Knoxville, TN (WBIR) -- What started as a residential theft has turned into a potentially significant discovery of historical religious artwork in Tennessee.
"We got a call from a resident saying a painting was stolen from his house on Monday," said Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens. "Shortly thereafter, a worker at the local Catholic church called and said someone was trying to sell them a painting."
Bivens said investigators told the employee of Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Madisonville to arrange for a meeting to buy the artwork. Deputies then arrested 30-year-old Kelly Ghormley of Madisonville and recovered the artwork, titled "The True Face of Jesus Christ" when she arrived with the stolen item.
Ghormley was serving as a caregiver for the owner of the painting and admitted to deputies that she stole it. It appears both the owner and Ghormley did not have a full appreciation for the artwork's potential. The owner kept it stored in an old canvas bank bag in a closet and Ghormley attempted to sell the stolen item for $3,000.
Ghormley is now charged with felony theft of property worth $60,000 and up.
"This is a unique thing that is hard to put a dollar figure on, but could be potentially priceless in terms of history. It is a portrait of Jesus from the Veil of Veronica that was blessed by the Pope in the 19th century," said Bivens.
"There is not a lot specifically about Veronica in the scriptures, but tradition tells the story of how she wiped the face of Jesus with a cloth while he was carrying the cross," said Father David Boettner with the Diocese of Knoxville. "His image, the image of the face of Jesus, appeared in that cloth."
The seized portrait appears to be one of a series of reproduced images from the Veil of Veronica that were commissioned and blessed by Pope Leo XIII. The linen artwork features a wax seal stamped with the ring of the Pope.
"More than likely, the art dates back to somewhere between 1860 and the late 1890s. That wax seal is a seal of authentication that the artwork was part of a devotion attributed to the burial cloth that touched the face of Jesus," said Boettner. "The custom was to touch an original veil to these other works of art that were in the spirit of the actual cloth."
Boettner said the blessing and authentication of artwork was a means of visually spreading the word of God. Distributing the reproduced artwork that was blessed in the Vatican was intended to inspire people to display the image and remind people of the cloth's significance.
"What he [the Pope] is really trying to do is increase people's prayer-life by focusing on what Christ went through in his suffering and death in order to save us from our sins." Boettner added, "That is the message, to remind people about the broader topics of Jesus and what he did for us. The focus is not just on a cloth or a painting."
Boettner said he is working to research how many of the authenticated portraits were produced.
"It may turn out to be a very common work of art. We know there were several, but it is undoubtedly very old and appears to be part of a historic devotion," said Boettner. "We are very pleased that it could be recovered and its rightful owner can have it back."
Investigators are working to determine the actual value of the portrait. Some factors include its condition and some of the coloring in the portrait that could make it more or less rare. Auction sites like eBay list similar artwork featuring wax seals with starting prices ranging from a few hundred up to a couple of thousand dollars.
However great the art truly is, it is now saved.
"It is locked away in a very safe place where nobody can get to it," said Bivens. "We are just glad it could be recovered for the owner. Our investigators were really on the ball."
Boettner said if the owner of the portrait wishes to do so, the church will help safely display the artwork publicly.
Employees at Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Church said the artwork is likely categorized as a third-class relic according to Catholic tradition. Third-class relics are frequently made of cloth and have touched first-class or second-class relics during a ceremonial devotion. First-class relics can include things like an item from the life of Jesus or the skeletal remains of a saint. Second-class relics can include items worn by a saint, such as an article of clothing or rosary.