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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

The Shroud of Turin

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

The relic of all relics is a fourteen and one-half foot long linen sheet bearing faint blood stains of a man’s body. It has been venerated, debunked, and debated for centuries. Devotees and skeptics are polarized in their beliefs. The faint marks on the cloth, believed to be the blood stains of Christ, can barely be made out. For believers the Shroud is the holiest blood relic of Christ which testifies not only to his passion and resurrection, but to eternal life. For skeptics the linen has been invalidated by technology and secularism.

Shroud of Turin, Cathedral, Turin, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Shroud of Turin, Cathedral, Turin, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Take a moment to look at the Shroud. The ten dark geometric forms along the sides of the Shroud are the most visible markings. Those are burn marks from a fire. The linen Shroud was folded lengthwise around the body, with the head in the center, capturing blood stains from the front and back of the body. The head of a man is visible at the center of the Shroud, with the front of his body to the left and his back to the right. On the front the arms are crossed and marked by blood, and on the back blood remnants are visible at the back of the head, scourge marks on the back are visible, as well as blood on the heels. These wounds mimic the passion and death of Jesus from the crown of thorns, whipping, nailed to the wood, and lance piercing his side. The history of the Shroud isn’t tidy, but can be roughly grouped from its rise from relative obscurity during the fourteenth century, to fame in the seventeenth century, to cross-examination in the twentieth and twenty-first century.


Shroud of Turin, Cathedral, Turin, Arcidiocesi di Torino.
Shroud of Turin, Cathedral, Turin, Arcidiocesi di Torino.

The story of the Shroud begins with the gospels. John writes (19:40) that Jesus’ body was wrapped in linen cloths with spices before placing it in the tomb. After the resurrection, some disciples discovered the linen cloth(s) lying in the tomb (20:5-8). Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount a similar version, except Mark writes that Jesus’ body was wrapped tightly. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) along with Peter call the cloth sindón, but John writes that there was the body cloth and a head cloth. The Greek sindón is the most commonly used word to describe the cloth, and in Italian la sindone. Sindonology refers to the study of the Shroud of Turin.

From Jesus’ death until the fourteenth century there isn’t much reliable information on the whereabouts of the Shroud. Some believe the Shroud resided in Constantinople and landed in Europe with the crusades. To complicate matters multiple legitimate Shrouds are referred to in the Middle Ages. The provenance is sketchy, to say the least. The Holy Land naturally became the focal point of passion relics during the Middle Ages and many pilgrims made journeys in search of anything resembling pieces of the cross, crown of thorns, blood stains, or garments.

The next documentation of the Shroud is in France. French knight Geoffroy de Charny was in possession of the Shroud and to house it built a church in 1353, in Lirey, north central France. His descendent had ties to the Savoy family, and the Shroud became property of the House of Savoy in 1453. However, Geoffroy and the clerical locals presented it as authentic, encouraging veneration, yet officially refer to it as a copy. This balancing between admitting to it being real or an icon continues today with the church.


The Savoy

The House of Savoy has a history of its own in Italy, from the Shroud to Italy’s unification. The Savoy home base was Turin, in northwest Italy, nowadays less than two hours by car from France across the Alps. They were influential landowners with roots of power branching into Italy, France, and eventually in the 1700s and early 1800s, Genoa, Sicily, and Sardinia. Power balances shifted frequently in these territories, especially with the Holy Roman Empire to the south, France to the west, and Germany to the north. The Savoy were adept at balancing competing power grabs while creating an ever-increasing political presence for their heirs. Their long legacy continued into Italian unification, called the Risorgimento, where they fought for independence from the Austrians. The House of Savoy formed the Kingdom of Italy with Victor Emmanuel II (r. 1861-78) as King of the newly united country. If you’ve ever been to Rome, the enormous white marble monument to Victor Emmanuel II by the Capitoline Hill dominates the landscape.

The Shroud’s new temporary home was an alpine town in France where the Savoy owned property. It remained at the Sainte-Chapelle in Chambéry with other passion relics (thorns, parts of the cross and lance). Pope Sixtus IV made the relic official in 1471 when he decreed the Shroud as Christ’s blood relic. A 1532 fire destroyed the chapel and the silver box which held the Shroud melted. The Shroud survived the fire, albeit with the highly visible scorch marks. Incidents like the fire were viewed as divine messages of authentication in the eyes of believers. As the chapel burned down, the blood relic of Christ halted the fire from consuming it, therefore providing proof of its holiness. Each royal house in Europe had some kind of important relic they coveted in order to enhance their status. The relic would have been highly desired by the small but growing House of Savoy.


A visit to venerate the Shroud from Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in 1578 marked a turning point in its history. In order to avoid having the Cardinal cross the Alps, the Shroud was moved to Turin on the other side of the mountains, where it has been ever since. A devout Jesuit, the Cardinal made the pilgrimage to the Shroud four times, each time with greater fanfare.


Displaying the Shroud

Public ostentations of the Shroud drew thousands of devotees, with about 40,000 witnessing the public viewing in 1578. The Cardinal intensely adored the linen, kneeling in front of it, touching it, and kissing it, while praying and venerating Christ. Particularly intriguing is the role of the Jesuits’ Spiritual Exercise in veneration called “composition of place.” This is unique to the Jesuits, and a practice which continues today. During veneration one imagines a reconstruction of the scene, in this case the passion, while fully engaging one’s senses. An imaginary scene is constructed mentally to put oneself at the crucifixion and laying the body in the tomb, imagining the sights, smells, touch, sounds, and emotions. The rationale for this type of prayer is to develop a closer relationship to God. This devotional technique coincided with the sharp rise in the Shroud’s popularity at the end of the sixteenth century.


The public and Catholic religious orders had a powerful connection to the passion and resurrection by witnessing the remnants of Christ’s blood on the linen during frequent ostentations. There was a purposeful mix of religious and Savoy political ritual in these public spectacles. Evidently the thousands that attended were not always quiet pilgrims, but a rowdy bunch, pushing and fighting for the best viewing. At the same time, Protestants were arguing the Shroud was fake, along with many other relics. Relics became a point of intense scrutiny during the Reformation. The pope and the Savoy responded through legitimization and elevation of the blood relic.


Rituals established by the Savoy and church were performative events meant to solidify their political position and create stability. Ostentations were frequently combined with Savoy weddings, sometimes quasi militaristic in nature in a casual mixing of church and state. The Shroud proved to be mutually beneficial to both parties. The Shroud was inseparable from the Savoy until the mid-1800s. Undoubtedly the reputation of the cloth helped the Savoy attained recognition as a royal house in 1697.


1578-1694 was the peak of the Shroud’s popularity. Ostentations took place almost yearly for about a century. Numerous printed and painted copies were made for the faithful. Since few could see the relic in person there was great demand for copies in Europe. The power of the relic was not diluted by repeated copies. Replicas were not valued necessarily by their exactness in detail to the original, but were authenticated by pressing them to the Shroud, which is well-documented in the primary sources. As secondary relics, the copies were not simulacrum (watered down versions), but double signifiers (each had the same intensity). Unlike some other relics which become less powerful secondary relics after contact with a first-degree relic, the Shroud copies were considered as potent as the original linen. The Shroud and its copies were rarely associated with miracles, only deep devotion and veneration. Prints commemorating ostentations show ecclesiastical figures standing behind the Shroud, sometimes holding it up. This woodcut from 1608 is titled “The Truest Portrait” and labels the Turin church officials while angelic figures hold up crosses. The Shroud is depicted prominently with Christ's wounds, and includes a prayer at the bottom.


Anonymous, Il Verissimo Ritratto, woodcut, 1608, British Museum, London, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Anonymous, Il Verissimo Ritratto, woodcut, 1608, British Museum, London, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Is the Shroud art? Most art historians today would be hesitant, because it falls outside the norm. Relics, miraculous images, reliquaries, and the like have been sidelined in the hierarchy of art history for a long time. Material culture, devotional imagery in the home, and miraculous images have recently received new attention in art history, and rightly so. During the Shroud’s prime, it was definitely considered art. Primary sources describe the cloth using art terms common to the period, like sketch, shadow, or stain. They considered the artist to be God, literally Deus Artifex, art made by God.

Seventeenth century writers describe the linen as a painting done by subtractive means. The Shroud was not only an imprint of his tortures, but was incomplete until the resurrection. At some moment as his body revitalized the linen imprint was finalized. Increasingly, the Shroud’s meaning shifted away from the passion to include eternal life and salvation. Texts conform to art theory of the time, describing the Shroud as a non-painted painting. The texts legitimize not only the Savoy, but the idea of a holy relic in light of the counter-Reformation. They go to great lengths to explain how the Shroud was produced and how artists, like Caravaggio, Bernini, or Michelangelo, brought pigments or other materials to life, because of God’s grace and their God given talents. God’s ability to control the blood onto the linen in such a manner that leaves distinct markings of the crown of thorns, scourging, nails in wrists and feet, and lance pierced side confirms the Shroud as divine artistry.


Shrouds were depicted frequently in art, either as a copy of the Turin Shroud, or as a linen depicting the act of removing Jesus’ body from the cross and preparing it for burial. Caravaggio’s iconic Entombment (1602-04) dramatically renders the limp body in the hands of John and Nicodemus. The dark background contrasts with the bright white cloth, as does the pale body contrasting with the red, green, orangish, and burnt sienna of the figures. Nicodemus bends over with the weight of the body and turns towards the viewer. The light is of divine origin. Caravaggio has down played Christ’s wounds in an expertly arranged composition. Originally this was placed above the high altar in the Chiesa Nuova Vittrice Chapel in Rome (it is now in the Vatican). The vault of the chapel contains a stucco replica of the Shroud of Turin. Mary, on the right with her arms in the air, looks up and gestures upwards. Although a copy is now in place in the church, the legitimacy of the Shroud is tied together with Caravaggio’s painting and the overall theme of the chapel.


Caravaggio, Entombment, 1602-4, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Caravaggio, Entombment, 1602-4, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

After 1694 the Shroud was rarely put on public display due to a variety of reasons and political instability. By 1798 the Savoy dynasty had faded and the French conquered Piedmont with the Savoy exiled in Sardinia. Relics had also lost cache.

The Shroud lingered in Catholic consciousness until a photograph changed everything. In 1898 amateur photographer Secondo Pia took a photo of the Shroud during an exposition. This was no small task at the time considering the subject, equipment, and obtaining permission from the King. The negative of the photograph created a positive image of the man in much greater detail.

Secondo was awestruck, as were others. Photographic duplication of the negative gave the Shroud an entirely new audience. The world wanted to see the negative image where the body is much clearer. Believers took this as additional evidence of its divine nature. This was a critical juncture between scientific examination of the Shroud and resistance from believers that put faith before facts. Theology was pitted against secular historical inquiry.


Secondo Pia, 1898 photo negative, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Secondo Pia, 1898 photo negative, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Poster advertising the 1898 Shroud of Turin Ostentation, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Poster advertising the 1898 Shroud of Turin Ostentation, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Giuseppe Enrie, Shroud of Turin photographic negative, 1931, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Giuseppe Enrie, Shroud of Turin photographic negative, 1931, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

At the 1931 ostentation another photograph of the Shroud and the negative once again gained attention. The 1931 ostentation tickets netted the diocese the equivalent of about E1,316,000 in today’s currency. Relics have always been a profitable business.


Inventing and Contesting history

Emmanuel-Philibert de Pingon began a history of the Shroud for the Duke of Savoy in 1578. He managed to fill in all the missing information from the time of Jesus’ death to the fourteenth century. The only problem is lack of documentation, but no lack of imagination. Pingon becomes the go-to source for Shroudies, the sindonologists. Many sindonologists relied on Pingon for future claims of authenticity. This act of inventing the provenance continues to this day. The official Shroud website does not mention information that challenges its authenticity, yet strongly insinuates that it is the cloth wrapped around Jesus’ body, without a direct endorsement.

The bubble burst when esteemed French medievalist Ulysse Chevalier published a scholarly historical study of the Shroud in 1900. His intentions were not malicious, as he merely wanted to publish a historical record with good methodology. He wasn’t against the freedom to revere the object. This made the church nervous since nearly all the relics associated with the passion (and most saints) lacked competent documentation. This was the beginning of a very public cycle of criticism from Shroudies and rebuttal from historians and scientists. Highest Vatican officials reportedly did not privately endorse the legitimacy of the linen but publicly didn’t discourage believing it was genuine.

Scientists were eager to conduct examinations and use technology to discover more about the cloth. The church was reluctant to allow inspections and if they did, kept examiners on a tight leash. There have been authorized groups permitted to get close up and conduct various “tests” on the Shroud: in 1969 with a microscope, infrared and ultraviolet light, in 1973 forensic pathologists tested fibers for blood, micro-spectroscopic examinations, and in 1988 cloth samples were sent for radiocarbon isotope 14 (C 14) dating to three separate laboratories. Even before the definitive C14 tests, the Shroud had been downgraded from “Double first class” to “Memorial.” Carbon dating was done at the behest of the sindonologists and Pope John Paul II. It proved to be a fork in the road.


Samples of the linen were sent to three universities who performed C14 tests: the University of Arizona, University of Oxford, and Zurich Polytechnic. The British Museum coordinated the project and released the results in a document agreed to by the Holy See. The linen was approximately datable to the Middle Ages, with ninety-five percent accuracy to 1260-1390 CE. The Holy See officially referred to the Shroud as an icon, not a relic. However, when questioned by a reporter, Pope John Paul II referred to it as a relic.

Immediately the sindonologists refuted the results, claiming the cloth was contaminated, the procedures were all wrong for cutting the cloth, and that C14 wasn’t a reliable source. The Vatican leaned, as always, in favor of the Shroudies, which became increasingly a loose group of pseudo-scientists. Claims that some could extract pollen from the linen datable to the Holy Land 30CE or that Jesus’ semen was on the cloth are not only poor science, but are not verifiable.

The weave of the linen is a good example of sindonologists vs. historians. The Shroud has a distinctive pattern made of unbleached flax. The single yarn was spun with the spindle clockwise, imparting a Z shape or Z twist with a chevron twill. This pattern repeats in a herringbone stripe design. Fabric remnants from ancient Jerusalem or Palestine do not have this pattern. A herringbone design requires a horizontal treadle loom with four shafts. This type of loom was not in use in Europe until about the 1300s. Israeli-Palestinian fabrics from about 30 CE have an S twist, not a Z twist. This fabric analysis aligns with the C14 dating of the cloth. When the textile history was examined, the sindonologists reversed claims that the fabric was originally of Israeli or Palestinian origin and instead asserted the cloth is from India where a chevron pattern might have been more common. Unfortunately, the sindonologists frequently shift their rationale to support their beliefs.

One of the prominent sindonologists continues to research and promote the authenticity of the Shroud with his team at the Turin Shroud Center of Colorado. Dr. John Jackson (Ph.D. physics) was one of the few who examined the Shroud in detail in 1978 with American scientists for a project called Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). The STURP examinations, along with the C14 dating, were the most advanced tests performed on the Shroud to date.

The STURP found no paint or dye pigments in their examination. They concluded how the image was produced is a mystery, especially that of the face. They continue to this day to evaluate and examine a variety of research areas, including how the image was formed, if the linen was previously used as the Last Supper tablecloth, the errors in the C14 dating, and the history during its undocumented years in the first centuries CE until its appearance in the fourteenth century. Naturally the STURP findings were criticized by many, not because the scientists’ lacked credentials, but because they approached their mission with bias and were already part of the Shroud believers prior to their experiments.


The next drama in the Shroud’s history is another brush with fire in 1997. A seventeenth century chapel was constructed by Guarino Guarini to house the Shroud in Turin’s cathedral. Badly needed restorations in the chapel were nearly complete when an electrical short caused a fire fueled by wood scaffolding. By the time firefighters arrived nearly six hours later, the flames had engulfed and destroyed the chapel.

The Shroud was held in a case behind thick bulletproof glass and had not yet succumbed to the fire. Firefighters acted quickly to save the relic. Some dozen firefighters tried to smash the glass and finally broke through with sledgehammers, then carried the case to safety where the police held it in an undisclosed location. One firefighter felt divine intervention assisted him in breaking the glass and that he practically floated out of the cathedral holding the precious relic. He said he heard a child’s cry coming out of the case as he whisked it away.

The Shroud’s two miraculous escapes from fire reaffirmed its status. Just one year later it was exhibited to the public for fifty-eight days when 2.4 million venerated the Shroud. Increasingly the church’s language became stronger regarding its authenticity and the sindonologists ramped up their attacks on the reliability of C14 dating. The Shroud has not been made available for any scientific experiments since the C14 dating.


May 2010 Turin Ostentation, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0.
May 2010 Turin Ostentation, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY SA 2.0.

Is It Christ?

It is difficult to dispute the C14 dating, lack of provenance, and historical evidence about the fabric. On the other hand, if this isn’t Christ on the linen, who is it? Attempts to duplicate the same images on a linen cloth with a dummy body have not been successful, as well as attempts to paint the images on a cloth. Crucifixion was not practiced in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries. Historically, the method of tightly wrapping the body was, as far as we can tell, how bodies were prepared for burial at the time of Jesus’ death. Some scientists say it is not blood on the cloth but some type of pigment. Would the resurrected Christ leave human blood?

This is part of the Shroud’s mystery. Can we continue to uphold mystical belief in objects, or should technology scrub away doubts and explain the paranormal? If you’d like to see the Shroud in person the you may be in luck in 2025, however, only the Pope can declare an ostentation. There is a copy in New Jersey, if you’d prefer to see a replica. The Dominican Nuns Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey have a 1624 copy. When the 1624 copy was touched to the original Shroud upon completion of the replica, the lance wound in the side became damp on the copy. It was confirmed that the dampness was blood. Their chapel is open for veneration.


Sources

Casper, Andrew R. An Artful Relic: The Shroud of Turin in Baroque Italy. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021.

Geimer, Peter, and Gerrit Jackson. “A Self-Portrait of Christ or the White Noise of Photography? Paul Vignon and the Earliest Photograph of the Shroud of Turin.” Grey Room, no. 59, 2015, pp. 6–43.


Nicolotti, Andrea. The Shroud of Turin: The History and Legends of the World’s Most Famous Relic. Translated by Jeffrey M. Hunt and R. A. Smith. Baylor University Press, 2019.

Pellicori, Samuel F., and Mark S. Evans. “The Shroud of Turin Through the Microscope.” Archaeology, vol. 34, no. 1, 1981, pp. 34–43.


Scott, John Beldon. Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin. University of Chicago Press, 2003.


The official Shroud website

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