The Elusive Shroud of Turin

Updated on April 10, 2020
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

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The faithful believe in the miracle of the Shroud of Turin. More than 600 years after its emergence in Europe, the Shroud still captivates those who truly believe that it once covered—and became imprinted by—the body of Jesus Christ.

However, the Shroud is not without its critics. Over the years, skepticism of the Shroud’s authenticity has grown. This includes compelling arguments from church officials to those who claimed they were able to replicate the image through medieval paint and painting techniques. In addition, scientists believed they were able to date the Shroud to a period between the 13th and 14th centuries.

Still, if one is expecting to see definitive evidence to prove the Shroud of Turin is a fake, then be prepared to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you believe there’s total vindication for its authenticity, you may be disappointed, as well. Simply put, the Shroud remains elusive as ever.

So how did the Shroud become so pivotal in reinforcing the faith of many while confounding and eluding the skeptics? The answer may not be as holy as many true believers would like to believe. Mistakes in scientific procedures and church politics played a major role to make the Shroud an enigma.

A Biblical Legend

There’s no doubt that the physical Shroud exists. The rectangular woven cloth is 4.4 by 1.1 meters (14ft. 5in. x 3ft 7in.) and shows something akin to a faint—but detailed—image of a bearded man’s nude front and back body. In addition, it contains reddish-brown stains on various parts of the man’s hands, feet and forehead. These stains depict wounds in accordance with a person’s crucifixion.

It resides in the Cathedral of Turin (also known as Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist) in northern Italy, which is near several key structures in Turin, including the Chapel of the Holy Shroud. With the exception of a few occasions (and usually by the order of the pope), the Shroud is kept away from public view.

In many respects, the history of the Shroud has two divergent lines of thought. They can be summed up under the following titles:

  • The Biblical Legend
  • The Written Account

The biblical legend derives its lineage from the Bible and Catholicism. It speculates that the Shroud story has roots in the accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. This reference, however, is relatively minor and occurs after Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus managed to convince Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, to release Jesus’s body to them in order to prepare for burial.

The linen gets one last mention. In John 40:1 – 9, Mary Magdalene discovered the stone that covered the opening to Jesus’s tomb had been moved.

The biblical shroud gets a short mention in John 19:40, which states:

  • “Taking Jesus’s body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.”

The linen gets one last mention. In John 40:1 – 9, Mary Magdalene discovered the stone that covered the opening to Jesus’s tomb had been moved. After sending word, the other disciples headed to the tomb. One of them, Simon Peter, entered and:

  • “He saw the strip cloth that had been around Jesus’s head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.” (John 40: 6-7)

At first, the disciples believed somebody stole Jesus’s body. However, the resurrected Jesus (surrounded by two angels) reappeared before Mary. Later, he revealed himself to the others disciples (as side note: the linen that covered Jesus’s head has a legend of its own, and supposedly exists within a Spanish church).

The linen—as it was called—vanished from the pages of the Bible after the two references. But, it didn’t mean it disappeared from the thoughts of the faithful.

The Shroud took on a story of its own. Before its arrival in Europe, legend had it that it was kept in hiding until it was discovered in the Byzantine Empire (in what is now Turkey) during one of the Crusades of the Middle Ages. A crusader stole it from its hiding place (some account state it was a church, while others state it was a mosque or temple) and brought it to Europe.

From there, it became revered among the faithful. For many, there was no doubt that the Shroud captured the moment that Jesus was resurrected.

“Photographic Negative”

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One incident, which blurs the line between legend and reality in the matter, occurred in 1898. Italian lawyer and amateur photographer, Secondo Pia, photographed the Shroud of Turin. When observing the negatives, he noticed that the image of Christ appeared vividly.

This incident set off new interest in the Shroud and led to speculation that the Shroud was actually a “photograph” created when the energy released from the resurrection transposed Jesus’s image onto the Shroud. In addition, for many, this became definitive evidence that that Shroud was genuine.

An Historical Perspective

One vital component to the Shroud story and its authenticity revolves around the written account of its existence. Although the Shroud, if real, had been around since Jesus’s resurrection, written accounts of its existence emerged more than millennia afterward.

Even the first record of the Shroud is sketchy at best. According to Britannica.com, the Shroud “first emerged historically in 1354, when it is recorded in the hands of a famed [French]knight, Geoffroi de Charnay, seigneur de Lirey.”

Later, a rediscovered collection of medieval Hungarian Manuscripts between the 12th and 13th centuries was suspected of revealing the first illustration of the Shroud. Although, these documents, known as the Pray Codex, were reintroduced to the public in 1770s, they are considered significant for being the earliest known documents written in Hungarian and Uralic languages.

Still, many scholars and critics dismiss an illustration within the collection (known as the Burial of Jesus) actually showed the shroud. When observed, the illustration shows Jesus’s body laid on top of the linen rather than wrapped in it. In addition, it doesn’t match the known description of the Shroud of Turin, at all.

The following events, however, are considered genuine. They are as follows:

  • In 1389, The Shroud went on exhibition.
  • 1390, a bishop of Troyes denounced it, stating it was “cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artists who painted it.”
  • That same year, The Avignon antipope Clement VII received the complaint, and refrained from commenting on the Shroud’s authenticity. Instead, he sanctioned it as “an object of devotion provided that it be exhibited as an ‘image or representation’ of the true shroud (Britannica.com, 2020).”
  • Popes through Julius II never made attempts to authenticate the shroud.
  • In 1453, Marguerete de Charnay, Geoffroi de Charnay’s granddaughter gave the shroud to the house of Savoy in Chambery.
  • 1532, it was damaged by fire and water.
  • 1578, it was moved to Turin where it currently resides. This event marks the time it received its name.

In more recent history, popes made statements that placed crucial importance on the Shroud. In addition, it was brought out to be viewed for various events such as:

  • The marriage of Prince Umberto (1931)
  • The 400th anniversary of it being in Turin (1978).

In 1998 and 2000, Pope John Paul II ordered the Shroud to be viewed by the public. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI arranged for public display, as did Pope Francis, who made a pilgrimage to Turin to see it in 2015.

A Connection With Canterbury Tales

The Shroud, as history showed, has gone through numerous trials and tribulations. Doubts—even from church officials and leaders—have cast shadows on it. These doubts began upon the Shroud’s introduction in Europe. The timing coincided with a trend that was sweeping the continent at the time. Incidentally, this trend—a "relics trade"—was captured in one of the most significant works of early English literature.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was a collection of stories told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. Among them was a church official known as the pardoner.

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The task of the pardoner was to “sell pardons” to the populous in order to have their sins forgiven. Often, these co-called pardons took the form of holy relics such as a nail or a piece of wood from the cross from Jesus’s crucifixion. The relics, in reality, were fakes.

As revealed in the story, pardoners had unsavory reputations. Often, they sold forgeries and used the money to help pay for church expenses, and used extremely deceptive sales pitches. In fact, the story the pardoner told—a fable about the evils of greed—turned out to be a sales pitch.

More Questions

Timing is not the only thing. As mentioned, church officials have called it a fraud. In one case, the bishop of Troyes claimed it was a forgery; he went as far as to claim he knew the painter behind it.

In the late 20th century, the Shroud finally received serious scrutiny. In 1988, it was believed that the mystery behind the actual date of the shroud was finally uncovered. The Vatican allowed researchers from Oxford University, University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to take small samples of the shroud for the purpose of finding an exact date that it was created. Each group was able to date the cloth as originating around 1350 A.D.

Not everyone accepted these findings. Many believed that a 16th-century fire may have damaged it. This damage, they believed, accounted for the researcher’s carbon dating results. A microchemist, Dr. Walter McCrone, challenged this concept and pointed out how “ludicrous” that the smoke from the fire would screw up a trusted form of dating material.

Questioning the Scientific Findings

Aside from fire damage (which will be discussed later), there was another claim that supposedly proved that the Shroud was genuine. This claim centered on pollen embedded in it.

Avinoam Danin, a botanist from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believed the pollen came from the Dead Sea region of the Middle East. He never examined the shroud samples, personally. Instead, he got his proof from a claim originated by Max Frei, who supposedly tape-lifted the pollen from the shroud (Frei is best known for claiming that the Hitler Diaries were genuine; it was later revealed to be forgeries.).

Many artists, researchers, and skeptics have used McCrone’s findings and theories to create something that closely resembled the shroud

Still, the evidence against its authenticity mounted. Dr. McCrone, who wrote about the shroud in Judgment Day for the Shroud of Turin (1999), analyzed the shroud and discovered chemicals commonly found in pigments used by 14th-century artists. Moreover, he surmised that “a male model was daubed with paint and wrapped in the sheet to create the shadowy figure of Jesus (Skeptic's Dictionary, 2011).”

Also, the shroud has been recreated. Many artists, researchers, and skeptics have used McCrone’s findings and theories to create something that closely resembled the shroud.

The “Negative”

As for the argument about it being a “negative”: researcher Hernan Toro wrote in Pensar (2004), that the image on the cloth is not a negative and is not an anatomically accurate version of a person (he wrote that it had “ape-like proportions and adopts impossible positions, and the figure does not satisfy the geometric conditions of contact formation.”

caption from Daily Mail article: "What they found was that the bloodstains were not consistent with any one pose in particular."
caption from Daily Mail article: "What they found was that the bloodstains were not consistent with any one pose in particular." | Source

In addition, Secrets Unlocked, a show on the Smithsonian Channel, did a segment on the Shroud. The episode revealed that the chemistry and (such as silver nitrate) and a camera obscura (a box that allowed sunlight through a hole, which was believed to be used to make life-like paintings during the Renaissance) were available during the medieval times. The belief was that it could be replicated. The recreation was striking.

While evidence against it mounts, there are still scores of people who will believe it’s real. The shroud remains a popular religious “artifact”, giving the indication that no amount of evidence will ever persuade true believers from believing it.

Why So Elusive?

Documented evidence and sound science seemingly confirm that the Shroud is a forgery. But, definitive evidence still eludes confirmation. Even with years of forensic evidence, something often emerges to cast doubt on the findings. In one case, the choice of a portion of the shroud was a cause. Other times, church politics had a large role to play in it.

In order to prove if the Shroud is authentic—or a forgery—permission from the church had been given on numerous occasions. Church officials have been granting this since 1969, albeit with guidelines that limited the research. Thus far, the following have been allowed on the Shroud:

  • Physical examinations;
  • Chemical analysis;
  • Radiocarbon-14 dating.

In many cases, time restrictions (five days in one case) and small fabric samples were allowed to be removed from the Shroud.

Conflicting Findings

The samples gathered came from the edge of the Shroud. At first, radiocarbon dating revealed that the sample dated to the medieval times – about the time the Shroud emerged in Europe. For a time, this was the accepted finding.

However, one researcher had some doubts. In 2005, Dr. Raymond Rogers, a retired chemist from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and not a member of any research team, including the 11-member Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), claimed that the sample tested was not part of the original Shroud.

Basing his claim on two minute threads left from the initial sample and the comments of researchers (possibly pro-authenticity researchers), the sample taken may have come from a patch added to the Shroud after it was partially damaged in the 1532 fire.

The initial sample had been destroyed in the testing, thus raising more speculation that this could be validated. In addition, since the last 1988 research, church officials have not allowed for another patch of the Shroud to be removed.

The Debate Continues

Rogers claimed that the Shroud is probably from 1000 to 1700 BCE. This and other remarks from Rogers have been challenged, especially from noted investigator, Joe Nickell.

Still, other claims emerged to challenge the radiocarbon dating. For instance, Alberto Carpinteri, a professor of structural mechanics at the Polytechnic University of Turin surmised that “neutron emissions” from earthquakes have affected the linen fiber of the Shroud and obscured the findings. According to Robert Carroll from Skeptic’s Dictionary, the concept of neutron emission from rocks has been universally rejected by physicists.

By all appearances, the evidence that the Shroud is a forgery is compelling; however, proving that is becoming a nearly impossible task. Many people believe strongly in the Shroud. In addition, it appears church officials are not willing to open the Shroud to an exhaustive examination of its authenticity. In this case, a matter of faith makes the Shroud elusive.

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© 2020 Dean Traylor

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    • profile image

      Hugh Farey 

      2 months ago

      Thanks, Dean. An unusually fair assessment of the facts. Just one correction. The Codex kept in the National Museum of Hungary is named after Georgi Pray, who discovered it. So it is not called the 'Prayer Codex', but the 'Pray Codex.'

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      3 months ago from Beautiful South

      Dean, you did a very good job of organizing the facts and theories surrounding the Shroud of Turin and writing about it. I've been keeping up with the shroud for a number of years and, not being Catholic or even fundamentally religious, I can look at it with an unbiased eye. I haven't formed an opinion on its authenticity, or lack thereof yet. I'm still waiting for more convincing evidence, either way, to come in.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Val Karas 

      3 months ago from Canada

      Dean -- With my vocabulary limitations -- English being my second language -- I am not a competent critic of someone's literary work, but I certainly admire how you put it all together.

      On the theme itself -- the battle between believers and non-believers will go on indefinitely, and the Shroud is but another example of reason and faith clashing.

      By having studied the whole matter, you know better than I, how the very existence of a historical Jesus is being denied by some serious scholars -- letting alone the authenticity of the Shroud itself.

      Looked from another angle, we are facing a massive role of belief, as a mental function, in personal and collective consciousness, having left its signature in most of the big events of history.

      In other words, religion has been loud enough to sound "convincing" in proverbially hypnotizable minds of the masses. With even politics turning into religion with its different "denominations" -- logic keeps being hijacked and twisted and abused.

      So, yes, this phenomenon of the Shroud, as intriguing as it sounds, and all pros and cons surrounding it -- merely points at a divided human mind, where belief and reason will never find a common language.

      Your article, my friend, was certainly a treat to the eye.

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