Myth Monday: The Shroud of Turin (Christian Legend)

By Kara Newcastle


Here’s a riddle for you: what’s near a thousand years old, made of cloth, has the image of a bloodied man printed on it, and has been driving everybody who’s ever tried to verify it pretty much insane?

That would be the Shroud of Turin, the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

The Shroud of Turin is one of a number of acheiropoieta (icons created through divine power, not by human hands) that are revered in the Catholic community. Many acheiropoieta feature images of Jesus, but the Shroud of Turin stands out above them all because it shows the haunting image of a dead, tortured man silhouetted in blood … said to be the image of Jesus Christ created the moment he returned to life.

But is it real? Well, that’s a question that has been plaguing the devout, religious authorities and scientists for nearly five hundred years (give or take a few centuries—you’ll see why), and it doesn’t seem like we’ll ever have an answer.

Let’s take a look at this holy conundrum, shall we? Brace yourselves for an abrupt introduction to Sindology—the study of the Shroud of Turin.

First Off, What IS the Shroud of Turin?

Replica_Sábana_Santa by koppchen wikimedia

The Shroud of Turin is a single 14 ½ foot long, 3 ½ foot wide white linen cloth, made of flax fibers in a herringbone pattern, bearing the image (reversed, like a photo negative) of a naked, bloody, bearded man who appears to have been beaten, whipped, stabbed in the left side, and crucified. The cloth (when folded in half) displays the front of the man’s body on top and the back on his body on the bottom. The faithful believe that this is the sheet (along with a second cloth, the Sudarium of Oviedo, that was wrapped around his face and head) that was used to bind the body of Jesus Christ after he had been crucified by the Romans. Skeptics believe that the sheet is nothing more than a painted image created by a medieval con man looking to make a buck.

What the Bible Says

Burial of Christ by Carl Bloch wikimedia

After Jesus Christ had died on the cross, his body was taken down by his followers, wrapped in a linen shroud, and placed in a tomb owned by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. The tomb was sealed, but two days later, a group of women returned to the tomb with oils and spices to clean and anoint the body, as per Judaic ordinance. Upon arriving at the tomb, they were shocked to find that Jesus’s body was gone. They rushed to tell the apostles what had happened, and when Peter went to the tomb to confirm it for himself, he saw that the body was indeed gone, and that the linens that had wrapped Jesus’s head and body had been rolled up and set aside.

What Happened to the Shroud after the Resurrection?

That’s what we know of the shroud from the Bible. What we don’t know is what happened to it immediately afterward. We don’t know who first noticed the image, who took it, or where it went for hundreds of years afterward. Prior to 1390 A.D., there were some murky accounts of a death shroud with the image of Jesus Christ upon it, but no clear description. A burial cloth with the image of a dead man, called the Image of Edessa, was rumored to be in the possession of the Byzantine emperors, but in April 1204 it vanished during the Sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade (yeah, yeah, Templars, I know.)

Where Did the Shroud Go?

descent from the cross with the shroud of turin by giulio clovio wikimedia

For nearly 150 years, there is no mention of the burial shroud until possibly the 1350s, when a story emerged from Lirey, France, that the knight Geoffroi de Charny had owned the cloth prior to his death. A record of it was definitely made in 1390 when Bishop Pierre d’Arcis wrote to Pope Clement VII that the shroud in Lirey was a fake, and that the forger had confessed.

However, in 1453 Margaret de Charny gave the shroud to the House of Savoy (Italy). It was housed in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in Chambery (capital of the Savoy region). In 1578, the Duke of Savoy, Emmanuel Philibert, ordered that the shroud be moved to the city of Turin, where it has been on display in the chapel since the 17th century. Prior to 1997, the Shroud had been removed only once, during World War 2 to protect it from bombing attacks.

The House of Savoy retained ownership of the Shroud until 1983, when they gifted it to the pope.

An Ancient Cloth Can Hold Up for Only So Long

The Shroud was old before it ever reached its current location in Turin, and over many years it had to be patched and repaired as it wore out. In 1532, the Shroud of Turin was damaged when the Chapel of the Shroud caught fire. The Poor Clare Nuns patched a mark that was made in the shroud when a drop of molten silver from its reliquary burned through it.

In 1694, the sheet began to deteriorate further, and Father Sebastian Valfre made more repairs. The cloth was again patched in 1868 by Princess Marie Clotilde of Savoy.

The Negative Image

In 1898, the city of Turin was about to celebrate the 400th anniversary of their cathedral, and, as part of the celebration, it was planned that works of religious art would be displayed, including the Shroud. Baron Manno, head of the Shroud Commission, petitioned King Umberto I for permission to have the Shroud photographed for the first time during the event. The king agreed and Secondo Pia, attorney and popular photographer, was chosen to take the pictures.

On May 25, 1898, the exhibit was closed at noon. Pia had difficulty establishing decent lighting (even with the use of the flashbulb, said to be one of the first times a photographer ever used one) so his initial photographs weren’t clear. He returned three days later in the evening, tweaked the position of his lamps and exposure time, and took more pictures. Accompanied by Father Sanno Salaro and Lieutenant Felice Fino, the head of security, Pia went into his darkroom to develop the plates. What he saw on the reverse plates startled Pia so badly he almost dropped them.

Left: The Shroud of Turin. Right: closeup of Secondo Pia’s photo.

Starting back at him was the face of a bearded man, the same image as on the Shroud … but with even greater definition that could be plainly seen on the Shroud itself.

Pia shocked; this should not have happened. The photographic plates should have shown an image as weak as what was seen on the cloth, but in fact it was so much clearer on the plate. He had no way to explain it, and word of his discovery spread like wildfire. Some people completely believed the picture was authentic, but others accused Pia of doctoring the image. Luckily, in 1931, photographer Giuseppe Enrie took new pictures of the Shroud and found that the image came through in the exact same manner. Pia, now in his seventies, was one of the first to view it as it was being developed. It’s said that he let out a big sigh of relief when he saw it; it vindicated him.

g. enrie photo may 24 1931 wikimedia
Giuseppe Enrie’s photo

But how exactly could this have happened? There are many theories, but one of the most popular has been suggested by scientists as far back as 1930; upon Jesus’s death, a massive earthquake ripped through Jerusalem and released radiation into the tomb, creating a sort of x-ray effect.

I said it was a theory, I never said it was a great one.

The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), 1978

In 1976, American physicist John P. Jackson, thermodynamicist Eric Jumper and photographer William Mottern, conceived of an idea to use their skills in aerospace modeling to test the image on the Shroud of Turin (how they came up with the idea I haven’t found out yet.) In 1977, they invited other scientists to join in on the research, and The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) was born. Oh, and by the way, these weren’t just scientists and researchers from a few universities … these were scientists and researchers from Los Alamos, U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratories, IBM, and Lockheed, to name a few. Thirty-three of them in total, serious women and men with years of training, reputations, and positions in distinguished companies.

Shroud_of_Turin_3D_Statue_at_US_Air_Force_Academy_Catholic_Chapel,_photo_by_Chris_Waits wikimedia
3D Rendering of the Shroud of Turin made in 1978 by STURP researchers John German, John Jackson, Eric Jumper and Kenneth Stevenson. Currently housed in the US Air Force Academy Catholic Chapel.

Still, the team wasn’t perfect; while they did number an archeologist and a forensics researcher amongst their ranks, there weren’t any experts on textiles or medieval art with them, leaving out a crucial component for accurate testing. They were further criticized for apparent biases for the Shroud when Joe Nickell, editor for Skeptical Inquirer Magazine (I just heard the thunderous slap of several thousand paranormal-fanatics facepalming themselves after reading his name) pointed out that some of STURP’s lead investigators served on the executive council of the Holy Shroud Guild, possibly confirming a conflict of interest. He further states that at least one researcher was made to sign a secrecy agreement.

STURP was formed in 1978, the 400th anniversary year of the Shroud arriving in Turin. The Shroud had been put on display beneath bulletproof glass from August to October 1978, and when the exposition ended, the scientists had only 5 days to collect as much material as they could. They worked around the clock, under the watchful eyes of European scientists, taking samples of the sheet using sticky tape. Experiments and examinations were conducted from 1978 through the 1980s, with their final report released in 1981.

As it turned out, the scientists were completely confused by the Shroud, as every test they made either confirmed or refuted its authenticity. It was not unusual for the scientists to be sharply divided over their findings. Garman Harbottle, a chemist from Brookhaven National Laboratory and a member of STURP, acknowledged in 1985, “ … (A)nd they (the scientists) almost came to blows.”

Still, the Shroud of Turin made enough of an impression upon the researchers that in their final report, they stated, “We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The bloodstains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved.”

The 1997 Chapel Fire

In 1997, the Turin Chapel caught fire under suspicious circumstances (I remember seeing this on the news and in the paper.) Miraculously, the Shroud had been temporarily moved from its normal place in the altar while the chapel was undergoing renovations, which saved it from incineration. Firefighter Mario Trematore raced up to the case where the reliquary was sealed and began smashing the bulletproof glass apart with a sledgehammer. Other firefighters rushed in to help, breaking up the glass with their gloved hands. As the ceiling began to cave in near them, the men pulled the casket free and ran to safety.

Mario Trematore was asked how he was able to summon the strength to break the glass, and he responded, “The bulletproof glass can stop bullets, but it cannot stop the strength of values represented by the symbol inside it. With only a hammer and our hands (still bleeding), we broke the glass. This is extraordinary!”

Unfortunately, the chapel continued to burn for another four hours, and the damage was so extensive that it took 21 years and $40 million dollars to repair it. The Shroud of Turin has not yet returned to its chapel.

Why It Might Be a Fake … Why It Might Be Real

The STURP team might have been stymied, but that didn’t stop others from trying to solve the riddle of the Shroud. Scientists, forensic experts, doctors, historians, professors of art, chemistry, math—you name it, they looked at it. And, as to be expected, no one has produced any conclusive answers, and the second one person thinks they solved the mystery, somebody else promptly shoots them down. When someone finds proof that the Shroud is fake, someone else finds proof that it’s real.

Take a look at the list I made to see why unraveling (no pun intended) the mystery of the Shroud of Turin is so frustrating:

  1. Why It’s Fake: The body is extremely bloody. Hebraic law states that the corpse must be cleaned before being interred. A European scammer likely wouldn’t know that or was trying to make the picture look gorier so people would believe it.

Why It’s Real: Some scientists believe that the corpse had indeed been washed prior to burial, because if it hadn’t, the marks from the flagellum (the whip used by the Romans, short-handled with three leather thongs or ropes with pieces of metal braided into them, sometimes tipped with hooks, also called a “scourge”) would not be so clearly defined.

  1. Fake: Testing on volunteers using live and simulated blood show that the blood trails shown on the Shroud don’t seem to travel along a path that blood leaking from those kinds of wounds would, suggesting it was painted.

Real: Some scientists believe that the blood trail pattern would make sense if Jesus had been crucified on a Y-shaped cross, not a T-shaped cross. The Romans used a number of different shaped crosses for executions, so we can’t be sure which kind was used on Jesus.

711px-Evgraf_Semenovich_Sorokin_-_Crucifixion 1873 wikimedia

  1. Fake: The wounds on the image’s feet show that the nail was driven through the tops closer to the toes, as frequently depicted in crucifixion art from the Middle Ages onward. Archeological evidence has found crucifixion victims with the nail driven from the top of the foot down into the heel.

Real: The crucifixion wounds are in the wrists as opposed to the palms of the hands. It’s believed now that the Romans would nail the executed through the wrists because these areas are thicker and allow for better hold for the nails (sorry, but it’s true, and there’s some really gross research to back it up.) In medieval times, Christ was always portrayed as being nailed through the palms of the hands.

  1. Fake: In 1998, Joe Nickell stated that the herringbone pattern found in the Shroud did not exist in Jesus’s time period; in 2000 remnants of cloth with a herringbone pattern were found near Jerusalem in a tomb that dated back to the 1st century A.D., but was not similar to the Shroud.

Real: While the herringbone pattern in the Shroud does not match what was found in the tomb near Jerusalem in 2000, textile expert Mechthild Flury-Lemberg has stated that the Shroud of Turin cloth pattern is very similar to cloth found in the fortress at Masada.

  1. Fake: The Catholic Church has never claimed that the Shroud of Turin is real.

Real (kind of): The Catholic Church has never declared any of the icons such as the Shroud, the Sudarium of Oviedo, the Crown of Thorns, Veronica’s Veil etc. to be real.

Those issues aside, there are a number of other things about the Shroud that just don’t make any sense. For example, the figure has shoulder-length hair, but Jewish men of the time would have kept their hair short (but then again, Jesus was never one to follow the crowd, was he?). The figure is also nearly six feet tall, whereas the average height for a Jewish man then was about 5’5”. The stains were tested and said to be blood, specifically type AB blood from a man, but other tests showed that the stains contained red ocher and other pigments. If it is some kind of paint, there are no paintbrush strokes.

I mentioned the bloodstains just now. Isn’t that proof enough? Well, aside from the fact that we have nothing to compare it to, the Shroud of Turin has been handled and viewed by millions of people for five hundred years or more, and the accumulated skin cells, spittle and possibly even blood from these people skews all DNA testing.

What about the 3D effect in Secondo Pia’s pictures and scans of the face made in 2010, as documented in the program The Real Face of Jesus? Medieval artists were hundreds of years away from learning the technique of adding realistic depth, so it makes it essentially impossible for someone of that time to do it. Joe Nickell (yep, him again) claimed that a piece of linen laid over a stone bust and rubbed with pigment or tempera could achieve that kind of depth, and even demonstrated it.

At this point, it seems that the only way to truly authenticate the Shroud of Turin is to have it carbon dated. And you would think it would work, but of course, it didn’t. Attempts at radiocarbon dating the sheet were made in the 1980s. Small samples of cloth were removed from the Shroud and tested.

The results? The Shroud was probably made between 1272 – 1384 A.D., confirming that it was a fake.

The problem? Further testing revealed that these samples contained fabric that was not found in other parts of the Shroud, making it likely that the samples were taken from areas that had been repaired with material used during that same time period. Therefore, the previous results could not be trusted to be accurate.

Furthermore, it has been hypothesized that since the Shroud survived two major fires and had been surrounded by lit candles for centuries, the smoke it absorbed might have altered its carbon content, making carbon testing useless.

So That Means We’ll Never Know?

Probably. But in the end, does it matter? Maybe we should stop wasting our time trying to prove or disprove it and just let it remain as it many people see it: a symbol of their faith.

(Too bad I didn’t know about this last Monday … this Easter weekend the Vatican actually put the Shroud of Turin on virtual display, and I could have linked everybody to it!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s