Holy Shroud of Turin: the Mystery and the Endless Battle between Science and Religion

The Holy Shroud of Turin is the most important Christian relic that we have in Italy. It is also, without a doubt, the most controversial one. But, why is that? To learn more about its history, the places and the studies connected with it, check this article!

The Holy Shroud of Turin - Mystery

The Holy Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth, which shows the negative image of the front and the back of a man, who died in a violent way. According to the Catholic tradition – mind you, not legitimately recognized by the Roman Church – this is the burial cloth in which the body of Jesus was wrapped after the crucifixion and, as a consequence, the image you see impressed on it would be some sort of “photograph” of Jesus Christ himself.

It is officially the most scientifically studied image in human history and, still nowadays, a fascinating mystery, because, despite what the press reports most of the times, there still isn’t a scientific explanation on how this image was produced.

1280px-Shroudofturin_rotated
The Holy Shroud of Turin – image of public domain

The biggest problem of the Shroud’s studies is represented by the fact that they are not always approached in the right way, with genuine curiosity and objectivity: too often we have instead a battle between factions that want to demonstrate their thesis (pro – or vs authenticity). Once you delve into the topic and start to check the bibliography, you discover that, despite what one might think, not only some of the representatives of pro-authenticity movement are not really objective, but also some of those who are against it aren’t, since they too often use the study of the Shroud as an excuse to put up the ultimate battle “Science against Religion”.

Let me tell you, the most “objective” scholars report it to be an enigma, as the more one studies it, the more surprises it seems to hold. So, the Shroud should be studied with a honest desire to learn and “the factions” should calm down: scientists who do not support the thesis of the authenticity shouldn’t feel threatened by believers, given that, even in the case the Shroud was to be dated to the 1st century a.C, it would still be impossible to prove that it was the authentic burial cloth of Jesus. On the other hand, believers shouldn’t feel endangered by a hypothetic sentence of forgery given that faith, by definition, doesn’t need physical proof to continue to exist.

What’s the Shroud of Turin and When Studies Started

As said, the Shroud is a relic believed to be the cloth that wrapped the corpse of Jesus. First documented proof of its existence dates back to 1350 in the city of Lirey, located in the Champagne area in France. There has always been the worship of the Shroud given that the human figure impressed on it has all the wounds of the Passion of Christ reported by the Gospels.

After various events, the cloth was acquired by the Savoys that brought it to Chambery, at the time Capital city of their dukedom. In 1532 something bad happened: the Chapel where it was hosted caught fire and the Shroud was severely damaged as the patches and restorations still demonstrate.

285px-Shroudofturin
Patches applied by the Nouns of Chambery

In a second moment the Savoys, soon to become Italy’s Royal Family, transferred the Shroud to Turin, their new seat and it has been its main location since then.

The birth of the debate “Science vs Religion” is to be identified with 1898, when the Shroud had its first picture taken. Given that in that year a big exposition entitled “Sacred Art” was to be hosted in Turin, the king allowed Secondo Pia, a lawyer and photographer, to shoot the Sacred Cloth. What happened when Pia developed the pictures was something that would have change the history of the Shroud forever:

Closed into the dark room, totally absorbed in my work, I felt an intense emotion when I saw the Holy Face coming out on the plate, and with such a clarity that I had to rub my eyes.

(Secondo Pia, first photographer of the Holy Shroud)

Instead of obtaining a negative image, Pia witnessed to the materialization of what photographers call “a perfect positive”: somehow the image on the Shroud seemed to be the negative image of something and by taking a picture of it, he was able to see the positive version, which was quite realistic and disconcerting.

Negative of the Holy Shroud
The plate showing the “perfect positive” – public domain

The plate was shown around and Pia, in a first moment, was even accused of forgery. When people realized there were not tricks involved, it appeared clear that this image had indeed something special to it. The debate increased and a new kind of “scientific” study was born: the Sindonology.

Scientific Studies on the Shroud

Another key year for the Holy Shroud is 1978, when the Roman Church allowed a group of scientists, called the STURP, to analyze the cloth. Thanks to these studies we discovered that:

  • The image appears only on the very surface of the linen, it didn’t go through all the fibrils;
  • There’s no paint on the surface of the Shroud and the water used to put out the fire of 1532 didn’t “move” or damage the image;
  • Thanks to the use of the VP-8 Analyzer, an instrument also employed by NASA, Dr. Pete Schumacher discovered that the image on the Shroud is three-dimensional;
  • Dr. Baima Bollone, professor emeritus of forensic medicine, stated that “on the Shroud there are effectively real and complete bloodstains, conserved in their various components” (Baima Bollone, 2000). We even know the typology: it’s the blood of a male, group AB and with very high levels of bilirubin, typical of a corpse that was heavily tortured;
  • The UV photographical analyses, made by Dr. Miller and Pellicori, confirm the absence of paint and report the presence of serum steam around the blood;
  • The radiocarbon dating, a method used to determine the age of an object containing organic material, established that the linen’s origin was to be placed around 1260-1390, during the Middle Ages, a period when the trade of fake Christian relics was very developed.

So, to sum up all these results, we can state that during the 1978 study they came to the conclusion that the image on the Shroud is not a painting, that there’s the presence of human blood and that the linen is medieval.

On the press it was largely reported that the Shroud was a medieval forgery, due to the results provided by the radiocarbon dating, but a group of researchers and believers didn’t give up studying the topic given that it was proved that there was actual blood of a man who died in a traumatic way and it was still a mystery how the image of the corpse got impressed on the cloth.

Many people who were still pro-authenticity even started to doubt the results of the radiocarbon dating and a couple of them stated that the samples used for the experiment appeared to be rewoven: they promoted the hypothesis that the cloth was repaired, after the damages caused by the 1532 fire, in the area where they took the samples from (Marino, Benford, 2000).

Chemist Ray Rogers, Director of the Chemical Research during the 1987 Shroud’s studies, enraged by their statement, was determined to prove them wrong “in  five minutes”. He was able to access a retained piece cut from the original samples before they were used for the experiment (radiocarbon dating requires the samples to be burnt, so he couldn’t access the examined samples anymore) to demonstrate them there was no contamination. To his consternation, though, he discover that, yes, there were copious amounts of extraneous cotton interwoven with the linen (Rogers, 2005).

Other researchers, stating that the samples were taken from the worst possible area of the Shroud since they could be allegedly contaminated, were Casabianca, Marinelli, Pernagallo and Torrisi that, through a legal action, were able to obtain the raw data from the radiocarbon dating from the British Museum that had kept them locked since 1978. Through their analysis, they’ve indeed found several inconsistencies and came to the conclusion that the samples taken for the analysis were not representative of the entire Shroud (Casabianca, 2019).

Many researchers agree on the fact that a new analysis should be retaken and that we are far from being finished with its study.

Theory pro-authenticity

Those who support the authenticity of the Shroud claim that:

  • The man of the Shroud has the same wounds described by the Gospels. They underline in particular the presence of the deep wound on the left side that would correspond to the one allegedly caused by Centurion Longinus’ spear used to attest Jesus’s death;
  • According to the Gospels, Jesus Christ was whipped before the crucifixion. The marks left on the back of the Shroud’s man would correspond to the typical shape of the wounds left by the scourges used by Romans’ soldiers at the time of Jesus.

Theory vs authenticity

Those who don’t support the authenticity of the Shroud claim that:

  • To be real, the image on the Shroud should be deformed. Any kind of imprint left by a human body covered by a towel should have geometric deformations. The image on the Shroud seems to be too good to be true;
  • The twisting of the Shroud’s linen threads was presumably not in use in Israel at the time of Jesus, but it was in Europe during the Middle Ages. The oldest example of this kind of diagonal pattern, called “herringbone”, dates back to the 13th century.

In Conclusion…

As you have seen the questions concerning the Holy Shroud of Turin are still open. If you enjoy mysteries or you a believer, you should visit these places in Turin:

  • The Chapel of the Holy Shroud, which is the chapel where the cloth is hosted. It is connected with the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist and the Royal Palace of the Savoys. It was beautifully designed by the architect Guarino Guarini.
  • The Museum of the Holy Shroud, which seat is in Via San Domenico. The museum can provide you with information collected through the researches, carried out since the 16th century, and some artistic and historical items connected with the Shroud, like the plate of the negative and the machine used by Secondo Pia to snap the first picture. [ Official Website: https://sindone.it/museo/en/home/ ].

Did you know about the Shroud of Turin? Have you ever visited the Chapel or witnessed to an exposition? Let me know in a comment!


Bibliography

Baima Bollone, L., 2000. The Forensic Characteristics of the Blood Marks, presentation held during the International Scientific Symposium “The Turin Shroud – Past, Present and Future”, Turin 2-5 March 2000.

Barberis, B., M. Boccaletti, 2010. Il Caso Sindone Non E’ Chiuso. Milano, Edizioni San Paolo Srl.

Casabianca C., E. Marinelli, G. Pernagallo, B. Torrisi, 2019. “Radiocarbon Dating of the Turin Shroud: New Evidence from Raw Data”. Archaeometry Vol. 61, Issue 5, 22nd March 2019.

Damon, P., Donahue, D., Gore, B. et al., 1989. “Radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin”. Nature 337, 611–615.

Marino, J. G., M. Benford, 2000. “Evidence for the Skewing of the C-14 dating of the Shroud of Turin due to Repairs”.

Miller, V.D., Pellicori, S. F., 1981. “Ultraviolet Fluorescence Photography of the Shroud of Turin”. Journal of Biological Photography Vol.49, Numb.3, July 1981.

Rogers, R. N., 2005. “Studies on the Radiocarbon Sample from the Shroud of Turin”. Thermochimica Acta. 425 (1-2). 20th January 2005.

6 thoughts on “Holy Shroud of Turin: the Mystery and the Endless Battle between Science and Religion

  1. Fascinating summary of all the facts related to the Shroud Sara! i had always thought it was only a facial image, not the entire body. That black and white ‘perfect positive’ image by Pia….can’t find the right words in English….mi ha fatto l’impressione!
    I am still hoping to see this myself in early October as I have the Association of Italian Canadian Writers’ conference to attend in Torino. I don’t know if travel will be allowed by then, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed! Grazie and stay safe, Cristina

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ciao Cristina, I hope you and your dear ones are ok!

      It is disconcerting, right!? 😱 Just to be clear, the Shroud is not normally “visible”, they keep it locked to protect it. You can see the chapel where it is hosted, but yeah, the Shroud’s exposition, called “Ostensione della Sindone” is every once in a while. They organized a special expo last Saturday to pray for the pandemic…
      Stay safe cara Cristina, un abbraccio!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ciao Sara, si, I did know it is not normally exposed, but the ‘aura’ will still be there. If the conference is cancelled it will likely be moved to spring or October 2021. Mannaggia. Ciao, Cristina

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Sara, are you and your family all OK? It has been a horrendous few months globally, particularly in your part of the world. Please take care and stay safe during these very strange times! 😊🙏

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi dear! I received your email, but, I don’t know why, I wasn’t able to access my mail account when you sent it to me. Then the situation became quite hard, as you can imagine, and yeah…I will reply to you soon privately and I will explain. Thanks for reaching out! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: San Gennaro and Naples’s Blood Miracle – My Dear Italia

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