The Shroud of Turin continues to sell tickets

Charles Freeman has an article in History Today about the Shroud of Turin. He tells me the subject is neglected by academics, and “the absurd ideas of the authenticists are given full and virtually unchallenged internet space.” He adds that National Geographic is especially bad on this, maintaining “the idea that there is something inherently mysterious about the Shroud when in fact an afternoon in a conservation lab – which would find the traces of gesso and paint – would probably sort things out.” He gave me carte blanche to use the article, so have a feast.

A RECTANGULAR linen cloth 4.37 metres long and 1.13 metres wide, the Turin Shroud, housed in that city’s cathedral since 1578, is famous for its two images of a mutilated man, appar-ently naked, one of his front, with the arms crossed over the genital area, the other of his back. The wounds resemble those of a crucifixion, with an additional wound in the side similar to the one inflicted on Jesus when he was on the cross (John 19:34). Here we have negative images of Christ’s body as if they had been transferred from the body to the cloth. The linen is woven in a three-to-one herringbone twill, one of the many variations that weavers in wool, linen and silk were capable of from ancient times. The folded Shroud was heavily damaged in a fire of 1532 and the burn marks remain prominent.

There is enough uncertainty about the Shroud’s origins to convince some that it is the actual burial shroud of Christ. The mystery is deepened by the claim that no artefact has ever been the subject of so much research. However, when the scope of this research is considered, it is obvious that many areas of its history and the iconography of its images have not been fully explored. For example, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which examined the Shroud in 1978, when it was still owned by the Savoy family, did not have a single expert in the history of relic cults, techniques of ancient weaving or the iconography of medieval painting on its team. No one appears to have investigated the kinds of loom, ancient or medieval, on which a cloth of this size may have been woven. Nor has anyone closely examined the many early depictions and descriptions of the Shroud that illustrate features now lost.

Hmmm. Did they carefully avoid experts who might actually find that the shroud is not what it purports to be?

These depictions, which date largely from between 1578 and 1750, acted as souvenirs of occasions when the Shroud was exhibited. They show the assembled clergy and, in later cases, the Savoy family, standing behind their relic, which is always shown with the frontal image on the viewer’s left. Survivals are rare, for the paper on which they were printed was often of poor quality, but there are enough – perhaps 50 different depictions in total by a variety of artists – to see the images on the Shroud as they once were. Many from the Savoy collections are illustrated in the catalogue of a 1998 exhibition held in Turin. They vary in details and accuracy (some show the Crown of Thorns more clearly than others, for instance) but, as a group, they have not yet received serious study.

THERE IS AN ENGRAVING of one such exposition of 1613 by Antonio Tempesta. He was celebrated for his panoramic view of Rome (1593), which shows the individual buildings of the city in meticulous detail, and he was brought to Turin to work for Duke Carlo Emanuele I (1580-1630). It is an exposition from the height of the Counter-Reformation, when the concentration was on drama, with fusillades and the singing of choirs as the Shroud was unfurled before an enthusiastic crowd. My research began with this engraving, as it demonstrated that the original images of the Shroud were much more prominent than they are now. The Shroud would not have made an impact on such large crowds if they had not been. There are features – the Crown of Thorns, the long hair on Christ’s neck, the space between the elbows and the body, the loincloth – that can no longer be seen today. The marks from the fire of 1532 are also clearly evident. Texts describing the Shroud confirm the accuracy of the Tempesta engraving. Two features that are less obvious are the extent of the blood on the body images and the marks of Christ’s scourging or flagellation. We have evidence that these were once prominent. Astonishingly, few researchers appear to have grasped that the Shroud looked very different in the 16th and 17th centuries from the object we see today.

No one has found any significant evidence of the Shroud’s existence before 1355, when it appeared in a chapel at Lirey, in the diocese of Troyes, supposedly advertised there as the burial shroud of Christ. Such sudden appearances of cults were common in a Europe recovering from the trauma of the Black Death. They caused a great deal of frustration for a Church hierarchy anxious to preserve its own status.

Ah now that strikes a familiar note. The church is still like that – it’s still fretful at the failure of so many people to obey its orders, and still resentful of upstarts and frauds while considering itself The One True Item.

The bishop of Troyes, Henry of Poitiers, whose responsibility it was to monitor such claims in his diocese, investigated the shrine and reported that not only were the images painted on the cloth but that he had actually tracked down the painter. After this clerical onslaught, the Shroud was hidden away for more than 30 years. Yet the Church accepted that it was not a deliberate forgery and in January 1390 the (anti)pope Clement VII allowed its renewed exposure in Lirey. This suggests that the Shroud may have been credited with unrecorded miracles, thereby acquiring the spiritual status to make it worthy of veneration. Doubtless aware of the earlier claims by the Lirey clergy, Clement insisted that it was publicly announced before each exposition that this was NOT the burial shroud of Christ.

An interesting thing is that the iconography of Jesus became very bloody in the 14th century, when it hadn’t been before. That reminds me of Mel Gibson’s violence-porn film.

Twenty years later the Clare nuns, who repaired the Shroud after it had been damaged by fire, also recorded the emotional impact of the wounds. Once it had been rolled out for veneration:

we let our look go up and down through all the bleeding wounds whose prints appeared on this holy Shroud … we saw sufferings that could never be imagined … the traces of a face all bruised and all tortured by blows, his divine head pierced by big thorns, from which blood rills came out and bled into the forehead and divided in various rills covering the forehead with the most precious purple in the world … the side wound appears as wide as to allow the passage of three fingers, surrounded by a four-finger-wide blood trace, narrowing from below and approximately half a foot long.

On the image of the back, once again the blood was prominent:

the head nape pierced by long and big thorns, which are so thick that you can understand that the crown was like a hat [as on the Tempesta engraving], the nape more tortured than the rest and the thorns stuck more deeply with large drops of blood coagulated in his completely stained-with-blood hair.

Little of this vivid imagery survives today. These bloodstains echo revelations reported by mystics of the 13th and 14th centuries. St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations date from the 1340s, received a vision from the Virgin Mary, who told of how she saw her son flogged so that ‘the weighted thongs tore his flesh’ until he was ‘all bloody and covered with wounds so that no sound spot was left on him’. He was taken off to be crucified and the Virgin went on to de-scribe how he had been nailed to the cross. Then ‘they put the Crown of Thorns on his head and it cut so deeply into my son’s venerable head that the blood filled his eyes as it flowed and stained his beard as it fell’. The English mystic Julian of Norwich also described, in about 1372, a vision of Christ’s Passion, where she saw ‘the red blood flowing down from under his crown, hot and flowing freely and copiously, a living stream, just as it was at the time when the Crown of Thorns was pressed on his blessed head …’ Linked to these visions is the appearance, in both 14th-century sculpture and painting, of the ‘Man of Sorrows’, in which Christ appears with the Crown of Thorns on his head, his wounds intact and the blood still flowing. The scriptural inspiration is Isaiah 53: 3-4: ‘He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’

THE CHANGE IN ICONOGRAPHY is dramatic. Scenes of Christ’s burial from the 12th and early 13th centuries show little or no blood, as in the enamel of the Lamentation from the Klosterneuberg Altar of 1181, where Christ is being laid out, his hands crossed over his pelvis but with few signs of any bloodshed. The (Hungarian) Pray Codex from 1192-95 is another. Once the Klosterneuberg enamel is compared with imagery of 130 years later, as seen in the Holkham Bible of c.1330 (from Holkham Hall in Norfolk), the contrast is obvious. In its crucifixion scene, blood spurts from the Crown of Thorns and more runs down Christ’s arms from the wounds in the hands. The moment shown is when his side has been pierced and he has died (John 19: 34-5).

Creepy, isn’t it. What does any of that have to do with…well, anything, apart from a taste for violence and/or melodrama?

This is a small sample of Charles Freeman’s research on the subject, which should be more widely known so that National Geographic would be embarrassed to take the shroud seriously.


  1. Bruce says

    The carbon-14 dating from 3 labs seems conclusively to indicate it is from 1260-1390. While people can put out excuses against these observations, one might as well claim that we can’t be sure if the city of Turin ever existed. It’s ridiculous wishful thinking.

  2. luzclara says

    Ahh I adore a good relic cult. My particular favorite, of course, is Juan Diego’s tilma with the magical image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the revered star of a big cult in Mexico and a smaller but widely distributed cult in South America and the United States. Señor Juan Diego got a big promotion to Saint a few years ago. The legend is really good, too, b/c it’s a native peasant talking back to a Spanish Bishop in 1531 b/c the Virgencita told him to. And the proof that she was involved of course was his rebozo-tilma which not only filled up w/fresh roses ALL BY ITSELF IN THE MIDDLE OF WINTER in high altitude Mexico City, but also showed her image once they shook all the roses out of it – and she was embodied as a native not a white lady. They have it hanging in a big basilica which is quite near the actual geographic place where the whole business happened. So in my book, the Virgen de Guadalupe is a lot more interesting and fun than that silly old Shroud of Turin. And it gets better, according to “scientists” with digital x-ray vision, the eyes in the image each contain a kind of holy-polaroid photo of the people that she really really saw on Dec 12 1531 when she got out the big guns to get that stupid bishop to believe Juan Diego. And the scene got burned onto her eyeballs. Also, FYI, the teeny weeny image seen by the scientists in her eyes could not have been created by a human hand. I wonder if National Geographic ever did an article on that one?

  3. says

    There were several shrouds, if I recall correctly, and the first written mention of the one in Turin was that it was a tawdry fake — a complaint made by another cathedral that also had a shroud.
    … And there was a towel belonging to some woman saint who had her face and tears on it. It looks like a drawing from a 4 year-old.

    Christian idolaters are stupid. None of this crap is worth remembering.

  4. says

    The shrine at Lourdes remains a draw. I don’t recall the exact number but they claim something like 24 cancer cures in the time the shrine has been operating. I once did the numbers and with however million people who’d been through, there was apparently a reduction in the rate of spontaneous remission for cancer, if you’d visited the shrine. Of course nowadays some cancers respond well to the Lourdes treatment, with adjuvant therapy (gamma knife and chemo)

  5. says

    @Marcus #5 – You may be thinking of an alleged relic that appeared by the 8th century and had vanished entirely in the 17th.

    If you want interesting relics, though, none can top the Holy Prepuce. Yes: at one point, as many as 18 cathedrals claimed to have Jesus’ foreskin. The rivalry got so bitter and so embarrassing that Rome finally announced — in 1900 — that even mentioning it was an excommunicable offense.

  6. says

    In the 19th century, the Shroud was considered to be a medieval work of art that transformed into its mysterious conditions due to the ravages of time. In the 20th century, historical and scientific research indicated that it was created in the 1st or 2nd century using a crucified victim and methods that have been lost to history. Nevertheless, pro-religion fanatics argue that it is authentic and anti-religion fanatics say the craftsmen were artists from the middle ages. In the 21st century, two books have been written by atheists arguing that the Shroud is authentic and using this to argue that the Resurrection of Jesus is a myth.

  7. peterh says

    The shroud is so much more impressive than a mere slice of toast. And less relevant to reality, since the toast can be eaten. (Blessing/sanctification optional.)

  8. says

    Doesn’t reality include our freedom? Isn’t our freedom before God? The Shroud is a reason to believe in life after death. It is a sign or a miracle because no one can explain how Gnostics created the image and blood stains.

  9. iknklast says

    A few years ago, the Daily Oklahoman ran a breathless article about how the dating of the shroud had been pushed back a couple of centuries. The implication was that this made it authentic – it was still more than a millennium too late to be the shroud of Jesus, and the re-dating did not invalidate the method, though I’m sure that is one of the ideas of the article.

    When newspapers are so eager to seize on little things like this (and give them headline status), is it any wonder academics ignore it? They see it as a sideshow. That may not be the right attitude, but it’s understandable.

  10. Charles Freeman says

    Thanks, Ophelia. The article has given rise to a lot of interest and outside the authenticists’ websites very positive. For those who read the original to the end, you will see I never argue that the Shroud was a fake. There were hundreds of thousands of painted linens around in the medieval period and they were widely used in churches, especially during Lent when opulent altars and statues were traditionally covered up.
    If you were a forger hoping to get away with a burial shroud you would stick to the gospel sources and certainly not add images. The most successful shroud relics in the medieval period were single cloths WITHOUT images- better still if you brought yours back from the Holy Land.
    The Quem Queritis Easter ceremony when they held up a cloth from a makeshift ‘tomb’ to show that Christ had risen is the best fit explanation for the origins of the Shroud. We know that the linen was often painted and a single sheet.
    I have never seen anyone except David Roehmer put forward this second century Gnostic theory- so I don’t know what historical or scientific work he is relying on.
    When you wanted to paint a linen in medieval times, you gessoed it on the surface and once it was sealed then you painted on top. Some of the few surviving examples are vastly more sophisticated than the Shroud ever was. The trouble was that the painted surface easily disintegrated although the Shroud seems to have kept pretty intact until the nineteenth century. The present discoloration of the linen appears to be the result of centuries of the weave being overlain by the gesso and paint. It is only a surface disoloration- presumably the gesso stopped the images penetrating further -and the varying thicknesses of the .original paint left a sort of negative image behind. It is all too often assumed that the images left today as the images that were originally created and all kinds of ingenious methods, from laser beams to scorches, have been devised to recreate them – but you would have to seal and paint the linen according to the medieval manuals and leave it in place for several centuries and then when it disintegrated we would probably have similar images. See you in 500 years time!

  11. says

    The book I got it from is by Robert Drews, “In Search of the Shroud of Turin: New Light on Its History and Origins.
    I filed a canonical complaint against Cardinal Dolan of New York for suppressing my slideshow/lecture on the Shroud of Turin. The complaint and my correspondence with the Roman Rota is at There is an English version of the slideshow at

    In my cover letter to the Holy Father, I mention another matter that embarrasses the Catholic Church. It concerns evolutionary biology, and my explanation and correspondence is at

  12. luzclara says

    NateHevens I don’t have any links to anything that I would count as “scientific” studies of the tilma. Everything on the internet is published by Catholic “journalists” – it’s all easy to find. I am almost certain that nothing else has been published. You likely know how relic cults operate. . .

  13. rjw1 says

    Charles freeman’s article is an interesting description of religious gullibility, however, since there’s no common currency between believers and skeptics, it seems that the authenticity of the Shroud is effectively impervious to rational argument or scientific investigation. The “relic” has the rather sly imprimatur of the Church and that’s all the faithful need.

  14. Charles Freeman says

    rjw!’s comment -no.17- is so right. Those who believe in the authenticity of the Shroud are so cut off from reality but it is not helped by the reluctance of academics to get involved in the interesting issues of the weave of the cloth ( ( almost certainly a medieval treadle loom), the iconography of the images (spot on for iconography of the fourteenth century), the radiocarbon dating (no textile expert who has ever examined the Shroud has ever found any sign of a rewoven patch , yet the invisible [sic) medieval reweaving theory for the sample area is still going the rounds on the internet), the documentary evidence of 1389 and 1449 plus a mass of depictions from between 1578 and 1703 that show the Shroud was once painted, etc, etc. It is only in the last fifteen years that there has been sustained academic interest in medieval painted linens but gradually more research is building up and it will help place the Shroud more firmly within its medieval context as well as provide a perfectly natural explanation for the way the linen is discolored today- these painted surfaces were very vulnerable which is why we have so few survivors today- but they do leave marks where the gessoed and painted surface once was.
    I would have expected the National Geographic to be aware of some of this but they persist in seeing the Shroud as somehow beyond rational explanation.They swallow the assumption that the images on the discolured linen now are the same as they were when they were created- has one ever heard of any textile that has remained unchanged for centuries, other than those kept in Egyptian tombs- there is a mass of evidence that show the images were very different five hundred years ago.The article by Frank Viviano in the March 2015 issue shows no sign of any independent investigation- why does he not ask textile specialists about weaves, painting on linen and the iconography of the Passion in the fourteenth century??
    There will be a tipping point when the Catholic Church has to publicly accept that it is not authentic – its neutral stance on the matter risks causing it increasing embarrassment.


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