Jerusalem – circa 33 CE
The unruly crowds lined both sides of the Via Dolorosa, most shouting, some spitting and heckling, many crying and wailing for the condemned Jew from Nazareth carrying a large wooden cross on his back. He would soon arrive at the hills of Golgotha, a section in the northwestern corner of Jerusalem outside the walls of the city, where his journey would end.
As he moved through the crush of onlookers, his face bloody and swollen from the beatings by Roman soldiers at his tribunal just moments earlier, one young woman took pity on the man, someone she knew. Stepping forward, she removed her byssus veil and offered it to him, so he could wipe away the blood and sweat of his burdens.
He held the veil to his face, taking in the soft, sheer, aromatic fabric smelling of myrrh, and after a moment of respite, handed the soiled veil, known as a sudar, back to the kind woman. Looking at it, she was astonished to find an imprint of his face had been imparted in vivid detail: the shape of his head, his tortured facial features, the stains of his blood—it was as if looking at a delicate painting. She took it to be a miracle.
As the man continued on his way, the woman followed along, outside the horde of onlookers, until she came to someone she knew, someone she had been seeking, whom she knew to be the man’s closest disciple. The woman was weeping uncontrollably.
“Miriam,” she said gently, “I, too, grieve for Jesus. Look upon my veil, you will see his visage passed onto the sudar when he held it to his face. I want you to have this.”
Miriam of Magdala gratefully accepted the veil, thanking her. “Sas efcharistó, Berenikē, for this gesture of kindness. I will place it in my Lord’s tomb.”
Three days after the Crucifixion, Miriam of Magdala was the first to discover that the tomb was now empty. Soon, the apostles Simon Peter and John also came to see that Jesus’ body was not there (John 20:3). They also observed two cloths where the body had lain: one was a large cloth which had been placed over their Lord’s body. The other blood-soaked cloth was balled up and laying next to a rock.
Seeing this sudar, and knowing it to be the one given to her by her friend Berenikē, Miriam removed the cloth from the tomb and took it away, its facial image her only memento of her beloved Jesus.
Rennes-le-Château, France – 1937
Ominous rumblings of an impending world war galvanized much of Europe as Nazi Germany grew restless under Adolf Hitler’s unquenchable lust for expansion and domination.
Among the Führer’s goals was the broad establishment of an Aryan race, one with, in Hitler’s mind, historical roots that went back to the ancient Israelites—descendants of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac—even identifying Jesus Christ as an “Aryan fighter” who fought against "the power and pretensions of the corrupt Pharisees" and Jewish materialism over spiritual values.
In support of Hitler’s Aryan mission, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, commissioned large-scale archaeological expeditions for years, predominantly throughout France but also in such disparate places as Iceland, for Nordic races were deemed Aryan as well.
A man obsessed by the occult, Himmler was consumed with acquiring the two most legendary sacred objects in history—the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. To this end he enlisted the aid of Otto Rahn, a writer of some fame whose book, Crusade Against the Grail, Himmler had embraced with a passion reserved for those of like minds.
Rahn was an avid student of the Cathar mythos—legends of a small and peaceful yet influential order whose beliefs and traditions rejected those of the Church of Rome. Rahn’s own guiding principles in his search for the Grail were derived from Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival, from which Rahn had identified the last surviving Cathar fortress—perched strategically on the majestic peak of Montségur in the French Pyrenees—as the most likely resting place for the Holy Grail.
Funded by Himmler’s think tank known as the Ahnenerbe—and in league with a mysterious Nazi occult group called the Thule Society—Rahn spent years searching the area—its churches, villages, even the labyrinth of caves snaking throughout the Languedoc region—to no avail. He never found the Holy Grail.
But while excavating a hidden room buried beneath the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Rennes-le-Château, France—a church that just two decades earlier had been overseen by a mysterious Catholic abbé named Bérenger Saunière—Rahn did find something of profound importance. It was a particular artifact contained in a small white alabaster box secured with an antique bronze hasp. Inside the box was a delicate ancient veil finely woven of rare byssus—also known as sea silk—on which appeared the full facial image of a man whose features clearly showed he had been beaten, whose cheeks and forehead suggested fresh wounds, and whose peyes—the side curls at the temples of Jewish men in the first century—were clearly visible. The image on the opposite side was identical, though in reverse to the image on the obverse.
Rahn was convinced he had discovered the legendary Veil of Veronica, which oral tradition claimed had been given to Mary Magdalene while Jesus walked the road to Calvary, where he would be crucified moments later.
Ecstatic over his discovery and certain he had something of acute historical value to present to his master, he returned to Himmler’s Wewelsburg Castle fortress in Büren, Germany, and handed the alabaster box over to Himmler’s deputy, SS Colonel Walther Rausch, who promptly gave it to Himmler, who secretly placed the object in the castle’s hidden vault. Outside of ceremonial use by the mysterious Thule Society, it has never been seen since.