Thursday 9 May 2024

The Turin Shroud


The Holy Shroud of Turin was “discovered” in 1354, when it was exhibited in a new church in Lirey, a French village, says Wikipedia. It purports to be the imprint of Christ’s dead body on his shroud, but it was “denounced as a forgery by the bishop of Troyes in 1389”.

Is it a fake? Or is it a miracle, an “image made without hands”? These were popular during iconoclast periods, when those in charge took the ten commandments seriously. Exodus 20:4  You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (New International Version)

A story is told that as Jesus carried his cross to the place of execution, a woman called Veronica lent him her veil to wipe his face. Later, she found the image of his face imprinted on the veil. Various “veils of St Veronica” have been venerated. Surely it’s only a coincidence that her name translates as “true image”?

The shroud was long thought to be a piece of cloth bearing some dirty marks in the shape of a man’s body, with the faint image of a face. It was not often exhibited, and was hard to study. But in 1898, when Secondo Pia produced the first photographs of the object, he was stunned to find that the negative image of the face showed the moving and lifelike image of a man.


A miracle? Let's look at some art from the 14th century.

“Man Of Sorrows” Tirol Austria 14th/15th Century

Fragment of a Christ from a Pieta, 14th century (ca. 1320-1340)

Edward the Black Prince, Kings Lynn

Gothic sculpture was naturalistic and refined. Men were often shown with fashionable hairstyles such as a chin-length bob with curled ends, and forked beards (see the Black Prince, above).

Could the image on the shroud result from blood, sweat and dirt from a corpse transferring to the fabric? Cover your face with something to simulate dirt – darkish makeup would do. Press a white cloth to your features. Peel it off and lay it flat. It will not look like the face on the shroud – it would look more like the Mask of Agamemnon. (Was the sheet of gold pressed onto his dead visage?)

I imagine the artist of the shroud looking at his model – human or carved – and reasoning: “The forehead, nose, chin and cheekbones stand out the most.” So he paints them onto the linen (red ochre and vermilion have been found). Now he puts in the eyelids, lower lip, moustache and beard. The rest of the face is sketched in more faintly. Take note of that chin-length bob and forked beard. And if it was Christ's shroud, preserved for the imprint of his features, where was it between 33CE and the mid-14th century?

My take? It’s a work of art – and a very good one. It's not often that a degree in Medieval Art History comes in useful.

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