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Holy Mandylion – Acheiropoietos Jesus Images in Constantinople XIII – XVI



Acheiropoietos Jesus Images in Constantinople. An icon of Jesus’s face on a cloth. The Documentary Evidence No. 13 – 16



In 1207 the same Nicholas Mesarites, former overseer of relics, was in the capital pronouncing his eulogy (Epitaphios) for his deceased brother, John. We must understand that for the last three years he had been totally excluded from any official function in the capital, and certainly from the Pharos relic treasury. Indeed, Latin clerics had replaced Greeks in every important capacity including that of Patriarch. 40 In the midst of this speech, Nicholas conjured up for the Greeks then present in Hagia Sophia a reminiscence of the greatness of their city which his brother had served so loyally, and of the atrocities of the looting by the crusaders, which he himself had witnessed.

The Holy Mandilion - Byzantine icon
The Holy Mandilion – Byzantine icon

In this eulogy Mesarites again refers to Constantinople as possessing the burial wrappings of Jesus, and this reference has been used as evidence that the Shroud was still present in the city in 1207. 41 The latter position breaks down when it is noticed that in fact, Mesarites’ words in the Epitaphios are largely a direct quote from his 1201 report (Doc. XI) and are used by him here only for rhetorical effect. 42

1. In both places Mesarites lists the relics of Jesus’ Passion, including the burial wrappings.

2. Both texts employ the symetrical contrast of Constantinople and Judaea: the Passion occurred there, but the relics are here.

3. Both texts add, identically, “Why should I go on and on? . . . (The Lord himself) is here, as if in the original, his impression stamped in the towel and impressed into the easily broken clay (tile) as if in some graphic art not wrought by hand.”

4. He completes both texts by stating in each, but in a different order, that this place (Constantinople) is another Bethlehem, another Jerusalem, Tiberias, Nazareth, Bethany, Mount Tabor, and another Golgotha.

Since, additionally, every existing document dealing with the Latins’ disposition of the relics and with the diminished role of the Greek clergy after the sack is evidence that Mesarites no longer had any knowledge of the whereabouts of the relics of which he had been the solicitous guardian in 1201, the Epitaphios of 1207 clearly is not a proof that the shroud of Jesus was still in Constantinople at that time, but only that Mesarites and his audience of Greek prelates thought it was.


In the years immediately after the Latin takeover of Constantinople in 1204, a series of discussions took place between Greek clergy and papal envoys, often presided over by the newly seated Latin Patriarch, dealing with their disagreements over dogma and how to reconcile them and bring the Greek Orthodox Church back into the Roman fold. These differences included the filioque issue, the Greek use of leavened as against the Latin church’s use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist, and the general but ultimate question of papal primacy. 43

One of the interpreters at these meetings, a man fluent in both Latin and Greek, was Nicholas of Otranto, abbot of Casole monastery in southern Italy. In 1205 he greeted the new papal legate, Benedict of St. Susanna, 44 then on his way to Constantinople via Brindisi, and accompanied him through Greece to the capital. There he served as Benedict’s personal interpreter and translator. The literary legacy of this little known scholar includes some poetry and at least three reports of the disputations in which he served as interpreter. These were written both in Greek and in his own Latin translations. 45

His reference to the shroud of Jesus comes in the midst of his discussion in 1207 of the use of yeast in the Eucharistic meal of the Last Supper. A portion of that very bread had been present, the Byzantines had asserted, in the imperial relic collection. Among the relics of the Passion, which he now enumerated, were a portion of that bread and Jesus’ spargana, Greek for “linens.” This word normally renders infant’s swaddling clothes, and the fascia of his Nicholas’ Latin translation does not help. Since, however, Nicholas was listing relics of the Passion, he must mean burial linens. Here is the crucial passage:

When the city was captured by the French knights, entering as thieves,
even in the treasury of the Great Palace where the holy objects were
placed, they found among other things the precious wood, the crown
of thorns, the sandals of the Savior, the nail (sic), and the spargana/fascia which we (later) saw with our own eyes. 46

This passage, too, has been assumed to prove that the burial shroud was still in the capital in 1207. 47 Certainly Nicholas Hydruntinus, as this Nicholas is sometimes called, as the interpreter for a western prelate, was more likely than Mesarites to know the contents of the relic treasury in 1207. It is possible that he may have been admitted among the relics, not because he clearly claims so, but only as an inference from Benedict’s high rank among Latin prelates: he was the papal legate, who himself shipped a large consignment of relics to Pope Innocent III in the spring of 1205. 48 More promising, however, is the fact that Nicholas says something in another context which may be decisive in any efforts to discover the whereabouts of Jesus’ reputed blood-stained shroud after 1204. Benedict and he had in 1206 traveled in Thessalonika and Athens debating the same questions of Church unification with the Greek theologians in those places.49 It is the reference to Athens which is significant, for it may be there that Nicholas saw the burial linens “with our own eyes,” which is such a peculiar part of the passage cited at length above.5 0 If he had seen the linens and other relics in the capital, he would not likely make such a comment. Further he seems to say he saw them after the Crusaders looted the treasuries. The next document fortifies the possibility of the linens in Athens.


In the wake of the Fourth Crusade large portions of Greece fell into the hands of or were awarded to western knights as fiefs from the Latin Byzantine Emperor Baldwin of Flanders and later from his brother Henry. Thus Boniface of Montferrat occupied the Kingdom of Thessalonika; William of Champlitte and later Geoffrey of Villehardouin, nephew of Guillaume de Villehardouin the historian, controlled the Morea (Peloponnese) as Prince of Achaea; and Othon de La Roche became Lord of Athens, to which Thebes was later added. The territory of Epirus, however, remained a center of Greek power under Michael Angelus as Despot. Michael and his brother, Theodore, were nephews of Isaac II Angelus, one of three Byzantine Emperors who were deposed during the Fourth Crusade. The document in this instance is a letter dated 1 August 1205 from Theodore in the name of Michael to Pope Innocent III. Here are the pertinent passages.

Theodore Angelus wishes long life for Innocent [III], Lord and Pope at old
Rome, in the name of Michael, Lord of Epirus and in his own name.
In April of last year a crusading army, having falsely set out to
liberate the Holy Land, instead laid waste the city of Constantine.
During the sack, troops of Venice and France looted even the holy
sanctuaries. The Venetians partitioned the treasures of gold, silver,

and ivory while the French did the same with the relics of the saints
and the most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ
was wrapped after his death and before the resurrection. We know
that the sacred objects are preserved by their predators in Venice,
in France, and in other places, the sacred linen in Athens . . .

Rome, Kalends of August, 1205.51

The letter was published in 1902 but was not considered in the present connection. The Greek original had by then been lost. If this letter is authentic, and its publication was accompanied by a suitably convincing authentication, then it is even more probable that it was in Athens that Nicholas of Otranto saw this cloth. If so, instead of the previously frustrating total absence of documentation concerning the departure from Constantinople of Jesus’ burial wrapping, we now possess two documents which tend to place it in Athens after the sack and already by 1205.


The final document in this series has been used by some historians to place Jesus’ shroud in Constantinople as late as 1247.52 Here is its background. The Latin Empire of Constantinople was destined to end in 1261 when the Greek Lascarids expelled the crusaders. But by 1238 Bulgars and Greeks were closing in on the capital, and the last Latin Byzantine Emperor, Baldwin II, was sorely in need of funds to maintain his armies. In order to raise these funds he was driven to the extremity of pawning the treasured objects expropriated from the Byzantine monarchs and also their precious relic collection, most notably among which was an object purporting to be the Crown of Thorns, which he mortgaged to the bankers of Venice in 1238 (Riant, Exuviae II, 118-128). In the following year this supposedly authentic relic was redeemed by King St. Louis IX of France and duly transferred to Paris (St. Denis). Soon afterwards, Louis had the extraordinary Sainte Chapelle constructed as a housing for the Crown of Thorns and other relics arriving in Paris by various routes and hands from Constantinople.

In 1241 two other shipments of relics were sent by Baldwin to Louis as surety for another loan. A cutting from the Shroud figured among these latter relics. Finally our document, a Golden Bull of Baldwin II, ceded all these relics, which are enumerated, to the French King in perpetuity, in consideration for still another loan. In view of the letter of Theodore of Epirus which complained that the shroud had been removed to Athens by 1205, it is important to examine this Bull carefully. And in fact when this is done, it can be seen that the Bull does not assert the shroud’s presence in Constantinople in 1241. Rather, it merely lists among the relics ceded to Louis “part of the sudarium (pars sudarii) in which Christ’s body was wrapped in the tomb.”53 Far from stating that Baldwin cut a section from the cloth still in his possession, it suggests a corroboration of what is known from numerous other sources, that portions of relics were often removed in order to be shared with other churches and that what Baldwin had to send to Louis in 1241 was more likely a portion cut off before the shroud departed for Athens.54 Indeed, if Baldwin was willing to part with the entire Crown of Thorns, which he might easily have retained, parting only with individual thorns that might be and were easily removed, each thorn of infinite monetary value, why should we suppose he would hesitate to part with the entire Shroud, if he had had it?

The Bull of 1247 also cedes to King Louis IX the “holy towel inserted in a frame” (sanctam toellam tabule insertam), and so it seems also to document the departure from the imperial Pharos treasury of the Byzantine emperors of that object to which Nicholas Mesarites and Robert of Clari referred in 1201 and 1203 as the encased Edessa cloth bearing the face of Jesus. It is indeed likely that by 1200 the object to which these texts refer might have been a mere copy of the face on the Edessa cloth. This point was made in the most illuminating history of the Turin Shroud by Ian Wilson (1978). Recall that although the imperial letter of 958 (Doc. IV) named a burial cloth, it was not until 1095 (Doc. VI) that the documents began to attest more regularly to a recognition of the burial cloth in the capital. Both Mesarites and Clari appear to corroborate what the cumulative documents from the 6th to the 12th c. suggest: that the Edessa cloth was eventually unframed and discovered to hold an impression of the entire and bloodied body of Jesus.55 That which came to known as the toella in tabula inserta would then and logically be a copy of Edessa’s Mandylion as it had appeared—i.e., the face only of Jesus—upon its arrival in Constantinople.

To sum up the points made in this paper: a linen cloth or cloths described as the burial wrappings of Jesus are attested in many Constantinople documents from 944 to 1203, twice with his image if one counts Mesarites (Doc. XI), and several times described as bloodied. No record exists of the arrival of Jesus’ burial cloth in the capital, and no celebration such as accompanied the Edessa cloth in 944. Yet it was there. Judging from copious documents and artistic representations made in Constantinople and elsewhere from 944 to 1150, the Edessa towel always with the image of Jesus’ face may be identical with Jesus’ Shroud in folded form, enclosed in a case with face exposed. Before that, from at latest 544 to 944, this cloth was certainly in Edessa. If the Edessa cloth and Jesus’ purported shroud are indeed one and the same object, that assumed burial cloth may have a pedigree back at least to 544, and if the Abgar legend has any historical worth, to the 4th c. and even, accepting the descriptive evidence, to the very time of Christ. If the pieces of this elaborate puzzle truly fit as they seem to, the blood-stained burial cloth with faint unpainted image would have a documented history back to palaeochristianity and may in fact be the actual tomb wrapping of Jesus.

The three documents which have been customarily adduced to prove the burial cloth to have been in Constantinople after the crusaders’ sack in 1204 are seen on examination of their contents and context not to do so. And in fact, one of them, the treatise of Nicholas of Otranto, supports its presence in Athens with Othon de La Roche, where the letter of Theodore of Epirus also places it in 1205.


Various plausible historical reconstructions have been proposed by which the bloodstained burial sheet of Constantinople with image of Jesus’s entire body turned up in Lirey, France about 1355. The most cogent of these itineraries consign the cloth either to the care of the Knights Templar until their demise in 1307, or to Othon’s city of Besanηon in Franche Comtθ from about 1208 until 1349, or to King Louis IX’s Sainte Chapelle from about 1247. Unless one wishes to pursue these, one is left with Robert de Clari’s rather final judgment that no one knew what became of it after the city was sacked in 1204.56

Daniel C. Scavone

University of Southern Indiana (6/21/96; 4/23/01; 2-25-04; 11-24-04, 12-02-05, 01-03-06, 10-07-2006)

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40 On this very important point, essential in the present argument, there is ample certainty. The eunuch Constantine Philoxenites was „minister of imperial treasuries“ for the unfortunate Isaac II on his brief restoration to power in 1203 (Nic. Chon. 550). Mesarites was thus out of that post and probably already looking towards the Greek Lascarid stronghold of Nicaea. Once the crusaders had taken the city the Greek clergy was utterly displaced in important posts. See Ernst Gerland, Geschichte des lateinischen Kaiserreiches von Konstantinopel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchsgesellschaft 1966. Repr. of 1905) 10 17 and 118 54. Also Walter Norden, Das Papstum und Byzanz (New York: Burt Franklin 1958. Repr. of 1903). The discussion of the new Latin power structure in Constantinople in Robert Lee Wolff and Harry W. Hazard, A history of the Crusades (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press 1969) II. 194 99 precludes any possibility of doubt. Finally, there is the evidence of Villehardouin that when the city was captured, the Bucoleon was occupied and secured by the troops of the Marquis de Montferrat while those of Henri de Flandre did the same at the palace of Blachernae. No place for Greeks in this context. M. R. B. Shaw, tr., Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades (New York: Penguin 1963) 92.

41 Pietro Savio, Ricerche storiche sulla Santa Sindone (Torino: Società Editrice Internazionale 1957) 121. This collection of texts is a work of immense scholarship and of inestimable value to the study of the burial wrap of Jesus.

42 Thus, the Greek text of Mesarites’ Palastrevolution (n. 36) 31 32 (Col. A) should be compared to that of the Epitaphios in August Heisenberg, Neue Quellen zur Geschichte des lateinischen Kaisartums und der Kirchenunion. I. Der Epitaphios des Nikolaos Mesarites auf seinem Bruder Johannes (Munich: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 1923) 27f (Col. B). (Italics below are by the present writer.)

COL.A                                                 COL. B
[He lists ten relics of the                [He lists relics of the
Passion corresponding to the Passion present in Cpe.] Ten Commandments including „Christ is known in
the vτφιoι σιvδóvες Judaea but the Lord is
not absent from us. His
and later, τò σoυδάριov tomb is there, but the
and vτάφιoις σιvδoσιv.] θόvαι κα τ σoυδάρια have been brought to us;
κραvίoυ τόπoς κει but the cross is here. . . .
. . . κα τί δει με τ λόγ κα τί δει με τ λόγ
μακρεγoρειv τ πoλλά; συvείρειv τ πoλλά; He who is περίγραπτoς who appeared
among us in the form of a man,
The Lawgiver himself is περιγραπτς,
here . . . ς v . . . ς v
πρωτoτύπ τετυπωμέvoς πρωτoτύπ τετυπωμέvoς
τ χειρoμάκτρ κα τε τ χειρoμάκτρ κα τε
εθρύπτ κεράμ ς v εθρύπτ κεράμ ς v
γκεκoλαμμέvoς γκεκoλαμμέvoς
χειρoπoιέτ τέχv τιv χειρoπoιέτ τέχv τιv
γραφιλκ. vας oτoς, γραφιλκ.
τόπoς oτoς τόπoς oτoς,  τέκvov,
Σίvαιov άλλo, Βεθλεέμ,
Ioρδάvες, Iερoσόλυμα, Iερoσόλυμα, Τιβερις,
Ναζαρέτ, Βεθαvία, Γαλιλαία, Ναζαρέτ, Θαβώριov ρos,
Τιβερις, . . . Θαβώριov Βεθαvία, κα Βεθλεέμ.
ρos, Πιλάτoυ πραιτόριov,
κα τόπoς Κραvίoυ
Ηβραϊστ Γoλγόθα.

43 Gerland (n. 40) 133 37; Norden (n. 40) 183 87; Heisenberg, Neue Quellen (n. 42) 8 12.

44 This Cardinal Benedict was then Bishop of Porto, on the Tiber opposite Ostia, and S. Rufina, two hamlets united by Pope Callixtus II (1119 1124). Nicholas of Otranto (c.1155 1235) should be distinguished from a younger contemporary poet of the same name. The Abbot of Casole is also known as Nectarius. See Augusta Acconcia Longo and André Jacob, „Poesie di Nicola d’Otranto nel Laur. Gr. 58.2,“ Byzantion 54 (1984) 371 379 and Johannes W. Hoeck and Raimond J. Loenertz, Nikolaos Nektarios von Otranto, Abt von Casole. Beitrage zur Geschichte der ost westlichen Beziehungen unter Innocenz III und Friedrich II (Ettal: Buch Kunstverlag 1965).

45 Johannes Albertus Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung 1967. Repr. of 1808) vol. XI. 288f. Heisenberg, Neue Quellen (n. 42) especially 10, n. 1, from the first treatise of Nicholas of Otranto on the procession of the Holy Spirit.

46 Riant, Exuviae (n. 2) II. 233f gives both the Greek and Latin versions, presumably equally by Nicholas of Otranto: quum capta esset a Francingenis regalis civitas . . . et in scevophylachium Magni Palacii tamquam latrones, ubi sancta posita erant, scilicet: preciosa ligna, spinea corona, Salvatoris sandalia, clavis et fascia (que et nos postea oculis nostris vidimus) aliaque multa invenerunt . . . (Riant’s parentheses).

Greek: Κρατηθείσης ὑπό τῶv Φραγκῶv της βασιλεύσoύσης τῶv τόλεωv, καὶ πάvτας τoὺς θησαυρoὺς, οὐ μόvov τῶv ἀvακτόρωv καὶ τῶv κoιvoλαῖτῶv, ἀλλά καὶ τoὺς τῶv oἴκῶv Κυρίoυ, . . . καὶ ἐv τῷ σκευoφυλαχείῳ τῷ τoυ Μεγάλoυ Παλατίoυ ληστρικῶς εἰσφρισσάvτωv, ἐv οἷς τὰ ἃγια ἀπέκειvτo, ἤγoυv: τὰ τίμια Ξύλα, ὁ ἀκάvθιvoς Στέφαvoς, τὰ τoῦ Σώτῆρoς Σαvδάλια, ὁ Ἧλoς, καὶ τα Σπάργαvα, ἅτιvα καὶ ἡμεῖς ὕστερov αὐτoψε ἐθεασάμεθα, ἀλλαδὲ πλεῖστα ἐυρov ἐχεῖσε.

The Moscow MS published by Bishop Arsenij, Greek only, with Russian translation (Novgorod 1896) 41, does not have the word ὕστερov „later,“ which is in Riant’s text, from Leo Allatius, Examen de libris ecclesiasticis Graecorum in Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca (Hamburg 1712) V. 151f.

For the Athens connection, see Arsenyi 18: κα  μάλιστα vωτίσθημεv παρ τv έv Θεσσαλovίκr κα τ βασιλίδι τv πόλεωv o μv λλ, κα v Αθvας σoφωτάτvov κα ερv vδρv τv μετ to κρ Βεvεδίκτoυ καρδιvαρίoυ.. διαλεχθέvτωv συvαγραψάμεθα . . . τιvα τ παραγγελί κείvoυ v λατιvικ ξ λληvίδoς μετεστρέψαμεv γλώττης.

47 Savio (n. 41) 118 20.

48 The fact of this shipment encouraged Riant Dépouilles (n. 2) 43 and 39f, to think that Benedict might even have been a successor to Garnier de Trainel, Bishop of Troyes, and Nivelon de Cherisy, Bishop of Soissons, as officially designated overseer of the relics of the imperial treasury. The documents, however, which Riant cites for Garnier (37, n. 5) and for Nivelon (38, n. 2) are definitive by comparison. Many other individuals shipped consignments of relics to Europe, but it was the function of the official overseers to receive requests, mete out fragments of relics, and authenticate them.

49 N. 46.

50 See n. 46. The present interpretation takes his neuter plural relative pronoun que / τιvα to refer only to fascia /σπάργαvα.

51 (Engl. transl. by the present writer.) Pasquale Rinaldi, „Un documento probante sulla localizzazione in Atene della Santa Sindone dopo il sacheggio de Costantinopoli,“ in Coppini (supra n. 30) 109 113. The letter was rediscovered in the archive of the Abbey of St. Caterina a Formiello, Naples: folio CXXVI of the Chartularium Culisanense, originating in 1290, a copy of which came to the Naples as a result of close political ties with the imperial Angelus-Comnenus family from 1481 on. The Greek original had been lost, but a Latin translation was available to Rinaldi. There the wording was linteum quo post mortem et ante Resurrectionem noster Dominus J. C. involutus est). A question remains as to the identification of Nicholas of Otranto’s plural fascia/spargana and Theodore’s singular linteum.

In a personal correspondence, Karlheinz Dietz of the Universität Würzburg has doubted the authenticity of this letter on the basis of the use of the name Angelos by the despots of Epirus, and it is true that Doukas was the more frequent name associated with this family. Dietz wonders also, and quite properly, what other evidence exists for Theodore’s presence in Rome in 1205. It may be replied that the name may have helped Theodore gain an entrée to the concerned pope in order to deliver personally his complaint about the abuses of his country by the Latin knights. Two of the Greek emperors displaced during the Fourth Crusade in 1203-1204 were Isaac II Angelos and Alexius III Angelos. Thus this name would be recognized and respected by the pope. We know from Greek writers such as Nicetas Choniates and Crusader Gunther of Alsatian Pairis, and even from the letters of Innocent III that the men of the Fourth Crusade were ruthless pillagers of gold and relics. See Robert Lee Wolfe, “The Organization of the Latin Patriarchate or Constantinople, 1204-1261.” Traditio 6 (1948), 34 and n. 2). Wolfe and Hazard (op. cit.) have indexed Theodore “Ducas” as Theodore Angelus Comnenus and the rulers of Epirus as Angelus Comnenus (865 and 816 respectively). As Mesarites (n. 40 above), so this Theodore also became an ally of Theodore Lascaris, Byzantine ruler-in-exile of Nicaea (ibid. 210).

52 Rev. Paul de Gail, S.J., Histoire religieuse du linceul du Christ de Jérusalem á Turin(Paris:ÉditionsFrance Empire1973)100 11.

53 Riant, Exuviae (n. 2) II. 133 35: partem sudarii quo involutum fuit corpus eius in sepulchro. Note the vagueness of terminology that continues to haunt this investigation: here sudarium is made synonymous with sindon.

54 Riant. Exuviae, I.20 and II.67 227 passim.

55 Wilson (n. 9) 133 35.

56 For the Templars, see Wilson (supra, n. 9); for Besançon, see Rinaldi (n. 51) and Daniel C. Scavone, „The Shroud of Turin from 1204 to 1355,“ in Alpha and Omega: Scholarship in Honor of George Szemler (Chicago: Ares Press 1993); for the Sainte Chapelle, see Rev. A. M. Dubarle, „La Premiere Captivitè de Geoffroy de Charny & l’Acquisition du Linceul,“ Montre-nous ton Visage 8, 1992, 6-18 and Hilda Lehnen, „A propos du Mandilion,“ Soudarion (Bruges, 1991).

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