Anyone who has hosted a dinner for 13 knows that a properly set table has more than just a single goblet for wine – even if it’s big, solid gold and rumored to perform miracles. With 13 people in attendance, the biblical Last Supper needed at least some plates, knives and a nice tablecloth – even Leonardo da Vinci thought so. Unfortunately, the goblet that became known as the Holy Grail gets all of the publicity and the quests. A recent article from Spain sheds light on a doctoral study which mentions a little-known artifact stored in a Spanish cathedral that many believe is the tablecloth from that Last Supper. Is it? Did the student get her degree anyway?
According to the publication Aleteia, a cloth purported to be the Last Supper tablecloth is kept in the Chapel of the Relics inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria de la Asunción de Coria in Extremadura, Spain, a western region bordering Portugal. In her 2016 doctoral thesis for a Ph.D. in art history, Maria del Carmen Sanabria Sierra notes that construction on the cathedral began in 1498, making it quite possibly the first Christian church on the Iberian Peninsula. Although the focus of the thesis is the Spanish Baroque art housed in the cathedral, she mentions the existence of the alleged holy tablecloth.
A more detailed account of the history and possible authenticity of the tablecloth took place in 2014 when former NASA scientist Professor John Jackson (director of the Turin Shroud Center in Colorado), examined the cloth nearly 35 years after he was part of a group allowed by the Vatican to study the Shroud of Turin which, doing some simple math, should date back to the same week. Jackson is the researcher who claims that the figure of the Turin Shroud is a three-dimensional image.
Upon examining the cloth in Extremadura with his fellow researcher and wife, Rebecca, Jackson made another interesting claim. He determined that the tablecloth has nearly the same dimensions (4.32 m long by 0.90 m wide) as the shroud (4.40 m by 1 m or about 14 feet by 3.2 feet). Rebecca proposed that it was common ritual to use two tablecloths to be used, with the second symbolically covering the food from sand and insects as it would have done on the original Passover journey across the desert. With the three hour window that Joseph of Arimathea had to reclaim the body from Pilate and bury it in the tomb, a tablecloth could have been a suitable emergency substitute for a shroud, which implies that the shroud and the tablecloth may even be of the same bolt of cloth.
The written history of the tablecloth only dates back to 1404, when Pope Benedict XIII recognized its authenticity. It’s known that the cloth was used to cover altars for church services and has been washed. While the threads seem to match those of the Turin shroud, that cloth has been studied intensively and still not been authenticated, so the holy tablecloth is stuck sharing the same doubts and the current Catholic Church no longer believes the edict of Benedict XIII.
Still, it’s an interesting story and one that should start almost as many arguments as the shroud does. Did Maria del Carmen Sanabria Sierra get her doctorate? She’s currently teaching high school and her students are probably tired of hearing the tablecloth tale during lunch in the cafeteria.