Mystery continues to shroud Turin’s cloth

By | April 30, 2010

Current exhibit brings up questions, sparks reviews of historical record

Death is wrapped in mystery. This is true for all of us, and the mystery only deepens when we look at the death and resurrection of Jesus.

One part of the mystery includes the Shroud of Turin. This 14-foot long cloth is believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus. Normally kept in a bullet-proof silver casket in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, it is currently on public display there until May 23. It is the first public display since 2000 and the only one currently scheduled until 2025. Pope Benedict XVI will visit the shroud on May 2. It is estimated the two million other people will do the same during these weeks.

Centuries of debate

The shroud has been the object of debate since it was placed in the Turin cathedral in 1578. Its origin is unknown, but the Catholic Encyclopedia said that it can be traced to 1354 when a crusader knight, Geoffroi of Charney, had it in his possession in Lirey, France. When he died, his widow allowed it to be displayed in a church in Lirey. It then was moved to a chapel in Chambery, France, during the next century and was scorched in a fire there on Dec. 4, 1532.

This is when the charring seen on the cloth today happened. Repairs were made at that time. In 2002, the Vatican had the shroud restored and many of these 16th century repairs, including 30 patches of cloth, were removed.

While the timeline is secure from the 14th century onwards, there are also records that indicate Crusaders saw a similar shroud in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey, when the city was sacked in 1204. Whether this was the shroud or a cloth known as the Image of Edessa, or the Mandylion, bearing the image of Christ’s face is unclear. The Edessa image, also attributed to the time of Christ, was lost in the sack of 1204.

The Shroud of Turin, with its reddish-brown image of a man bearing the marks of crucifixion, has been examined many times. The first exam of note was in 1898 when an amateur photographer, Secondo Pia, used the new process of photography to record the shroud. This was when it was discovered that the shroud is a negative; making a negative of the shroud itself reveals the image of a man in striking detail.

In the 1970s, new tests were made to see if the image on the cloth was made by paint or pigments. Results were inconclusive.

Medieval date?

Small bits of cloth were taken from the shroud in 1988 for carbon-14 dating. These tests indicated that the shroud dated to 1260-1390 and many declared it a medieval fraud. Since then, however, several experts have faulted the dating methods or pointed out that the cloth tested may have come from the repairs done after the fire in 1532.

So far, no one has been able to explain, in a satisfactory way, how the image was placed upon the cloth.

More recently, pollen taken from the cloth has been confirmed as from plants native to the Holy Land and which bloom in the spring. And images of the coins placed on the eyes of the man on the cloth date to first century Palestine.

In 2009, a study by French scientist Thierry Castex revealed traces of Aramaic words, spelled with Hebrew letters, on the shroud. The words have been analyzed by Vatican researcher Barbara Frale, who told Vatican Radio on July 26 last year that her studies suggest the letters on the shroud were written more than 1,800 years ago and may have been portions of the phrase, “The king of the Jews.”

What does the church itself say about the shroud?

The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, back in 1389, the Bishop of Troyes, where the shroud was first displayed, called it a fraud, the work of an artist who had confessed to painting it. However, a century later, Pope Sixtus IV (d. 1484) called the shroud a “true portrait of Jesus Christ himself.”

A relic?

In 1989, Pope John Paul II caused a stir when he called the shroud “an authentic relic” while on a trip to Africa. As reported in Catholic News Service, the pontiff later qualified the statement, saying, “The church has never pronounced itself in this sense. It has always left the question open to all those who want to seek its authenticity. I think it is a relic.”

Is the shroud the burial cloth of Jesus?

Perhaps we will never know. It is certainly part of the storehouse of church history and an object of devotion for many. Certainly, its lasting truth lies in the faith it inspires in the hearts of those who look on it and who draw closer to Jesus who suffered, died and rose again for us.

What is undeniably real about the Shroud of Turin is the message that the tomb of Christ was empty. That has been a matter of belief from the first days of the church: “Peter got up and ran to the tomb, bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone; then he went home amazed at what had happened” (Lk 24:12).

Whatever helps us to profess our faith in the resurrection event is a treasure. And in that lies the real value of the Shroud of Turin. It proclaims, as we do, “He is risen, Alleluia.”

Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; Catholic News Service; Religionfacts.com; CatholicOnline at www.catholic.org; www.shroud.com; www.pbs.org

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