Just back from a week in the Périgord, where among other medieval sites I visited the Cistercian Abbey of Cadouin. It’s a fine if rather bleak building (Cistercian churches were normally on the austere side anyway, and in addition historic churches in SW France tend to be quite bare, having been knocked about extensively not only during the 100 Years War but the Wars of Religion – much of what had once been Cathar territory became Protestant, and the smashing of saints’ statues and the like was widespread). It has a fine cloister with interesting 12th-15th century carvings.
But what makes the Abbey of Cadouin interesting is not so much its buildings but its most famous relic – the alleged Sudarium Capitis or “burial head-cloth” of Christ. (Jewish funeral ritual prescribed the wrapping of the head in a cloth separate from the shroud.) The Sudarium was allegedly brought back from the First Crusade by Adhémar de Puy. It soon became a famous relic, and pilgrims flocked from afar to revere it, including, it's said, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I and Louis IX… It made the abbey rich. Amazingly, the community managed to preserve it throughout the 100 Years war and the Wars of Religion, and even steal it back from the Toulousains to whom it had been conveyed for safekeeping in an emergency and who had shown a disposition to keep it for themselves. Pilgrimages and annual "ostentions" of the Saint-Suaire de Cadouin continued right to the end of the Ancien Regime.
The pilgrimages and “ostensions” were of course abolished during the French Revolution, but in the late 1850s the local bishops decided that their revival would be just the thing to revive the faith of the simple Périgourdin peasantry (also, of course, just the kind of thing that horrible old obscurantist Pius IX liked). So – despite the fact that there was an equally well-attested Sudarium at Oviedo in Spain – the annual pilgrimages were reinstated, a Confraternity of the Holy Sudarium was founded, and thousands of devout peasants were induced to trudge across country and pay for candles and masses in front of it annually for more than eighty years – until, suddenly, in 1934 the Bishop of Perigueux announced that there would be no ostension and pilgrimage that year, or any other year….
…because they had unwisely allowed it to be examined by Gaston Wiet, Director of the Museum of Arab Art in Cairo, who pointed out that not only were the silk-embroidered strips at each end fine and characteristic examples of 11th-century Fatimid work, they actually contain a Qufic inscription which, to anyone versed in Qufic, reads:
‘(In the name of God) the Compassionate, the Merciful. There is no god but Allah alone, who has no equal. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. ‘Alī is the Friend of God. May God bless them both as well as the people of their House, the pure imams,…’.
‘…Imam al-Musta ‘lī billah, Prince of the Believers, may God bless him and his pure ancestors, his honourable descendants, the sword of Islam, defender of (the imam), guarantor for the Muslim judges, guide for the missionaries of the believers Abū-l-Qasim Shahanshāh al-Musta ‘lī. May God strengthen the religion through him.’
‘ (In the name of God), the Compassionate, the Merciful. There is no god but Allah alone, who has no equal. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. ‘Alī is the Friend of God. May God bless them both as well as the people of their House, the pure imams (…) the imam Ahmad Abū l-Qasim al-Musta ‘lī billah, Prince of the Believers, may God bless him and his pure ancestors, his honourable descendants.’
(… which was ordered) to be done by the illustrious Lord al-Afdal, the amir of the army (…) al-Musta’lī (…), the sword of Islam, defender of the imam, guarantor for the Muslim judges, guide for the missionaries of the believers Abū-l-Qasim Shāhanshāh al-Musta ‘lī (…) May God strengthen the religion through him.’
Al-Mustali was the Fatimid Caliph from 1094 to 1101, and al-Afdal was his Vizier, who led the Fatimid troops from Cairo to attack the Franks at Ascalon in 1099. The inscription implies that the cloth was made expressly for him. This makes it highly likely that poor old Adhémar did indeed acquire it in the Holy Land, just as tradition stated – but makes it certain that it was spanking new at the time!
Oh, the Schadenfreude of seeing Catholic obscurantism falling flat on its face…
Pictures and more info here: