The Shroud of Turin


In medieval times, Holy Relics did boffo box-office. Saints’ finger bones–even entire saints–and pieces of the One True Cross drew the kinds of crowds most CFL teams would envy.

Eventually, however, people noticed there were enough pieces of the One True Cross floating around to build a house, and holy relics fell into disrepute–all except one: the Shroud of Turin.

The Shroud is a linen sheet bearing the faint yellowish negative image of the front and back of a crucified man whose wounds correspond to those the Bible says Jesus received. Many people believe the Shroud to be the actual burial shroud of Jesus. Others think it’s a clever fake, a notch above pieces of the One True Cross, but no more real. Both sides use science to bolster their claims.

A French knight, Geoffrey de Charny, first displayed the Shroud in Lirey, France, about 1355. Large crowds of pilgrims came to see it, until the local bishop, who did not believe the Shroud to be genuine, ordered it put away.

But in the decades that followed, the Shroud was carted all over Europe and generated great excitement wherever it was displayed. The first reference to scientific investigation is found in 1503, when a courtier of the Duke and Duchess of Savoy (who owned the Shroud by then) wrote that the Shroud had been tried by fire, boiled in oil and laundered many times, “but it was not possible to efface or remove the imprint or image.”

On December 4, 1532, fire destroyed the chapel in Chambery where the Shroud was kept. The Shroud survived with only slight damage, which was mended by nuns.

Since 1578, the Shroud has been kept in Turin (where, last April, it narrowly escaped another fire). It was last displayed in 1978: this April it goes on display again, and millions are expected to see it.

In 1898 an Italian photographer, Secunda Pia, while developing prints of the Shroud, realized its image is actually a negative. That raised scientific eyebrows. If the shroud were a medieval fake, why did its creator choose to make a negative image–and how did he even conceive of a negative image, centuries before photography?

In the mid 1970s, image analysis proved the density of the Shroud’s image varies just as you’d expect if it was formed by being draped over a body–it’s densest where the cloth would touch the body, less dense in other places. Three-dimensional renderings based on the image density were very anatomically plausible.

In 1978, the 400th anniversary of the Shroud’s arrival in Turin, the Roman Catholic Church allowed American scientists to study the Shroud on-site for five days and nights (although they weren’t allowed to take any samples from the cloth). Among other things, they concluded the apparent bloodstains on the Shroud were indeed blood, and that the image was formed by a molecular change in the linen threads, similar to scorching.

Things looked good for the true believers–until 1988, when a few fibers were taken from the Shroud for radiocarbon dating. The results: the Shroud only dated from the beginning of the 14th century.

Other skeptics chimed in. Dr. Walter McCrone says polarized light microscopy he carried out in 1979 proved the image was really created by red ochre and vermilion in a collagen tempera medium–in other words, paint. Israeli scholars say the cloth does not accurately reflect first-century Jewish burial customs (which required the head to be uncovered), and that no cloth from that era could have survived so long, given the wet Mediterranean climate.

On the other hand, scientists at the University of Texas say the carbon-dating could have been thrown off by more recent bacteria and fungi coating the fibers. Others suggest the carbon-dated fibers may have come from a mended section. (Both possibilities are rejected by those who did the dating.)

Last month, scientists from the Institut d’Optique d’Orsay in Paris announced that computer analysis of photographs of the Shroud has revealed a series of inscriptions, invisible to the naked eye, including “Jesus of Nazareth,” “to death, ” “I make a sacrifice, ” “shadow of face,” “Adam” and the initials for “Christus.” The letters are said to be in Greek and Latin, and written in first-century script.

Where does this leave us? Exactly where they were in 14th century France. The pilgrims believed, the bishop didn’t.

Five hundred years later, the evidence is still too inconclusive to shake the convictions of either.

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