How did Christianity grow from an obscure sect into the most powerful religion in the world? In a controversial new book, The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection, the English art historian Thomas de Wesselow gives credit to the Shroud of Turin. Despite numerous studies and tests on the cloth, the formation of the image is still considered a mystery, with some calling it a fake and others certain it is real. De Wesselow is in the latter camp, and in the book excerpt below, he asserts that it was the image on the Shroud of Turin that convinced believers of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Shroud of Turin is a large linen cloth imbued with a mysterious image of a tortured, crucified man. According to tradition, it was used, along with other cloths, to wrap the dead body of Jesus, and its image, so believers say, is a miraculous imprint of the crucified Lord. Still cherished by many Catholics as one of the holiest relics of Christianity, the Shroud is regarded by nearly everyone else as a medieval fake, largely on the basis of a carbon-dating test carried out in 1988. Sacred and contentious in equal measure, the relic is exhibited very rarely and is generally kept locked away in a shrine in the Royal Chapel of Turin Cathedral, where it has been housed since the 17th century. There it rests, like a lethargic ghost, occasionally disturbing the intellectual complacency of the modern world, but, for the most part, unseen, discredited and ignored.
Most people have at least heard of the Shroud and are vaguely aware that it bears what appears to be an imprint of a man’s face, an image reproduced around the world as the true face of Christ. Fewer realize the full extent of the image. The cloth is nearly 4.5 meters long and is marked not just with a face but with two complete impressions, front and back, of a man’s flogged and crucified body. Of the two figures, it is the frontal one, inevitably, that grabs the attention. Here we see the well-known face, a bearded mask housing a pair of glowing, owlish eyes, the hair and forehead flecked with blood. The body appears physically robust. A major wound is visible below the chest on the right-hand side, which seems to match the report that, as Jesus hung on the cross, a soldier pierced his side with a spear (John 19.34). Lower down, rivulets of blood traverse the forearms, stemming apparently from nail-wounds in the wrists, only one of which can be seen. The arms are crossed. The rather spindly hands are placed decorously over the groin. The whole figure is clearly legible, except for the feet, which disappear into blood-stained nothingness.
Relatively misshapen and formless, the dorsal figure is perhaps even more expressive of physical torment. The marks of the flail are seen more clearly here, covering every part of the body from the shoulders to the calves. The scalp is ringed by minor blood-flows, recalling the crown of thorns. The feet, which appear to overlap, bear the bloody traces of nail-wounds. The most peculiar features are two messy pools of watery blood, which run into each other across the small of the back. These bring to mind John’s strange report that, when the soldier thrust his spear into Jesus’s side, ‘there came out blood and water’ (John 19.34).
Though clearly discernable, the figures are extremely faint and are not now the most prominent marks visible on the sheet. Framing them is a set of large burn-marks, holes and scorches, strung out along two parallel lines. This damage occurred in the 16th century, when the relic was caught in a devastating fire. It was rescued just as its silver casket began to melt and drip onto the cloth within. Along the same lines is another smaller set of burn-marks, known as the “poker-holes,” made on an earlier occasion: four clusters of holes, each resembling a knight’s move in chess. A set of diamond-shaped water-stains mark the cloth, as well, visible most clearly around the knees of the frontal figure. All these stains, holes and markings are symmetrical, because they were made when the cloth was folded (in different ways on different occasions).
Otherwise, the cloth is in reasonably good condition, although it shows its age in its color: originally it would have been bleached pure white, but the gradual oxidization of the linen fibers has caused it to darken, so that it now has the color of old ivory.
Could this extraordinary artifact really be the burial cloth of Jesus?
The very idea strikes most people as preposterous, an offense to common sense. The Shroud is generally lumped in with silly-season subjects, such as Atlantis, yetis, and UFOs. Among scholars, the Shroud is perceived as the plaything of “pseudo-historians,” who play fast and loose with historical reality, exploiting the gullibility of certain sections of the reading public with imaginative accounts of Templar plots, Masonic secrets and Holy Bloodlines. Yet, unlike such Grail-oriented conspiracies (and Atlantis, yetis and UFOs), the Shroud very definitely exists. Peculiar it may be, but it is a real phenomenon and demands explanation—not glib dismissal.
There is nothing inherently improbable in the idea of a shroud surviving from ancient Palestine. Plenty of ancient shrouds still exist, including numerous examples from ancient Egypt, Palestine’s southern neighbor. None of these examples, however, bears an image anything like the haunting figures emblazoned across the Shroud of Turin. It is its image that makes the Shroud seem so incredible. It corresponds to no other image, artificial or natural, currently known. Despite decades of trying, no modern experimenter has yet been able to reproduce it; despite decades of investigation, no scientist has been able to say conclusively how it was created. The Shroud is a complete anomaly. That does not make it miraculous, but it does make it very difficult to understand.
Indeed, the Shroud is as difficult to understand, in its way, as the Resurrection. This should give us pause for thought, for it points to a remarkable coincidence. However we are inclined to view it, the Shroud can surely claim to be one of the most puzzling artifacts in the world, and it is linked, via the burial of Jesus, which it represents, to the most puzzling episode in human history, the Resurrection. Two supremely inscrutable subjects, both associated, either directly or indirectly, with the same historical incident: there is something uncanny about this, something that hints at an unrealized connection. Conventional wisdom, mindful of the need to separate science and religion, demands that the Shroud and the Resurrection be treated as separate issues. But deciding, on principle, to deny any relation between them is hardly rational. As twin mysteries, they could well have a bearing on each other. It may be that the Shroud and the Resurrection remain mysterious precisely because they have been kept apart.
Interest in the Shroud rocketed in the 1970s, the Golden Age of Shroud research. It was in this decade that the cloth was finally made available for scientific testing. A preliminary examination of the Shroud had been made in 1969, but it was only in 1973 that scientists were allowed to take samples from the cloth. Their findings were sufficiently intriguing to encourage further research. And so, in 1978 a group of around 30 American scientists, calling themselves the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), was permitted to subject the cloth to a battery of hi-tech tests, in order to try to determine how the image was made. Although unable to reach a definitive conclusion on this score, the STURP scientists gathered a tremendous amount of useful data on the relic and, crucially, they failed to “falsify” the image—failed, that is, to detect any obvious signs of forgery. As far as they could tell, the Shroud checked out as a genuine burial cloth. Their work has attracted plenty of abuse from skeptics, but it was scientifically motivated and their results were published in peer-reviewed journals.
The 1980s were all about the carbon-dating campaign. It took several years of wrangling and scientific compromise before the church was ready to proceed, but the test was finally performed in 1988.
For the Shroud community, the result was dismaying. According to the carbon-dating laboratories, the cloth was manufactured between 1260 and 1390 A.D. For decades, Shroud-researchers had been constructing an ever more plausible case for the authenticity of the mysterious relic; now, in one fell swoop, their case was laid low. One might have expected study of the Shroud to take on a new complexion after 1988. Accepting the carbon-dating, art historians should have leapt on the Shroud as one of the most fascinating visual creations of the medieval period, a true masterpiece of devotional imagery. Strangely, though, they have remained almost entirely silent. The reason is simple: the negative photo of the cloth is an unmistakable sign that the Shroud’s famous image could not have been created by a medieval artist. Technically, conceptually, and stylistically the Shroud makes no sense as a medieval artwork. The discipline of art history has had over a century to study the Shroud since it was first photographed, and in all that time no art historian has ever ventured to attribute it to a medieval artist.
Shroud-researchers, meanwhile, have taken stock, regrouped, and continued their discussions, greatly aided in recent years by the rise of the Internet. Inevitably, the carbon-dating result casts a long shadow over their work, and a great deal of effort has been expended in trying to figure out what might have gone wrong. But others simply get on with the task of trying to piece together the obscure history of the cloth, a pursuit that might seem vain to outsiders, but which continues to throw up tantalizing clues.
Overall, the 1988 carbon-dating has made little difference to sindonology (as study of the Shroud is known). It has just made it even more difficult for qualified researchers to dare to involve themselves in studying the world’s most intriguing object.
Ultimately, it is worry about what the Shroud might mean that determines its rejection by modern rationalists. But what if we have got the potential meaning of the Shroud all wrong? What if the fixed assumption that it might help prove the Resurrection were a giant misconception? What if, interpreted more carefully in the context of first-century Jewish culture, it suggests that the founding “miracle” of Christianity was nothing more than a popular confusion? Would rationalists then be inclined to look more favorably on the Shroud? Would they then discover unnoticed virtues in the arguments of the despised sindonologists? Answering these questions we may come to know ourselves a little better, as well as the Shroud.
It is as if a spell has been cast over the Shroud, a spell consisting of the words: "If the Shroud is real, then so is the Resurrection.” This is the unspoken thought that prevents most people from taking the cloth seriously. The way to break the spell is not to find out ever more about the Shroud scientifically and historically; it is to rethink the Resurrection.
© 2012 by Thomas de Wesselow, reprinted with permission of Dutton, member of Penguin Group U.S.A.