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Patristic, Apocryphal Literature and Itineraries and Selected Artefacts about the Shroud and Images of Jesus

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Krzysztof Pilarczyk
Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland

Sindonology deals not only with the Shroud of Turin, but also with the history of the shroud of Jesus in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and attempts to relate all this to the Shroud of Turin. The literary material featuring the topos of the shroud and the depiction of Jesus can be divided into four categories of sources: (1) New Testament literature (→The Shroud of Jesus in the New Testament), (2) patristic literature, (3) apocryphal literature of the ancient and medieval periods, and (4) the literature of the early itineraries of Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land (the homeland of Jesus and the apostles) supplemented by selected artefacts-links to the messages contained in the written sources. The Mandylion (image) of →Edessa and the →Shroud of Constantinople deserve special treatment in this regard.

Patristic Literature

Patristic commentaries on the canonical Gospel texts are scarce. Nevertheless, some exegetes of Christian antiquity took an interest in the burial of Jesus in the shroud, from which they drew conclusions mainly of a moral and theological nature and gave this usually an allegorical or typological interpretation. Bede the Venerable (7th century) in On the Gospel of Mark (4,15,46; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 120, 638) expounded the account in this Gospel. He drew the reader’s attention to the simplicity of Jesus’ burial, which he interpreted as an admonition to rich people who, he wrote, should renounce vanity. He used the same observation to explain why the Eucharist is celebrated on an altar covered not with silk or dyed linen, but with a tablecloth of natural linen: this is in remembrance of the shroud in which Jesus’ body was wrapped when taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb: The vanity of the rich who cannot refrain from displaying their riches even in tombs was condemned by the simple burial of the Lord (…). This is also the origin of the custom of the Church that the altar sacrifice should not be celebrated wrapped in silk or dyed linen, but natural linen, just as Christ’s body was wrapped in pure linen. Also, Origen, a writer of Christian antiquity (2nd–3rd century), commenting on the topos of Jesus’ shroud in the Gospel according to Matthew, pointed to the purifying power of Christ’s body, which included both the linen cloth in which it was wrapped after death and the entire tomb in which it was laid (Gospel according to Matthew 14-29… 2018, p. 308). Hilary of Poitiers, who lived in the 4th century, using allegorical exegesis noted in his Commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew (33, 8; Gospel according to Matthew 14-29… 2018, pp. 308–310) that the cloth of Jesus’ tomb signifies the Church, which had expanded to include the Gentiles as well, as was—in his understanding—to be revealed to Peter, who saw that the clean and unclean animals descended from above on a great cloth (cf. Acts 10:9–12: kai katabainon skeuos ti hos othonen—καὶ καταβαῖνον σκεῦός τι ὡς ὀθόνην). And it is not without reason—he observed—to suppose that the image of this sheet conceals the image of the burial of the Church in Christ (cf. Rom 6:4; Col 2:12), since in it as well as in the confession of the Church a variety of animals, clean and unclean, will gather. The same Gospel also attracted the attention of Jerome (4th/5th century), who recalled that Joseph took the body, Joseph wrapped it in clean linen (Matt 27:59). He explained this verse according to a spiritual understanding, that the Lord’s body should be wrapped not in gold, jewels or silk, but in clean linen. Although the following meaning is also possible: that this man wrapped Jesus in a clean cloth, who received him with a sincere mind (Jerome of Stridon 2008, p. 209). There have been many commentators on the passage in the Gospel according to St Luke which describes the empty tomb of Jesus and the garments (linen cloths) left there. Prominent among them is Ephrem the Syrian (4th century), founder of the theological school of Edessa and author of numerous writings composed in Syriac, often in rhymed prose. Among the authentic exegetical writings he left behind are his Commentary on the Four Gospels Gathered Into One [Diatessaron], full of poetry and symbolism, valuable for the ecclesiological and Christological teaching it contains (Leloir 1953–1954). Commenting on Matthew 24, Ephrem first referred to the story of the women (Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James) who were returning from the tomb of Jesus (v. 8–11), whose account seemed to the apostles to be idle talk and therefore they did not give them credence. This doubt caused them to go to the tomb themselves and see that it was empty (without the body of Jesus), for they found only linen garments. In describing this fact, Ephrem states that Jesus divests himself of his (burial) garments so that Adam can re-enter paradise in the state in which he left it, that is, naked. For Ephrem, Christ is the Lord of symbols and the treasury of all symbols. In his commentary on The Diatessaron, he also refers to meanings hidden in symbols. Such a symbol is the linen robes of Jesus, which were his clothes in the tomb. Ephrem is convinced that Christ left them intentionally because, thanks to His resurrection, Adam had to enter paradise without clothes, in order to express by this the restored state he had before he sinned. Adam left heaven (paradise) being clothed; now, according to Ephrem, he must free himself from his clothes before he returns to heaven. The leaving of these garments is symbolic. Ephrem sees in this the mystery of the resurrection. Since the Lord rose in glory without clothes (without the burial robe), we too, Ephrem writes, will rise with our works and not with our garments (Ephrem, Commentary on the Diatessaron, 21, 23).

Regarding the posthumous linens of Jesus in St John’s gospel, Origen, Augustine and Bede the Venerable drew attention to John 19:40, while John Chrysostom and Eusebius of Caesarea focused on John 20:5–7. Augustine, in his work De consensu evangelistarum (The Harmony of the Gospels, c. 400), recognises the fact, present only in John 19:40, that Jesus’ body was buried not only by Joseph of Arimathea, but also with the participation of Nicodemus, about whom the synoptic gospels are silent. It was the latter who could—according to Augustine—have brought other linens, adding them to those bought by Joseph of Arimathea. John, as it were, considering this possibility, wrote that Jesus was wrapped in linen (singular). Both the headscarf with which Jesus’ head was wrapped and the bandages that wrapped the body were made of linen cloth, so it can be repeated after the first three evangelists—and this is the full truth, as Augustine writes—that Jesus’ body was wrapped in linen cloth (singular). In an attempt to demonstrate the consistency of the evangelists’ accounts, Augustine believes that the expression linen garment they used refers to all the cloths used in Jesus’ burial, since they were made of linen (Augustine, De consensu evangelistarum, 3.23.60).

Bede the Venerable’s commentary on this verse in In Marci Evangelium expositio (On the Gospel of Mark), written in the late 7th and early 8th centuries, is extremely laconic. It refers to the decision of Pope Sylvester I in the 4th century. He recalls that the Eucharist is celebrated in the Church according to established custom, not on silk or gold linen, but on pure linen cloth (Beda Venerabilis, In Marci Evangelium exposito, 4.15). And Origen (2nd–3rd century), commenting on the same text, gave Jesus’ burial robe a moral significance. He turns in Commentariorum in Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos (Commentary on the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans) to the Christian with a warning: if you continue to live for sin, you cannot be buried with Jesus or find yourself in his new tomb, because your old self lives on and cannot enter into the new life.

The Scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit, writes Origen, in showing the new tomb of Jesus in which He was buried emphasize that His body was wrapped in a clean (in the ritual sense) robe (shroud). This detail is significant. Origen instructs that whoever wishes to be buried with Jesus by baptism must know that nothing from the old state should be brought into the new one, nothing unclean can be found in the clean linen robe (Commentariorum in Epistolam B. Pauli ad Romanos, 5.8.4). John Chrysostom, a priest active in Antioch at the end of the 4th century, drew attention to John’s second text (John 20:5–7). In one—the eighty-fifth—of the 88 homilies to the Gospel of John (391) he left behind, he showed (according to the record of the Gospel commented on) how the apostles Peter and John, on hearing the news from the women, ran to the tomb of Jesus. John Chrysostom, commenting on what they saw—i.e. the linen robes or linen cloths left in the tomb—saw them as a sign of Jesus’ resurrection. His homily asked the question whether Jesus’ body had been stolen from the tomb. The author argues that the thieves would not have taken the body apart in the first place because they would not have taken the trouble to remove the headscarf from the head, roll it up and lay it on a different place from the linen cloths. They would probably have taken the body as it was laid in the tomb. All the more so since the evangelist wrote that Jesus’ body was buried with a lot of myrrh, which makes the linen stick to the body no less strongly than lead. John Chrysostom concludes the argument by saying that a thief would not have been so foolish as to expend so much effort on a trifle (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St John, 85.4). Eusebius of Caesarea presents a similar line of thought when he comments on this text earlier, at the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries, in a letter to Marinus (Ad Marinus), a soldier from Caesarea (supplement 2). In it, he proves that, contrary to the fear expressed by Mary in the gospel, people did not steal the body of Jesus from the tomb. Whoever takes the body of the dead,’ he writes, ‘does not leave the linen because this action takes time and the thief could be caught in the act. The linen left behind only confirms the resurrection of Jesus. The further argument is theological in nature. The God who transforms a humiliated body, writes Eusebius, into a glorified (glorious) body, does so by the power that dwells in him; he transforms it into something divine. The linen left behind is to such a body superfluous and alien to the nature of the glorified body (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 85.4).

Apocryphal Literature

The shroud used to bury Jesus is repeatedly mentioned in Christian apocryphal literature. The definition of what apocryphal literature should be is not clear; let us briefly describe what is meant by the term apocryphal literature so that we know what kind of source it represents. Generally speaking, the collection of apocrypha comprises works on biblical themes that have not been accepted into the Christian canon although they have sometimes been considered for acceptance. The authors of the apocrypha pass themselves off as New Testament characters, which situates their writings in what—in the case of the ancient and medieval periods—we call pseudepigrapha. The Apocrypha to which we will refer were written in a variety of languages and literary genres. The motives for their production were varied. The authors of some of them wished to supplement the messages contained in the canonical books of the New Testament, while others promoted a doctrine different from the apostolic one, which was shared by the majority of church communities with their religious leaders. The former were expressions of the faith of local popular religiosities, the latter of various religious sects and their leaders wishing to disseminate their own religious beliefs. The culture-forming role of the apocrypha is still little appreciated today. They must be studied with great care and a distinction must be made between legendary and strictly historical transmission. The specific nature of the apocrypha makes them not easy for researchers. In particular, it would be an unacceptable methodological error to reconstruct the history of Jesus and the Church on their basis without a critical (historical, literary and doctrinal) apparatus. When discussing the apocryphal texts (in chronological order) concerning the shroud of Jesus, these considerations must be borne in mind.

The Gospel [according to] Hebrews (1st century)—the oldest of the apocryphal writings—contains a reference to the shroud of Jesus and the fate of this cloth. Its text is lost, but an account of it is preserved in Jerome’s (331?–419) work De viris illustribus, dated 392–393, and in Epiphanius of Salamina (315?–403) in Panarion. It is conjectured that the gospel they quote may date from the late 1st century. Jean Daniélou, a scholar of ancient Christianity, has put the time of its composition to the period before 70 AD and pointed to Jerusalem as the place of its composition or, more broadly, to the Palestinian environment. The original was written in the Syro-Chaldean dialect (i.e. Aramaic), in Hebrew letters. The text was translated into Greek. This translation, which may have been used by Origen, has also been lost.

In Jerome’s time, it was used by the Judeo-Christians (Nazarenes) from the area around Aleppo (then Berea) and the Ebionites (considered heretics). Both used the Gospel of Matthew in some original version. Epiphanius characterizes this writing as follows: They acknowledge the Gospel of Matthew, … which they use as the only one, and which they call according to the Hebrews … This Gospel of Matthew, which is in their possession, is not complete, but falsified and distorted (Epiphanius, Panarion, XXX, 3.13). On the other hand, in a note on the Nazarenes, he claimed that the Gospel according to Matthew which these preserved was remarkably complete. Jean Daniélou resolves this textological dilemma by stating that the Ebionites certainly had the same text as the Nazarenes and, moreover, a heterodox version of, which was perhaps only a commentary on certain parts of it. This particular text is referred to as The Gospel of the Ebionites, and the basic one as The Gospel of the Hebrews. Jerome writes about the latter:

also the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, recently translated by me into Greek and Latin; it is often used by Origen. After the description of the Saviour’s Resurrection, we read in this Gospel: “And the Lord, when He had given the sindon [shroud, wrapping or mantle—K.P.; cloak—M. Starowieyski] to the priest’s servant, came to James and revealed Himself to him [cf. 1 Cor 15:7]

(NT Apocrypha, part 1, pp. 103–104)

In an attempt to clarify who this servant of the priest mentioned in the text was, exegetes speculate that the copyist may have made a mistake and inserted the word puero (disciple) in place of the word Petro (Peter); later someone combined the word puero with the servant of the priest mentioned in Mark 14:47. After a textual correction, the passage could read: And the Lord, when he had given the sindon to Peter, went and revealed himself to James (…). All of this gives rise to the assumption that the tradition of the shroud functioned in early Christianity in oral or written transmission, perhaps even before the canonical gospels were written down, and attempts were made to link it to the person of the apostle Peter. The cited text differs slightly from the canonical gospel accounts: it reads that it was Jesus himself who was to hand over his posthumous shroud to Peter (the canonical texts say nothing about this). According to this account, the sacred object fell into the hands of the first of the apostles, which could in turn suggest that later Christians kept Jesus’ shroud.

Mention of the shroud is also made in The Gospel of Peter (2nd century), written in Greek before 200 (probably around 130) in a Judeo-Christian environment, probably in Syria. Origen (†256) was familiar with its text and quoted it. A larger fragment of this gospel, written on papyrus, was only discovered in 1886. The pseudepigraph was attributed to Peter and therefore given the title The Gospel of Peter. In terms of content, it shows similarities with The Gospel of Matthew, although it differs from it in detail. It treats of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. With regard to the shroud, it records: He [Joseph of Arimathea—K.P.] having taken the Lord washed Him, wrapped Him in a sheet and laid Him in His own tomb called Joseph’s garden (6.24; NT Apocrypha, part 2, p. 620). Unlike the canonical gospels, this text mentions that Jesus’ body was washed before it was wrapped in a sheet. Much more is said about Jesus’ shroud in The Gospel of Nicodemus (Acts of Pilate) (4th century), an apocryphal, extremely, complicated work. The original version of this text was attributed to Nicodemus, a Jewish scholar mentioned many times in the canonical gospels, who allegedly recorded his own recollections in writing. Attempts were then made to give the work official dignity, and to this end the text came to be known as Pilate’s Report (Acts of Pilate). The work, first regarded as the diary of a wealthy Jew, was then seen as a document of a Roman official. It was probably written in the 4th century, but the oldest fragments may date from the 2nd century; it became extremely popular in the Middle Ages and was regarded as a historical document. One can read in it:

And behold, there was a certain husband named Joseph, a member of the council, a good and just husband. (…) He turned to Pilate and asked him for the body of Jesus. And he took it down from the cross, wrapped it in a clean sheet and laid it in his new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried (11.3). (…) But when the Jews heard that Joseph had asked for the body of Jesus, they began to seek him and those twelve men who said that he was not born of adultery, and Nicodemus and many others who stood before Pilate and spoke of his good works. (…) Joseph stood before them and said to them: “Why are you indignant with me for asking Pilate for the body of Jesus? Behold, I have laid it in my tomb, and I have wrapped it in a clean sheet and laid a stone at the entrance of the tomb (…)” (12.1)

(NT Apocrypha, part 2, pp. 647, 652)

Joseph’s conduct was judged negatively and condemned by the Jews, and he, accused by them, was put in prison, from where Jesus would miraculously release him:

And He [Jesus—K.P.] taking me by the hand lifted me up from the ground, and the dew of water flowed upon me. (…) And He said to me: “I am not Elijah, but Jesus, whose body you have buried.” And I said to Him: “Show me the tomb in which I have laid you.” And He, holding my hand, led me to the place where I had buried Him and showed me the sheet and the scarves in which I had wrapped His head. Only then did I recognise that it was Jesus, and I worshipped Him and said: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (15.6)

(NT Apocrypha, part 2, pp. 647, 652)

In the apocrypha, the topos of the shroud was linked to the person of Joseph of Arimathea. Compared to the canonical gospels, this episode is considerably expanded in the apocrypha and placed in the context of the persecution of Christians, the followers of Jesus, by the Jews. It is also notable for its mention of a kind of Jewish anti-gospel, according to which Jesus was born as a result of adultery and his mother was said to be a harlot, thus giving Jesus the socio-religious status of a mamzer, i.e. a person deprived of all rights in the Jewish community (Iluk 2010, Vol. 2, pp. 61–80). In the passages where the sheet and headscarf are mentioned, one sees a correspondence with the Johannine tradition. The decision of Pope Sylvester I (314–335), known from the Liber Pontificalis, also dates from the same period (early 4th century): he decreed that the sacrifice of the altar should be celebrated neither on silk nor on dyed linen, but on pure linen, and that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ should be buried in a linen shroud (in sindonem): this is how masses are to be celebrated (Liber Pontificalis I–XCVI (usque ad annum 772). Book of Pontificals 1–96 (up to the year 772), p. *61). Hence, it seems legitimate to assume that by the 4th century the tradition concerning the shroud of Jesus was already widespread. It can also be seen that the type of material from which it was made is not in doubt, since only linen tablecloths are to be used to cover the altars (tables/graves) on which the Eucharist was celebrated. Also noteworthy is the letter of Bishop Epiphanius of Salamina in Cyprus to the Bishop of Jerusalem John (c. 390). It does not refer explicitly to the shroud of Jesus, but to some linen very similar to it. Travelling in late 4th century Palestine, Epiphanius found himself in the town of Anablatha. What he saw in the local church infuriated him:

After I came closer, I saw an olive lamp lit and asked what this place was. I was told that it was a church [in the village of Anablatha—K.P.]; then I decided to go inside to pray. I discovered that inside there was a long, painted canvas hung at the door with a picture of a man in the likeness of Christ or some saint; however, I do not recall exactly. As soon as I saw this, I fell into great anger, thinking that an image of a man had been hung inside the church against the authority of the Sacred Scriptures; and so I tore down the cloth and advised the superiors earnestly to give this cloth to charity, that it might be used to wrap and bury the body of some poor man who had died.

(Patrologia Graeca, 43, col. 390–391)

Bishop Epiphanius addressed a letter to the local bishop of Jerusalem, John, informing him of his intervention. He discovered something in the church he had visited which resembles the Shroud of Turin (the bishop could not have had such an association). On this cloth/canvas (unspecified) was supposed to be painted an image of a man resembling Christ or some saint. He was disturbed by what he wrote about in his letter. It can be assumed that similar images were known to him, since he referred to them. Only an evocation of the wider historical and cultural context can explain the bishop’s reaction. In the 4th century, there was a dispute within the ecclesiastical communities concerning the cult of images and the practice of Christians to use them. Epiphanius argued against the use of images for cultic purposes because—not only in his view but also, for example, in that of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea Maritima—it violated the Old Testament prohibition (and thus the authority of the Christian Sacred Scriptures) of making any images of divine persons (cf. Deut 5:8 and Exod 32). The dispute stemmed from the phenomenon of Judaization and re-Judaization in the Church and the gradual break with Jewish particularism in favour of Christian universalism. This process had already been initiated in the 40s and 50s of the 1st century by Paul of Tarsus. In part, the dispute over images had already been settled at the Council of Nicea (325), which pointed out the need to distinguish between honouring God alone and honouring and paying respect to images and relics. Nevertheless, it is apparent that 70 years after the Council, the controversy on this issue has not died down. One detail in the letter is telling. The cloth that Epiphanius saw must have had something to do with burying the bodies of the dead. Its length indicates that it may have resembled a death shroud. It is not known whether it had previously been used for this purpose. It is not known whether the image depicted on it was a reflection of the deceased who was buried in it. Bishop Epiphanius was not outraged at the placement in the church of an object which, in Judaic terms, would have been unclean and would have brought uncleanness into the space where it would have been placed and onto those who would have come into contact with it. He himself touches this linen; he rips it off and recommends that it be used for charity by wrapping the body of some dead poor man in it. The legitimate question is: is it possible that the posthumous linen of Jesus was kept in the Christian community, assuming that it had survived? Arguably, some communities would have been in a dilemma as to whether to show respect and veneration towards such a relic-image, or to see the storage of an image of Jesus as a violation of the Old Testament Law. Even Bishop Eusebius, a great authority of the 3rd–4th centuries in non-Palestinian circles, was against portraying Jesus, Mary and the saints, and allowed only the representation of these persons by means of symbols or under figures alluding to Gospel parables. If, therefore, the shroud of Jesus existed in the Palestinian milieu, it must have been hidden from some of the Judeo-Christians, lest it be—as an unclean object—destroyed. What for some would probably have been a priceless relic, for others would have been a ritual impurity.

The scripture depicts Procurator Pontius Pilate—the same one we know from the canonical gospels, which describe how he presided over the trial of Jesus—as a near-saintly martyr who falls victim to a rebuke from Jewish elders for professing faith in the risen Christ. Other characters also appear in this apocrypha, including Gamaliel, known from the Acts of the Apostles (5:34), whom the Martyrologium Romanum lists as a saint. The gospel allegedly written by him was different from the others. In fact, it is a pseudepigraph, probably from the 5th century. The burial cloths of Jesus are repeatedly mentioned in it (29 times). They were supposed to have been seen by Pilate, who arrived at Jesus’ tomb. He took the cloth in his hand, kissed it, and then handed it to the centurion, and the centurion, kissing the cloth, touched his blind eye with it and regained his sight. The Apocrypha says that Jesus’ burial cloths were kept by Pilate’s wife, Procula, who had already warned her husband during Jesus’ trial not to do anything wrong to him because he was righteous (cf. Matt 27:19). Moreover, Pilate ordered King Herod [Agrippa] to rectify all the “legal errors” committed in the trial against Jesus. The latter, on the advice of the Sanhedrin, was to ask Pilate’s permission to interrogate the centurion and the guards. He also demanded the return of the two cloths (wrappings) taken from Jesus’ tomb, since all materials used for burial are unclean according to the Mosaic law. Pilate agreed to question the Roman soldiers, while he refused to return the actual laggings (burial cloths) because, as a Roman, he was not bound by Jewish law. The Apocrypha introduces a new thread to the account of Jesus’ shroud: Procula, Pilate’s wife, comes into possession of two linens from his tomb. They have miracle-working powers and are treated by their new owner as relics of Jesus, while the Jews see them as a source of ritual impurity (according to their funerary tradition, which makes anyone who has had contact with the body of the deceased or his belongings used in burial unclean) and want them destroyed. This is probably not their only motive. The desire to destroy the fabrics may also have stemmed from the fact that they were a valuable memento or relic of Jesus for the Christians, and the Christians were fought against by the Jews as an oppositional religious group. Procula, not being Jewish, did not have to comply with Jewish law. For this reason, Pilate refused to return the linen to the Jews.

The motif of the shroud was also taken up in later Georgian tradition (second half of the Middle Ages), linked to the earlier activity of St Nino, who evangelised Georgia in the 4th century. Shortly before her death, she told those around her that—while in her youth in Jerusalem—she had learnt about various objects related to the Passion of Christ. It was a time of special search for the Arma Christi. These included the posthumous ‘cloths/linens of Christ.’ According to her account, these were supposed to have been in the possession of Pilate’s wife and then given to St Luke, and he hid them in a place known only to himself. Of these, the sudarium had a separate story. It was—allegedly—found by Peter, who took it and hid it, but we do not know whether it was ever found (Wardrop and Conybear 1900, p. 78). It is presumed to have been deposited in some monastery on the Jordan River (Gerasimosa?). Thus, the Georgian tradition ensures the continuity of the religious transmission about the shroud. It expands the previously known circle of people having contact with it: Procula, St Luke, St Peter. The alleged place of its concealment appears in it: by the Jordan River. A passage from the Letters of Bishop Braulion of Zaragoza (590–651), widely read in Visigoth Spain, is a kind of commentary on the threads quoted about the shroud of Jesus. The bishop wrote to the abbot Taius: At that time many things were known to have happened, but which were not recorded; for example, as regards the sudarium and the cloths in which our Lord’s body was wrapped, we read that they were found, but we do not know whether they were preserved. However, I do not think that the apostles did not think to preserve these and other relics for future times (Patrologia Latina, Vol. 80, 689).

Assuming that the posthumous cloths/linens of Jesus were preserved and held for centuries of Christian antiquity, as the literary sources discussed above may indicate, none of them mention that his likeness or a trace of it was visible on the shroud or linen of Jesus. The only, rather puzzling, detail comes from the liturgy of Bishop Braulion (Mozarabic rite) in use in Spain. The Illatio for Holy Saturday contains the phrase: Peter ran with John to the tomb and saw fresh traces (vestigia) of the dead and risen man on the linens. Ian Wilson, commenting on this record, sees in it a fixed memory of some form of image on the cloths found by Peter and John. However, it is difficult to draw conclusions from such a weak premise (Wilson 1985, p. 114). Nevertheless, this is the first account, importantly dating only from the 7th century, linking the posthumous cloths of Jesus with the marks (reflections) present on them.

The Apocrypha on Images of Jesus

The depiction of Jesus in Christian antiquity depended on the cultural and religious area in which Christianity developed. Accordingly, followers of the risen Jesus became Judeo-Christians or ethno-Christians. The former came from the Jewish world, the latter from the polytheistic, usually Greco-Roman world. Their cultural backgrounds resulted in different references to the images and figures used in the new Christian worship. Judeo-Christians were not homogeneous in their views on images. The most radical, trying to reconcile Judaism with the new religion, believed that the way to Christianity should be through the Torah. They guarded its precepts and prohibitions, including the one that said: You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth (Deut 5:8). This has kept successive generations of Judeo-Christians from making any images of Jesus, Mary and the saints for centuries. Sometimes they even forced this practice on their more liberal fellow Jews, sometimes also on ethno-Christians, who, however, gradually broke with Jewish particularism, including the principle of ritual purity, and mentally—which was extremely difficult—inscribed themselves in the universal Church, with its doctrinal and ethical canons, which had mainly Pauline roots. In an attempt to resolve the tension that existed in the culturally diverse ecclesial communities, permission was given to make works of art, paintings and sculptures, including images of Jesus, provided they were idealistic or symbolic representations. Opposition to realistic depictions of the Church’s divine figures and saints remained in force. In folk rituals, mainly among ethno-Christians, it was customary to make portraits that conveyed the actual facial features of Jesus, Mary and the apostles. They were repeatedly condemned for these practices, which the leaders of the ecclesial communities (generally Christian intellectuals) considered ridiculous, close to superstition or even a manifestation of idolatry. A telling example to understand the dispute over painting images is the letter of Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea Maritime—the leading episcopal capital in Palestine, even more important than Jerusalem—to Constance, sister of Emperor Constantine, who asked him for a copy of an authentic image of Jesus Christ. Instead of a copy, she received a reprimand that fell within the views of radical Torah-observant Judeo-Christians: But if you now declare that you are not asking me for an image of a human figure transfigured in God, but for an image of his mortal body as it was before his transfiguration, then I reply: do you not know the place where God commands not to make any image of what is in heaven above, nor of what is on earth below (Frale 2012, pp. 23–24)? Ethno-Christians, on the other hand, especially from the Roman Empire, approved of the practice of making realistic portraits of Jesus and the saints of the Church. They had been still familiar with it when they had been polytheists; moreover, it was customary in their environment to depict images of the dead loved one which were often placed on graves. They were also painted on the bandages of mummies (Egypt) in order to preserve the face of the deceased and the memory of them. Some are so carefully executed that they appear to be photographs. This practice did not disappear after the adoption of Christianity. Eloquent artefacts that illustrate it are icons from the Justinian period from the monastery of St Catherine at Sinai (7th century). They depict Jesus and St Peter, and their artistic provenance can be discovered when they are juxtaposed with traditional Roman portraits of the imperial era.

Barbara Frale believes that the practice of keeping portraits of Jesus and the apostles in the home is born out of the same habit of veneration inherent in the Romans, as well as the offering of sacrifices to penates, or deceased family members (Frale 2012, p. 25). The controversy that has flared up within Christianity must have had an impact on the history of the shroud of Jesus and the message about it. It heightened the iconographic tension because, on the one hand, in some Christian circles the shroud was seen as an extraordinary memento of Christ, precious also to his closest disciples, who were Jewish, and on the other hand, it gave rise to dilemmas arising from Jewish law: the question was asked whether contact with the shroud, which touched the dead body of Jesus, would cause ritual impurity. If there was an image of Him on it (no one knows how it was made!), then the shroud went against the Torah’s regulations, which forbade making images and worshipping them. The issue of the visualization of Jesus must be seen precisely in this cultural-religious context, which is illustrated by the apocryphal sources cited below. They help to understand whether a shroud with a reflection of the figure of Christ—without resolving the question of whether such a shroud was preserved—could have found a place for itself in some Judeo-Christian ecclesiastical community, be met with respect and even veneration, and be a particularly valuable object in a religious sense.

Of the Christian apocrypha, it is The Georgian Gospel that gives us the most comprehensive description of the material image of Jesus. Its dating is problematic and the literary material is eclectic: it contains themes from Christian antiquity (Monophysite disputes) and the second half of the Middle Ages (11th century). As the work was written over many centuries, it is difficult to determine where it was composed. The text draws on both the canonical and apocryphal gospels. It also has elements of its own that are found nowhere else. It is classified as part of Georgian folk literature and Caucasian literature (NT Apocrypha, Part 1, pp. 204-205). The description of Jesus’ overall activity, which is the main focus of the narrative, includes a theme concerning King Abgar, which is a reworking of a legend about the same ruler. Eusebius of Caesarea gives the oldest version of it earlier in his Church History (Ecclesiastical History) (HE 1, 13; Eusebius of Caesarea, Historja kościelna, pp. 43–48), which does not belong to the apocrypha but to the patristic literature of Christian antiquity. The toparch of Edessa, Abgar V, who had been suffering from leprosy, was said to have asked Jesus for healing, at the same time professing faith in his messiahship and sonship of God. At the same time, he sent Jesus a garment that was not sewn with a needle (a shroud). Christ was to reply to Abgar by letter, informing him that he would not come to him in person, but that after his ascension he would send his messenger (apostle), Thaddeus, who would heal him and bless the king and his kingdom:

When the messenger saw Jesus, he had no desire to leave him; so he summoned a painter and had him paint an image of Jesus [for the king]. The painter began to paint the face of Jesus on paper. He painted Him first as a man in his prime, but Jesus appeared to him in the form of an old man. Then the painter crossed out [the painting] and painted Him as an old man, but then Jesus appeared to him with a grey beard. So, the painter was very surprised. Jesus asked him: “Why are you surprised?.” The painter replied: “Lord, I want to paint your face for our king—and I cannot.” Jesus asked: “Why are you painting [me]?,” to which the painter replied: “Our King greatly desires to see you. For he has given us a command: if he does not come himself, then paint Him and bring me His image, and by the same token I shall already recover.” This was the second time Jesus heard of Abgar’s faith. Then Jesus took a linen handkerchief and put it on his face, and then the face of Jesus as it really was was reflected on the handkerchief. Jesus handed this handkerchief to the messenger and said: “Take this image for Abgar from me along with my prayer and blessing. He will be saved three times. First by this image, then by Thaddeus, and a third time by baptism.”

(NT Apocrypha, part 1, p. 220)

According to this promise, Abgar recovered, and his subjects believed in Jesus Christ. Eusebius further adds the date of the event (340 according to the Seleucid era, i.e. c. 28 or 29 after Christ), noting that what he recorded he translated from Syriac (Eusebius of Caesarea, Historja kościelna, p. 48). The accounts show that in the Georgian tradition, not conditioned by Judeo-Christian customs, having an image of Jesus was not reprehensible. Also ancient Edessa, the capital of the Kingdom of Osroene, especially during the time of the Christian rulers, did not adhere to the “anti-iconographic” rules of Judeo-Christianity. Historical criticism, in an attempt to establish the identity of the Edessa ruler who allegedly addressed the request to Jesus, considers Abgar V (reigned 4 BC to 7 AD and 13–50 AD) and the episode associated with him to be a legend.

The literary form of it, especially the one cited by Eusebius, probably originated in Syriac circles in the late 2nd or early 3rd century under Abgar VIII or IX (a Christian ruler). Over time, the Edessa image of Jesus (on linen or towel) was seen as an “icon of icons”—an acheiropoieton—that is, made not by human hand. Its history from the second to 6th centuries is unknown. The attestation of the existence of this artefact, treated as sacred and called (from the 12th century) a mandylion—which should be translated as towel, shawl—dates to the 6th century at the earliest. The Abgar legend was circulated from the mid-medieval period, and began with a 10th century writing by Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus entitled The Story of the Image of Edessa. It was compiled on the occasion of the transfer (translatio) of the Mandylion from Edessa to Constantinople (15 August 944) and was read during the liturgy of the Eastern Church (Byzantium, Eastern and Southern Slavic area). The scripture was in the form of a festive homily, intended for the feast of the transfer of the shroud, celebrated annually on 16 August. Nevertheless, as early as the fifth to 6th century, the authenticity of the correspondence between King Abgar and Jesus was challenged by such Church authorities as Jerome (Commentaria in Ezechielem, Ad 44, 29–30—written between 414 and 416) and Bishop Augustine of Hippona (Contra Faustum manichaeum 28, 4; De consensu evangelistarum 1,7,11), whose opinions were influential in the issuance of the Gelasian Decree in the 6th century (Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis, cf. Documents of the Synods from 431 to 504, pp. 305*–322*), which, among other things, considered this correspondence to be an apocryphal (inauthentic) text. Modern research similarly assesses this correspondence and points to the apotropaic function of the image of Jesus for Edessa. Nevertheless, this image, which is known from the 6th century, cannot be identified with the one referred to in the earliest version of the legend. The former was a coloured image of the face of Jesus, while the latter—and chronologically the later—especially in Byzantine circles—was transformed into a miraculous imprint of the figure of Jesus on linen. At the time, no one was aware of this evolution that the image had undergone. In Byzantium, there were several images with similar characteristics that competed for primacy. One of these mandylions was taken to Constantinople in 944, where it remained until the Fourth Crusade. It was then sold to Louis IX (1214–1270) of France, after which it disappeared in the chaos of the French Revolution. One can only surmise the size and shape of the Constantinopolitan mandylion thanks to two copies preserved in Genoa and Rome. However, there is no evidence, according to Andrea Nicolotti’s research, that the Mandylion of Edessa was the shroud of Jesus or that it showed his entire wounded and crucified body. The arguments for equating the two images—according to him—are lacking, and those that are cited do not inspire his confidence because they refer to non-historical sources, ones that are at most relevant to cultural historians. A. Nicolotti believes that the history of the Shroud of Turin begins at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries (he maintains a fundamentalist approach in this regard, and this influences his final conclusions), which was to be confirmed by dating using radioactive carbon decay, while all other conjectures—according to the scholar—are fables. For this reason, he does not identify the object from Edessa and Constantinople with the authentic shroud of Jesus mentioned in the canonical gospels, nor with the Turin Shroud.

The following accounts of the creation of images of Jesus that had miraculous powers come from the so-called Pilate Cycle, i.e. literary works in which Pilate played a decisive role. Of these, three writings with titles are particularly important: The Death of Pilate, The Revenge of the Saviour and The Healing of Tiberius. The first dates from the Middle Ages; it enjoyed great readership. It was taken from the 53rd chapter of The Golden Legend, the hugely popular medieval lives of the Saints by James da Voragine, an Italian Dominican, while the story originated with Historia apostolica. The original was written in Latin. It describes how the terminally ill Emperor Tiberius learnt that there was a physician named Jesus in Jerusalem, who cured all diseases with a word alone. He did not yet know that his official, Pilate, and the Jews had killed him. He therefore wished to have Jesus sent to him at the earliest opportunity. Then Pilate, whom the imperial order had reached, admitted that the man had been a villain and so he had had him crucified, and the sentence had already been carried out. Tiberius’ messenger, returning with this news from Pilate, met a woman, Veronica, on the way. He complained to her that he could not fulfill the task entrusted to him by the Emperor:

To this Veronica replied: “While my Lord was wandering about, and I was finding it very hard to bear his absence, I wanted his likeness painted for me, so that when I was deprived of his presence, I would at least enjoy the likeness of him. When I carried the canvas to the painter to have Him painted on it, I met the Lord who asked me where I was going. When I confessed the reason, He took the cloth from me and gave it back to me with a reflected image of His holy face. If, therefore, your Lord looks piously upon this face, he will always enjoy the benefit of health.”

(NT Apocrypha, part 2, p. 685)

The messenger urged Veronica to go to the emperor with the image in her possession. When Tiberius looked at the image, his former health returned (NT Apocrypha, Part 2, p. 685). The motif of the image of Jesus in Veronica’s possession is also found in the work Vindicta Salvatoris (The Avenging of the Saviour or The Vengeance of the Saviour). The work was written in the early Middle Ages, before the 9th century. It was eagerly read by the Crusaders. It points to a woman, Veronica, who had an image of Jesus. The Romans tortured her to force her to show the image of the Saviour:

She, in turn, confessed under duress: “I have him wrapped in a pure shroud, my Lord, and I worship him every day.” Velosianus replied: “Show him to me.” Then she showed the face of the Lord. When Velosianus saw it, he fell reverently to the ground, took it with a willing heart and with righteous faith, wrapped it in a golden shroud and sealed it with his own ring. And he solemnly swore, and said: “By the living Lord God and the health of Caesar, no more man on earth shall see it until I stand before my lord Tiberius.”

(NT Apocrypha, part 2, pp. 699–700)

The image shown to Tiberius allegedly caused him to regain his health, after which he and his subjects were baptized. The same motif is also present in the work The Healing of Tiberius, which, judging by the number of surviving copies, was very popular. It is known in Latin, but was probably written in Greek in the Syriac area. The following passage can be found in it:

When Tiberius Augustus heard this [about Veronica—K.P.], he had this woman presented to himself together with an image of Jesus Christ. And when Tiberius saw the image and the woman, its owner, he said to her: “Thou hast deserved to touch the country of the garment of Jesus!”. And when he had said this, he looked at the image of Jesus Christ, and trembled, and having fallen on his face with tears, he worshipped the image of Jesus Christ, and was instantly cured of his sickness and of the rottenness of his wound which he had suffered in his bowels. And as soon as he felt the power of the Divinity through the healing of his body, by looking at the image, he immediately ordered the woman Veronica to be endowed with riches and honours, and ordered her to be given a fortune of public goods, and the image to be put into a frame of gold and precious stones.

(NT Apocrypha, part 2, p. 709)

The passages cited are fairly late testimonies to apocryphal Christian literature. Their protagonists are the Roman emperor Tiberius and a woman named Veronica. They want to convince their addressee that the ruler of the Roman empire himself converted to Christianity, which is historically absurd. This was supposed to have happened as a result of looking at an image of Christ brought to him, which had such miraculous powers that the ruler recovered. These apocrypha confirm that the Roman world and medieval Europe did not shy away from visualizing Jesus. This practice was said to have healing effects and was then met with social approval and the spread of the cult of images. The ethno-Christian environment, which was an exclusive component of church communities in the Middle Ages, was open to the visualizations of the figure of Jesus and the use of images in worship.

Early Christian Itineraries

No less important sources in which the topos of the shroud is found are itineraries, i.e. accounts written down by Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land (Jesus’ homeland), usually after their return home and sometimes still during their journey. They set themselves the task of showing how to reach particular holy places and what was worth seeing there, what religious life was like there, what sacred buildings were erected in these places. The name of the pilgrim from Piacenza who left his account of his journey to the homeland of Jesus is not known, so he is referred to as The anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza, or the Piacenza Pilgrim. The time of his testimony dates roughly to around 570. He records that when he arrived at the Jordan River, that: On the bank of the Jordan there is a grotto with cells for seven virgins, who are placed there as little girls (…). There are people outside who take care of them. We came to this place (filled with) great respect to pray, but we did not see any of them. In this place, they say, there is a shawl that was on the face of the Lord (12) (The Holy Land 2010, p. 214). The site is identified today with the Orthodox monastery of St Gerasimos, near Jericho and Kasr al-Jahud. It is uncertain which artefact this account refers to. More light is shed on the shroud by the story of Bishop Arculf (7th century). It is known from the account of a certain Adomnan, who lived at the antipodes of the world at that time—on the island of Hy (Iona) off the coast of Scotland, where he was abbot of a monastery. He himself had never made a trip to the Holy Land. His book was written thanks to the stories of the Gallic bishop Arculf, who went to Jerusalem to visit the holy places, after which he travelled the whole of the Holy Land, as well as Damascus, Constantinople, Alexandria and many islands in the sea. When he was returning by ship to his homeland, he was tossed by a storm on the west coast of Britain and so got to the aforementioned servant of Christ, Adomnan. Here this traveller, educated and familiar with sacred places, was kindly received and even more kindly listened to (The Holy Land 2010, p. 238). TThis account from the 7th century is known thanks to another Irishman, Bede the Venerable, who described it in his Liber de locis sanctis. Adomnan of Iona writes as follows about one of the holy places that Arculf visited:

1. We also know about the Lord’s most holy veil, with which His head was covered in the tomb, thanks to the story of Saint Arculf, who saw it with his own eyes. (…) 2. About three years ago, the most holy linen shroud once stolen from the Lord’s Tomb after the Resurrection by a Jewish believer (in Christ) and hidden for a long time, was found after many years and returned as a sign and gift to all the people. (…) 9. However, after five generations, the linen shroud ceased to be bequeathed to believers and fell into the hands of other unbelieving Jews. (…) 10. Since the believing Jews of the people, who had heard the true story of the Lord’s shroud, began violently to demand its return and fought with all their might to recover it from the hands of the unbelieving Jews. This dispute divided the people of Jerusalem into two factions, that is, into believers and unbelievers.

(chap. IX; The Holy Land 2010, pp. 257–258)

The dispute described had to be settled by the Saracen king Mavias (actually Muawija). Wanting to see whether the shawl was a relic, he had it thrown into the flames, but the fire could not destroy it, for it floated intact, and then began to fall to the side of the Christians until it rested in their arms, and they: 15 (…) they deposited the shawl in a reliquary in the church, having wrapped it in another linen shroud. 16 Our brother Arculf saw it when it was taken out of the reliquary one day and kissed it with the crowd of the people, and also himself, in the church during the divine service. It is about eight feet long [about 2.4 m]. The dispute described had to be settled by the Saracen king Mavias (actually Muawija). Wanting to see whether the shawl was a relic, he had it thrown into the flames, but the fire could not destroy it, for it floated intact, and then began to fall to the side of the Christians until it rested in their arms, and they: 15 (…) they deposited the shawl in a reliquary in the church, having wrapped it in another linen shroud. 16 Our brother Arculf saw it when it was taken out of the reliquary one day and kissed it with the crowd of the people, and also himself, in the church during the divine service. It is about eight feet long [about 2.4 m] (The Holy Land 2010, pp. 259–260). For some time there was a belief that the shroud viewed by Bishop Arculf was given as a gift in 797 by King Charlemagne, and that his grandson Charles the Bald gave it to the Abbey of St Cornelius in Compiègne, where it was kept and venerated for 900 years. This shroud was completely destroyed during the French Revolution. It could not therefore have been a linen that could be identified with the Shroud of Turin. Besides, its dimensions were different. Nor could it have been the same shroud/mandylion linked to Edessa, since Bishop Arculf saw it in Jerusalem. There must therefore have been a different cloth venerated at Edessa.

Of value to the search for the shroud of Jesus is a minor reference from a 13th century account by the Picardian crusader Robert de Clari in August 1203, who saw in Constantinople, shortly before the conflict between the Crusaders and the Byzantines, in the church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Blachernae, the stored sydoine in which Our Lord was wrapped and which is raised vertically every Friday, so that the figure (figure) of Our Lord is clearly visible on it. And none of the Greeks or the French knew what happened to this sydoine after the capture [by the Crusaders] of the city (an account preserved in a manuscript kept in the Royal Library of Copenhagen—ref. 487). It confirms the presence of the mandylion/shroud in Constantinople in the early 13th century. Its journey to the Byzantine capital is explained in part by accounts that allow us to link the story of the shroud from Constantinople to Edessa (today’s Sanlıurfa), mentioned earlier in the sources cited. In the 6th century, a cloth described as the Mandylion of Edessa was to be found within the walls of Edessa. Evagrius Scholasticus (526–600) dates the finding of the cloth to 544 (the time of the battles with the Persians). Legend has it that the relic was supposed to grant the city’s inhabitants a miraculous victory over the dissenters. In reality, the mandylion was found earlier. In 525, after a flood that severely damaged the city (described by Procopius of Caesarea), Emperor Justinian I the Great ordered it to be rebuilt. A mandylion was then to be found during the works. It was then kept in the Church of Divine Wisdom (according to Evagrius Scholasticus). The Acts of Thaddaeus also speaks of finding the cloth in Edessa, using the term tetradiplon (“folded into four”; i.e. into eight parts) to describe it. Therefore, copies of the Mandylion from Edessa showed only the face of Jesus alone. The tradition about King Abgar of Edessa links the Mandylion to Edessa, and the iconography partly supports this hypothesis. In the 10th century, the mandylion was transported to Constantinople (April 944). Between 945 and 1959, the above-mentioned Tale of the Image of Edessa was written down, which contained many legends and inaccuracies. It has a counterpart in the Synaxarion of the Constantinopolitan Church of the same years, compiled by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, among others. The shroud disappeared from Constantinople in 1204 under unknown circumstances, following the looting of the city by the Crusaders.

The route it took to Europe is helpfully indicated by research on the Turin Shroud conducted between 1973 and 1978 by Max Frei-Sulzer, a Swiss biologist and criminologist. He discovered pollen of 58 plant species on it, which may indicate the geography of its movement. Their presence should be linked to ancient Palestine, Byzantium, the Mediterranean and France. However, these studies only marginally affect the credibility of the hypothesis identifying the Shroud of Turin with the Mandylion of Edessa; above all, they do not prove the identity of these artefacts. The sources examined allow the following conclusions to be drawn: 1. the topos of the shroud is present in them and has a basic embedding in the canonical Christian writings—the gospels—which have had a fundamental influence on its perpetuation by successive generations of Christians; 2. popular religiosity and the apocrypha, iconic of this religiosity, have developed this topos by pointing explicitly to the type of material used to make Jesus’ posthumous burial cloths and to the presumed keepers of it—St Peter and St Luke and Pilate and his wife Procula; 3. in general, the places of its storage as indicated were different, but it is also unclear whether only one linen and some more scarves should be linked to them, or whether different artefacts are involved (the more likely hypothesis); the geography of the shroud(s) leads through Jerusalem, over the Jordan, to Edessa and Constantinople, and then to Europe (France); 4. In the universal Church, the message of the shroud began to be perpetuated from the 4th century onwards in the liturgies (linen tablecloths on the altars symbolising the tomb of Jesus); 5. There is also an emerging need among Christians, especially those coming from Greco-Roman polytheism (ethno-Christians), to have an image of Jesus, which was linked to various legends in which Veronica and Emperor Tiberius became the leading figures; 6. the conflict between Judeo-Christians and Ethno-Christians regarding images of Jesus in general is also apparent, which probably hindered the possible storage of the Saviour’s shroud with the image visible on it and the transmission of this extraordinary keepsake/relic; 7. 7. the shroud mentioned in the sources usually has an apotropaic function: contact with it brings healing, while its possession protects from danger; 8. the shroud and scarves are among the most valuable ancient and medieval relics of Jesus (they also include the cross, spear, nails, crown of thorns, funeral scarves); 9. The study of the topos of the shroud makes it possible to discover, in successive sources, elements of its theology, which has been developing especially since the 4th century; 10. None of the artefacts mentioned in the sources has the characteristics of the Turin Shroud; only the account of the canonical gospels corresponds to it; even the mandylion, which was brought from Edessa to Constantinople in the 10th century, and what is known about it, does not allow its identification with the authentic shroud of Jesus and the Shroud of Turin; 11. only the pollen found on the Shroud of Turin indicates the route it took from the Middle East to Europe, but nothing or almost nothing can be said about its details.


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Krzysztof Pilarczyk

Staff member at the Institute of Religious Studies of the Jagiellonian University, head of the Center of the History of Christian-Jewish Relations, associate at the Polish Syndonological Centre in Krakow. His interests focus on the history of Judaism, biblical and apocryphal literature, the origins of Christianity, interreligious dialogue, sindonology, Jewish book culture and religious tourism (Middle East). He publishes his scholarly activity on his website. Author of more than 300 scientific publications.

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