Unexpected faces

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Jesus on cloth

 Shroud of Turin

The idea of spontaneous images of Jesus has a long history, but the earliest ones are of prints on cloth. The shroud of Turin is the most famous example of what are known as “acheropter” images (from a Greek word meaning, “not made by human hands”).

The shroud, which is 4.5 metres long, is a burial cloth and carries the clear imprint of a man who has died a bloody death, probably by crucifixion. While many Christians have believed the shroud comes from the tomb of Jesus himself, scientists in 1988 declared that carbon-14 dating tests show it to be no older than AD 1260.

 King Abgar

King Abgar of Syria holding the cloth bearing the face of Christ.

Another famous image on cloth of Christ is detailed in an old folk story of the Eastern Church, which goes way back, concerning King Abgar of Syria, a contemporary of Jesus. King Abgar (see picture above) suffered from leprosy, and he sent a delegation to Jesus requesting him to come to Syria. He also sent an artist with the delegation, hoping that he would be able to capture the portrait of this teacher that he had heard so much about.

Jesus wasn’t able to go to see the King, because he was on his final journey to Jerusalem. But when he noticed the artist failing to make a good likeness of him, he washed his face in water and miraculously imprinted a cloth with the image of his face, which was sent to the king.

This image (known as the “mandelion”) was said to have been hidden away in the first century and rediscovered in the 6th century, when it was taken with great ceremony to Constantinople. It disappeared when the city was sacked by Western troops in 1204.


In the 15th-century legend of Veronica, Jesus leaves a print of his face on a cloth on his way to the crucifixion. The cloth is offered to him by Veronica to wipe the sweat from his face.

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About this module

Have you ever unexpectedly seen a picture in the shapes made by clouds, or a face in a pattern of dots? Some people have been taken by surprise by glimpsing the face of Jesus in wood grain, or a snowy field, or shadows.

In these pages we’re looking at some of these strange pictures and the stories behind them. Click and explore among the images on the left. If you know any other pictures or stories, email to let us know via the contact page.

Compiled and written by Simon Jenkins.

Categories: Creativity, Art & image,


Module contents

arrow Unexpected gallery

arrow Jesus of Asparagus

arrow Jesus in tree bark

arrow Clouds form a crucifixion

arrow Jesus in a star cluster

arrow Jesus in a fence shadow

arrow Jesus in snow patterns

arrow Jesus in woodgrain

arrow Jesus in the clouds

arrow Jesus on cloth

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