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Nailed through wrists or hands?

Q. In a book about the Shroud of Turin, I read that when Jesus was crucified, the nails were driven through his wrists. The photos of the shroud seem to confirm this. But if that were so, then why did saints such as St. Francis and Padre Pio have stigmata wounds on the palms of their hands rather than their wrists? (Glen Allen, Va.)

A. In the 1930s, a French physician named Pierre Barbet conducted a number of medical experiments regarding the crucifixion of Christ. One of his observations was that nails driven through the palms of Jesus would not have supported the weight of his body on the cross. Barbet theorized that, instead, the nails were driven into a hollow spot (biologists call it "Destot's space") among the bones in the heel of the hand at the top of the wrist.

Some commentators challenged that conclusion. They pointed out that Roman execution techniques also included tying the wrists to the crossbar by ropes and that the nails through the palms were meant not to support the weight but simply to increase the pain.

In the 1990s, research by Dr. Frederick Zugibe of Columbia University came to a different conclusion. He theorized that the nails could have been driven into the palms at an angle, exiting at the wrists. This, he said, would have supported the body's weight and would be consistent with the location where most of the stigmatics had displayed their wounds and with how artists had depicted the Crucifixion throughout the centuries.

The Shroud of Turin, considered by many to be the actual burial shroud of Christ, shows a blood print in the location of the bones of the wrist. But it should be noted that the imprint on the shroud is from the back of the hand and could depict only the exit area of the nail and not its entrance.

Most of the stigmatics throughout history, though not all, have shown the wounds of Jesus on their hands. Padre Pio, for example, had large sores in the center of his palms. However, St. Francis of Assisi, the earliest stigmatic whom Christian history records, was described by his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, as having his wrists and feet pierced by nails.

Obviously then, the precise position of the nails in Christ's body is not a matter of faith, and theories vary. As to why most of the stigmatics have received the wounds on their palms, some have observed that since centuries of history had displayed the nail marks in that location, stigmatics would have most clearly understood that they were being asked to bear the wounds of Jesus.

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, NY 12208.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013