Almost four centuries after the mysterious disappearance from the Vatican of the legendary veil of Veronica - with which Jesus is said to have wiped his face on the road to Calvary - German Jesuit Fr Heinrich Pfeiffer claims to have rediscovered it. Fr Pfeiffer, a professor of Christian Art History at the Pontifical Gregorian University, says he found the relic in the Abbey of Monoppello, Italy, high in the Apennine Mountains.
A small piece of stained pale cloth kept in this tiny village has long been regarded as a sacred icon with wondrous properties by Father Germano, head of its Capuchin monastery. Fr Pfeiffer, official advisor for the Papal Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, concurs. "Yes, I am firmly convinced of it, that this is the famous relic," he told reporters at a press conference on 30 May.
The story of Veronica and her veil does not, in fact, occur in the Bible, though the apocryphal "Acts of Pilate" gives this name to the woman with a blood flow, who was cured by touching the hem of Jesus' cloak. Critics of the incident's historicity point to the very name of the saint: "Veronica" is a combination of Latin and Greek words meaning "true image." Nonetheless, the story has been a part of popular Christian culture for centuries, including a brief scene in Zefferelli's film, Jesus of Nazareth.
The almost transparent veil measures about 16 x 24 centimetres and bears dark red features of a bearded man with long hair and open eyes. The legend holds that Jesus rewarded Veronica's charity in wiping the sweat from his brow by imprinting his image into the cloth. The image on the Monoppello cloth becomes invisible depending on the angle from which the cloth is viewed.
"The fact that the face appears and disappears according to where the light comes from was considered a miracle in itself in medieval times," noted Pfeiffer. "There are few such objects in history. This is not a painting. We don't know what the material is that shapes the image, but it is the colour of blood."
Ultraviolet examinations of the cloth, carried out by Professor Donato Vittore of the University of Bari, confirm that the image is not paint. Particularly noteworthy are several small flecks of reddish brown - presumably drops of blood.
Enlarged digital photographs of the veil reveal that the image is identical on both sides of the cloth - a feat thought impossible to achieve by ancient techniques. These photographs have also been used to compare the veil with the face on the Shroud of Turin, which millions of Christians believe to be Jesus' burial sheet. Striking similarities were apparent: the faces are the same shape, both have shoulder-length hair with a tuft on the forehead, and the beards match.
History records the existence of this relic from the fourth century, but only from the Middle Ages was it strongly linked to the Passion of Christ. From the 12th century until 1608, it was kept in the Vatican Basilica as a popular goal of pilgrims, mentioned in Canto XXXI of Dante's "Paradise." When the part of the Basilica containing the relic was scheduled to be taken down for remodelling, the relic disappeared overnight.
According to records in the monastery, the wife of a soldier sold the veil to a nobleman of Monoppello in 1608 to get her husband out of jail. The nobleman, in turn, donated it to the Capuchins. In 1618, it was placed in a walnut frame adorned in silver and gold between two sheets of glass. It has remained in the monastery every since. Fr Pfeiffer invested 13 years of searching through archives to prove that this is the same cloth that disappeared in 1608.
Despite the evidence, Fr Pfeiffer's find has yet to win over the skeptics. Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, said, "The Gregorian University is quite respectable, but I think the claim about the veil is totally absurd. Almost everybody accepts that it is legend. I'd put it on the same level as seeing the face of Mohammed in a potato."
Cambridge Professor of Divinity Lionel Wickham was somewhat more positive. "Pfeiffer may have found an object that was venerated in the Middle Ages - I wouldn't discount that. But whether it dates back to early events is another matter."
To conclusively prove the origin of the cloth, scientific tests will be necessary. However, these could easily destroy the small and delicate cloth without solving the mystery, much as the negative Carbon-14 tests have failed to disprove conclusively the authenticity of Shroud of Turin.