The Shroud of Turin, which is revered by many Catholics as the real cloth that covered Jesus’s body after his crucifixion, is of course a fake. First, have a look at it again. You can see the image of Jesus in both fore and aft views, his hands covering his genitals.
The first record of the shroud is in 1355, and it’s been revered ever since (though not officially endorsed by the Catholic Church) as a miracle, like the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe that supposedly appeared on a cloak in Mexico in 1531 (I’ve seen it). The Shroud reposes in the Cathedral of Turin, and is occasionally exhibited to the faithful. (This will happen again next year.)
The image has degenerated substantially over the centuries. We know this because there are a fair number of paintings from centuries ago showing what it looked like. The degradation is due to its repeated unfurling and exhibition, which would crack and flake the paint, in addition to the fact (revealed in the article I’ll cite in a second) that in past times it was customary for supplicants to hurl their rosaries at the shroud and then recover them.
But we know the Shroud is a fake for several reasons. Carbon dating of the linen cloth (in three separate labs) has placed its manufacture between 1260 and 1390, which (if you know dating) is the time at which the flax plants furnishing the cloth would have been harvested, no longer absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Further, an Italian scientist managed to reproduce the Shroud by using materials that would have been available during the Middle Ages.
The other reasons for fakery (not fraudulence, as it apparently wasn’t designed to deceive people) are given in a very nice article by the historian Charles Freeman that just appeared in History Today, “The origins of the shroud of Turin.” (It’s free online.) I recommend that you read it, as it’s a fascinating summary of what we know about the shroud.
The other reasons for fakery are these:
- The shroud is covered with gesso (calcium carbonate; ground-up chalk), which was used as a ground for painting. If it was the miraculous imprint of Jesus on a burial shroud, there would be no reason for the gesso.
- As Freeman notes, the nature of the cloth itself bespeaks a medieval origin:
“Circumstantial evidence also comes from the nature of the weave. Linen has been woven from 6,000 bc and herringbone weave has been known in Sweden from as early as the second millennium bc. However, three-in-one weave, in which the weft threads go under one thread of the warp and then over the next three, is very rare, with few examples earlier than the silk damasks of the third century ad. No three-in-one herringbone linen weave has ever been discovered from an ancient site, let alone one that has been preserved in such excellent condition as the Shroud. The only surviving example of a three-in-one herringbone twill in linen other than the Shroud is to be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It consists of two fragments of a block-printed stole or maniple. The print has been dated to the 14th century, confirming that this pattern of weave was known then.”
Freeman adds that there are cotton fibers mixed haphazardly in with the linen, probably the result of cotton in the air that was being spun or woven nearby and landed on the shroud as it was being produced. But cotton and flax weren’t processed in the same sites until medieval times, giving further evidence for a late production of the Shroud.
- As Freeman notes, the position of the fore-and-after figures of Jesus don’t correspond:
“What can we say about the painting on the Shroud? The images are crude and limited in tone. They show none of the expertise of the great painters of the 14th century, who, even on linen, were capable of mixing a variety of pigments into rich colours. The join of the head and the shoulders on the frontal image is particularly inept. Although the artist did try to reproduce images that might have touched a crucified body and left a mark, the two images are not even simultaneous representations of the same body. This can be seen from the arms as they are shown in the early depictions. If you lie on the ground and place your elbows in the same position as those on the back image of the Shroud, you can quickly see that it is impossible to hold the position of the crossed arms in the front. There is a difference of seven centimetres between the lengths of the two bodies. Then again the heads do not meet, suggesting that this was not a cloth that was ever folded over an actual head. A cloth laid on a body would pick up its contours, but there is no sign of this. Again, the hair of the body would have fallen back if the figure had been lying down but the blood is as if it is trickling down the hair of a standing figure. In short, it appears to be a painting made by an artist whose only concession to his subject is to imagine that this is a negative impression of the body (as shown by the wound on the chest being on the left of the image in contrast to the conventional right, as seen in the Holkham crucifixion scene) that had been transferred to the cloth.”
- Finally, the image changed over the year. In 1355 to at least 1559, Jesus was naked, with his hands covering his genitals. But in 1578, as Freeman notes, reproductions show it with a loincloth over Jesus’s groin and butt. Clearly there were some prudes, possibly the Bishop of Milan, who were distressed at the exposure of the Saviour’s bum. The loincloth later disappeared, though there’s still a white patch on the Shroud showing where it was.
Here’s part of an engraving by Tempestra in 1613, clearly showing the shroud with the loincloth on Jesus (click to enlarge):
I highly recommend Freeman’s piece, which is loaded with history, science, and scholarship, but written for a popular audience. It does go easy on religion, saying clearly that the Catholic Church never recognized the Shroud as authentic, but considers it an “object of veneration”: a religious piece that is simply supposed to inspire people to muse about Christ’s Passion.
But it’s not as simple as that, for several Popes, and the Church itself, have never explicitly admitted it’s a fake—a mere painting rather than some divine imprint of Jesus. Rather, as is its wont, the Church stays mum, refusing to take a strong stand on its authenticity. They clearly want to have their cake and eat it too, saying it’s an “object of veneration” so they won’t look stupid because science has debunked its authenticity, but nevertheless still hinting that, somehow, it might be a real relic of Jesus.
We can see that in a recent news article by Inés San Martin on the Catholic Crux website describing how Pope Francis will venerate the Shroud when it’s exhibited in Turin between April 24 and June 24 of next year. (The Pope will visit on June 21.)
All three recent popes have been careful not to pronounce definitively on the authenticity of the shroud, generally referring to it as an “icon” that inspires genuine faith regardless of its historical origins.
“The pope comes as a pilgrim of faith and of love,” said Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin, papal custodian of the Shroud, during a Vatican news conference Wednesday to announce the pope’s trip next June.
“Like his predecessors did, Pope Francis confirms the devotion to the shroud that millions of pilgrims recognize as a sign of the mystery of the passion and death of the Lord,” Nosiglia said.
Is that a weasel statement or what? The last paragraph simply vindicates the many people who not only see this as a “sign of the mystery of the passion and death of the Lord,” but see it as a relic of the passion and death of the Lord.
In view of the multifarious evidence, the Church really should say that it was a medieval painting that could not have been Jesus’s burial shroud. But they won’t do that; it would turn off the supplicants who think it’s real. Indeed, even the Crux article casts doubt on the dating methods:
A radiocarbon dating test performed in 1988 over small samples of the icon by three laboratories, at the universities of Oxford and Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, concurred that the samples they tested dated from the Middle Ages, between 1260 and 1390.
Other scientists, however, believe those results could be off by centuries, pointing to the possibility of bacterial contamination of the cloth. They note, for instance, that burial shrouds for Egyptian pharaohs sometimes test to centuries later than their known age for precisely that reason.
Hogwash! As we’ve seen, the debunking of the shroud rests on far more than just carbon dating, and the pieces from the Shroud were cleaned and dated in three separate labs, all giving roughly consonant dates. And if it’s bacteria, how come all that bacterial carbon got into the shroud in the Middle Ages, and none since then?
It hasn’t helped that the Popes keep visiting the damn thing, keeping alive the belief that it’s genuine. As Crux notes:
Despite the controversies, Pope Benedict XVI visited the shroud during its last public exhibition in 2010, and St. John Paul II did so three times: in 1998, in 1980, and in 1978, months before the conclave that elected him pope.
During the first days of his pontificate, Francis referred to the disfigured face depicted in the Holy Shroud as “all those faces of men and women marred by a life which does not respect their dignity, by war and violence which afflict the weakest …”
Now why would the Popes keep making pilgrimages to something that’s just a painting?
Catholics must have their miracles, even in the face of counterevidence. Just once I’d like to hear the Church declare unequivocally that the Shroud is simply a painting from the 14th century or so. And I’d also like to hear them say that Adam and Eve weren’t the historical ancestors of all humanity. (Genetic studies have disproven a two-person ancestry.) But it will be a cold day in July (in Chicago) when that happens!