The Pilgrimage to the Holy Face
Three years ago I took part in several bus trips organized by the Province of Perscara. I was brave or better say crazy enough to go all alone with the Italian group. I was the only foreigner in the group and I hardly knew few Italian words! Everything went well though even the guide who accompanied us didn’t speak English. My travel companions were very friendly and generous. Some of them remembered English they used to speak 30 years ago being expats in Canada or Australia. Others communicated with me in Italian gesture language.
One day we visited a very interesting church. It was situated in a rather lonely place near the small town of Manoppello. The church had a magnificent façade coated with white and light brown marble tiles. A very simple ornament gave the church an elegant and unusual look. Though I’ve already seen hundreds of Italian churches of all epochs and styles, I’ll never forget this temple.
When we entered the church, it appeared that a wedding was about to start. To my great surprise and even confusion, the guide quickly led us straight behind the main altar. We ascended few footsteps to a pedestal where a very unusual image in a precious frame was exposed. Very dark face with black eyes looked intently at visitors. My travel companions piously kissed the image and I understood that it was an image of Christ.
The guide showed us two very interesting museums. On the first floor there was a rather strange museum with a wide variety of votive objects. Bride gowns with pinned pictures of newly married couples, copies of hearts, legs and hands with photos of young soldiers in old-fashioned uniforms, lots of pictures of newborn babies, and many crutches. Besides, there were exposed very beautiful ancient sacred sculptures carved from wood.
On the ground floor, there was an exposition of various images of Christ. There were huge copies of fragments of the Turin Shroud and reproductions of famous images of Christ side by side with the Manoppello image.
I was rather embarrassed and could only understand that the image was famous for its miraculous healing.
We were standing in the square in front of the church, when a rather anxious man came up to the guide and told her a story which seemed to interest the whole group. My Italian friends told me that a case of exorcism took place in the church that same afternoon. A lady from Milan told a local priest that she was obsessed by the devil and begged to exorcize him. The priest offered up a prayer and the lady said that she felt as if the devil had left her.
It astonished me that in the 21st century somebody could seriously believe in such tales. But the audience was really interested in the story and asked the teller many questions. Today I won’t be surprised, even if I see a Holy Inquisition procession in the street. After three years in Italy, I realized that medieval traditions and mentality are deeply rooted in the everyday life of the country.
In the bus, the guide gave me an English booklet about the church. Better late than never! I couldn’t believe my own eyes when I read that the image was supposed to be the Holy Face or the Veronica!
Rather embarrassed, I couldn’t believe that such a precious relic could be kept in a lonely place like that. In fact the beautiful church wasn’t even enclosed by a wall or a fence. Everyone could observe the image freely and gratis. To say the truth, I decided that it was a beautiful local legend. I asked my new Italian friends whether they believed the story. Some of them did believe and others were skeptical.
After the church, we visited the charming town of Manoppello. It was a typical medieval town with a clear fish-bone structure, encircled by a solid wall. It was the time of the evening Mass and people was stalking along the main street to the cathedral. That day I suddenly caught a glimpse of genuine Italy which is still lost in the Middle Ages. I desperately wanted to stay in this tiny forsaken hill town forever, to live the lives of local folks, to become one of them.
I knew that I come back to this place sooner or later. I found in the Internet many interesting facts about the Holy Face of Manoppello. I wished to observe the image again, this time more consciously. There was one thing about the image that embarrassed me. The image looked like a very realistic portrait of a man with widely open eyes. Meanwhile, according to the legend it should be an imprint as in the case of the Turin Shroud. Besides, I wanted to make one more photo of the magnificent façade of the church. Last time, a wedding took place there and the guests crowded the steps of the church.
In the middle of the August, I went with my friends to Manoppello. It was a rather tiresome trip. We took a train from Montesilvano and arrived at the station of Manoppello. To our great surprise, it appeared that the railway station was situated 12 km away from the town of the same name! Luckily, we caught a bus which brought us to the town of Manoppello. The rest of the way we made by foot.
The afternoon was very hot and we walked on the road which coiled around a steep slope of forested hill. Lengthwise the road, there were situated tiny chapels of Via Crucis. We knew that there should be 14 stations and we were very happy when we reached the last one. After the next curve of the serpentine the church appeared suddenly in its full splendor. It stood in a vast open space and could be seen and photographed from afar. We couldn’t keep ourselves from outcry of admiration and breathed with relief! The solid wooden front door was decorated with 8 dark green copper plates. Artfully carved bas-relieves described the history of the Volto Santo, beginning from the imposition of the veil on Christ’s face and ending with the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the Shrine in September of 2006.
The appearance of the Holy Face in Manoppello was covered with veil of mystery. A solid folio “Relatione historica” (Historical report) was written by Capuchin friar Father Donato da Bomba in 1640. Now it is kept in the Provincial Archives of the Capuchins in the convent of St. Clara in L’Aquila. This report relates that the Veil was taken to Manoppello by a stranger in 1506 and consigned to a certain Dr. Giacomo Antonio Leonelli. The Veil was kept in Leonelli family for nearly one century. In 1608, Marzia Leonelli’s husband, Pancrazio Petrucci, a soldier, stole the Veil from his father-in-law’s house. A few years later, Marzia sold it for 4 scudi to Doctor Donato Antonio De Fabritiis to ransom her husband from a prisoner in Chieti. The Veil was given by De Fabritiis to the Capuchins. Modern researchers cast doubts on the story. They agree only upon the credibility of the last episode. The date of the sale of the relic (1608) corresponds with a probable disappearance of the famous Veronica veil from the Vatican.
The convent of the Capuchins was founded in 1618-1620. The church was dedicated to St. Michael Archangel. In this church the Holy Face was exposed to the veneration of the people on April 6th, 1646. For nearly 40 years it was kept almost privately in a niche, in the right-hand side of the high altar. Only in 1686, there was built a little chapel with an altar where the sacred relic was held. In 1923, there was built the shrine on the high altar. The church was enlarged and extended 1960-1965.
The shrine met us with pleasant cool and tranquility. Nothing distracted attention from the sanctuary. The interior is very simple and austere. The main altar is made in such a way that visitors can see the relic from both sides. In fact, one of the miraculous qualities of the Holy Face is it double-sidedness. So you can look at it from the front or from behind. Both sides are almost identical.
The “Holy Face” is a very tenuous veil that measures 6,70 inches by 9,45, stretched between two framed panes of glass. The studies showed that the Veil was made of byssus, a super-fine silk made from the ‘beard’ that mussels use to attach themselves to rocks. This material was used in the ancient world to make the finest cloths for pharaohs and Jewish high priests.
A small group of pilgrims was waiting their turn to ascend the pedestal where the Holy Face was held. It appeared that a very old nun was sitting on a chair near the image. She was talking to a young lay sister who was sitting at her feet. They talked as if they were all alone in the place. People waited very patiently and silently. At last, the elder one let the girl go. Then she knelt in front of the Holy Face and prayed for a few minutes. When she finally left, the visitors began slowly ascend the stairs, waiting patiently in order to give everyone an opportunity to stay for a moment alone with the icon. I looked at the Holy Face trying to comprehend its mystery. This time I looked very attentively. I saw the bearded face of a man with broken nose. He had dark curly hair, which was mixed with long beard and side-curls in Jewish style. The right cheek was swollen. The forehead and lips had traces of wounds. And again as three years ago, I was struck by the widely open eyes of the Holy Face. They looked straight into my soul but at the same time far beyond. These eyes were so alive and the stare was so steadfast that I felt tingles down my spine. To say the truth, I hoped to experience if not a revelation, but at least a sign. But nothing extraordinary happened. I tried to take photo of the image but failed, because enormous stained-glass windows were reflected in the glass of the frame. I still don’t have a definite opinion about the Holy Face. This image is very different from the pictures of Christ which I’ve seen before. What if it is a genuine image of God?!
It is not surprise, that the mystery of the Holy Face attracted many researchers.
Sister Blandina Paschalis Schloemer, a Trappist nun and painter, used to copy the images from the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Face of Manoppello for two decades. Finally, she was struck by the idea of comparing two images. So she started to make various tests. She was helped in this by Fr. Resch’s scientific skills. Fr. Resch brought computers to their aid and superimposed the two images. Fr. Resch summarised their findings in the following five points. 1) The two faces coincide perfectly. 2) The two faces must therefore belong to the same person. 3) None of the two images were created by human hands. 4) Their formation was probably caused by a photo-chemical process. 5) The origin of the two images, and their exact likeness, can only be defined as paranormal, or in other words, as completely inexplicable.
One of the most profound researches of the Holy Face was carried out by Dr. P.Heinrich Pfeiffer, professor of History of Christian Art at the Gregorian University of Rome and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church. He wrote, “As the Face of the Holy Shroud can be perfectly superimposed to the Holy Face of Manoppello, we must admit that the two Images were formed at the same time. In fact, we can realize the Image of the Holy Shroud, showing the body of a man crucified and dead according to the Gospel-truth, only by admitting its formation while the body was in the tomb. Therefore, also the Holy Face of Manoppello was formed in the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem when, very probably, the napkin was put hastily on the Shroud”. According to Pfeiffer’s suggestions, firstly, the Virgin Mary could keep the veil. Then the Holy Face perhaps was retained by the apostle John so it was in Ephesus first, then somewhere in Asia Minor. Secondly, the veil remained together with the Shroud and was separated long after. Following this second supposition, as in Cedreno’s writings, in A.D. 574 an “acheiropoietos” icon was transferred from Camulia in Cappadocia to Constantinople. It remained in Constantinople till 705 when it disappeared from the capital of the empire. Professor Pfeiffer was the first to promulgate that the Holy Face of Manoppello is nothing else than the Veronica. In 1999, he announced at a press conference in Rome that he had found the genuine Veronica veil in a monastery in Manoppello. Pfeiffer made this important announcement after 13 years of scrupulous studies. His discovery stimulated further scientific studies and attracted more pilgrims to the shrine.
Catholic journalist Saverio Gaeta published two books on the Holy Face of Manoppello: L’altra Sindone (The Other Shroud) and L’Enigma del Volto Santo di Gesu (The Enigma of Holy Face of Jesus).
On the basis of his journalist investigation, Saverio Gaeta made a very important conclusion that the Veil was stolen from St. Peter’s Cathedral during the Sack of Rome by the troops of Emperor CharlesV. Pope Clement VII sought refuge in the fortified bastion of Castel Sant’Angelo. Gaeta found out that the commander of the Spanish garrison besieging Castel Sant’Angelo, was a certain Larcon. A year before the Sack, this man was nominated by the Emperor Charles V ‘Marquis of the Sicilian Valley in Abruzzo’. That area included the little town of Manoppello, and was part of the Kingdom of Naples. It was therefore not under the control of the Vatican. Gaeta assumed that Larcon could transfer the precious relic to the ‘Sicilian Valley in Abruzzo’, and his descendants could donate it to the Capuchin Friars who were building a church in Manoppello. This occurred around 1609.
In 2010, ENEA Research Center of Frascati (Italy) which specializes on nuclear fusion held the International Workshop on the Scientific Approach to the Acheiropoietos Images dedicated to the Turin Shroud, the Tilma of Guadalupe and the Manoppello Veil. Professors H.Pfeiffer, A.Resch, J.S.Jaworski and R.Falcinelli made reports about the Holy Face of Manoppello. H.Pfeiffer and A.Resch confirmed their previous conclusions. J.S.Jaworski stated that during his studies based on tridimensional (3-D) processing, he compared the Face of the Manoppello Veil with that of the Turin Shroud. The research confirmed general similarity of the wounds and other marks on them, which supports earlier observations described in the literature. However, the very different physical and chemical characteristics of the two images confirm that they were formed in different ways and probably also in different circumstances.
The enigma of the Holy Face is still to be revealed…