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Not shrouded in mystery at all

08 May 2015

Just because the Turin Shroud is not genuine it shouldn't be ignored, argues Charles Freeman


Myth: The Holy Shroud by Giovanni Battista della Rovere (c.1561-c.1630), which ignored almost every earlier depiction of the entombment

Myth: The Holy Shroud by Giovanni Battista della Rovere (c.1561-c.1630), which ignored almost every earlier depiction of the entombment

A NEW exposition of the Shroud of Turin has just begun. For the next seven weeks, to 24 June, the Shroud will be on display in the cathedral in Turin. Pope Francis will come up from Rome to venerate it on 21 June.

More than one million pilgrims are expected to file through to see the dim images of a crucified man, front and back, laid out on a linen cloth. Many, no doubt, will believe that it is the authentic burial shroud of Christ - despite the total lack of any scientific evidence that dates it earlier than medieval times.

Hopes of authenticity are soon dashed by a look at the physical evidence. The dimensions and pattern of the linen weave are typical of a treadle loom, not known in Europe before AD 1000. A single weaver, sitting down, was restricted by the width his arms could reach, so a cloth of 113-14 centimetres wide, the width of the Shroud, is standard for the medieval period.

By then, length was not a problem, as it had been with ancient looms, as the woven cloth was wound up on rollers, and much greater lengths than the 4.37 metres of the Shroud were possible.

The treadles operated rods for the pattern, in this case a three-in-one herringbone, of which the only other known example in linen is in the Victoria & Albert Museum, and dated to the 14th century. The spin of the yarn is a Z spin, typical again of Western Europe, in contrast to the S spin of the eastern Mediterranean.

WE ARE lucky in having a large number of descriptions and depictions of the Shroud from the centuries following its first documented appearance at a small church at Lirey in northern France in 1355.

Amazingly, these have never been systematically analysed, but they show that the images were much more powerful than they are now. Relic cults were highly theatrical in their presentation, and the Shroud especially so, as its original images could be seen from far off. In the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, in the Vatican, there is a fascinating fresco of 1583 showing the Shroud displayed on the walls of the cathedral of Turin; onlookers are able to observe the images from some 200 yards away.

Enormous, unruly crowds were able to see the cloth each 4 May, its feast day, when it was dramatically unfurled in the central Piazza Castello. Early observers were especially shocked by the intensity of the bloodstains, "impressed . . . in a manner that would strike terror and reverence into the Turks, let alone Christians", as an account from 1517 puts it.

The evidence from these early depictions suggests that the Shroud was a painted linen whose pigments have disintegrated over time, leaving the discoloration of the linen we can see today.

There is some evidence to suggest that concern over the deterioration of the images began in the 18th century, and accounted for the dramatic falling off in the number of expositions: well over 50 in the 17th century, only five in the 18th.

Certainly, in a lithograph of 1868, when the Shroud was exhibited for the first time in a frame and for only four days within the cathedral, one of the two images seems to have badly faded. By the time of the next exposition, 30 years later, the pigments appear to have disappeared, but the first photographs, by Secondo Pia, of the shadows that remained had an extraordinary impact. The Shroud went "global".

DESPITE the loss of pigments, the iconography of the images is still clear. The squiggles of blood on the head and hair of Christ, the bloodstains along the arms, and the flow of blood on the hands and feet are all typical of 14th-century Passion iconography.

The marks of flagellation, no less than 372 of them, covering both front and back of the body images, are particularly compelling. In real life, no one could have survived such an intricate and extensive scourging.

As James Marrow of Princeton University has noted of similar 14th-century examples, however, a passage from Isaiah 1.6 - "From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness - only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil" - was inter-preted as a premonition of the scourging of Christ, and integrated into the iconography of the Passion.

The earliest painted representations of these scourge marks covering the whole of Christ's body, front and back, date from 1300. So, the images on the Shroud are likely to have been produced between 1300 and 1350, supporting the carbon-14 dating of the linen commissioned by the Turin authorities in 1988. This gave a reading of AD 1260-1390 with 95-per-cent certainty.

THE immediate response to this is usually that the Shroud is therefore a fake, created deliberately to deceive. This is unlikely. There is no mention of any images on Jesus's burial shroud in the Gospel sources, and in medieval paintings of the laying-out of Christ he is conventionally shown, in the West, as lying on a single sheet, again without images. No forger would have hoped to deceive with a much larger-imaged cloth.

Despite a report from the local bishop that the Shroud was painted, and had been fraudulently shown off as authentic in the 1350s, by 1390 the Avignon Pope Clement VII had authorised veneration of the Shroud on condition that it was publicly announced before each exposition that it was not authentic.

This suggests that the cloth, like thousands of other sacred objects of medieval origin, had already become associated with miracles or visions, in this case unrecorded.

Instead of being designed to deceive, it is much more likely that the Shroud was originally created for a liturgical function. It is worth looking at the Quem Quaeritis ceremony, a re-enactment of the Gospel narratives of the discovery of the empty tomb on Easter morning.

This medieval drama, known as early as the tenth century, involved taking a linen sheet representing the grave clothes from a makeshift tomb, displaying it to the congregation, and then carrying it in solemn procession to the altar, where it would be laid out for the Easter-morning mass.

Some of these linens are known to have been painted, and a pilgrim badge from Lirey of c.1355, now in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, shows two priests holding up the Shroud in front of an empty tomb, just as the liturgy demanded.

In the dim early-morning light of Easter in a medieval church, the priority would have been on creating impact. This may be why the artist has created the image of Christ larger than life-size for the medieval period, and doubled it up.

Although the images today look convincing at first sight, the artist did not bother much with creating real or matching bodies. There is no attempt to create the contours of a cloth lying over an actual body. The face of Christ, conventional in its long hair and beard, is of a man standing, not lying, and early depictions show that the elbows of the back image do not touch the body, making it impossible for the same arms to have crossed in the front.

Yet there is some attempt to create an impression of Christ's body. In the conventional iconography of the lance wound (John 19.34), the wound is shown on the right side; on the Shroud, as an impression from the body, it is on the left.

It is perhaps best, therefore, to see the Shroud as an icon, if one on linen rather than board, and with its original painted surface disintegrated. Like wooden icons, it was created as a sacred object, in this case not only as a reminder of the Passion of Christ, but as evidence, in the original Easter ceremony, that Christ had risen from the grave clothes in which he was wrapped.

The tradition of veneration has now lasted nearly 700 years. This places the Shroud alongside the thousands of relics whose provenance is unrecorded but which have attracted centuries of reverence.

There is something more than this. For those who are interested in the birth of medieval drama, the Shroud appears to be the only survivor of a grave cloth from the Quem Quaeritis ceremony. It was this ceremony that was eventually moved from the churches into the streets and elaborated into the Passion plays. So the Shroud may well be a lone relic from the birth of medieval drama. While the original church or monastery for which it was made remains unknown, this alone is a good reason for respect.

YET, as the long queues line up for their few moments in its presence, it is clear that the Shroud has an attraction far beyond what the solid evidence of a medieval origin suggests. The way that the linen has become discoloured, probably reflecting the varying thickness of the original paint, and thus producing the effect of a photographic negative, gives the Shroud images a haunting three-dimensional quality quite unlike any other similar work.

In this respect, the images raise the profoundest questions about the emotional and spiritual impact of art. Sadly, this has been exploited in some quarters to suggest authenticity.

It is quite understandable that the Vatican and the Turin authorities would wish to use the emotional impact of the Shroud to bring home to pilgrims the sufferings of Christ. Yet, in the excitement of each exposition, they leave the issue of authenticity open.

This plays into the hands of those who claim that there is some inexplicable "mystery" surrounding the Shroud. All too often, journalists uncritically recycle misleading "evidence" supporting bizarre theories about the making of the images. The reluctance of academics to become involved has allowed myths of a supernatural origin for the Shroud to flourish.

This leaves the Church in the potentially embarrassing position of appearing to acquiesce in the possibility of authenticity, despite the lack of any evidence for the existence or creation of the Shroud before the medieval period.

It is too late for 2015, but perhaps in future expositions, it would make sense to return to the position taken by Clement VII in 1390, and for the authorities to announce that the Shroud cannot be authentic.

Yet it also needs to be asserted resolutely that the Shroud was never intended to deceive, but was created to draw worshippers into Christ's suffering and his resurrection. This is the best justification for the future veneration of the Shroud within the Church of Pope Francis.

Charles Freeman is author of
Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How relics shaped the history of medieval Europe (Yale University Press, 2011).

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