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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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