Regular readers will recall that from time to time I conduct one of my historical mystery tours. These have often yielded results which surprise me. It seems there are times when historical narrative and scientific fact appear to collide. When that happens it always seems to me that the two must be reconcilable, but something, some piece of information is missing somewhere. I thought the Turin Shroud might make a fitting topic for Easter. When it comes to that topic, the conflict is acute. Is it an image of the crucified body of Jesus Christ? Is it a medieval fake? I looked into it. I have come to the conclusion that whatever it is, the thing is astonishing.
The Turin Shroud was investigated by a 40-person team of international scientists in the late 70’s under the auspices of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). STURP examined the Shroud for nearly a week. Most of the scientists expected to able to explain the Shroud in terms of paint or scorch marks or the like quite quickly. That didn’t happen. The process by which it was created was baffling. They left with more questions than answers. One of the leaders of the project was Dr John Jackson PhD (physics and cosmology, I believe). He, like many scientists who have dealt with the object, appears to have become a little obsessed by it, in a good way. He has continued to research the Shroud and has one of the only full-scale complete reproductions available. I do not think he is a “believer” – I think he is just fascinated.
As is also well-known, in 1988 the Vatican permitted carbon dating tests in an effort to clear up controversy over the provenance of the Shroud. Its documented history could probably be pinned down to around 1390. Independent tests in 1988 at the University of Oxford, the University of Arizona, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology concluded with 95% confidence that the shroud material dated to 1260–1390 AD. Job done; the Shroud had to be the result of a medieval fraudster.
The first reasonably clear reference to the Shroud of Turin in recent history is in possession of a French knight called Geoffroi de Charney in around 1353–1357, which would fit rather well with the carbon dating. However, something interesting has been discovered about this knight: recent research has discovered that he was married to a direct descendant of one of the knights who sacked Constantinople in 1204, amongst whom was Robert de Clari, another French knight and a Crusader, who observed and documented a religious ceremony involving ‘a’ Shroud. Where does this take us? In my view, Robert de Clari’s testimony is convincing. He often described matters which contemporaries would have airbrushed over, and although some historians have suggested that he was describing the Sudarium of Oviedo (a linen cloth allegedly wrapped around Christ’s post-crucifixion face, first mentioned outside of the Bible in 570 AD), that seems nonsense to me. He is quite specific about what he saw. Some weird ceremony was going on with a shroud being raised up before the congregation every Friday.
In my judgment, it is highly likely that the Shroud described by Robert de Clari saw being displayed every Friday is the Shroud of Turin. Dr Jackson suggests that the Shroud was being displayed in a form of contraption which raised it up to display the face and torso only, with a mechanism including a weighted bar which is consistent with the pattern of fold marks which can be detected in the linen. Linen has a memory. If so, this puts the date of the Shroud well before the cut off date suggested by the carbon dating, and all bets based on that carbon dating are off. The Byzantines were great showmen and lived by their rituals. Back lit, the Shroud would have been a dramatic and ethereal sight. Further, it is conceivable, and in my view perfectly plausible that the Shroud was associated with the Sudarium, pushing the date back still further. The two cloths are perfectly consistent with biblical descriptions of a Shroud and face-cloth. If that is correct, this pushes the date of the Shroud back to at least the seventh century.
The history of art is potentially highly significant. It seems that something happened in or around the mid-sixth century AD, which gave rise to a “standardised” version of the face of Jesus with a form consistent with the Shroud. Deploying modern forensic computer techniques to the earliest known image of Christ the Pantocrator and comparing it to the image on the Shroud of Turin suggests 120 points of similarity. Before this time there was a free for all about what Jesus looked like. After that time, consistent with the alleged rediscovery of the Mandylion (another cloth associated with Christ, this time emanating from Edessa, i.e. modern-day Turkey), a consensus seem to emerge with regard to the hair and beard, shape of the nose and eyes and so forth. Other art forms and coins from the same time display many notable similarities. There seems to have been a “Master Source” consistent with the Turin Shroud.
Later in the thirteenth century after the disappearance of whatever was being displayed in Constantinople, the art work of the Man of Sorrows is again very often consistent with the Turin Shroud and with it having been displayed in some form of device which raised it out of a box or mechanism to display the head and torso. To cut a long story short, as far as I can tell the marks of on the Turin Shroud which cause the image are not caused by paint or pigment. It is not a photograph. It is three-dimensional, and can only have been created whilst the cloth surrounded a three-dimensional object. Some scientists have suggested that it had to be a free-floating three-dimensional object, but that is not something I have any expertise upon which to comment. One theory is that the cloth could have been placed around a hot effigy. That would burn the cloth unless achieved in less than one tenth or even one hundredth of a second. There are no scorch marks in the image. In my view, that is not possible.
The image on the cloth appears to have created by the dehydrating oxidation (ageing) of the linen. The extent of discolourisation is astonishingly delicate. Each fibre of the linen used to create the weave is about the size of a human hair. There are 200 fibrils to a fibre. The discoloration is no more than 2 fibrils deep. Whatever caused it was not strong enough to pass through the apparent blood stains, and the extent of oxidation varies according to the proximity and closeness to the body. Where the linen has been pressed close to the body, such as around the nose, it is strongest. This gives a 3-D effect which scientists of the twenty-first century struggle to cope with or explain. I conclude that whatever caused the discoloration emanated from within the body or effigy around which the Shroud had been wrapped. As far as I am aware, science has not been able to reproduce the effect by known means.
So, a fourteenth century hoaxer created an object which is a negative, awaiting a twentieth/twenty-first century scientist to fail to explain. Seems reasonable? No, not really. We keep coming back to that carbon dating. It’s a bugger, this science thing. There are theories which seek to discount it. Contrary to the original plan to take several samples from over the Shroud, only one small sample was taken from near the corner of the Shroud. Could it have been contaminated? Had the Shroud been repaired before being put on show by Geoffroi de Charney, and was this the material which had been tested? There are other theories. I don’t know.
I can only conclude that the Turin Shroud is an exact reproduction of the body of a man whipped and beaten, whose head has been draped with a rough cap of a thorny plant (no “crown”, at least as often depicted – rather more mocking rough bunch of sharp vegetation), crucified in a manner consistent with Roman practice, and buried in accordance with the practices Jewish law of the first century AD. It appears to have been exposed to the elements in Jerusalem, Edessa and Constantinople. I do not know what the Turin Shroud is. Whatever it is, I do not think it is a fake. But what it is, and how it was created, I don’t know. And neither does anyone else.
Gildas the Monk