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.