“Natural Colors on the Holy Face, the Work of an Artist?”
by Fr. Carmine Cucinelli
from the Italian journal Il Volto Santo di Manoppello Vol. XCI, no. 2 (Dec. 2005)
translated by Raymond Frost, University of San Francisco
A discussion with Fr. Heinrich Pfeiffer on the recent hypothesis put forth by the photographer Roberto Falcinelli, according to whom the precious veil is possibly a work of art made in the 16th century which many believed had been lost.
Fr. Cucinelli: There are many theories that affirm that the Holy Face is a painting. Recently Roberto Falcinelli, a photographer and expert on the Shroud, has affirmed that we are dealing with a painting of the 1500’s by the great German painter Albert Durrer or even Raphael, what do you think of this?
Fr. Pfeiffer: I know the basis for why Falcinelli is able to say this. But he is mistaken. He is neither the first nor will he be the last to say these things. Already the Jesuit Father Bulst, a famous expert on the Shroud from Germany, with whom I have worked, has affirmed a statement of this type. Actually I was the very one to have pointed out to him the reference to Vasari in his “Life of Raphael”. There it says that the German painter would have sent to the Urbanite (Raphael) a self-portrait, painted on both sides of a cloth so subtle that it was not possible to see that it was a painting. So in reply there are five things that should be highlighted: First we could say that we would be very proud if we possessed a heretofore unknown original of the great artist of Nuremberg. Second unfortunately it does not correspond to the characteristics of the face of the artist. Third he must have copied the Shroud of Turin. Fourth the phenomenon of the oscillation of colors is seen on the Holy Face. Fifth it is not possible to paint on fabric made of marine byssus.
Fr. Cucinelli: Can you explain these points in a detailed and understandable way? In particular why can’t it be a painting?
Fr. Pfeiffer: Again we say that the Holy Face can in no way be a painting. And for a number of reasons. First, even if one could paint with the greatest perfection on both sides of a cloth, there would never be the total transparency as in the Holy Face of Manoppello. The only painting of this type that I know of is a Byzantine work of art made around the year 1000 which shows St. Vitale equally on both sides of a silk fabric. This work is found in the treasury of the Cathedral in Trieste.
Second. As Sr. Blandina Pascalis Schlomer has shown that the Holy Face is able to be perfectly superimposed over the Shroud of Turin, the presumed painter, let’s say Albert Durrer, would first have had to place his cloth over the Shroud and copy onto it exactly the characteristics of the negative. One must realize that the Shroud can only be seen from a distance of at least one and half meters. So one can’t ever copy all the details that correspond element by element. In fact until now no one has ever been able to make a perfect copy of the Shroud with purely artistic means. Our presumed painter would have had to turn the cloth over and paint the other side with the same perfection. One can clearly see that this procedure was not possible for any artist, still less for one in the first or second decade of the 1500’s.
Third: If one begins to look at the Face and then moves to the right or left, at a certain point one sees that the lips are pink and then this blush disappears and the lips become brown. If one shines a light diagonally from behind only a light brown can be seen in various tones, the red disappears completely. If a light shines from the front, there comes forth a more intense brown and also the red of the wounds from the crown of thorns on the temple is seen. If all this artificial illumination is taken away the colors vanish and there comes forth on the figure a light grey. All these changes can best be observed with the light of the day during the open air solemn procession in May.
Fr. Cucinelli: How can the changing colors be explained? If they are colors, as they appear to the eye to be, of what kind are they?
Fr. Pfeiffer: Such oscillation of colors is only found in nature itself.
Fr. Cucinelli: Can you give some examples of natural coloration that changes?
Fr. Pfeiffer: Yes, in the fish in the Caribbean Sea or in the butterflies in tropical zones, that oscillate, according to the angle of view, between blue and grey. So one must understand that in reality, in nature colors don’t exist, but rather when an object is struck by the white light, it absorbs a part of the light and reflects the complementary light, for example, it absorbs the green and reflects the red. The phenomenon of oscillation is such that as the surface of the object has various angles which are able to be seen, these reflect one or another of the colors at a different time. Therefore the threads of the fabric of the Holy Face must change either on the surface of the threads or inside them in order to permit the same phenomenon. No artist with any technique, whether known or still to be discovered, can change a fabric in this way in order to permit this phenomenon.
In other words, one must distinguish the fabric from the image. The very fine fabric is a human work, the image that can be seen on it, is not. This image behaves as a phenomenon that is found in nature. This insperable combination between human work (fabric) and natural phenomenon (image) we can only call by the word “miracle”, a miracle that will last as long as the fabric does not decompose.
There is still another reason that excludes any kind of painting. A fabric so fine, which is identified as marine byssus by Chiara Vigo, the only known weaver of this material, can be found only in ancient times. But marine byssus can only be “tinted”, for example through a purple dye, but one can not “paint” anything on it. The salt remaining between the threads sooner of later will cause any color to fall from the threads.
Fr. Cucinelli: It is said that if the color comes from watercolor, then there would not be residue or pigment left between the threads. What if the colors were watercolor?
Fr. Pfeiffer: It doesn’t make any difference. By definition any painting technique consists of a material applied over a support, in this case a fabric. Whether such material might be between the threads or over the threads, it has yet to be found. I have not studied the fabric with a microscope but I have gone millimeter by millimeter with a lens that magnifies ten times and I have not found traces of such residue. If one might find something one could only speak of a strip of paint applied afterwards to highlight some pre-existing detail of the image.
Fr. Cucinelli: Falcinelli says that Vasari has perhaps confused the work of Raphael with a supposed self-portrait of Durrer and that this work of the Urbinate would be the Holy Face. Do we find ourselves on a totally mistaken trail?
Fr. Pfeiffer: The same difficulty remains whether it were to be the work of Durrer or the work of Raphael. The Holy Face of Manoppello corresponds much better to the thousands of paintings of Christ in both the West and the East then it does with the work of Raphael. However it is possible that there is a certain relationship between Raphael and the Roman Veronica. When Raphael, towards the end of his life, painted his Transfiguration of Christ, he certainly used the Veronica as a model for the characteristics of the face of Christ. There is a possibility, or we might say a suspicion, he even had the famous relic in his studio, by special permission of Pope Leo X. Perhaps to throw the curious off the track he made up the story that it was a self-portrait by the famous Durrer. However on this matter we can say nothing for certain. The only thing we can say is that the characteristics of the painting described by Vasari, whether in the life of Raphael, or in that of Giulio Romano, are not sufficient to identify this very fine painting with the Holy Face of Manoppello. The human mind, it seems to me, has today a great difficulty in admitting a miraculous event. So, contrary to any real possibility, one prefers to attribute the Shroud of Turin to the genius of Leonardo da Vinci, and now the Veil of Manoppello to that of Raphael, only because one does not want to confess that God has intervened in the creation of both images.