilica in the year 1608., when the chapel housing the veil was demolished. Shortly thereafter, the veil appeared in Manoppello.

Ten years later, in 1618, Vatican archivist Giacomo Grimaldi drew up a list of the sacred objects held in the old St. Peter's Basilica. The reliquary containing the Veil of Veronica was on that list, but Grimaldi indicated that the reliquary's crystal glass was broken.

According to records at the monastery written in 1646, the wife of a soldier sold the veil to a nobleman of Manoppello in 1608 in order to ransom her husband from prison. Thirty years later, the nobleman donated the relic to the Capuchins. In 1638, it was placed in a walnut frame adorned in silver and gold between two sheets of glass. It remained in the monastery ever since.

The Same Face as the Shroud

“There are few such objects in history,” Fr. Pfeiffer explained to Rome's Zenit News Agency a few years ago. “This is not a painting. We don't know what the material is that shapes the image, but it is the color of blood.”

Ultraviolet examinations of the cloth confirm that the image is not paint, and the fibers of the veil do not have any type of color. Thus, it was not woven with dyed fibers. Particularly noteworthy are several small flecks of reddish brown — presumably drops of blood from the wounds caused by the Crown of Thorns.

Enlarged digital photographs of the veil reveal that the image is identical on both sides of the cloth — a feat impossible to achieve by ancient techniques, and extremely difficult to achieve even today. These photographs have also been used to compare the veil with the face on the Shroud of Turin. Striking similarities are apparent: the faces are the same shape and size, both have shoulder-length hair with a tuft on the forehead, the noses are the same length, and the beards match. The only difference is that on the veil the mouth and eyes are open. Those who carried out the tests concluded that the two relics bear the image of the same face, “photographed” at two different times.

For those interested, the Veil of Veronica remains on display at the Capuchin Abbey of Manoppello.

(c) Copyright 2006 Catholic Match, LLC. This article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way without written authorization Catholic Match, LLC

Michael S. Rose is author of several books including Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger.

This article has been re-published with written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage