By Rev. R. F. Clarke, S.J.
THE "Holy Coat" lately exposed for veneration in the cathedral of Treves has an antiquarian interest quite apart from its religious and devotional character. Everyone has a right to ask what evidence exists for its antiquity, and for its identity with the garment for which the executioners cast lots beneath the Cross. Unless there can be shown to exist a moral certainty, or, at least, a very strong probability that it is what it professes to be, a relic which can be traced back to the third or fourth century, and which there is good reason to regard as having existed previously and come down from the days of the Apostles, we cannot expect any prudent
man to accept it as genuine. At the same time we must remember that the Catholic Church does not require that proof positive should be adduced of the authenticity of every relic exposed in her churches for veneration. All that is necessary is that there should be some sort of continuous tradition in its favour, and no evidence fatal to its claims. Even if the authenticity of the Holy Coat rests on no absolute basis of certainty, this does not destroy, or even materially interfere with, its value as an object of devotion. The ultimate object of all devotion is God, and when any material object is venerated on account of its connection with Him, there is always in the mind the implied condition that the connection is a real one. I do not therefore pledge myself to a proof of its authenticity. I leave the readers of the Antiquary to judge for themselves. My object in the present paper is merely to put before them the existing tradition and a brief summary of the evidence in its favour, referring those who desire to go into the subject more at length to Father Beissel's exhaustive Geschichte des Heiligen Rockes (Trier, Paulinus-Druckerei, 1889) for more detailed information.
Two preliminary questions have to be answered first of all. The first is whether it corresponds to
any garment commonly worn by the Jews in the time of our Lord. We know from contemporary evidence that a Jew of the middle or upper-middle class wore at that time two garments, to which a third was added in the winter. Next to the skin was a tight-fitting shirt, and over this a tunic, the length of which varied with the position in life or the pretensions of the wearer. It was worn quite short by the labouring class, coming down only to the knees. The upper class wore it down to the ankles, and only men of noble rank or special dignity allowed it to hang about their feet (St. Mark xii. 38). Our Lord, during the time of His sacred ministry, would presumably wear a tunic of moderate length down to His ankles. This corresponds exactly to the length of the Holy Coat of Treves, which is not quite 5 feet long. It is also woven of one piece throughout. We learn from Josephus that this was not uncommonly the case with the Jewish tunic, and therefore it is not in itself a conclusive argument that the relic of Treves was identical with the seamless robe for which the soldiers cast lots on Calvary. As to the material, it has been, and still is, a matter of dispute whether it is linen or cotton or a sort of hemp. I understand that the most recent examination by experts has declared itself in favour of cotton. But this is of no great consequence to its authenticity, as cotton had been known to the Jews since their contact with Persia, and linen and hemp from the earliest times.
The other preliminary question is that of its alleged rivals. If there are, it has been
said, several Holy Coats, how are we to know which of them is the true one? Are we not justified in regarding them all with considerable suspicion ? This objection would have some weight if one of them necessarily excluded the rest, and if there are also several that set forth claims opposed to those of Treves. In point of fact there is only one Holy Coat which may be called in any sense the rival of that of Treves, and that one is the garment of Argenteuil. Their respective claims do not present the least difficulty, especially when we remember that the relic of Argenteuil was generally known in mediaeval times as " Cappa pueri Jesu," and was probably a different kind of garment, worn at a different period of His life.*
Having cleared the ground of these preliminary questions, we now come to the positive evidence for the Holy Coat. Its present condition testifies at least to its great antiquity. Although it still presents one almost continuous surface, it has only been saved from falling to pieces by the careful precautions adopted for its preservation. It is fastened to a lining of very strong, closelywoven gray silk, the date of which it is impossible to determine. It is completely covered at the back by a stout, coarse muslin or gauze. Only the front is exposed to view, and this is so friable and in danger of crumbling away that it has been thought desirable lately to fasten it to the silk beneath with a strong paste, so that in some places it can now scarcely be distinguished from the silk beneath it
Read the rest of Fr. Clarke's essay (here) it is found in the book entitled, The Antiquary, Volume #25.
Top photo is of the Cathedral Treves
Middle sketch is of the "Holy Coat" found in Fr. Clarke's article.
Bottom picture is of "The Tunic of Christ"