One of my great passions in life and the subject of my first-ever published magazine story several decades ago has been the Shroud of Turin. I spent six months doing research, reading countless books and interviews by specialists and interviewing some of the same experts.
After the story was first published in 1979, I continued to follow research and scientific developments, attended press conferences, interviewed experts, followed the C-14 or carbon dating exams done on this celebrated linen cloth and read every word I could about papal visits to Turin. I have been in Turin several times in recent years when the Shroud was removed from its shrine for public viewing.
We are still, of course, in Easter season and today I offer you Part I of those years of research. My special radio report on the Shroud of Turin was aired in two parts on “Vatican Insider” – Part I on Palm Sunday weekend and Part II this past Easter weekend. (photos below – JFL and also Shroud website)
I prayed as I wrote this – perhaps you will want to pray as you read it.
THE MAN OF THE SHROUD: PART I
As you know, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ is celebrated every year throughout the Christian world during Holy Week. What you may not know is that it has also been studied by scientists in their laboratory. As worshipers gather to commemorate Christ’s passion, scientists have been studying the results of tests made on an object alleged to be directly connected with that passion.
The object of intense religious devotion as well as scientific curiosity is a simple strip of linen, known as the Shroud of Turin. It has been venerated by Christians for centuries as the burial cloth that wrapped the body of Jesus Christ in his tomb after his crucifixion and death.
The 2015 exposition of the Shroud was only the 8th time since 1900 that it has been made available to the public. It was displayed in 1931 for the wedding of Prince Umberto of Savoy with Maria Jose of Belgium; the House of Savoy was the owner of the Shroud for many centuries but has since given it to the Vatican.
The Shroud was displayed again in 1933 to mark the Holy Year called to mark the 19th centenary of the passion and death of Christ. In 1973 the world had the first televised showing. In 1978 it was again shown to mark the 4th centenary of its transfer to Turin from Chambery, France.
Three more showings before the 2015 exposition; 1. 1998 to recall the centenary of the first photograph of the shroud by lawyer Secondo Pia in 1998 and also the 5th centenary of the Turin cathedral, 2. the Great Jubilee Year 2000 and 3. in again in 2010.
The 1978 43-day exposition marked only the fifth time in the last 100 years that this relic of Christianity had received public exposure – and it marked and even rarer occasion for direct access to scientific study. After the public exposition, it was turned over to scientists for brief study in an attempt to clear up centuries of mystery surrounding the cloth.
While scientific research has told us much, it does not solve what may forever remain the greatest mystery – was this Christ’s burial cloth?
The pure linen cloth, of Middle Eastern origin, is a simple, opaque tissue of fishbone weave measuring 14′ x 3.5′ feet. It contains the full-length frontal and dorsal imprints of a man and has carmine colored stains corresponding to blood. It is spangled with a double series of dark spots caused by burns it underwent in a fire in the 16th century and the water used to douse the fire left broad, symmetrical rings clearly visible. Less visible, but seen upon close observation, are transverse marks corresponding to the creases of the linen that, before its final voyage to Turin in 1578, had been preserved in its reliquary by folding in 48 thicknesses.
Because the Santa Sindone, or Holy Shroud, lacked fully documented evidence of its provenance prior to surfacing in France in the 14th century, it was assumed that the images had, at some point, been painted on the linen cloth. In the Middle Ages controversies arose as to the authenticity of these images and accusations of falsification were prevalent. Proofs were lacking for both sides of the argument and the relic slipped into relative obscurity.
However, in 1898, during an eight-day exposition of the shroud, a lawyer and dilettante photographer from Turin, Secondo Pia – who had been commissioned to photograph the shroud by its legal owner, King Umberto I of the House of Savoy – astounded the world with the results of his photographs and re-opened the case for the authenticity of the shroud.
The original imprints of the man on the linen are a form of the negative in themselves and thus photographing them produces a negative of a negative with the result being a startling positive of the subject. The bloodstains and burn marks, however, distinctly impregnated in the material, follow photographic inversion principles and are dark on the original and the light on the negative.
Photography was then in an embryonic state but Pia’s amateur black and white photographs revealed a dimension of the shroud heretofore never seen and stimulated the imagination of scientists, archaeologists, photographers, theologians and doctors. At that moment, a multiple study of the famous linen began that continues to the present.
Paul Claudel, the eminent French writer, said: “The photographic discovery is of such importance that I do not hesitate to compare it to a second resurrection.” And so, since 1898 dozens of other prominent men of all walks of life, stimulated by scientific motives, intellectual curiosity or principles of faith, have devoted much of their lives to the study of this “document written in blood.”
One acknowledged expert in the field of Sindonology, or study of the shroud, was Msgr. Giulio Ricci, at one time president of the Rome Center for Sindonology, who in his 28 years of personal devoted study of the shroud and in close collaboration with scientists, archaeologists and theologians, contributed immensely to what we know today about the shroud and the man of the shroud.
When we first met several decades ago, two life-size transparencies, possessing a third dimensional effect, occupied part of his office and he traced, inch by inch, the anatomical details and individual markings of the shroud and explained their significance. And he – and the shroud – told a most wonderful story.
I first saw the real shroud in Turin during the 2010 exposition. By far the most outstanding, almost startling, aspect of the shroud – are the bodily imprints. They reveal the athletic and physically harmonious body of an adult male approximately 5’6″ tall. The longish hair, beard and mustache seem well cured and his face bears a look of almost serene majesty.
Closer scrutiny evidences the correctness of certain anatomical particulars; the conventional differences in symmetry between the right and left sides of a person and the 1; 8 ratio in normal head – body proportions. These are considered as partial proof for the authenticity of the shroud as these only fairly recently discovered details could not possibly have been known to an artist/forger six centuries ago.
Msgr. Ricci claimed that the man of the shroud was 5’6″ tall, basing this on archaeological proof of the average height of a Palestinian 2000 years ago, as well as close studies made of the folds in the shroud. He concluded that the exceptional height that some would wish to attribute to Jesus with a surface glance of the shroud’s imprints can be accounted for by numerous folds in the cloth.
Exaggerated lengths of certain parts of the anatomy, most notably the right forearm and hand and the anterior print of the tibia were due to the fact that the linen was folded at these points. The bodily imprints reveal themselves throughout the thickness of the folds so that when the shroud was unfolded to its full length the images appear in full but unnaturally prolongated. By subtracting the amount of material used in folding, as revealed by the crease marks on the shroud, the natural height results as 5’6″.
The body was laid in the lower half of the rectangular cloth with the feet toward the open and. The linen was then folded at the head and laid over the frontal portion of his body until it met at his feet where it was tucked under. Though the burial was hasty, the transverse lines of the cloth indicate that it was folded under his chin, beneath his forearms, around the femur, and wrapped both feet.
Although impressive, the bodily imprints do not tell the story of the passion and death of this man as vividly as do the carmine color stains.
Indicating the rivulets of blood on the back head and forehead, Msgr. Ricci told me that the head had been entirely covered with a helmet, and not the traditional crown, of sharp thorns piercing the delicate vascular surface, thus causing numerous wounds and great blood loss. He underscored the fact that, throughout oral tradition and written history the only mention ever made of a crucified man being crowned with thorns is the biblical account of the crucifixion of Christ.
Further bloodstains on the arms, back, shoulders and legs, and the study of their intensity and directional flow, tell the story of a man who had been flagellated, bound by both wrists and ankles, had borne an enormous weight on his shoulders causing the bruised skin to tear and bleed, and whose and whose wrists feet and right side were pierced through by sharp instruments.
Though death by crucifixion was common in the days of Christ, a most singular element manifests itself both in the biblical account of Christ’s death and on the shroud’s imprints. To either hasten or insured death, a final touch was always added to the crucifixion – the victim’s legs were broken. In the case of Christ, however, this was not done, the Gospels tell us. Instead his side was pierced with a lance as evidenced on the shroud by a complex of stains of deep red blood surrounded by a lighter, serous liquid.
It was, in fact, the scrutiny of the shroud’s bloodstains, using the most sophisticated techniques and comparing the results with the biblical accounts of the death of Jesus that convinced Msgr. Ricci and others that this was, indeed, the burial linen of Christ. The stains corroborate in a decisive manner the exegetical account of Christ’s ordeal on Calvary.
In addition, they support the biochemical laws of blood coagulation and the process of hemolysis and fibrinolysis by which, within a given time span, blood is transferred onto a fabric when the fibrin, a white insoluble protein formed in the process of clotting, “is half dissolved, neither before nor after.” Too few hours of contact with the body would have prevented bloodstains from appearing or have shown them up securely. Too many hours of contact, through excessive softening of the fibrin, would have blurred the stains. Instead, the shroud presents bloodstains in perfect harmony with the laws of coagulation and within the precise time span for transferring via homologous this and fibrinolysis, a scientifically demonstrated period of 36 hours which would correspond to the approximately 36 hours Jesus remained in the sepulcher between burial and his resurrection that first Easter Sunday.
Experiments in this area have also been made by Prof. Baima Bollone, a leading forensic expert and Dr. Sebastiano Rodante, a pediatrician, and the results were published early in 1978. Their tests proved unquestionably that the presence of both aloes and myrrh on a fabric aided in bringing about the process of hemolysis and fibrinolysis – in the case of the shroud, the transfer of the bloodstains.
Dozens more studies have been published in the intervening years by these men and many others.
Msgr. Ricci, summarizing the shroud’s distinct bloody testimony to the physical passion of the man of the shroud, excludes completely the theory that this linen is the result of a forger’s brush and latest scientific evidence does not contradict this statement.
“The shroud is not a document of faith,” he told me. “It is a document of scientific research. It was necessary to go back and re-study biblical, apocryphal, patristic, archaeological and historical sources, Jewish and Roman law as well as that of other Middle Eastern peoples. Above all, it was necessary to undertake an accurate geometric and medico-legal examination of the imprints.”
These multiple aspects of research into the problem of authenticity and identification of the man of the shroud posed a formidable challenge involving many nations. Foremost among these problems for sindonologists, scholars of the shroud, was determining its provenance and its odyssey concluding with its final resting place in the Guarini Chapel of St. John’s Cathedral in Turin.
Exact and detailed documentation of the shroud’s history in the centuries immediately following the death of Christ is wanting due to historical and even juridical factors – the troubled history of Jerusalem in that period, the lack of freedom and expression enjoyed by Christians in that part of the world and even the Jewish law that considered as unclean anything having to do with the death, so that any violation of the tomb, such as the taking of a shroud, even for a relic, was punishable by death.
Thus, in this obscure period when the shroud’s history seems untraceable, these voids in its odyssey can be accounted for if one considers the fear of contamination with death- related objects by the Jews, the hostility to the new Christians, and the onslaught of invasions and sacking by vandals – so that, had the precious relic been preserved by Jesus’ disciples, it would have been kept well hidden until safer conditions made it possible to openly expose and venerate the sacred object.
In the first centuries after Christ, frequent indirect references to this burial linen were made, and only in the post Constantine period was it named explicitly and displayed openly. Historical testimonials place it in Jerusalem prior to the 11th century. Towards 1005 it was transferred to Constantinople and chronicles a century later ascribed to its presence there when they recorded that Louis VII of France, on an official visit to that city in 1147, venerated the Holy Shroud. They also tell us that only 10 years later, in 1157, Nicholas Samudarson, abbot of Thyngeirara, while making an inventory of the relics in Constantinople included the Holy Shroud on his list.
The first clear references to its presence there in the monastery of St. Mary of Blachernae was made by Robert de Clari, a knight from Picardy who took part in the capture of Constantinople in 1204. As a spoil of war, the shroud was taken to France and kept first at Lirey where contemporary chronicles explicitly mention its regular expositions there. Its owner, Marguerite de Charny, made a gift of it in 1452 to the Duke of Savoy in Chambery where it remained until its transfer to Turin in 1578.
It was in the chapel specifically built for the Shroud by the Duke of Savoy that a fire broke out in 1532 and this relic was partially damaged when the heat caused the molten silver of the reliquary to penetrate and burn the fine linen. Nuns were ordered to repair the cloth and their stitch work can be seen today on the shroud.
This fire and subsequent repair work has a very important bearing on experiments that have been done to indicate the shroud’s age.