Image 1: Christ Pantocrator encaustic icon, A.D. 550.
Image 2: Shroud of Turin face.
Various icons of Jesus. Courtesy R. Schneider, I. Wilson.
At Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, is an intact sixth-century church and the world’s treasure house of early icons and manuscripts. Geographically it was out of reach of the iconoclasts, those destroyers of sacred icons during A.D. 725-843. Their most prized icon, called Christ Pantocrator, according to one of the monks there, had been painted from the Shroud of Turin. (The word icon, as used in the Eastern Orthodox Church and on this website, refers to an artistic representation of a sacred person. The icon itself may be venerated as sacred.) The icon is dated to approximately the year A.D. 550. If the monk’s story were correct, and if it could be demonstrated, it would be evidence that the Shroud had to have been in existence at least eight hundred years before its appearance in France. Many people still claim the Shroud to be a fourteenth-century forgery. Christ Pantocrator is an encaustic icon, that is, one made by the application of hot colored wax on a board, and has suffered little damage over the years.
By superimposing the Christ Pantocrator icon with the face on the Shroud of Turin, points of congruence and discordance can be identified on the images using the forensic standard. In a court of law, fourteen points of congruence are sufficient to determine that the same source for simple images such as fingerprints; for more complicated images such as a face, forty-five to sixty points of congruence are enough to declare the faces to be the same. Comparing the Christ Pantocrator to the Shroud of Turin reveals at least 170 points of congruence, making this the most accurate non-photographic depiction of the Shroud that we have found (we have studied hundreds of icons).
Why such incredible accuracy? Why go to such extraordinary lengths to reproduce with such meticulous care features that most people would never notice? The answer has to do with the nature of icons. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons had (and still have) the same status as Scripture. Thus the iconographer would no more create an image according to his own imagination than a scribe would casually rewrite Scripture. Iconographers commonly spent many weeks in prayer to prepare themselves before undertaking such a sacred task. Many hundreds of icons of Jesus in every known artistic media and in every size from very tiny to extremely large and in a wide variety of places all resemble each other in many ways. The only explanation for this is that the artists, either directly or indirectly, were all using the same model which they considered to be authentic and “not made with hands,” and they were trying to the best of their ability to copy it as faithfully as possible.
Our comparisons over the years of hundreds of icons with each other and with the Shroud face have demonstrated that the model was the Shroud of Turin. Of course, there are differences in interpretation. Some artists are more skillful than others. Also, even though there is good evidence that in the early years the images on the Shroud were more apparent than they are now, still they were fragmentary, and some artists would incorporate certain features while others would choose other markings. Some artists had direct access to the Shroud itself as a model, while many worked from copies or illustrated books called codices. Some of the artistic productions, of course, are more accurate than others. Interestingly, where they disagree with each other, they very often agree with the Shroud.