Skip to content

Annex 5: The Turin Shroud

The Turin Shroud is a Roman Catholic relic that some claim to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Even some respected scientists believe that it is true.

The story started in May 1898. Lawyer-photographer Seconda Pia and his teenager assistant were working in a small room doing photographic work in very uncomfortable conditions. Photography was still a new technique and the instrumentation, as well as the required chemical ingredients, were not very good yet. They were trying to process a photographic glass plate they had been authorised to take from a religious relic kept in the Turin cathedral. When the picture appeared they noticed that instead of a negative picture, as it should be, they had a positive image of a man lying prone. That could only mean that they took a photograph of a negative image. The man had long hair, a beard and a moustache. The body was nude, the hands crossed over the groin and the right foot slightly raised. They were blood marks over the body and around the scalp. These last ones were thought, later on, to have been caused by a crown of thorns. There was also a large open wound in the chest near the heart, traces of nail holes in the wrists and feet, and bloody lacerations due to whipping. If they realised straight away, as it is believed, that they had taken a photograph of the Lord, is not proved. However the news spread rapidly in Turin where the shroud had been kept for three centuries. Some believed that it was a miracle while others said that it was a fraud. The news spread over the world and many distinguish scientists became involved in finding an explanation. If it was proved that it was genuine, then the existence of Jesus was also proved. However the risk that it is a hoax cannot be ignored. Seconda Pia was interrogated by religious leaders and important scientists but he could only tell what he had done.

As we know, Jesus died on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, after obtaining Pilate’s agreement, hastily wrapped Jesus’ body in a new linen burial cloth before burying him. As it was close to the Sabbath and Passover, the body was not prepared in the usual Jewish way. It was laid in a new tomb with the intention to finish the anointing after the Sabbath, but Jesus rose on the third day. Yves Delage from the French Academy of Sciences, a known agnostic, was asked to examine the shroud shown on Pia’s photograph. He was working in collaboration with Paul Vignon from the Sorbonne as well as with other distinguished academicians. After eighteen months of work, both men were believers. In a conference given on 21 April 1902 in front of many well-known scientists, Delage said that in his opinion the shroud was not a painting and that the man on the shroud was the Christ. Of course quite a few people, including some religious, disagree and presented some historical documents that contradicted Delage’s conclusion. Cyr Ulysse Chevalier, a French priest, presented some 555 year old documents showing that it was a fraud. He was not completely convincing as nobody knew what was the relic’s history before 1355. (30)

Many legends are linked to the shroud. Abgar V ruled at Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey) when Jesus was alive. In the early fourth century Eusebius of Caesarea came to know of an exchange of letters between Jesus and King Abgar. The king was very ill and asked Jesus to come and cure him. Jesus said that he could not but that he would send a disciple, Thaddaeus, after his ascension. Thaddaeus went to see King Abgar and told him that Jesus had been crucified. Abgar, on his death bed, was very sad but Thaddaeus told him of the resurrection and that Jesus was still among us even if we could no see him. Abgar said that he believed in Jesus and, hearing this, Thaddaeus gave him the shroud on which there was, as Angar noticed, the image of a man. According to the legend, as soon as he touched his face with the shroud he recovered completely. This miracle is confirmed by St. Paul in the New Testament (Acts 19:11-12). A church was built to thank the Lord. However it is not certain that this was the shroud now kept in Turin, although some indications in this direction exist. Soon after, the Romans invaded Abgar’s country but before the cloth was hidden in a wall where it remained until 525 AD when a flood devastated Edessa and a cloth reappeared. The facial likeness of Christ was still visible, even if barely, and it was kept as the Christian’s greatest relic. This relic came to be known as the Mandylion, a Greek name for a cloth, veil or a loose coat full of folds. There is no way to decide if the Image of Edessa and the Mandylion are the same relic. But is one of these cloths the shroud kept in Turin and, if yes, how did it arrive there? (30)

From the sixth century the pictorial representation of Jesus had changed. The Scriptures do not give any physical description of Jesus and the artists always had to use their imagination. Initially he was shown as a clean-shaven young man as no Jew would be. From the sixth century Jesus was always represented like what a Jew of his time would have looked, that is a man with a beard, like the man on the Turin shroud. A subsequent study showed that most of the Byzantine icons representing Jesus were copy of the Image of Edessa. This does not prove anything but the coincidence is worth to be taken into consideration.

The Protestants but also, up to a point, the Roman Catholics in the recent years, have taken a negative view of relics. This is probably due to the old Mosaic law that forbade images worshipping. At the time of the rupture between the Western and Eastern branches of Catholicism in the eighth and ninth centuries the question of relics and icons had to be solved. A relic, by definition, is a sacred object and, of course, the Image of Edessa and the Mandylion were relics. The Mandylion was even used at the time of war and is believed to have brought victory to the Turks against the Persians. The Byzantine Empire lost Edessa but, in 943 AD, Emperor Romanus Lecapenus of Constantinople invaded Syria to recover the cloth that remained in Constantinople until 1204. At that time the fourth crusaders were diverted to Constantinople from their mission to free the Holy Land and, once again, Western Christians were fighting Eastern believers.

The fourth crusaders sacked Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire that had successfully resisted sixteen previous sieges over 900 years. These successes were attributed to the good influence of the relics stored in the city. The attackers, members of the Western or Roman Catholic Church, considered that the Eastern Christians were some kinds of heretics and that destroying them was their sacred mission. A first attack on 22 June 1203 did not succeed but two days later the Western soldiers took the town. Atrocities were committed in the name of Christ that both sides called their Lord and Saviour. Men were killed, women of all age and condition were rapped and churches, convents and monasteries pillaged before being destroyed. Robert de Clari, a French crusader, said that they found and took many relics such as two pieces of the True Cross, the iron head of the lance that pierced Jesus’ side, the nails that were stuck in his wrists and feet, a bottle containing some of his blood and the tunic that he wore. If these relics are genuine is far from being proved. However they are now kept in many European catholic churches as well as many imitations. In particular Venice became famous for its craftsmen who imitated the treasures stolen from Constantinople and sold them all other the West.

Robert de Clari also mentioned that the cloth in which Jesus had been wrapped, and known here as “the Sydoine”, was on display every Friday in the church called My Lady Saint Mary of Blachernae so that the people could see the features of the Lord. This was the last reference to the relic for more than one century when an unknown knight carried it from Constantinople to France in the mid 1300’s. In 1389 the then bishop of Troyes, Pierre d’Arcis, was angry because people were going in great number to Lirey to see a relic that was supposed to be the burial shroud of Jesus and he asked the Pope to stop the exhibition. The bishop was angry because nobody asked his authorisation to show the relic. Its owner, Geoffrey de Charny, has asked directly the Cardinal Pierre de Thury, legate of the Pope to King Charles VI of France. The King and the Pope, Clement VII, authorised the exhibit of a so called “Sudarium” of our Lord. This relic had already been shown before in Lirey in 1355 with the authorisation of a previous bishop of Troyes, Henry de Poitiers. Geoffrey de Charny was killed in 1356 after he came in the possession of the famous relic. He never said how he came to own it. The King of France ransomed him when he was prisoner in England so he must have been important. He is also known to have endowed the church of Lirey but it seems that the shroud was not involved. D’Arcis tried to stop the exhibition saying that the relic was a forgery and that it had been hidden for thirty-four years after the first public showing because Henry de Poitiers found some proofs of the forgery and identified the painter. Clement VII ordered D’Arcis to keep silent.

Recent scientific investigations however showed that the image on the shroud of Turin is not a painting. When the agnostic Yves Delage said that the man on the shroud was Jesus Canon Ulysse Chevalier, a French priest, used D’Arcy’s letter to deny the authenticity of the shroud of Turin but he did not bring any substantial proof of his allegations. Other Catholic priests, including the Englishman Herbert Thurston, added their support to Chevalier with the net result that more historical research was made. The history of the shroud is very uncertain until 1578 when it was brought to the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist in Turin and where Seconda Pia photographed it in 1898.

We only have questions and few answers:

– Were the Image of Edessa and the Mandylion the same?

– Was it the same shroud as the one seen by Robert de Clari in 1203 when the crusaders sacked Constantinople?

– How did Geoffrey de Charny came into possession of the cloth that was exhibited in Lirey around 1355?

– Was this the same shroud as the one exhibited in Turin?

There are no clear answers to these questions. We must remember that when Clement VII authorised the exhibition of a cloth in Lirey in 1389 he spoke of a “so called Sudarium of our Lord”. Why was he not more precise? Or did he know something about the cloth that he did not want to mention? The general impression is that the cloth exhibited in Lirey was not authentic. In fact in 1390 Clement VII decided that the exhibition should be more discreet and that it was not the burial cloth of Jesus but a painting or a picture. In 1418 during a war Humbert, Count de la Roche, took some relics under his care including the cloth from Lirey. The receipt he gave to the canons of Lirey said that it was for “the semblance or representation of the shroud of our Lord”. The relic was not given back for different reasons. First Humbert died and his wife Marguerite, daughter of Geoffrey de Charny, refused to give it back until 22 March 1452 when she gave it to the Duke Louis I of Savoy. It finished in the sacristy of the St. Chapelle at Chambéry, France. In 1449 an examination of the bills issued by Clement VII stated that this shroud was not the true one. The clergy tried to recover the relic but without success. It survived a few accidents. On 4 December 1532 a fire destroyed the sacristy; the relic was saved but with some fire and water damage. The nuns of Saint Claire patched the holes in 1543. In 1578 it was transferred to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin in a special chapel built that same year. Nothing special happened until Seconda Pia took the photographs. In 1978 millions of people came to Turin when it was shown in a public exhibition. Many people believe that it is the real one while others have doubts. Science only can give a final answer. (30)

And in fact science has given many answers to the 2000-year mystery of the crucifixion. Dr. Pierre Barbet, a pathologist from St. Joseph’s hospital in Paris is convinced that the shroud is genuine. Making experiments with cadavers he found that it was impossible for the palms to support a crucified man. The nails had to be driven through the Destot’s Space at the base of the wrists. The damage to the nerves would however create a severe pain. The feet were best held by putting the nail through the Linksfrank Space. This allowed to use one nail by putting the left foot over the right one as indicated by the shroud image. As a result of these researches it was obvious that the victim died of asphyxia, that the body turned blue before death and that the corpse would be completely rigid from tetanus even before rigor mortis set in. The sad experiences of the concentration camps of the second world war arrived to the same results (Crucifixion was banned by Constantine I in 312 AD). Still, this does not explain how the image was made. Paul Vignon suggested that vapour from Jesus’ body was responsible for the image, but later investigation proved that this was not possible. The second theory was that the image was made by direct contact of the shroud with the body. Another explanation was that vapours or liquids from the decaying body reacted with the cloth. The fourth theory is that the image is the result of some kind of heating or scorching. Ray Rogers a physical chemist at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, USA, noted that the 1532 fire had not changed the density of the scorched area and that water used to extinguish the fire had migrated through the cloth but that the image did not move. This seems to rule out that the image is a painting. Roger ruled out the vapour theory because the image is made of many dots that are not connected as they would if the material had to fuse or percolate by capillary flow in the cloth. By elimination Rogers came to the conclusion that the image had been made by a heating or scorching process. The British author and journalist Geoffrey Ashe thought that a human body would not be hot enough to scorch a cloth. If the image is the result of a scorching phenomenon, he said, this can only be the result of something uncommon like the release of a burst of radiation. Ashe could only suggest that the resurrection of Jesus was accompanied by the release of radiation. Of course there is no way to prove it. A famed London photographer, Vala, tried without success to produce a similar image as the one that appears on the shroud. He doubted that the shroud image was a photography.

Of course the main question remains: Is the Turin shroud the one in which Jesus was buried? Professor James Cameron, a Scotland Yard pathologist and a professor of forensic medicine, examined the shroud. His conclusions are that the image is from a man of about thirty-five years, who was flagellated before being crucified, who died on the cross and placed in this cloth in a state of rigor mortis. Only the muscles in the shoulder joints were broken. It was obvious that he had suffered considerable pain as he found the signs of about 120 lashes and that was normal for a Jew condemned to death by crucifixion by the Romans. He noticed also some scalp marks that could have been produced by a crown of thorns. The bruising on the shoulders was compatible with a right handed man carrying a heavy wooden beam like the eighty pounds patibulum. In the same way the abrasions seen on the left knee and on the left side of the face could be produced by falling under a heavy weight. Moreover the wounds made by the nails correspond on the image to what is known: Jesus had to be nailed on the cross through his wrists and feet. No thumb appears on the image. This is compatible with the nailing through the wrists that causes the thumbs to fold inside the hands. According to Professor Cameron nobody in the first century AD had the knowledge to forge such an image. Max Frei a Swiss criminologist has analysed the pollen fossils from a sample of the shroud. He has found that some of these are from the Jerusalem area and others from Constantinople. The age of the cloth has not been dated by the carbon 14 method as too much material is required. All the scientific tests have not excluded that the shroud could have been the one used to bury Jesus. However they did not prove that it was the real one. Some more research is required to settle the question. (30)