I have just spent two amazing days in the hilltop town of Manoppello, in Abruzzo, about two hours outside of Rome, on the trail of a holy relic which is not very well known, yet may be just as important as the Shroud of Turin.
The “Holy Veil of Manoppello” is a rectangular cloth, approx. 17” x 11”. At first glance, it appears to be a piece of linen with a face imprinted upon it. Not just any face, of course. It is believed by the faithful to be the face of Jesus. Now, I know what you’re already thinking: it’s a painting from the middle ages, or even earlier, but it is certainly an artistic creation. That’s what I thought, too. In fact, I initially was quite convinced that no one would change my mind on this. In a number of places, it looks just like a pen and ink drawing. The open eyes and partially opened mouth are disconcerting, but they also appear to be an artist’s rendition. Yet on closer inspection in person, and upon weighing some very interesting evidence, I am now even more convinced of the opposite conclusion - this is not a drawing or painting. I cannot yet state definitively what I believe it is, other than a completely unique, extraordinary and utterly baffling image. It is in the very least something super-natural. You can draw your own conclusions about whether or not it is divine.
There are so many anomalies around this piece of “art” that it is hard to know where to begin. I will state that the following are the facts I have obtained from reading what has been written about the veil in English and from spending two days at the basilica where it is housed. These are preliminary findings only, and I will be digging deeper into this mystery going forward - indeed, I am already in pretty deep. But here are some highlights of what I have learned and observed so far.
The fabric that the image is impressed upon is completely transparent when there is light behind it. It is displayed between two panes of glass so that this can be viewed in the space above the altar where the reliquary resides. The image of the face can be seen on the front and back. I took the photo above in the morning light on my phone – you can get some idea of the transparency based on the stained glass window images bleeding in from behind it. But the strange thing is that the image is identical on both sides. In other words, there is no front and no back. The image is equally and identically visible on both sides of the fabric. When you step away from the image with light behind it, it becomes 100% transparent. The image disappears completely. I have photos where it appears that you are looking into an empty reliquary and can see the window panes on the wall approximately twenty feet behind it. (I am on the road in Bosnia at the moment, so can’t upload those photos, but will add some later).
As to the fabric itself, this is the real stunner. It isn’t linen. It isn’t any kind of fabric that I even knew existed until we started doing research into the Manoppello veil. It is byssus, also called sea silk or mussel silk, a very rare and ultra-costly fabric that is woven from the fibers that are secreted by mussels – as in the delicious mollusks that you eat at the beach in France with frites. Although apparently these are an endangered mussel from the Mediterranean which we should NOT eat. There is only one byssus master artisan left in the world, in Sardinia, and she has confirmed that the veil is made of mussel silk (this is a lovely article on Chiara Vigo and her mastery of this sea silk, and the ancient “sea oath” that she took: http://www.gonomad.com/alternatives/1008/sardinia-sea-silk-weaver.html).
So here is the thing about mussel silk: the fabric has a consistency that resists all attempts to paint on it. It is like the deep sea version of Teflon. Nothing sticks to it. It cannot be painted. It cannot be printed upon. It has a natural coating that protects the fibers, and although a master can dye it, individual images cannot be transferred to it. From what I understand, it can range from white to golden brown, with the rarest and most valuable being the white, but all of them shimmering and transparent in the light. It was sold in the ancient world as a gossamer veil, something which could only be attained by the very wealthy or elite. There are fewer than 30 pieces of mussel silk on display in the world’s museums.
Mussel silk cannot be carbon dated – it doesn’t contain carbon - thus it is impossible to know the age of the fabric. It is known that it was available in the ancient world, sold through Alexandria and Damascus. Although it was not made in or sold in Jerusalem as far as what is recorded, someone wealthy enough to own mussel silk would also be wealthy enough to have it imported to Jerusalem.
There have been other scientific tests done to the fabric, and microscopic analysis shows no evidence of pigment of any kind. None. When viewed under a microscope, the fabric appears pristine and untouched.
As to the image itself, when viewing it up close it is quite arresting:The eyes follow you and it always appears to be about to speak. But it is the similarities to the Shroud of Turin which make the image truly extraordinary. The nose is broken in the same place as the image in the shroud. The right cheek (the viewer’s right) is swollen and there is an “off” dilation of the pupil in that eye. There is some bruising on the face and what appear to be puncture wounds on the forehead – they are light, but they’re there. I had to go back specifically to view the image to see these because I missed them in the first viewings. Modern forensic investigators have confirmed that the image is consistent with a man who was beaten severely and had his nose broken. There is no blood on the veil – remember that there is no pigment of any kind on the veil – but you can make out around the forehead and temples that there were bloodstains on the face of the man who made the impression upon the cloth.
There is an extraordinary woman, Sister Blandina, who through her devotion to the Holy Face since 1970 has inspired exhibitions on it (one of which we viewed in Lourdes in July). She did the first detailed study of the similarities between the Manoppello Veil and the Shroud of Turin in which she proved ten “points of congruence” which indicates that the images are of the same face. More recent computer analysis shows that when the image from Manoppello is overlaid on to the image from Turin, they fuse into one face.
The Manoppello veil is most often referred to as a “Veronica”veil, a reference to the woman who gave Jesus her veil to wipe the sweat and blood from his face as he shouldered his heavy burden to Golgotha. But I do not believe this veil fits well into that story. What I do believe is that these gossamer veils were very precious in the ancient world, not just because of their costly fabric, but because they could only be worn by a particular type of holy woman. This silk that emerges from the sea, like Venus herself, is the fabric of the High Priestess.
The great Renaissance master Fra Filippo Lippi was famous for painting transparent gossamer veils on his Madonnas. Was he painting mussel silk?
There is another story behind this amazing artifact, and one we have yet to fully uncover. But I am well on the path of doing just that! Stay tuned...
The Holy Face and Me, September 3, 2012, Manoppello, Italy.