Since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated by the Shroud of Turin, where the paths of history, science and faith combine in one unique artefact. Irrespective of your religious beliefs, any student of history or science will find much to captivate them in the faint image of a crucified man that appears on the ancient cloth. Whether the linen once wrapped the dead body of Jesus Christ or is the work of a more recent medieval forger, the mystery of how the image is imprinted remains unsolved, even with twenty-first-century technology. It is my view that the image of Christ that appears on Byzantine coinage provides compelling evidence for the Shroud’s authenticity and a plausible solution to one of history’s greatest enigmas – the location of the mythical Holy Grail itself.
A New Acquisition
At some time during the short but distinguished reign of Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (AD 969- 976), an artist working at the Constantinople Mint was entrusted with the task of engraving an image of Jesus Christ for a new bronze follis. Earlier emperors had depicted Christ on gold and silver coins, but this was the first time that his likeness would appear on a mass-produced circulating coin.
The Emperor’s decision to depict Christ on his coinage instead of his own portrait may have been prompted by an exciting new acquisition. Constantinople had recently taken ownership of the holiest relic in Christendom, a mysterious image of Christ ‘not made by human hands’ but miraculously transferred onto a cloth, it was said, by Christ himself. Although it was considered too holy to go on public display at the time, our coin engraver would almost certainly have been granted the privilege of entering the Pharos chapel of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace for a special viewing in order to capture a good likeness.
The cloth had arrived in Constantinople amidst much rejoicing on 15th August 944 after being acquired from the city of Edessa (today, Urfa in Southern Turkey). According to local legend, it had been presented to King Abgar of Edessa by Jesus’ disciples when he became the first ruler to convert to Christianity. However, when the King died, the city reverted to paganism, and the cloth was hidden to protect it. Workers repairing the city walls in AD 525 stumbled upon it in a niche high above one of the main gates.
The rediscovery of the Edessa Cloth (or Mandylion) sparked considerable excitement throughout the Christian world. One contemporary account described the image as “a moist secretion with no paint or artistic craft transferred with no artistic intervention on the cloth”.
Since the New Testament provide no clues about Christ’s physical appearance, pilgrims flocked to Edessa to observe what they believed to be His true likeness. From the Sixth Century onwards, artists increasingly depicted him with the distinctive facial features that appear on the cloth – long hair with a centre parting, large owl-like eyes, a long prominent nose, a full moustache and a slightly forked beard.
Contemporary paintings made of the Mandylion suggest that it was kept in a wide rectangular frame with a hole cut into the centre through which the bearded face could be viewed. It is interesting to note that artists who painted the face often framed it within a circle. Could this be the origin of the halo, or nimbus that became a popular symbol of holiness in medieval art?
The First Depiction
The first coins to depict Christ were struck almost three centuries earlier during the reign of Emperor Justinian II (AD 692–695). On that occasion, the coin engravers may have made the 800 mile trip to Edessa to see the Mandylion for themselves. Both the gold solidus and the smaller gold tremissis (one third the weight of the solidus) incorporate many intricate details present in the mysterious image. However, political instability in the region may have restricted future access to the cloth, and later designs appear to have been copies of the first strikes. During the Eighth Century, a fierce debate raged through the Eastern Church about whether it was heretical to make images of the Son of God. Many paintings of Christ were destroyed, and no coins were struck bearing his image for over a Century until the debate was resolved.
The mass circulating bronze coin of Emperor John I Tzimiskes marked the first in a series of what has become known as anonymous Byzantine folles. For the next 123 years, successive emperors chose to depict Christ on their circulating coins instead of their own portraits, which is why they are collectively described as anonymous. Whilst doing so may have been no more than an act of piety, it also allowed them to promote their holiest relic throughout the ancient world. On the reverse of the coins, several different inscriptions boldly identify the face that appears on them. The most common is the four-lined IHSUS XRISTUS BASILEU BASILE (‘Jesus Christ King of Kings’). There is also a popular cross symbol with two letters in each quarter, IC XC NI KA (‘May Jesus Christ Conquer’).
The Engraver’s Art
Engraving a portrait directly onto a small circular die required formidable talent, consummate patience and perfect vision. Given the large number of circulating bronze coins required to circulate through the empire, a relatively simple design would have been required so that the Mint could replace the dies quickly as they wore out. This posed another challenge to the Mint engravers as there would be no time to create the intricate and exquisitely detailed dies which had been crafted for the more prestigious gold coins. They had to work quickly using a design that was relatively easy to replicate over and over again to keep the coins coming.
I am going to suggest, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent, that our engraver took a novel approach to create his coin design for the bronze follis. Unable to create a beautiful portrait incorporating detailed facial features, he instead carefully copied the faint lines that make up the image. The result may have lacked the elegance of the gold coins but accurately replicated the mysterious face on Constantinople’s most important holy relic, which was presumably his brief.
The Mandylion Stolen
So, how successful was the coin designer in copying the image from the Cloth of Edessa? To answer that, we have to determine whether it has survived to enable us to make a comparison. In 1204, Constantinople was attacked and plundered by the French-led Fourth Crusade. It was later reported that the crusaders had” taken many relics, including the linen in which our Lord was wrapped’. The Mandylion, with its mysterious ghost-like image, slipped quietly into legend.
Without the original cloth, inferior copies made of the ‘true image’ (Latin: vera icon) soon took on a mythical quality of their own. A new origin story emerged in the 14th Century in which a woman from Jerusalem wiped Christ’s face with her veil as he carried his cross to his crucifixion, only to find a supernatural image of his face imprinted on it. The event does not appear in any of the New Testament accounts, and the name Veronica is most likely a corruption of the words ‘vera icon’. Several churches claim to possess either the true veil or an ancient copy. In reality, they are most likely early copies of the image on the Edessa Cloth made before it was stolen from Constantinople in 1204.
The Templar Connection
There is strong evidence that the real Mandylion was entrusted to the safekeeping of the warrior monks known as the Knights Templar, who were fiercely protective of their most precious treasure and kept its location a closely guarded secret. A Vatican researcher recently claimed to have unearthed a Templar initiation rite from 1287. In it, a young Frenchman called Arnaut Sabbatier testified that he was “shown a long piece of linen on which was impressed the figure of a man and told to worship it, kissing the feet three times“.
When the Knights Templar fell out of favour with the Pope, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay was arrested with sixty of his knights in a dawn raid on Friday 13th October 1307. Charged with heresy, which included worshipping the image of a bearded man, years of torture and imprisonment followed, but they refused to divulge the whereabouts of the treasure they guarded.
Eventually, the King of France lost patience and had Moloy and his deputy, the Templar ‘draper’ Geoffrey de Charny, burnt at the stake in Paris on 18th March 1314.
From Lirey to Turin
In 1349, a distinguished French Knight, also called Geoffrey de Charny, requested permission from Pope Clement VI to display the burial shroud of Christ in his hometown of Lirey. It is highly probable that he was a descendant of the man who died alongside Moloy in Paris, although the family always refused to explain how such a remarkable object had come into their possession. This led one local bishop to denounce the shroud as being “cunningly painted … a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed“.
After Charny was killed fighting the battle of Poitiers in 1356, his family displayed the Shroud to the public and struck special souvenir pilgrim badges, depicting its distinctive double imprint of a human body and bearing the Charny family’s heraldry.
In 1453 Geoffrey de Charny’s elderly grand-daughter Marguerite de Charny, knowing she would die childless, passed the Shroud to the pious Duke Louis I of Savoy. His successors installed it at their then capital, Chambery where it was folded up and placed in a silver casket. In 1532 a fire swept through the chapel, and a drop of molten silver from the casket burned a hole through the folded layers of fabric within. Fortunately, the image was left more or less intact, and in 1578 the Savoy family moved the cloth to their new capital Turin, where it resides to this day. In 1983 ownership of the Shroud was officially transferred to the Roman Catholic Church.
Today, the Shroud of Turin is the most studied historical artefact in the world. The scientific community began to take an interest after amateur photographer Secondo Pia photographed the face for the first time in May 1898. As he developed the image in his darkroom, he nearly dropped the photographic plate in shock. The negative revealed details of the face that had never been seen before. Pia was accused of tampering with the image and had to wait until the Shroud was publicly displayed again in 1931 before another photograph could be taken to validate his startling discovery.
In October 1978, an international team comprising over 40 scientists was granted unprecedented access to the Shroud for five days. Calling themselves the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), they included a nuclear physicist, a thermal chemist, a biophysicist, an optical physicist, a forensic pathologist and specialist photographers. They brought over eighty tonnes of scientific equipment to Turin to determine how the image had been formed and where it had been.
Three years later, STURP published their findings, concluding that “there are no chemical or physical methods known which can account for the totality of the image“.
The image shows the anatomically correct human form of a scourged and crucified man with wounds consistent with the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion. These include a bleeding scalp, a severe scourging with multi-pronged whips, wounds in the wrists and feet and an elliptical wound in the side that appears to have been made by a spear.
No pigments, paints or dyes were found on the linen fibres that would account for the image, meaning that the image cannot be the work of an artist. The bloodstains that cover the cloth are human and contain a high concentration of bilirubin, produced when a body is suffering extreme stress and pain. Curiously, the blood was present on the linen before the image formed around it. Pollen grains taken from the cloth have been identified as coming from plants that flower in Jerusalem, Edessa and Constantinople, suggesting that the Shroud has spent time in these locations.
More Than A Face
One problem with linking the Shroud of Turin with the Cloth of Edessa is that the latter was often described as bearing an image of Jesus’ face while he was still alive and not an image of his whole body laid out in death. However, it would have made practical sense for the original custodians of the cloth to disguise the fact that it once wrapped a dead body. Grave clothes were considered untouchable and unclean by the deeply superstitious population, and it would have been far more palatable to display the face only and claim that the image had been miraculously transferred when Jesus was alive.
This might explain why the cloth was displayed in a wide rectangular frame with a hole cut into the centre to display only the face. The frame would have allowed room for a much longer cloth to be folded up inside it. Intriguingly, the original Edessan account of the cloth refers to it as being “tetradiplon“, which means four-folded. Analysis of fold marks on the Shroud of Turin confirms that it was indeed folded in this way for a considerable time.
There are also eyewitness reports that suggest that the Mandylion was a full-body image and not just a face. In the Eighth Century, Pope Stephen III (reigned AD 752 to 757) stated that Christ had “spread out his entire body on a linen cloth that was white as snow. On this cloth, marvellous as it is to see… the glorious image of the Lord’s face, and the length of his entire and most noble body, has been divinely transferred.”
Later, an English monk called Orderic Vitalis, writing in about 1130, confirmed that the cloth bore “the majestic form of his whole body… supernaturally transferred“.
In 1203, a French knight called Robert de Clari visited Constantinople and described seeing “the Shroud in which the Lord had been wrapped raised upright so that one could see the figure of our Lord on it“.
Undoubtedly the greatest obstacle for linking the two cloths came in 1988 when laboratories in Oxford, Tucson and Zurich were granted permission to conduct a destructive Carbon 14 test on a sample cut from the Shroud of Turin to determine its age. They later declared that the Shroud was a medieval forgery, made between 1260 and 1390.
Regrettably, the laboratories showed no interest in understanding how a medieval forger had imprinted a full length anatomically correct image of a victim of Roman crucifixion complete with unique photographic properties onto the linen. At the Press Conference, Professor Edward Hall, Director of the Oxford Research Laboratory, suggested that “someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it” as if this would have been an easy thing to do. Irrespective of when the linen was made, how the image came to be imprinted on it remains no less of a mystery.
In recent years, serious doubts have been cast on the validity of the 1988 test results. The test samples were cut from a corner of the cloth that priests had held up for hours at a time when displaying it to the faithful during outdoor expositions. We now know that smoke damage, prolonged exposure to the elements, and repeated handling can seriously affect the outcome of a Carbon 14 test.
Furthermore, in 2005 one of the original STURP scientists, Ray Rogers, examined a control sample cut for the test that was not destroyed and concluded that cotton had once been expertly woven into the ancient linen to repair the area and then dyed to disguise the repair. If correct, this would invalidate the 1988 results because it means that the samples cut from the corner “were not representative of the main Shroud“, which contains no cotton.
In 2013, a team of scientists from several Italian Universities led by Professor Giulio Fanti published the results of their non-destructive chemical and mechanical tests on the Shroud. Using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman Spectroscopy, and other tests to measure the micro-mechanical characteristics of flax fibres such as tensile strength, the team was able to date the linen to “33 BC ± 250 years”.
To date, all attempts to date the Shroud using scientific methods have provoked controversy and accusations of bias, and the Catholic Church has wisely refused to have an official position regarding its authenticity. However, the new test results open up the genuine possibility that the Cloth of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin are the same historical artefact.
I believe that the anonymous bronze follis struck between AD 969 and 976 make this connection even more compelling. The coins circulated throughout the Byzantine empire for many decades, meaning that surviving examples are often heavily worn. Frustratingly, the highest points on a circulating coin are inevitably the first to wear, so coins that still display clear facial features are rare. Fortunately, well-preserved examples exist, and we can see what the coin designer engraved onto the die simply by flipping the image that appears on the struck coin. When flipped and viewed alongside an image of the face on the Shroud, the similarities are extraordinary, especially when you consider that our engraver was working on an area little more than a centimetre in diameter.
Most striking of all is the distinctive cross shape incorporating the eyebrows, forehead and nose. There is a long horizontal band above the eyes, bisected by a long vertical line that starts at the hairline and extends downwards to become a long nose. The base of the nose connects to a smaller horizontal line that forms the moustache, which slopes down slightly on the left-hand side. There is a distinctive mark on the right cheek, and beneath the moustache is a small square and a forked beard. The long hair, which hangs down on both sides of the face, has two parallel strands of hair at the bottom left of the image. These features can be seen clearly on the Shroud image, and the result is a coin that resembles the Shroud image far too closely to be dismissed as a coincidence.
A later bronze follis struck in Constantinople about fifty years later incorporates additional details that suggest that coin artists continued to have access to the original image. Intriguingly, there is a tiny mark in the centre parting of the hair in the forehead that resembles the inverted “3” shaped bloodstain that appears on the Shroud in the same area. In addition, the coin artist has replicated the way that the long hair appears to bunch at the shoulders. The eyebrows are represented with a long horizontal line, and there is the suggestion that the right eyebrow is slightly higher than the left. There is also a wound-like mark on the right cheek, a moustache that appears to slope down to the left and, most striking of all, a horizontal band across the throat.
Once again, I would suggest that the similarities are too many and too specific to be a coincidence.
So, if we are to consider these startling similarities to be compelling numismatic evidence that the coin artists working at the Constantinople Mint saw and copied the face on the Shroud of Turin, then the ramifications are significant. It means that the Shroud is considerably older than the flawed Carbon dating results indicate. It also provides compelling evidence that the Cloth of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin are one and the same. It is frankly inconceivable that there were two linen cloths present in Christendom at the same time, both containing a mysterious image of Jesus not made by human hands.
There is an additional, intriguing implication of this research. According to legend, the holiest relic protected by the Templars was the Holy Grail, a mysterious vessel that Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus, used to collect Jesus’ blood in at his crucifixion. The grail is often associated with the cup that Jesus used in his last supper with his disciples before his death. But why the Romans executing Jesus would have permitted one of his followers to catch his blood in a drinking cup makes no sense at all. So, could this vessel be something else?
The New Testament may provide us with the answer. Could it be that the vessel that Joseph of Arimathea used to contain Jesus’ blood in was not a drinking cup at all, but the blood-stained linen cloth that wrapped around Jesus’ crucified body in the tomb?
“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate (the Roman governor), he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.” (Matthew 27:57-60 NIV)
Does the face of Jesus struck onto the coins of the Byzantine Empire reveal that the lost Cloth of Edessa, the legendary Holy Grail and the mysterious Shroud of Turin are, in fact, the same historical artefact?