A shroud of mystery

January 23 2003 | by

In Turin, feverish preparations are already under way for the public display of the Shroud of Turin which will take place from 18 April to 14 June next year. It has been estimated that in those two months, around five million visitors may make the pilgrimage to the principal city of the Piedmont region of Italy.

The Holy Shroud, the piece of cloth which according to Christian tradition wrapped the body of Christ when he was laid in the tomb, has always been considered one of Christianity’s most important relics. Its mystery and its attraction have much increased in recent times. Proof of this came last April, when a fire broke out in Turin’s Cathedral and the Shroud risked being devoured by the flames. The dramatic footage of the event moved millions of people around the world, and newspaper reports shocked millions more.

The traditional tale

The Shroud, a 4.36m by 1.10m linen cloth bearing the life-size imprint of a man, has a herring-bone pattern. It has traditionally been regarded as the burial cloth mentioned in the Gospels. Joseph of Arimathea bought a length of fabric with which to cover Christ’s body. The linen was wrapped around Jesus at his burial, only to be found, neatly folded in the tomb, after the Resurrection. This cloth would therefore bear witness not only to the physical presence of Jesus’ body, of His blood and the wounds provoked by His scourging and crucifixion, but also of His Resurrection. As such, it is an object of inestimable spiritual and scientific value.

The story goes that this shroud was lovingly preserved by the apostles in Jerusalem. They hid the precious linen in order to keep it from those who were persecuting the first Christians. Over the centuries, however, the sacred cloth had many vicissitudes. From Jerusalem, it is said to have been taken to a region near the Dead Sea, then on to Edessa, Constantinople (Istanbul), Lirey in central France, and finally to Chambery, in the Upper Savoy region (now in Italy). In 1983, on the death of Umberto II of Savoy, ownership of the Shroud passed to the Holy See, in accordance with Umberto’s will.

Scientific research on the traces of pollen which have been left on the cloth over the years have confirmed these movements. Indeed, there were found 25 traces of various plants which only grow in the Jerusalem region; 11 types of pollen typical of the Dead Sea region; 18 types from plants indigenous to Anatolia, the region in which Edessa is situated; there were also traces of pollen which could be identified as coming from Constantinople, Lirey, and so on.

Scientific research began to take an interest in the Shroud mainly after 1899, the year in which it was photographed for the first time, when yet another riddle came to light. The task of taking that very first photograph was entrusted to Secondo Pia, from Turin. He himself told of how he almost dropped the precious photographic plate when, while developing it, he saw the ‘positive’ figure of a man taking shape on the negative. This is how he discovered that the imprints on the Shroud have all the characteristics of a photographic negative, and that the negative image of the imprint gives us a positive image of the body which made the imprint.

The hypothesis which some maintained, that the sacred shroud was the work of a 13th century forger, was proved false by this discovery. Who could have produced a piece of cloth, imprinted with an image only visible when viewing the negative, in an epoch when photography hadn’t even been conceived?

An elaborate hoax?

Scientists then began to investigate the shroud with the principal and blatantly obvious aim of proving that it was false. The most important tests, carried out in the 1980s, involved carbon-dating using a substance called ‘Carbon 14’, a test which appears to be infallible. The results were made public in October 1988, during a press conference carried out in the presence of the Cardinal of Turin. Testing seemed to prove conclusively that the Shroud was a hoax, since it appeared to have been woven from flax gathered between 1260 and 1390. This was a sensational conclusion, which shocked millions of believers; doubt had been cast over a Christian tradition handed down from the time of the apostles. The faithful were bewildered, and the sceptics brayed victory.

However, research continued and some years later, the results of those tests began to appear much less reliable. A Russian scientist, Dimitri Kutznetsov, demonstrated that cloth which is subjected to a great heat gains in carbon content and thus seems to be much ‘younger’. In 1532, while the Shroud was still in Chambery, it had been ‘rescued’ from a great fire which had certainly altered its carbon content. Therefore, the Carbon 14 testing could no longer be considered reliable.

Turning the findings upside-down

Everything would have to be done again from scratch. And in the end, it was those frenetic scientific experiments themselves, undertaken with the intent of demonstrating the falsity of the Shroud, which ended up providing outstanding proof of its authenticity. The volume of scientific details collected concerning the Shroud of Turin over the past few years is enormous, said Professor Pierluigi Baima Bollone, one of Italy’s most eminent scientists. Scientists arrive at every conference with extraordinary new findings. Thanks to the most sophisticated modern methods of analysis, we are very close to being able to make a categorical statement concerning the Shroud; this will probably be an affirmation of its authenticity. There are an enormous number of indications which lead us towards this conclusion, whereas there is no proof whatsoever to the contrary.

This is an extraordinary statement, and one of enormous weight, especially coming from a world famous scientist who has been studying the Holy Shroud for more than twenty years.

We can say with increasing certainty that the face imprinted on the Shroud is that of Jesus, says Prof. Maria Grazia Siliato, an archaeologist and expert on the Shroud, who is a member of CIELT (International Centre for Studies of the Shroud of Turin), a Paris-based organisation. The Shroud’s authenticity can be inferred from another most important document, one discovered by our team here at CIELT. This document, which dates from 1000 AD, is known as the ‘Pray Code’ of Budapest, and is the first known document written in Hungarian. In it, a pilgrim tells of seeing the Holy Shroud, describes it and draws it with four small burn marks which form an ‘L’ shape on the Shroud. These burns were reproduced by Duerer in 1516, years before the Chambery fire of 1532, a blaze which caused the serious damage and the large burn marks which can be easily seen. The ‘Pray Code’ is strong evidence that the small burns already existed 500 years before the Chambery fire It is a further confutation of the findings of the Carbon 14 tests, and a powerful indication that the Shroud was in Constantinople at around 1000 AD, by which time it had already suffered minor damage by fire.

A fine figure of a man!

Christian tradition is therefore on the verge of receiving definitive backing from the world of science. It indeed appears that the face imprinted on the Shroud of Turin is that of the true Christ: a photographic image of Jesus’ face.

Christians have always been intrigued to know what Christ really looked like. There is a letter known as the Letter of Lentulus (Lentulus was named Consul in the 12th year of Tiberius’ reign and was in Palestine at the time of Christ’s trial and Crucifixion) which is said to be an official report to the Emperor Tiberius. This letter is mentioned in the writings of Josephus Flavius, a first century historian. In the letter, Lentulus describes Jesus as having: a noble and lively face, with fair and slightly wavy hair, black and strongly curving eyebrows, intense penetrating blue eyes and an expression of wondrous grace. His nose is rather long. His beard is almost blonde, although not very long. His hair is quite long, and has never seen a pair of scissors... His neck is slightly inclined, so that he never appears to be bitter or arrogant. His tanned face is the colour of ripe corn, and well proportioned. It gives the impression of gravity and wisdom, sweetness and good, and is completely lacking in any sign of anger.

Professor Giovanni Judica-Cordiglia, a most eminent scholar of the Holy Shroud, tried to make a reconstruction of Christ’s face by taking the information gleaned from the Shroud as his starting point and interpreting them using all his experience as a doctor and a university professor of forensic medicine. The man who was wrapped in the Shroud was a man of great beauty and uncommon stature, he wrote. He was about one metre and 80 centimetres (six feet) tall, with a perfectly proportioned physique, lithe and harmonious. He was a ‘standard type’ in the most literal sense of the phrase. Although the cloth has suffered much damage, we can see that his face was a very soft and gentle one, rather long and with a broad, straight forehead. The nose is straight and turned slightly downwards, the cheeks are large and slightly protruding. From all the anthropometric calculations so far made, it seems that , Christ was physically ‘in far better shape’ than the average man. Through a complicated process of elaborating his facial data, I can conclude that his cranial capacity was of 1575 cc, which would place him in the magalocephalic (large-headed) category, with a cranial-capacity coefficient of 95 which would indicate that the weight of his brain was 1492 grams. This is far greater than average, suggesting a person of extreme genius.

The last public exhibition of the Shroud was in 1978, on the fourth centenary of Turin’s custody of the relic. The Archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, announcing the public displays of next year and again in the year 2000, said that: The solemn exposition of the Holy Shroud has an exclusively pastoral purpose, and does not intend to take sides in any scientific discussion about this mysterious and haunting cloth.

Updated on October 06 2016