The Turin Shroud is considered the most famous holy relic in existence. To be fair, if all the books written about it were piled on a weighing scale the weight of evidence would certainly support that assertion.
Allegedly Jesus’s linen burial shroud, it shows a barely discernible imprint of a crucified man. The shroud was donated to Turin Cathedral in 1578 by the Dukes of Savoy who purchased it from its original owner, a French noblewoman in 1453.
When the Church allowed the shroud to be photographed in 1898, the negative plate revealed the crucified body in astonishing detail. It was a true miracle. Sceptics accused the photographer of trickery. He was vindicated in 1938 when another photograph revealed the same detail.
A group of scientists formed the Shroud of Turin Research Project in the 1970s, taking ultra violet and high resolution photographs of the shroud. Their final report of 1981 stated…
‘We conclude the Shroud image is that of a real scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The blood stains are composed of haemoglobin and give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made the problem remains unsolved.’
So far so good.
But is it real?
For while individual popes believed it was genuine, the Catholic Church has no official position on the shroud’s authenticity.
When the shroud was radiocarbon dated, it gave the cloth’s date as between 1260 and 1390; tying in with the shroud’s first appearance in France in 1355. There is no record of the shroud before then.
The radiocarbon dates were challenged by one scientist, who claimed he found pollen from plants growing in Jerusalem during Christ’s lifetime. Unfortunately he was later implemented in the Hitler Diaries fraud and no one else was able to confirm his pollen evidence. In 2011 the Head of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit firmly announced none of the many challenges ‘stacked up’.
Controversy still surrounds the image as no one has successfully been able to exactly reproduce it. Believers say the burden of proof is on the doubters. The doubters no doubt say much the same about the radiocarbon dates.
In general the doubters believe it is a medieval painting used as an Easter prop. They point out when Henry of Poitiers, the Bishop of Troyes, investigated the shroud around 1400 he concluded it was a painted cloth. They add the fabric is a medieval weave and the body is distorted, reflecting a painted image rather than a real person.
The medieval painting technique of tempura uses egg protein and collagen from rabbit skin glue. These and traces of iron oxide pigment found on the cloth would give false readings for haemoglobin and blood protein.
It is also possible real blood might have been used to ‘tart up’ the image some time later. Medieval people did not have our regard for scientific proof, or even authenticity. Relics were important tourist attractions. If they needed to be touched up to keep looking pristine, so be it.
Some fringe researchers claim Leonardo Da Vinci created the Turin Shroud. Even that it’s a self-portrait.
Given it’s a picture of a man with long hair and a big nose it could be anyone – even me in a wig.
That’s essentially swapping one unlikely story for another. Especially as the shroud first appears in 1355, while Da Vinci wasn’t born until 1452. Unless he took it back in his time machine. Now there’s something worth investigating!
Being the big old doubting Thomas I am, I’d say the likelihood of the image being Leonardo da Vinci is about the same as it being Jesus Christ. Or indeed, me!
Also see: The Veronica