The Shroud in Constantinople
Pontifical University of John Paul II, Kraków, Poland
The Shroud of Turin probably has ancient origins, but it is very difficult for historians to reconstruct its fate over so many years. The best documented period of the history of the linen, which is now kept in Turin, begins around 1357, when its presence was recorded in the French village of Lirey. The surviving source references are fragmentary and inaccurate, which makes a reconstruction of the history of the Shroud of Turin before the mid-14th century not fully possible; the proposals put forward by scholars are only more or less plausible hypotheses. There are accounts that attest to the fact that the cloth was stored for some time in →Constantinople, from where it was looted during the sacking of the city by members of the Fourth Crusade. However, this period of the Shroud’s history is also not entirely clear.
Some historians, mainly due to the findings of Ian Wilson published in the 1970s, are inclined to identify the cloth kept in Constantinople with the image of Christ’s face called the Mandylion of Edessa. The aforementioned researcher believes that the relic venerated in Edessa was a material of larger size and that it was folded in such a way as to make only the face visible. Hence, it is referred to as a tetradiplon i.e. folded in half four times. This procedure was probably intended to hide the naked and tormented body. Although studies of the Shroud with a scanning light confirmed that it had remained folded for a long time in the past, I. Wilson’s interpretations were met with scepticism by some scholars (including Averil Cameron). The theory of the identity of the Mandylion with the Shroud was considerably strengthened when, in 1997, an occasional sermon by Gregory Referendarius, Archdeacon of the Temple of Hagia Sophia, was discovered in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, which was delivered to welcome the relic brought from Edessa. The content, which does not lend itself to easy interpretation, clearly reveals that the clergyman mentioned the image depicting more of the body than just the head; he also mentioned blood stains on the cloth. Accepting the theory of the identity of the image stored and venerated in Edessa with that on the Shroud of Turin makes it possible to conclude that the relic appeared in the Byzantine capital in the year 944.
The image was moved from Edessa to Constantinople after the successful wars that the Byzantine Empire had waged in the eastern part of Asia Minor from the 920s. At the head of the mostly victorious marches was John Kourkouas, a prominent chieftain and friend of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, who in 942 launched another successful expedition resulting in the recapture of a number of cities in Mesopotamia from the Arabs. In 943, Kourkouas approached Edessa, but unexpectedly abandoned the assault, demanding the surrender of a relic stored in the city. The Byzantines’ eagerness to obtain the famous canvas may have been due to the fact that that very year the empire was celebrating the centenary of the final victory over iconoclasm, and the presentation of such a valuable relic in Constantinople could have been an excellent demonstration of the triumph of a theology defending the cult of images. The determination of the Byzantine side was such that, in return for obtaining the famous image of Christ, the Emperor and Kourkouas offered, in addition to breaking off the offensive and sparing Edessa, the release of 200 Arab captives, a considerable amount of gold and the signing of a peace treaty. The decision of the authorities and the people of Edessa required consultation with the Caliph residing in Baghdad, who, having decided that the release of the captives was more important than the Christian relic, ordered the dwellers of Edessa to surrender the cloth in early 944.
The glamorous transport of the image from Edessa to Constantinople provided the occasion for the writing of The Story of the Image of Edessa. The work was written in the entourage of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (it is sometimes even attributed to him) and provides a wealth of information about the history of the relic and the ceremonies involved in welcoming it to the imperial capital. According to the source, the people of Edessa did not want to hand over the venerated holiness to the Greeks, hence the Emperor and Kourkouas feared that a forgery would be handed over to them, contrary to agreements. To be sure of the image’s authenticity, Abraham, bishop of Samosata, who was able to recognise the original features of the relic was sent to Edessa. Eventually, the miraculous image was handed over to the Byzantine side, although this was not without resistance and protests from the inhabitants of Edessa. The Mandylion was brought to Constantinople on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary—15 August 944—so the first place where the relic was greeted was the Church of Our Lady of Blachernae. There the image was venerated by Emperor Romanos with his sons and immediate entourage. The public welcoming ceremony took place the following day, when the Mandylion was put on the imperial galley, which sailed around the city, placing it under the protection of Christ. After sailing to the western walls of Constantinople, a procession was formed and the relic was led through the Golden Gate into the capital, where it was again welcomed by secular and clerical authorities headed by the Patriarch of Constantinople. The solemn procession travelled down the main street of the city towards the Augustaion, where the imperial palace and the capital’s main temple, the Hagia Sophia, were located. There, the Mandylion was placed on the throne of grace, giving the assembled people the opportunity to adore it. The final element of the ceremony welcoming the relic was its transfer to the imperial palace and its placement on the imperial throne of the Chrysotriklinos, from which the rulers announced the most important state decrees. This gesture symbolised the sanctification of this place and the transfer of Christ’s authority over the empire, which had submitted itself to his protection. After the ceremony, the relic was deposited in the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos.
The acquisition of the relic, which was famous throughout the Christian world, was an extremely momentous event and could be considered one of Emperor Romanos Lekapenos’s greatest successes. However, due to illness, the ruler was unable to fully enjoy the ceremony of welcoming the miraculous image to the capital. Increasing infirmity meant that he limited his participation in public celebrations. A great triumph was also enjoyed by John Kourkouas, who gained immense popularity in the eyes of the people. The fame of the eminent leader, however, was of concern to the emperor’s sons, who, in view of their father’s progressive illness, were preparing to seize power in Byzantium. When they staged a palace coup shortly afterwards, Kourkouas found himself in disfavour. Despite the energetic efforts of Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus eventually seized power in the empire. He identified his success with the arrival of the Mandylion in Constantinople, and probably for this reason there is a passage in The Story of the Image of Edessa about a vision of a mad man who, seeing the relic being brought into the capital, is supposed to have said: Receive, Constantinople, glory and joy, and you, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, your empire (translated by J. Radożycki). To commemorate the bringing of the image from Edessa to Constantinople, the new emperor proclaimed 16 August as the Feast of the Mandylion, and the cited Story of the Image of Edessa was included in the collection of lives of saints commonly used in the liturgy called the Menolὸgion.
The cloth, brought from Edessa, was deposited in the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos, which was famous for the vast number of relics that had been painstakingly collected in the Byzantine capital since the time of Empress Helen. It was probably realised for good in Constantinople that the linen was in fact a much larger material and represented the image of Christ’s martyred body. Nonetheless, it was decided to display the relic in a similar manner to that at Edessa—in a reliquary allowing only the Saviour’s head to be seen. Perhaps it was determined that the previous tradition of the Mandylion, to which the legend of Jesus’ correspondence with King Abgar was linked, should not be destroyed, or perhaps practical considerations prevailed. The presentation of such a large cloth may have posed too many difficulties, such as constructing a suitably large reliquary. These circumstances meant that the Shroud was shown in public very rarely and only to a handful of selected people or distinguished guests. This is confirmed by the testimony of William of Tyre, describing the visit of King Amalric of Jerusalem to Constantinople in 1171. The chronicler noted that the Latin ruler was met with great hospitality from the emperor, who made available to him and his entourage the private parts of the palace, where access was usually reserved for the immediate entourage of the basileus. In addition to the emperor’s personal chambers, guests had the privilege of access to basilicas closed to the common people (basilicas vulgaribus inaccessas homonibus) and the opportunity to see the many treasures and relics there, including those directly related to Jesus Christ. As recorded by William of Tyre, Amalric and his companions were shown a cross and nails, a spear, a sponge, a reed, a crown of thorns, a linen robe (sindon) and sandals. William of Tyre’s brief account notes several times that the precious relics were in private imperial collections, the viewing of which was a privilege reserved for the few. Such conditions explain the meagre amount of surviving source information about the presence of the Shroud in Constantinople.
The fact that the linen, now kept in Turin, had previously been in the Byzantine capital is attested to by various references, which can be considered independently of whether we accept the theory of the identity of the Mandylion with the Shroud of Turin. In the cited passage from the chronicle of William of Tyre, the author mentioned the cloth of Christ without giving any details allowing it to be linked to the burial shroud; the fact that it was mentioned immediately after other relics associated with the Passion does not seem to be accidental. This is all the more so because, a dozen years later, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, in a letter written to Robert, Count of Flanders, asked for help in defending Constantinople, where many relics were kept, among which were those belonging to Christ: the linteamina found in the tomb after the Resurrection (linteamina post resurrectionem in sepulcro inventa). According to the account of the Byzantine historian John Kinnamos, the opportunity to adore relics closely associated with the body of Christ (Χριστοῦ πελάσαντα σώματι) was given to King Louis VII of France, who stopped in Constantinople during his expedition to the Holy Land in 1147. In the mid-12th century, the cloth with the image of Christ was also seen by the Benedictine abbots Nicholas Soemundarson and Bergthorson. The former recalled that the figure on the Shroud was visible from the front and back, while the latter’s account records that he only had the opportunity to see the Saviour’s face, as the rest of the cloth had not been unfolded.
From the year 1201 comes the extremely important testimony of Nicolas Mesarites, who, having custody of the Pharos Church, had to defend it against possible profanation during a palace revolt. In order to stop the eagerness of the aggressors from invading the tabernacle, the custodian emphasised the sanctity of the place, which held numerous relics, among which was the burial shroud of Christ. Mesarites recalled that: it was of linen, a modest and simple material, still emitting the fragrance of myrrh. It could not be destroyed because it covered a dead body, with indefinite contours, naked, sprinkled with myrrh after the Passion (quoted by Frale 2012). Even more accurate information about the Shroud is provided by Robert de Clari, a participant in the Fourth Crusade. In 1203, the crusaders who were in alliance with Alexius IV Angelos enabled him and his father to seize power in Byzantium. It was then that the Picardian knight and author of the chronicle entitled The Conquest of Constantinople (La Conquête de Constantinople) had the opportunity to see the imperial capital and the Shroud. Robert de Clari recorded that in the temple of Our Lady of Blachernae there was a shroud with which Our Lord was wrapped, this shroud was slightly unveiled every Friday, so that the face of Our Lord could be clearly seen (Robert de Clari 2017). Both I. Wilson and Barbara Frale point out that the Old French text, which uses the word figure, allows for the interpretation that the whole figure, and not just the face, was seen on the cloth. The aforementioned Italian scholar also suggests that the display of the Shroud did not take place every week, but on Good Friday, when it was moved from Pharos to the Church of Our Lady of Blachernae during the celebration of the Paschal Triduum to be unveiled in a ceremony called anastasis. According to I. Wilson’s conception, the transfer of the relics from Pharos was incidental and related to the sense of danger arising from the presence of crusaders at the city walls. Blachernae was a district with separate fortifications to give the inhabitants a sense of security. The Shrine of Our Lady of Blachernae already held the capital’s main palladium, which was Our Lady’s robe. The addition of the new relic was intended to reassure the inhabitants of the protection not only of Mary, but also of her Son. In the period immediately preceding the Fourth Crusade, the Shroud may also have been seen by Anthony of Novgorod, who visited Constantinople in 1200. In his account, known in Ruthenian writing as the Kniga Palomnik (Pilgrim’s Book), the clergyman recorded that the imperial palaces contained an impressive array of relics directly related to the figure of Jesus. A rather vague register compiled by Anthony of Novgorod, somewhat similar to the account of William of Tyre, mentions an object identified by the word lientij, which can be translated as a towel or a wide strip of fabric.
In addition to the many testimonies recorded in scattered sources, the presence of the Shroud in Constantinople can also be indirectly confirmed by changes taking place in art. As early as the reign of Constantine VII, a new liturgical object known as epitàphios—a special fabric with an embroidered image of Christ with his hands folded as on the Shroud of Turin—appeared for worship. From the 11th century onwards, a motif emerged in the scenes of Jesus’ burial, according to which he is no longer depicted as a figure wrapped in bandages but, rather, wrapped in a long shroud. One of the most interesting artistic representations undoubtedly inspired by the Shroud remains the Hungarian Pray Codex (dated 1192–1195). The book contains a miniature depiction of the figure of Christ remarkably similar to the image known from the Turin cloth.
The naked body of Jesus (a motif extremely rare in medieval sacred art) is arranged in the same way, with his arms crossed over his bosom. As on the Shroud, only four fingers are visible on the hands (the thumbs are hidden), and the nail marks are on the wrists. The burial cloth presented by the illuminator shows an identical weave to that on the Shroud (herringbone). The list of similarities is completed by the traces of burn marks noticed on the Turin relic, reproduced on the miniature. Everything suggests that the anonymous creator of The Pray Codex illustrations must have been in Constantinople and seen the Shroud, which, given Byzantium’s close links with the Arpad dynasty, was entirely possible. The author of the miniatures may have been a member of the court of Prince Bela (later Bela III, King of Hungary), who was at the court of Manuel I Komnenos between 1164 and 1172, betrothed to the Emperor’s daughter Mary and perhaps intended to succeed to the Byzantine throne.
In April 1204, the Crusaders stationed at the walls of the Byzantine capital launched an assault on Constantinople. After fierce fighting, on 12 April, the city was captured and handed over to the victors for booty. During the plundering of the imperial capital, which lasted three days (13–15 April), the participants of the Fourth Crusade looted all manner of riches, including numerous works of art and relics. In an unprecedented act of pillaging, the shroud containing the image of Christ was also stolen.
Robert de Clari, who described it, mentioned that no one, neither Greek nor French, ever knew what happened to the shroud when the city was captured (Robert de Clari 2017). After the sacking of Constantinople, the Greeks wrote to Innocent III complaining about the plundering of numerous relics by the Crusaders, including: the sacred linen cloth in which Our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death and before his resurrection (quoted after Frale 2012). A letter written to the Pope stated that the stolen Shroud was located in Athens.
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Sources of Images
1. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Surrender_of_the_Mandylion_to_the_Byzantines.jpg (public domain)
2. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hungarianpraymanuscript1192-1195.jpg (public domain)
3. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frammenti_di_mosaico_pavimentale_del_1213,_09.JPG (I. Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0)