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Shrouded connections: Serbia, the Shroud, and the Holy Face of Laon

A new hypothesis about the many origin stories that attempt to explain the provenance of the Shroud of Turin.

Left: The Sainte Face Laon (the Holy Face of Laon); right: A processed image of the face on the Shroud of Turin. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In the mid-13th century, so the story goes, a man obtained an image of the Holy Face. He did not keep it for himself. Rather, he sent it to a Cistercian monastery northeast of Paris. Eventually, it was moved out of the monastery to a church, the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Laon. Hence the name of this image — the Holy Face of Laon.

The man was Jacques Pantaleon, the future Pope Urban IV, who sent the icon to his sister, abbess of Montreuil-les-dames. It was July 1249. Below the image of the face of Christ is an inscription in late first millennium Slavonic, Obraz Gospodin na Ubruzje: “the image of the Lord on the cloth.” In an accompanying letter, Pantaleon commented on the darkness of the image: “the color of Christ’s face is the result of his tribulations during his Passion, and of his peregrinations in the sun.” Additionally, he urged his sister to look upon it “like the holy Veronica, as its true image and likeness.”

About a hundred years later, another man obtained an image of not only the face, but the full body of Christ. He did not keep it for himself. Rather, so the story goes, this man — knight Geoffroy de Charny — installed a large linen cloth in a church at Lirey, just south of Troyes. It was eventually moved to the cathedral of John the Baptist in Turin. Hence the name of this image — the Shroud of Turin.

A problem with the Shroud is the many origin stories that attempt to explain its provenance. Career soldier and diplomat that he was, Charny might have simply viewed the cloth as just another trophy or spoil of war, if he even viewed it at all: there’s no indication of it in any of his writings, in his petitions to popes, in the Act of Foundation for the church he had built in Lirey, or when the bishop of Troyes consecrated the church in May 1356. Four months later, Charny was dead at the Battle of Poitiers in the Hundred Years’ War. Although he wished to be buried at the cemetery of his Lirey church, Our Lady of the Annunciation, his body never made it back home. Was the presence of the Shroud a kind of drap mortuaire commemorating the deceased Charny in the meditative light of the visage of the crucified, entombed Christ?

We begin with considering two comments about the Shroud made from his heirs — the statement of his son, Geoffroy II, cited in a 1390 papal bull that the Shroud was “freely given” (liberaliter oblatam); and from granddaughter Marguerite de Charny in a 1443 deposition: “[the Shroud] was obtained by the late Geoffroy de Charny, my grand-father” (fut conquis par feu messire Geoffroy de Charny, mon grant pere).

Taking those vague comments at face value, the present scenario hypothesizes Geoffroy de Charny “obtained” or “acquired” the Shroud as a gesture of conciliation or diplomatic gift from the Serbian royal court of the Nemanjić dynasty. This would have been while Charny was in southern Italy at the time of his participation in the Smyrniote Crusades of the mid-1340s, but before the building of his Lirey church in 1353. This hypothesis proposes he had the cloth, rolled up or folded in a chest, stored in the nearby Benedictine monastery of Saint-Pierre de Montier-la-Celle in Troyes, eight miles north of Lirey.

Only after Charny’s death in 1356 was it moved to the Lirey church, amid the destruction caused by the English invasion of Champagne. This, then, created confusion over ownership: was it the property of the church canons, or was it owned by Charny’s heirs? Such a debate lingered for the rest of the Shroud’s time in France, ultimately forcing the eventual owners, the House of Savoy, to invent origin stories of the cloth that simply did not hitherto exist.

But why southern Italy? A fresco in the church of Santa Maria del Casale in Brindisi depicts the Charny coat of arms — escutcheon with three silver shields — along with insignia of other crusaders. Marcello Semeraro argued that this heraldic fresco was commissioned by Charny between 1344-1346, as Brindisi would have been the port from which the crusaders set sail for Smyrna. This was in the time of Angevin domination of the heel of Italy, when Robert II of Anjou was prince of Taranto, king of Albania, prince of Achaea, and titular Latin emperor of Constantinople. Indeed, Robert and his wife, Marie of Bourbon, acquired two Frankish baronies in the Morea from the niece of Geoffroy de Charny, the baronness Guillemette de Jonvelle, in 1359.

About sixty miles north of Brindisi is another port city, Bari, with its Church of San Nicola (now a pontifical basilica) and its relics of Saint Nicholas, venerated by both eastern and western Christians. It was in Bari where Jacques Pantaleon obtained the Holy Face icon. As papal legate for Innocent IV to Germany, and later Patriarch of Jerusalem, Pantaleon was papabile material, versed in the art of diplomacy and negotiation, so much so that his election to the papacy was a unique one — he was not a cardinal.

Andre Grabar remarked in his 1931 study of the Laon icon, “The faultless Slavonic inscription could only have been written in one of the three Slavonic countries which used the Cyrillic alphabet at the time: Serbia, Bulgaria or Russia.” Let us then look closer at Serbia. Noel Currer-Briggs connected the Holy Face of Laon to a badly preserved mandylion fresco in the Church of the Annunciation at the Gradac Monastery, built between 1277-1282 by the Serbian queen consort, Helena of Anjou. Helena was a major figure in Serbian lore, a saint in the Serbian Orthodox Church, and crucially, a woman with western blood.

Helena and her heirs of the Nemanjić dynasty were significant donors to San Nicola in Bari. The wife of King Stefan Uroš I from 1243 until his death in 1277, Helena was the daughter of John Angelos (son of the deposed Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos) and, according to Filip Van Tricht, Mathilda of the Frankish house of Courtenay, which produced several Latin emperors of Constantinople. Helena’s two sons both became Serbian kings, and Helena governed land in her own right, namely the province of Zeta off the Adriatic Sea. Helena also had a deep devotion to Saint Nicholas; she died at Saint Nicholas Church, which she had built, in the Kotor municipality. Nicole Sabourin identified Kotor as a particularly vibrant location for the production of sacred art.

The Epitaphios icon also emerged in the Christian east at this exact time, known in its liturgical usage as Epitáphios Thrēnos (“Lamentation upon the Grave”), and integrated in the Great Friday liturgies. An image of Christ recumbent in death, painted or embroidered on a richly adorned cloth, commemorated individuals of stature, deceased or otherwise. The epitaphios of Helena’s son, King Stefan Uroš II Milutin, for instance, contains another Slavonic inscription: “Remember, O God, the soul of your servant Milutin Uroš.” With this remarkable work, one can see the influence either of — or influence on — the Shroud, an extremely important distinction of prepositions in this case.

Given, therefore, the vibrant interplay across the Adriatic Sea, and if the icon of the Holy Face was given to Jacques Pantaleon in Bari as a diplomatic gift or donation, could the same be said of the Shroud “freely given” to Geoffroy de Charny? The Shroud encapsulates the intense 14th-century medieval devotion to the Passion of Christ, and one inseparable from the zealous interest in the Holy Sepulchre. And if one could not journey to Jerusalem, Jerusalem would be brought to them: relics, art, entombment sculptures. And a major influence on the new focus from Christ Pantocrator to Christ Crucified? St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans.

The stigmata-bearing Francis has been known as the “Christ-Image of the Middle Ages,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his doctoral dissertation. Queen Helena strongly supported the Franciscans, such as building a Franciscan church within the Gradac Monastery dedicated to St. Nicholas. An icon of Sts. Peter and Paul preserved in the Vatican Treasury is believed to have been commissioned by Helena as a gift to the first Franciscan pontiff, Nicholas IV (1288-1292). Moreover, murals at Gradac depicted the Man of Sorrows; only a year after Nicholas IV’s death, the Man of Sorrows imagery appeared in the west for the first time — from a Franciscan prayer book.

Interestingly, before ascending to the papacy as Nicholas IV, Jerome Ascoli was provincial minister of Dalmatia in a time and place which certainly introduced him to the hybrid culture of east and west Christianity. It was also a region that fell under Helena of Anjou’s rule.

Before Francis’s spiritual conversion in the early 13th century, his hero was the crusading adventurer Walter III of Brienne, the first Brienne to rule as Count of Lecce as well as Prince of Taranto in southern Italy. Walter III’s brother was John of Brienne, king of Jerusalem, emperor of Constantinople, and veteran of the Fifth Crusade, where St. Francis himself attempted to convert the sultan of Egypt. John stepped down as Latin emperor, and donned the habit of an anonymous Franciscan friar. He is buried in the Lower Basilica of Assisi. Another Brienne had a chapel nearby — Walter VI.

Walter VI, count of the Brienne homeland in Champagne, thirty miles northeast of Lirey, was a close associate of Geoffroy de Charny. Not only did Walter VI and Geoffroy de Charny perish on the same day (September 19) in the same battle (Poitiers) protecting the same king (John the Good), they were also members of France’s Order of the Star (Ordre de l’etoile). Charny’s mentor until the Smyrniote crusade was Raoul I of Brienne, Count of Eu — Walter VI’s father-in-law. We hypothesize, then, that the Count of Brienne, Lecce, and claimant to the duchy of Athens, Walter VI, was aware of Geoffroy de Charny receiving from a Serbian envoy the Shroud as a gift, for diplomatic purposes, or simply as a pious gesture of goodwill, and having it sent it to Montier-la-Celle.

After all, Charny needed permission from the abbot of Montier-la-Celle to build his church. It was an ancient, prestigious monastery, where St. Robert of Molesme entered the Benedictine order and St. Bernard of Clairvaux took monastic professions. The idea of the abbey as a secure place to store or donate an object like the Shroud is not far-fetched. Consider that both Walter VI’s father and the count of Joigny each had a key to the same secure chest retained in the abbey. Walter VI also donated to the abbey, according to his 1347 testament.

The deaths of these two men, Charny and Walter VI, allowed for the Shroud to be “discovered.” In 1359, Montier-la-Celle was looted, ransacked, and burned by the English, forcing nobles’ safety deposit boxes, reliquaries, and liturgical vessels to scatter. This is echoed six centuries later, during World War II, when the Shroud was secretly ushered out of Turin to a Benedictine abbey, Montevergine, outside Naples. Thus, it’s feasible to consider the Shroud was evacuated out of Montier-la-Celle during the Hundred Years’ War to the new church built by the man who acquired the Shroud in the first place.

We know in Fremont’s chronicle that even as late as the 1690s the canons of the Lirey church commemorated Charny’s death each September 19 with a ritual involving a funeral sheet displayed in the heart of the church affixed to a catafalque (raised bier). In this way, a drap mortuaire, not unlike the Epitaphios ritual in the Byzantine world, commemorated Geoffroy de Charny, deprived of burial in Lirey, but uniting it with another missing body — the resurrected body of Christ.

As for Jacques Pantaleon, it may be simply a coincidence that he was a native of Troyes, and that his chamberlain was one Pierre de Charny (d. 1274), archbishop of Sens, who had the same coat of arms as that of Geoffroy de Charny. It might be a mere coincidence that a prior of Montier-la-Celle was a man called Jean de Charny, the same name as that of Geoffroy de Charny’s father. This was in the 1380s — the same decade controversy around the Shroud would explode just down the road from Montier-la-Celle in Lirey.

And it may also just be a coincidence Geoffroy de Charny was counselor to the king for the region of Picardy — the same region where in a Cistercian nunnery was an image of the Holy Face, a face with not a few similarities to the face on the cloth freely given to that most “true and perfect knight.”


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About James Day 10 Articles
James Day is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (Sophia Institute Press, 2016). He is a producer and operations manager for EWTN’s West Coast Studio at the Christ Cathedral campus in Orange County, California.

4 Comments

  1. The new hypothesis centers mostly and richly on the events of 1249 through 1390. In earlier documentation, this part of the chronology of the Shroud is blank, filled-in now by Day. As a non-expert who has, however, tracked the story of the Shroud, I’d like to add the following from related research…

    In “The Shroud of Turin: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ” (1979) Ian Wilson’s dated chronology includes the removal of the Shroud from Constantinople in April 1204, but then reports only the possibility that it was included in the Treasury of the Knights of Templar (not to be found later when the order was arrested under King Philip the Fair in 1307). The trail picks up again, as with Day, in A.D. 1353 with Geoffrey de Charnay, and then the church of Lirey where the first known exposition was later made in A.D. 1357 (?). After storage, renewed exposition took place in 1389 with the endorsement of Pope Clement VII.
    Wilson’s major contributions are the detailed narrative and chronology prior to Day’s focus (above), including early residence in Edessa, its concealment and recovery after five centuries, later removal to Constantinople in A.D. 944, and then its disappearance in A.D. 1204 during the Fourth Crusade (Wilson only speculates obscurely, but mentions possibly only, the Templars). Wilson also reports scientific and other investigations into the Shroud’s authenticity. The later and discrediting C-14 carbon-dating test has, itself, been seriously questioned, e.g., invalidating water and smoke contamination from a damaging chapel fire in A.D. 1532, and the mingling in the lab sample of 1st-century cloth with a 16th century cloth patch.

    Wilson also identifies the Shroud with the Mandylion—only the Shroud’s face of Christ, displayed in a frame containing and hiding the entire and folded Shroud. Parts of this story are the threat against more complete images (the Iconoclasm Crisis), and the identification of some fifteen facial features which show up in the earliest artist portraits of Christ—centuries before the 14th Century—using the more original Mandylion as a model? (Such as a raised right eyebrow, the fork to the beard, the three-sided “square” on the forehead).

    Particularly fascinating during our scientific age, is the convergence of the most sophisticated forensics techniques together with a relic likely to be the burial cloth of Christ. The scientific method will never confirm authenticity, but thorough efforts to disprove authenticity have not succeeded. Later works include John Heller (member of the Shroud of Turin Research Team, STURP), “Report on the Shroud of Turin,” 1983; Wilson, “The Blood of the Shroud,” 1998; and Bertrand, “Was the Shroud’s First-Century Origin Really Debunked,” Inside the Vatican, May-June 2021.

    For his part, Heller concludes: “Though it was believed that there would be a confrontation between science and religion, none occurred. Rather, the relationship was harmonious and synergistic.”

  2. Greetings to both James Day, and PeterBeaulieu. I am the Bertrand referenced near the end of Peter’s Comment. There have been 3 theories put forth regarding the Shroud’s whereabouts during ‘The Missing Years’ of 1204 – 1355. These include the Knights Templar / through Jean de Vergy’s family line – wife of Geoffrey de Charnay / and the 3rd possibility is through Geoffrey’s family line as a result of King Louis IX – St Louis. Louis IX’s cousin was Baldwin III, who was the Emperor of Constantinople at the time of the 1204 sack. Jean de Jeanville was King Louis IX’s right hand man, and a relative of Geoffrey de Charnay. There is a great deal of converging evidence that Saint Louis may have acquired the Shroud from his cousin Baldwin III. For those with an interest in the Shroud, here is the link to a powerpoint which explains this in more detail. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJc4b9p1hhE. It remains an “Open Question”. Ultimately our faith rests on the reality of the Resurrection and not on the authenticity of the Shroud. I believe the Shroud to be the burial cloth of Jesus because all natural processes have been ruled out, as well as the ‘artists theories’ which fail to account for the 17 unique features of the Shroud. So if it’s not a natural process and not the work of an artist, what’s left? This is a fine example of the harmony between faith and reason.

  3. A well argued essay and set of comments on James Day’s article. No one has adequately explained the imprint. Of significance is the negative imprint consistent with a photo. That indicates a bodily transference through the cloth. Virtually impossible to recreate and remarkably consistent with Christ’s flesh and blood real resurrection. A controversial truth not always fully understood theologically through the centuries available to us today. What inspires me is more sentient than scientific [even with support that the red pigment has been found to be blood], that is, the vision itself, a face that exhibits a royal dignity, of great strength and similarly deep humility and peaceful resignation [that look of peaceful resignation in suffering much impressed a non religious scientist I believe to conversion]. Personally I’ve never seen a face and expression closely like it. It’s mysteriously convincing and deeply spiritual.

  4. How is it that the Sudarium of Oviedo, Spain is omitted from the conversation? Here is a cloth with matching blood type, (AB+), and matching blood stains, that has a known history that provides the most powerful evidence that the Shroud of Turin is authentic. If you are not familiar with the cloth, search it out on the Internet.

    Dr. Heller presents various anecdotes concerning “coincidences” in connection with the initial forming of the research group, STURP. These served as prompts to various people to keep investigating the Shroud. Why isn’t this kind of evidence given press?
    When I met a Catholic monsignor and had a discussion concerning the Shroud, and he later inquired of my wife and I where we resided in the Westport district of Kansas City, and I told him our address, he replied that as a child he resided at the exact same address, on the very next street over. Then there is the anecdote concerning Shroud author Mark Antonacci, with whom I had spoken on the telephone prior to the publication of his book. That anecdote involves the publication of an interview with Mark that he wasn’t aware had been published, and I happened to secure copies of, while at a stop at Jefferson City, Missouri, while traveling to a family reunion in the Ozarks.

    I was probably the first person to question in print the radio-carbon dating results from 1988, based on the argument that the Shroud had been exposed to smoke. This was published as a letter to the editor in an Oregon newspaper during 1988. My argument was based on an explanation of artifact contamination that is in a text that was written by a former director of the Australian Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Clifford Wilson. The book was given to me at my residence, which he and his first wife, Avis, visited while he was on a lecture circuit through Oregon.

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