Last week something rather unusual happened in the quiet Italian city of Turin.
Inside the 15-century cathedral, an ancient, stained, and burned piece of medieval linen was removed from its airtight, bulletproof case and put on display. The exhibition will last 67 days.
Last time the intensely controversial textile was brought out, in 2010, over 2.5 million people poured into the cathedral to see it. Or, more precisely, to see the images on the ivory-coloured fabric, which seem to depict faint life-size brown impressions of the front and back of a man.
The details of the sepia images are rather indistinct, and it was only in 1898, when a lawyer named Secondo Pia photographed the cloth, that the world was able to see the man’s horrific injuries, which showed up extraordinarily clearly on Pia’s photographic negatives.
The Catholic Church has made no miraculous claims for the object. Pope John Paul II called it 'a mirror of the Gospel', while Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have described it as 'an icon'.
So, from a historical and scientific perspective: what is the shroud — and what isn’t it?
The history of the long sheet falls into two categories: what is known, and what people have speculated.
Our first definite knowledge of the shroud is an event in around AD 1355, when it was put on show in the tiny French village of Lirey, in Champagne. Its owners were the local knight, Geoffrey de Charney, and his wife, Jeanne de Vergy.
Despite the insistence of the conspiracy brigade, there is no known connection between this Geoffrey de Charney (or his son of the same name) and the famous Knight Templar called Geoffrey de Charney, who was preceptor of Normandy and was burned alongside Grand Master Jacques de Molay as a relapsed heretic in 1314, three quarters of a century earlier.
At the time of the 1355 exhibition, Henry de Poitiers, bishop of Troyes, conducted an inquiry into the cloth, concluding that it was a 'fraud' which had been 'cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed'.
Nothing more is known of this episcopal enquiry, but in 1389 one of Henry’s direct successors, Bishop Peter d’Arcis, wrote to Antipope Clement VII in Avignon to tell him of Bishop Henry’s enquiry, and to complain that the linen was being displayed again. It seems that Peter did not succeed in getting the exhibition closed down, as Clement replied that he was happy for the cloth to be shown as 'an image or representation' of the true shroud.
After around 60 years of being moved about, in 1453 Geoffrey’s granddaughter, Margaret, finally passed the shroud to the ducal house of Savoy, who took it to their capital at Chambéry in the Alps.
Nothing much happened for almost 80 years, until disaster struck on the night of 4 December 1532, when a fire broke out in the chapel where it was kept behind the high altar in a silver casket housed in a niche sealed with a metal grille. The keyholder could not be found, so a blacksmith and two friars broke open the grille, but part of the casket had already liquefied, and drops of molten silver had fallen onto the shroud, burning holes straight through it, which a team of Poor Clare nuns then repaired with the patching that can still be seen.
The remaining history is uneventful. The linen was eventually moved to Turin, where it has stayed ever since. Then, on 18 March 1983, Umberto II of Savoy died, and in his will, quite unexpectedly, passed the shroud out of his family, gifting it to the pope and his successors.
These, broadly, are the known facts.
Everything before 1355 is speculation. For instance, people have put forward claims that the shroud was once known as the 'Image of Edessa' (sometimes called the 'Mandylion') before it was moved to Constantinople, where it was seen in 1204 by the crusader Robert de Clari at the church of My Lady St Mary of Blachernae, before being secretly brought back to Europe by the Templar, Geoffrey de Charney.
There is, in fact, not a shred of evidence for any of this, and history contradicts most of it. For instance, the Templars did not take part in the 1204 siege of Constantinople, and Geoffrey de Charney the Templar lived a hundred years later.
More outlandish writers have claimed the cloth as the death shroud of the last Templar Grand Master, James de Molay, or even that it was made by Leonardo da Vinci. However, nothing approaching evidence has ever been adduced for any of these sensationalist theories. For example, de Molay was burned to death not crucified, and da Vinci was not born until 1452, a hundred years after the shroud was first exhibited in Lirey.
All in all, the historical evidence clearly points to a provable provenance starting in the mid-1300s.
So much for the historical data. In more recent times, scientists have also been able to add their opinions.
They are agreed what the object is: a linen sheet approximately 14’3” long and 3’7” wide, depicting the front and back images of a man who is around 5’7” tall.
The most obvious question science can answer is how old the material is.
After much toing and froing, the shroud was finally carbon dated in 1988 under the supervision of the British Museum. Laboratories in Oxford, Tucson, and Zurich were each sent a 40-gram section the size of a postage stamp, along with three control samples. The laboratories worked entirely independently of each other, and when the results were in, they all concurred, providing 95 per cent confidence in a date range of AD 1260–1390.
For most people, this carbon-14 science finally established objective and definitive proof the linen can confidently be dated to the high middle ages.
However, a number of dissenting voices have since emerged. They have not suggested the science was faulty, but rather that all three samples tested were cut from the same area on the border of the cloth, which may be unrepresentative of the whole. For instance, they propose that the border may have been extensively repaired following the fire in 1532, or that the area may have bacterial contamination because it is where the shroud has most commonly been handled. However, overall, there have been no serious or convincing challenges to the carbon dating, and none have demonstrated in a laboratory that they are more than speculative theories.
Zooming in, scientists have also looked in detail at the physical characteristics of the image on the cloth.
In 1976, two American scientists fed a photograph of the shroud into a computer capable of generating isometric projections (brightness maps) to turn two-dimensional images into something approximating three-dimensional ones. When an ordinary photograph of a face was fed into the computer, the algorithm produced a garbled isometric projection because photographs lack sufficient information of depth and distance. However, to the operators’ surprise, the photograph of the shroud’s head produced the recognizable profile of a human face.
The two men were sufficiently intrigued to pull together a team of around 40 American scientists who named themselves the Shroud of Turin Research Project, or STURP. It included experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratories, the Los Alamos National (nuclear) Laboratories, the U.S. Air Force Academy, IBM, Lockheed, the Brooks Institute of Photography, and other organisations with skills ranging from medicine to oceanographic computer imaging.
They applied for permission to examine the linen, and in 1978 were granted five days access to the shroud to conduct experiments on it.
The team worked around the clock, subjecting the cloth to black-and white, colour, ultraviolet and infrared photography, fluorescence, microscope magnification, spectrophotometry, thermography, UV-visible reflectance, X-ray fluorescence, and a battery of other tests. STURP published its findings in 1981, concluding that the image depicts, in accurate detail, a man tortured and crucified in the way the gospels describe.
There are multiple bloody puncture wounds in a ring around the head consistent with a crown of thorns. The man’s back, buttocks, and calves are covered with over 100 small dumbbell-shaped lacerations consistent with whipping or scourging with a Roman flagrum. And the man’s right side has a puncture wound consistent with an injury from a Roman spear tip.
In addition, there are, of course, the telltale marks of crucifixion.
Surprisingly, the image seems to show that the man depicted was crucified through the wrists, which flatly contradicts nearly two thousand years of religious art. In this, osteoarchaeology does not help much in understanding the wider picture, as victims of Roman crucifixions were usually left to rot on the cross, or taken down and either fed to wild animals or thrown onto the communal rubbish tip. Consequently, there are almost no skeletons of Roman crucifixion victims for scientists to use as comparisons. However, in 1968, archaeologists found parts of 'Yehohanan', who was crucified by the Romans in first-century Palestine, and the revealing feature of his remains was that the heavy iron crucifixion nail was not driven through Yehohanan’s foot, but directly through his heel bone. While this may seem surprising, there is a growing modern body of opinion that the Romans crucified victims through a number of places on the body, with nails or rope, and on a variety of stakes, crosses, and even trees.
Regarding the physical (as opposed to visual) properties of the image, the STURP team found themselves baffled. They concluded that the image is only microns thick on the outer surface of the linen, and does not penetrate the textile’s fibres the way paint, pigment, stain, or dye does. They reported that the image was more like a slight discolouration of the very top surface of the linen’s fibres, as if by 'oxidation, dehydration and conjugation of the polysaccharide structure of the microfibrils of the linen itself'. They also concluded that what appear to be blood flows emanating from the many wounds are genuine blood containing haemoglobin and serum albumin.
For many people, STURP’s conclusions constitute hard scientific evidence that a man crucified in the way described in the gospels had somehow been involved in the creation of the image on the linen.
However, as with the carbon dating, there were dissenting voices.
Critics pointed to various religious affiliations of some STURP members, claiming that their beliefs biased their findings. If this is true, then we are not left with much reliable science about the shroud, as there has been no other major investigation of it since.
There was also open scientific dissent at the time. For instance, Walter McCrone, a chemist and microscope expert, was initially associated with STURP, but broke away when he and STURP reached different conclusions. Specifically, his microscope analysis revealed the presence of red ochre and vermilion tempera, which he maintained demonstrated that the shroud was the work of an artist. However, McCrone’s work has in turn come in for criticism as the paint residue was distributed over the whole cloth — including the blank parts — but everywhere in quantities too minute to be related to the actual image. His opponents maintain that what McCrone found was residue from the cloth having been in contact with painted objects such as storage boxes, or even other painted replica shrouds which were rubbed on it as a blessing.
Among all this assertion and negation, the most significant fact about the image — and one that, uniquely, is not disputed by anyone — is that the combination of all the image’s elements have proved very hard to replicate. Scientists and artists have worked overtime to recreate the image, and have shown no lack of imagination, using corpses, herbs, spices, paint, metal, cameras, projectors, radiation, explosive releases of energy, the list is endless. Yet, bafflingly, none has yet been deemed a satisfactory success.
This particular area of sindonology (shroud studies) is perhaps the most fertile at present, with new theories coming regularly. For instance, in late 2011, a team of Italian scientists concluded that the image may have been made using ultraviolet lasers or radiation, while in 2014 a different team of Italian scientists announced that the Jerusalem earthquake of AD 33, estimated at 8.2 on the Richter scale, may have released neutron particles capable of creating an X-ray image and throwing off the results of any subsequent carbon dating.
So, to sum up the scientific evidence: the 1981 STURP team concluded that the image is of a man who was whipped and crucified, that the cloth has real blood on it, and that the technique used to create the image remains unknown. Seven years later, the carbon dating tests gave a confident result of AD 1260–1390.
Leaving the science for a moment and moving to wider historical questions, it is interesting to note that the gospels of Luke and John specify Christ was crucified through the hands, which is inconsistent with the shroud. Furthermore, although the synoptic gospels refer to 'a linen cloth', John states Christ was wrapped in 'linen strips' and a separate head cloth, which is not consistent with a complete image on one single sheet of linen. None of them mention any of the linen bearing an image, and nor is there any cult of such a cloth in the early Church.
Putting that in a historical context, eminent Romans like the Emperor Constantine and Empress Helena were avid archaeologists with a strong interest in tracking down sacred objects associated with Christ’s life. Their passion for relics was shared by monarchs for most of the medieval period, for whom anything touched by Christ was a grade-one relic to be displayed with the best that money could buy, like Louis IX of France’s exquisite Sainte Chapelle in Paris, built exclusively to house the crown of thorns.
However, no Roman, Byzantine, or medieval monarch seems to have been aware of the shroud, and the difficulty with claiming it dates from the first century AD is that there is no credible evidence for where it was during the 1,320 years following the crucifixion. Moreover, even once it surfaced in France around 1355, it made very little stir, with no interest from the French royal family or the pope, strongly suggesting they did not believe it to be genuine.
All the credible evidence points to the shroud being a medieval object. Even just looking at it, the face has identifiably elongated medieval proportions, entirely consistent with the figures of Jesus, John the Baptist, or Old Testament prophets that stare down at us from medieval buildings.
The gruesome detail of the shroud does, in fact, fit perfectly into the late medieval mindset. If you wander around a Gothic cathedral, you will sooner or later come across the giant effigies of nobles and bishops that are no longer resplendent in their fine robes or badges of office, but instead depicted as emaciated skeletons, rotting in agony. This was, after all, the period of the first Black Death (1347–51), when a third of Europe died suddenly, and the task of burying entire families and villages became a grim reality. For entirely understandable reasons, art followed life in these 'cadaver tombs', then in danse macabre images of revelling skeletons, and finally even in harrowing religious crucifixion paintings depicting a suffering, emaciated, and bloodied Christ.
The detailed knowledge of the human body available to modern scientists may be relatively recent, but brilliant, inquisitive, ambitious human minds have always been with us — in the ancient and medieval worlds as much as today. There is no reason to exclude the possibility of an artist experimenting with cadavers in order to understand the physiology of death and post mortem blood flows from wounds. Ancient Greek sculptors were meticulous in their depiction of every vein and artery. In the 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci filled his sketchbooks with anatomical drawings of flayed body parts. Caravaggio reportedly used a drowned prostitute as his model for the 'Death of the Virgin' (1606). And Géricault studied dead bodies for his 'Raft of the Medusa' (1819). So why should anyone discount the idea that a talented medieval artist went to obsessive lengths to recreate the burial shroud of a crucified man?
And here is where we come face to face with our cultural arrogance, which assumes that because we cannot understand every detail of how the image on the shroud was created, then it could not have been made by people in the past, whom we assume — against all the evidence — were crude and barbarous.
The Turin Shroud does not have to date to the first century to be an object of fascination and inspiration. If it truly is the work of a medieval artist — which the historical, scientific, and visual evidence all suggest it is — then it is a genuine wonder that brings us into the presence of the genius of the medieval world, and gives us insight into an exceptional artistic mind that created one of the most graphic and emotional visualisations ever made of the dreadful injuries that Roman-style execution can inflict on a body.