For more than a thousand years, Christian pilgrims have traveled to Oviedo, Spain. At the cathedral there, they venerate a small linen cloth identified by ancient tradition as the bloodstained cloth that covered Jesus’ face after His death.

In the Middle Ages these pilgrims made the difficult detour from the Camino de Santiago (“the Way of St. James,” which led to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela) to Oviedo’s Cathedral of San Salvador. They traveled there in response to the popular refrain, “He who goes to Compostela and not to San Salvador honors the servant and forsakes the Lord.” The saying reflects the age-old tradition that Santiago de Compostela was the final resting place for St. James the Apostle, while San Salvador (“Holy Savior”) was famous for the relic of Christ’s death.

The Cloth’s Appearance

What makes this ancient cloth distinctive? The Sudarium of Oviedo, as it is called, is 34 by 21 inches. Its linen fabric is dirty, stained and wrinkled, with a large number of transparent brown “washed out” bloodstains. It does not contain a facial image, although its stains clearly conform to those that would be produced by the head of a man brutally crucified.

The stains are the product of pulmonary edema that flowed from the nose and mouth after death, as is characteristic of crucifixion victims — the same kind of flow that St. John witnessed from Christ’s side (see Jn 19:34). The cloth is also covered with aloe, which was used in first-century Jewish burials as a preservative. St. John testifies that Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of aloes and myrrh to anoint Jesus (see 19:39).

The Evangelist mentions a sudarium as “the cloth that had covered [Jesus’] head” (Jn 20:7), rolled up and set apart from the shroud in the tomb. This Latin term comes from sudor, meaning “sweat.” (In the Gospel account, the term appears in the Greek text as a Latin loan word, soudarión.) The word refers to a small, multipurpose cloth that was tied to the arm as a towel to wipe sweat from the face, also serving as a scarf, apron or turban.

In the case of severe trauma and when blood flowed at the time of death, Jewish law mandated use of a sudarium to retrieve the victim’s blood. Since blood was viewed as the “seat of life,” it was unthinkable to move a disfigured corpse without covering it, and it was imperative not to lose the blood because it was just as much a part of the body as the flesh. Burial of the blood was required, even to the extent of digging up blood-soaked earth and interring bloodstained clothes and linens.

The Sudarium’s Travels

An ancient tradition claims that St. Joseph of Arimathea gave Christ’s sudarium to St. Peter, who sometimes used it as a relic when praying for someone to be healed. It was later cared for by religious women in a cave close to the Monastery of St. Mark on the far side of the Jordan River. Its history took a turn when the Persians invaded Jerusalem and its environs in 612, necessitating drastic measures.

The face cloth was taken to Alexandria, Egypt, along with many other relics. Only two years later the Persians conquered this city as well, but by that time the chest of relics was already on its way to Spain, where it was placed in the custody of St. Isidore (560-636), bishop of Seville, an influential figure in the Western Church. After Isidore’s death, St. Ildephonsus, his disciple who became bishop of Toledo, brought the relic to that city, the new Christian capital of Spain. It remained there until the Muslim invasion.

The Moors invaded Spain in 711, reaching Toledo from the coast in a matter of days. The Christians, in fear for their relics, fled north to mountains that even the Romans had never conquered. Arabic manuscripts state that the relics were hidden in a well on a mountaintop called Monsacro, an ancient sacred peak near the city of Oviedo. St. James’ pilgrims would later visit a small hermitage at the site, making the treacherous climb to pay their respects.

After the danger had passed, King Alfonso II the Chaste (c. 759-842) built the Holy Chamber for the relics at his palace in Oviedo, now part of the Gothic cathedral. Their fame quickly spread throughout the Christian world.

Archival documents relate that King Alfonso II desired to embellish the Holy Chamber with a magnificent cross. In 808, two workers appeared at his palace to offer their services, and the king left them in a room with gold and jewels while he ate lunch. When he returned, a bright light was emanating from its interior, the men were nowhere to be found, and a beautiful cross was left behind.

This “Cross of the Angels” is one of the cathedral’s most precious objects. Because of it, Rome has granted a plenary indulgence to all those who visit the cathedral each year on Sept. 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Benediction with the Sudarium is traditionally held on Sept. 14 and Sept. 21, the first and last days of the Jubilee of the Holy Cross.

In medieval times, the pilgrims would hold up bread and other objects during this blessing, then use them later to cure the sick. Many miracles have been recorded over the years, such as a mute pilgrim who suddenly recovered his voice in 1415, and a woman who was freed from demonic possession as she prayed in front of the chest containing the Sudarium.

Unfortunately, the Holy Chamber was destroyed in 1934, just before the Spanish Civil War, when Marxists placed dynamite in the lower crypt of St. Leocadia. The Sudarium, however, was found miraculously unharmed in the rubble, and the original stones of the chamber were collected for reconstruction. It was rededicated at the end of the war in a ceremony presided over by General Francisco Franco.

The Sudarium and the Shroud

The Spanish Center for Sindonology, based in Valencia, engages in scientific research related to the Sudarium. This institution received permission to conduct a multidisciplinary study of the cloth in 1989. Their investigation has demonstrated the overwhelming probability that the Shroud of Turin — which many believe to be the cloth in which Jesus’ crucified body was buried — and the Sudarium of Oviedo actually covered the same crucifixion victim.

If this is indeed the case, then the only possibility that can be supported historically, scientifically and biblically is that this person was Jesus of Nazareth.

A number of significant marks on the two cloths coincide: blood flows, a contusion on the right cheek, the nose flattened to the right, a similar pattern of puncture wounds at the nape of the neck, and the presence of aloe and myrrh. The two burial cloths have been separated throughout their histories, so there is little chance that one could have been forged in order to resemble the other.

But there is another compelling piece of evidence that the cloths covered the same man. Jesus is the only crucifixion victim reportedly crowned with thorns. The Shroud of Turin has in fact a distinctive trickle of blood on the forehead in the shape of the Greek letter epsilon, which appears above a drop of the same blood, from a puncture wound. This pattern appears on the Sudarium in exactly the same place.

Both linens, then, covered a man who was scourged, crowned with thorns, struck in the face, brutally crucified and buried, just as Scripture describes Christ’s unique passion, death and burial.

Witness to Christ’s Suffering

Today, many believe that the Sudarium of Oviedo is an archaeological treasure now yielding its silent testimony to the Lord’s sufferings on the cross.

Scientists have determined that the cloth remained in place for up to one hour while the dead body was still on the cross, and for another hour after the body had been placed horizontally on the ground for the first burial anointing. At that time the linen was rewrapped and knotted at the top, as documented in a fifth-century paraphrase of John’s Gospel. When the cloth was later set apart in the tomb for burial, this knot would have given it the twisted or rolled-up appearance described by John.

In the Sudarium of Oviedo, tradition, science and history have all collaborated to explain the vagaries of John 20:7 and the meaning of the linens in the tomb. The mysterious “cloth that had covered [Jesus’] head” testifies to the excruciating pain of the crucifixion, and by its connection to the Shroud of Turin, points to the reality of the Resurrection.