The ancient cloth is dirty, creased, torn, stained, bloody and even burnt in places. Despite this contamination, it has been venerated for centuries. Scientists who have studied this piece of linen say it appears to have been used after the death of male who had a beard, moustache and long hair that had been plaited into a ponytail. The man had suffered horribly. Then his dead body was left hanging vertically for an hour, then placed on the ground on its right side, before it was moved to another location.
No, I am not describing the Shroud of Turin.
The cloth in question is much smaller -- 84 by 53 centimeters -- and woven in a taffeta pattern. It is called the Sudarium Christi (Face Cloth of Christ). Now, the history of this lesser-known relic is affecting the story of that other, more famous, piece of herringbone linen, the one bearing the mysterious, scorched photographic negative of a crucified man. The Shroud of Turin will be displayed between Aug. 12 and Oct. 22, its fifth public exhibition since 1898.
As if centuries of controversy about the Turin Shroud -- from the crusades to carbon dates -- were not enough, now there is evidence that links both these cloths to one place in time, to one body, and to one story 2000 years ago.
But, first, what is the Sudarium?
The answer to that question may be in the 20th chapter of the Gospel of John, which reports what Peter and John found when they reached the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. John got there first and: "Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself."
This detailed account makes sense, according to a 1998 paper published by a trio of Spanish scholars. Under Hebrew law, it was the custom to cover a corpse's face when it became bloody or disfigured. This bloody cloth would then have been removed as the body was placed in a proper shroud. However, since the face cloth was now ritually unclean, it would have been buried in the tomb.
What evidence links the Sudarium and the Turin Shroud?
"Here's the bottom line: when you take a photo of the Sudarium and you lay it over a photo of the Shroud's face and head images, they match. It's amazing," said Barrie Schwortz, the official photographer for the 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project.
Each appears to have matching blood and serum stains from the mouth, nose, beard and hair of a man who was beaten, crowned with thorns and killed by asphyxiation, which is consistent with crucifixion. The blood on both appears to be type AB, although some disagree. The broken noses are both 8 centimeters in length.
According to Avinoam Danin, a Jewish botanist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Turin Shroud contains pollens from a thistle plant, the Gundelia tournefortii, which grows only in the Middle East. This would be a likely plant from which to create a cap of thorns. Pollens from this species are on the Sudarium, too. Both cloths contain myrrh and aloes.
Why does this matter? The Sudarium Christi has been venerated at the Cathedral of Oviedo in Spain since the sixth century or thereabouts. Researchers claim they have found documents tracing it to first-century Jerusalem. This is hard to explain if, as carbon-14 tests indicated, the shroud was created between 1260 and 1390 A.D.
"If these blood patterns came from contact with the same face, then that means those Medieval carbon dates for the shroud are off by six or seven centuries and maybe more," said Schwortz. "At that point, we have a whole new set of questions we have to ask."
And the questions are not just about science. The Bible tells of signs of wonders that show God's power and inspired faith. But there were other times when Jesus declined to perform miracles and he told the doubting disciple Thomas, "Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."
How did the scorched photographic negative get on the shroud? Why do some icons weep myrrh? Why does prayer and anointing with oil bring healing to some believers and not to others? Why do scoundrels, as well as saints, keep seeing visions?
For millions of people, the shroud and the Sudarium point to the Resurrection. For others -- including many Christians, as well as skeptics -- all of this adds up to one big, tacky, mess. Believers have been probing these mysteries, and praying about them, for centuries.