The Descent from the Cross and the Journey to the Tomb
by Pierre Barbet, MD

Taken from A DOCTOR AT CALVARY, Roman Catholic Books, orginally Published in France, 1950,
with Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat.

This chapter was written for the doctors of the Société de Saint Luc [Bulletin of March, 1938]. I apologize for its avowedly dry and didactic note, as in a scientific demonstration.

I have always been a little shocked by the sligtly brutal way in which artists represent the Descent from the Cross. Even my old friend Fra Angelico, the most mystical and Catholic of painters, is not altogether guiltless in this matter; and yet God alone knows how often I have meditated in front of his moving triptych, which is nowadays in the pilgrim's hostel of San Marco, Florence. It is true that the poor disciples of Jesus---Joseph, Nicodemus and the others---show deep affection; yet they would seem to be reduced to actions more worthy of executioners, which must have made their grief, already so violent, become almost desperate.

Now, the study of the Holy Shroud has led me to an entirely different conclusion and one far removed from the usual traditional iconography. Indeed, it is my belief that these good men were able to take the body down from the Cross and to bear it to the tomb with infinite delicacy, respect and tenderness. They can scarcely have dared to touch that adorable body.

Many Catholic colleagues, having read the first two editions of the The Five Wounds of Christ [Clonmore & Reynolds], have either said or written to me that this study was for them the finest meditation on the Passion. I, therefore, thought it would be useful, while keeping within the sphere of science, to outline for them this new subject for reflection, one which in my opinion is no less suggestive; after the sufferings of the Passion and the cruelty of the executioners we still have before us the majesty of that dead body, in which the Divinity still resides, and at the same time we can watch the tender piety of the disciples.

They will, however, be content with a scientific exposition, from which they may draw their own ascetical conclusions, and reap the spiritual fruit.

A.---lt is certain that the body of Christ was borne horizontally, but as it was on the Cross, from this to the neighborhood of the tomb; it was not till then that it was placed on the shroud.

In fact, if it had been otherwise, the back part of the shroud would have been drenched with the blood from the inferior vena cava, during the period of the journey. On the contrary, the journey lasted long enough for the inferior vena cava to be able to empty itself through the Wound in the heart. One day, when I was explaining this question in the neighborhood of La Villette, I met with the enthusiastic agreement of the officials from the abattoirs. They knew from experience that when they open up an ox, empty it and take out the liver, the section concerned of the lower vena cava gives out a flow of black blood.

The greater part of the blood was then lost [or was collected before they came to touch the body]. Only that remained which coagulated on the skin, to a limited extent, while it was flowing. After the body had been carried naked, and had been laid, after the journey, on the shroud, the latter received only the impression of the clots of blood formed on the skin of the back during the journey. Only these clots of blood have imprinted on the shroud what we call the dorsal transversal flow, because these clots are its mark.

B.---It is certain that the journey was carried out with a minimum of handling, in such a way that the clots remained in their place, unmoved. If there had been more handling, or had it been less delicate, they would have been wiped away and obliterated.

C.---In what fashion, then, was Jesus Christ borne, so that His body was not touched?

1.---We know the two following facts:
(a) The patibulum [the horizontal part of the Cross] was mobile; the hands of Jesus were nailed on to the patibulum, while He was lying on the ground. This was then lifted with the body on to the top of the stipes which was permanently fixed in the ground on Golgotha.

(b) Death occurred, as Dr. Le Bec has written [Le Supplice de la Croix, Paris, March, 1925], and as has been finally established by experiment and observation, by Dr. Hynek [La Passion du Christ, Prague, November, 1935], following tetanic contraction of all the muscles. This has no connection with tetanus [I stress this for the sake of those who are not doctors], an infectious disease which produces similar cramps. This tetanization ended by reaching the respiratory muscles, thus causing asphyxia and death. The condemned man could only escape from asphyxia by straightening himself on the nail of the feet, in order to lessen the dragging of the body on the hands; each time that he wished to breathe more freely or to speak, he had to raise himself on this nail, thus bringing on further suffering. This hypothesis, which, as I have said, is based on the observation of a form of corporal punishment [by Dr. Hynek], which in Hitler's deportation camps was increased to the point of murder, is a most probable one; it is confirmed on the shroud by the jutting forward of the thorax and the concavity of the epigastrium.

We have also seen how the double flow of blood from the wrist corresponds with this double position, with its two slighdy divergent angles.

Under these conditions the rigidity of the corpse would be extreme, as in the case of those who have died of tetanus: the body was rigid, fixed in the position of crucifixion. They would be able to raise it without its sagging, merely by holding the two extremities, as with a body in a state of catalepsy.

2.---This being so, it would be possible: (a) to free the feet by drawing out the nail from the stipes; (b) to lower the patibulum with the body still rigid; (c) to carry the whole without using any contrivance; two men could hold the two ends of the patibulum and another could hold the feet or maybe only the right foot [the rear one] at the level of the Achilles tendon and the heel. This part of the body would thus be the only one to be touched during the journey.

3.---Now, in the impression of the right foot on the shroud one can see precisely that: (a) the rear part of the heel is poorly marked in contrast with the rest of the impression of the sole, which is very clear; at first sight it even makes the foot appear shorter than it actually is; (b) the flow of blood which has descended [during the carrying horizontally] from the wound in the sole towards the heel does not reach the rear part of this, which is the part which is poorly marked on the shroud. And this is easy to explain if this was the part which was covered by the hands of the bearer; his hands would have supported the heel and would have prevented the blood from flowing that far.

D.---It is probable that there were five bearers and not three, for they had to carry a body weighing approximately 200 lbs. and the heavy patibulum, which would have weighed another 110 lbs. at least. The two extra men would have supported the trunk by means of a sheet, twisted so as to make a band, and placed across under the lower part of the thorax.

In fact: (1) The blood of the inferior vena cava, of which a part has been congealed transversally on the back during the journey, has with considerable difficulty managed to reascend [even when the body was leaning towards the left side] from the mesial line to the left edge. This edge, in the horizontal position, was in fact higher than the mesial line. (2) The flow of blood, which has coagulated transversally on the back, consists of irregular windings which bifurcate several times and then come together again; this would be unlikely in a regular flow of blood on skin which was touching nothing. (3) On the other hand, if one supposes there to have been a sheet, twisted irregularly and supporting the lower part of the thorax, this sheet would inevitably have been completely impregnated with blood during the journey; a small part of this has coagulated irregularly on the surface of the skin where it could reach it directly, amidst the folds of the material.

E.---The rigidity of the corpse, which made it possible to carry the body without it bending forward on account of its weight, would not prevent the arms being brought back from the position of abduction to that of adduction, and the hands being crossed, once the body had been laid on the shroud, the hands unnailed and the patibulum removed. We know from experience that there is no degree of cadaveric rigidity which cannot be brought to an end by the use of a little force, even if it has been sufficiently intense to resist the weight of the body.

F.---One may then conclude that everything is likely to have taken place in the following way:

(1) The feet are unnailed from the stipes. Only one nail has to be removed from the wood.

(2) The patibulum is lowered with the body without unnailing the hands. The whole is then carried, without using any contrivance, by five bearers, of whom one alone touches the body, at the level of the heels; two others support the back with the sheet twisted to form a band, which becomes impregnated with blood. The two last carry the ends of the patibulum.

(3) This body is only placed on half the shroud at the end of the journey, during which a small amount of blood from the lower vena cava has coagulated transversally in the folds of the band on the skin of the back. These clots, in the form of irregular windings, will produce the " back transversal flow " by making counter-drawings, while still fresh, on the shroud.

(4) The body is placed on the shroud [probably on what is known as the stone of anointing]. At the last moment it would have been necessary to support the back with the band, which, being completely impregnated with blood, would have made considerable stains on the shroud.

 (5) The hands are unnailed; the patibulum is removed and they bend the arms forward, crossing the hands.

(6) They then fold back the other half of the shroud over the head and the front part of the body.

G.---The Laying in the Tomb

Finally, once more owing to the extreme rigidity of the corpse, it has been easy to lay the body in the tomb, although the sepulchral stone was placed transversally at the end of the cave, occupying the whole breadth. It would have been carried in sideways, and held from underneath, all the bearers being on the outer side. This is how one lays an unconscious body in bed, after an operation; and the rigidity must have made the body far easier to carry. One might think that the body would have been laid temporarily, not on the stone at the end, but in an ante-chamber which has now disappeared, while waiting for the final embalming, after the Sabbath. This hypothesis is worthy of a fuller discussion, but it is outside the limits of this scientific work.