The Shroud of Turin: Most Venerated and Most Studied

May 6, 2015

Even non-Catholic children know that the shroud of Turin is associated with the mystery of the resurrection of Christ.  To accept the length of linen as the true photographic depiction of Christ, as he lay in the temporary tomb, begs a fuller understanding of the story.  Over time the story has become complicated.  Debates have arisen, not between ecclesiastics and scientists, but between scientists in specialized areas of study.

Shroudofturin1The Gospel of Mark refers to the Holy Shroud as the sindon.  The growing area of study is known as sindonology.  Much attention is being focused on the Shroud given that this spring will be a Vatican-sanctioned viewing in Turin.  There have been years or decades between showings.  Pope Francis will make his visit to venerate the icon in June 2015.

The Holy Shroud has become a most venerated icon that has also become the most studied textile in history.  The more scientific analysis performed on the cloth, the more questions arise.  Nothing has been conclusively established.  The known history of the shroud only helps to put the controversy into context.

Prior to 1390 the provenance of the shroud is illusive.  Assuming the Holy Shroud of Turin is THE shroud of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, it may have left the Holy Land for Constantinople during the relic-collecting spree of Emperor Constantine I, or his successors, when Constantinople was founded and furnished beginning in 330.  Late 7th century Byzantine coins depict a shroud.  Thereafter the Iconoclasts ruled Byzantium, and the display or acknowledgement of a depiction of Christ fell out of favor for centuries in Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  Meanwhile, the Catholic popes had their own problems, as they were divided between Rome and Avignon.  The shroud may have sat for centuries in a clay jar.

In 1204, the pope sanctioned a 4th crusade.  The pontiff could not predict that his edict would destroy Constantinople and further complicate the story of the Holy Shroud.  French knights called for the crusade in which they relied upon Venice to build ships for the effort.  The doge of Venice, Dandolo, constructed an enterprise with no downside for his city.  When the French realized that they had oversubscribed the crusade, and the pope sent the old, the infirm, and the women home, Dandolo proposed an assault on the richest city in the known world, Christian Constantinople.  In the sack of the city, Venice repaid itself for the French debt, kept most of the loot for its efforts, and left the remainder to the French.  As the story goes, a Frenchman took home the Holy Shroud.

During this time in history no one questioned the active market in relics, that is, bits of saints necessary to dedicate a cathedral.  St. Marks in Venice holds the remains of bits of the saint behind the heavily jeweled screen behind the main altar.  Private ownership of relics was not unusual, although they did raise jealousies in competing interests.  In 1353, a French bishop wrote to the French pope in Avignon, Clement VII, in which he claimed the shroud, or a shroud, to be a forgery.  It is not known if the shroud now in Turin was the subject of the letter or the complaint concerned a copy being made for sale.  It is plausible that an entrepreneur made copies of the shroud as had been made of another holy cloth, the Mandylion of Edessa.

In 1578, French nobles of the house of Savoy, landholders of large parts of what is southeast France and northwest Italy today, placed the Holy Shroud in the cathedral in Turin.  A chapel would be built in the next century as a splendid permanent home for the Holy Shroud, known increasingly as the Shroud of Turin.  Everything was bliss until 1786, when another noble denounced the shroud as a “mere fable.”  The relic was said to be the work of a forger, a man with a “devout imagination.”

Shroud of Turin 1898 poster

Shroud of Turin 1898 poster

Immediately, the defenders of the Holy Shroud sought to validate its pedigree.  There was another venerated cloth, the Mandylion of Edessa, which was known to have the image of Christ and was dated to the 1st century.  The histories of the two relics became intertwined over the centuries.  Discrepancies between the two artifacts have only recently been clarified.

The Mandylion has its own story.  King Abgar of Edessa, an area that was during the time of Christ part of northern Syria and today lies in southern Turkey, wrote to Jesus Christ asking to be healed.  Christ declined to make the journey and instead sent a disciple, Thaddeus.  Fortunately, the letter carrier was an artist, who painted a color portrait of the living Christ on a piece of cloth, about the size of a hand towel.  The face of Christ, which became the legendary Mandylion of Edessa, was replicated over time and place.  It is the best-known contemporary depiction of Christ.

An alternative legend of the Mandylion of Edessa attributes its creation to a miracle that occurred when Saint Veronica stopped to wipe the brow of Christ as they passed on the road to Calvary.  Veronica was canonized for her kindness and because her scarf held the likeness of Christ.  The colorful, life-size, picture of the face of the living Christ became the model for future works of art for a millennium.

Since the Mandylion had a verifiable 1st century pedigree, it became the storied cloth that traveled to Constantinople until it was retrieved in the 4th crusade and taken to France.  Mandylion and shroud became interwoven concepts.  By the 14th century the cloth in France was best known only as the shroud.

Shroud scholar Andrea Nicolotti makes the point in his 2014 book, From the Mandylion of Edessa to the Shroud of Turin, that the two relics are clearly separate items.  The Mandylion is a colorful portrait of the living Christ, clearly painted on a small cloth.  The Shroud of Turin is a 14.3 feet by 3.7 feet, full length, photographic, anatomically correct, unicolor, depiction of a deceased man, with wounds consistent with those known to have been inflicted upon Jesus Christ.  A 1st century provenance cannot be fixed on the shroud by association with the Mandylion of Edessa.

In 1898 the Holy Shroud was exhibited in Turin.  The relic was photographed for the first time.  The photographer could see only the faint image of the man as he maneuvered his apparatus along the yellowing cloth with the pinkish stains.  Imagine his profound surprise when staring up at him from the photographic negative was the image of Christ.  The whole world became focused on the shroud.

For the next century the Holy Shroud was subjected to every analysis known to science.  Notably, in 1988 DNA analysis and carbon dating was performed on three fibers.  The result was a date range of from 1260 to 1390.  The shroud was denounced as a 13th or 14th century creation.  Either it was the product of a creative mind, a hoax, or a copy of a long lost relic.

In a six-week period in 2010, two million visitors came to Turin to join the pilgrimage of Pope Benedict XVI to venerate the Holy Shroud.  The devout and the curious accepted the shroud on faith.  The Vatican has never rejected or validated the Holy Shroud in Turin; rather the holy fathers have accepted the relic as an icon.  Pope Benedict XVI referred to the shroud as a “photographic” document, a sign of hope, and a sign of life and love.

In a symposium, timed in conjunction with the display of the shroud, scientists took to task the methodology in the dating analysis.  Subsequent dating conducted by the University of Padua in conjunction with the Department of Statistics of the London School of Economics put the date between 300 BCE and 200 CE, with a narrow range of the 1st century CE.  Scientists also questioned the sample drawn for DNA analysis.  They asked whether saliva of a 13th century devotee who kissed the cloth could have been deposited on the shroud and inadvertently been subject to analysis.

In analysis of blood and the morbid details of post-mortem human morphology, A.A.M. van de Hoeven made findings that the substance on the shroud was blood, of the post-mortem type, from a body removed without smearing the cloth.  The blood was deposited on the cloth within 40 hours of death, prior to decomposition. The Vatican tells us that Christ was placed in the cave for a day and a half before the cave was found empty.  Religion and science are in agreement on the details.

When shroud detractors question the absence of any mention of an image in the Gospels, scientists respond that the image would have initially been faint and darkened over time.  When the creation of the image is questioned, Professor Fanti explains that electro-magnetic photography is a plausible method.  When some scientists tout the DNA evidence, other scientists question the sampling method.

The herringbone weave of the Shroud has been regarded by some textile experts as distinguishable from known 1st century burial cloths in Jerusalem, while other experts find the technology in the Shroud to be consistent with additional samples.  Plant, pollen, and dirt gleaned from the Shroud have been tested and found to be consistent with what could be expected on a cloth removed from an ancient tomb in Jerusalem.

Sindonologists have been wary of stories that confuse the Holy Shroud with the Mandylion of Edessa.  They disregard fabulous tales of a shroud held safe for centuries by the Knights Templar.  Still, all the analysis results in finding only that the Holy Shroud is a man-made textile with an image not made by human hands.

The Vatican has cooperated with the inquiries of scientists.  Popes have not argued with their findings.  In June 2015, Pope Francis will make his pilgrimage to Turin, as millions of devout Catholics and interested tourists have done before him.  There is no question that the Holy Shroud of Turin is an icon of faith.  No other questions have been resolved.  Perhaps no further questions need to be asked.

For more on Dandolo and the 4th Crusade see Cruise through History, Itinerary II – Port: Venice, The Well-Traveled Horses of St. Marks, and Itinerary III – Port: Istanbul, Christian Constantinople 330-1453.

Tickets to view the Holy Shroud in Turin can be obtained at:


Photos: Public Domain, WikiCommons



Recent Videos

Upcoming Events



Send Us A Message!