Charles Freeman, surprised by the lack of research into one of the great unsolved mysteries, reveals for the first time his groundbreaking examination into the creation of the venerated object.
A rectangular linen cloth 4.37 metres long and 1.13 metres wide, the Turin Shroud, housed in that city’s cathedral since 1578, is famous for its two images of a mutilated man, apparently naked, one of his front, with the arms crossed over the genital area, the other of his back. The wounds resemble those of a crucifixion, with an additional wound in the side similar to the one inflicted on Jesus when he was on the cross (John 19:34). Here we have negative images of Christ’s body as if they had been transferred from the body to the cloth. The linen is woven in a three-to-one herringbone twill, one of the many variations that weavers in wool, linen and silk were capable of from ancient times. The folded Shroud was heavily damaged in a fire of 1532 and the burn marks remain prominent.
There is enough uncertainty about the Shroud’s origins to convince some that it is the actual burial shroud of Christ. The mystery is deepened by the claim that no artefact has ever been the subject of so much research. However, when the scope of this research is considered, it is obvious that many areas of its history and the iconography of its images have not been fully explored. For example, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which examined the Shroud in 1978, when it was still owned by the Savoy family, did not have a single expert in the history of relic cults, techniques of ancient weaving or the iconography of medieval painting on its team. No one appears to have investigated the kinds of loom, ancient or medieval, on which a cloth of this size may have been woven. Nor has anyone closely examined the many early depictions and descriptions of the Shroud that illustrate features now lost.
These depictions, which date largely from between 1578 and 1750, acted as souvenirs of occasions when the Shroud was exhibited. They show the assembled clergy and, in later cases, the Savoy family, standing behind their relic, which is always shown with the frontal image on the viewer’s left. Survivals are rare, for the paper on which they were printed was often of poor quality, but there are enough – perhaps 50 different depictions in total by a variety of artists – to see the images on the Shroud as they once were. Many from the Savoy collections are illustrated in the catalogue of a 1998 exhibition held in Turin. They vary in details and accuracy (some show the Crown of Thorns more clearly than others, for instance) but, as a group, they have not yet received serious study.
Few researchers have grasped that the Shroud looked very different in the 16th and 17th centuries from the object we see today.
There is an engraving of one such exposition of 1613 by Antonio Tempesta. He was celebrated for his panoramic view of Rome (1593), which shows the individual buildings of the city in meticulous detail, and he was brought to Turin to work for Duke Carlo Emanuele I (1580-1630). It is an exposition from the height of the Counter-Reformation, when the concentration was on drama, with fusillades and the singing of choirs as the Shroud was unfurled before an enthusiastic crowd. My research began with this engraving, as it demonstrated that the original images of the Shroud were much more prominent than they are now. The Shroud would not have made an impact on such large crowds if they had not been. There are features – the Crown of Thorns, the long hair on Christ’s neck, the space between the elbows and the body, the loincloth – that can no longer be seen today. The marks from the fire of 1532 are also clearly evident. Texts describing the Shroud confirm the accuracy of the Tempesta engraving. Two features that are less obvious are the extent of the blood on the body images and the marks of Christ’s scourging or flagellation. We have evidence that these were once prominent. Astonishingly, few researchers appear to have grasped that the Shroud looked very different in the 16th and 17th centuries from the object we see today.
No one has found any significant evidence of the Shroud’s existence before 1355, when it appeared in a chapel at Lirey, in the diocese of Troyes, supposedly advertised there as the burial shroud of Christ. Such sudden appearances of cults were common in a Europe recovering from the trauma of the Black Death. They caused a great deal of frustration for a Church hierarchy anxious to preserve its own status. The bishop of Troyes, Henry of Poitiers, whose responsibility it was to monitor such claims in his diocese, investigated the shrine and reported that, not only were the images painted on the cloth, but that he had actually tracked down the painter. After this clerical onslaught, the Shroud was hidden away for more than 30 years. Yet the Church accepted that it was not a deliberate forgery and in January 1390 the (anti-)pope Clement VII allowed its renewed exposure in Lirey. This suggests that the Shroud may have been credited with unrecorded miracles, thereby acquiring the spiritual status to make it worthy of veneration. Doubtless aware of the earlier claims by the Lirey clergy, Clement insisted that it was publicly announced before each exposition that this was NOT the burial shroud of Christ.
The chapel at Lirey was that of the de Charny family. Geoffrey de Charny was a knight in the wars with the English, who lost his life at Poitiers in 1356. The chapel was probably built (and the Shroud first displayed) when he was away on campaign and it is likely that his wife, Jeanne de Charny, and the canons of the chapel were the instigators of the cult. Many years later Geoffrey’s grand-daughter, Margaret, inherited the Shroud (then described only as ‘a cloth, on which is the figure or representation of the Shroud of Our Lord Jesus Christ’), removed it from Lirey, exposed it at various venues and finally sold it to the Dukes of Savoy in 1453. It was the insecure dukes, clinging to their duchy straddling the Alps, who converted it into a high prestige relic.
One of the first independent descriptions of the Shroud comes from 1449, when a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Saint-Jacques in Liège, who saw the Shroud at one of Margaret’s expositions, reported that it was miro artificio depicta (‘admirably painted’), with the wounds on the side, hands and feet as bloody as if they had been recent. The prominence of the blood struck every observer. In his De Sanguine Christi, published in 1474, Pope Sixtus IV described the Shroud, ‘preserved with great devotion by the Dukes of Savoy’, as ‘coloured with the blood of Christ’. ‘The traces of Christ’s precious blood’, ipsius pretiosissima sanguinis vestigia, were again emphasised when the Shroud was transferred to the royal chapel at Chambéry in 1502.
A more explicit description comes from the Travel Journal of Antonio de Beatis, who visited Chambéry as secretary to Cardinal Louis of Aragon in October 1517. The Shroud was displayed for the visitors. ‘The images’, de Beatis tells us, ‘were impressed and shaded in the most precious blood of Jesus Christ and show most distinctly the marks of the scourging, of the cords about the hands, of the crown on the head, of the wounds to the hands and feet and especially of the wound in the side, as well as various drops of blood spilled outside the image, all in a manner that would strike terror and reverence into the Turks, let alone Christians’.
Twenty years later the Clare nuns, who repaired the Shroud after it had been damaged by fire, also recorded the emotional impact of the wounds. Once it had been rolled out for veneration,
we let our look go up and down through all the bleeding wounds whose prints appeared on this holy Shroud … we saw sufferings that could never be imagined … the traces of a face all bruised and all tortured by blows, his divine head pierced by big thorns, from which blood rills came out and bled into the forehead and divided in various rills covering the forehead with the most precious purple in the world … the side wound appears as wide as to allow the passage of three fingers, surrounded by a four-finger-wide blood trace, narrowing from below and approximately half a foot long.
On the image of the back, once again the blood was prominent:
The head nape pierced by long and big thorns, which are so thick that you can understand that the crown was like a hat [as on the Tempesta engraving], the nape more tortured than the rest and the thorns stuck more deeply with large drops of blood coagulated in his completely stained-with-blood hair.
Little of this vivid imagery survives today. These bloodstains echo revelations reported by mystics of the 13th and 14th centuries. St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations date from the 1340s, received a vision from the Virgin Mary, who told of how she saw her son flogged so that ‘the weighted thongs tore his flesh’, until he was ‘all bloody and covered with wounds so that no sound spot was left on him’. He was taken off to be crucified and the Virgin went on to describe how he had been nailed to the cross. Then ‘they put the Crown of Thorns on his head and it cut so deeply into my son’s venerable head that the blood filled his eyes as it flowed and stained his beard as it fell’. The English mystic Julian of Norwich also described, in about 1372, a vision of Christ’s Passion, where she saw ‘the red blood flowing down from under his crown, hot and flowing freely and copiously, a living stream, just as it was at the time when the Crown of Thorns was pressed on his blessed head …’ Linked to these visions is the appearance, in both 14th-century sculpture and painting, of the ‘Man of Sorrows’, in which Christ appears with the Crown of Thorns on his head, his wounds intact and the blood still flowing. The scriptural inspiration is Isaiah 53:3-4: ‘He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’
The change in iconography is dramatic. Scenes of Christ’s burial from the 12th and early 13th centuries show little or no blood, as in the enamel of the Lamentation from the Klosterneuberg Altar of 1181, where Christ is being laid out, his hands crossed over his pelvis but with few signs of any bloodshed. The (Hungarian) Pray Codex from 1192-95 is another. Once the Klosterneuberg enamel is compared with imagery of 130 years later, as seen in the Holkham Bible of c.1330 (from Holkham Hall in Norfolk), the contrast is obvious. In its crucifixion scene, blood spurts from the Crown of Thorns and more runs down Christ’s arms from the wounds in the hands. The moment shown is when his side has been pierced and he has died (John 19: 34-5)
This new emphasis on the blood of Christ is a development of the 14th century and it is important to see whether the Shroud reflects this iconography. If one compares the Holkham head of Christ, taken from another crucifixion scene in the Bible, with the head on the Shroud, it is almost as if they came from the same template. Again one can see how the blood flowing along the arms of the man on the Shroud echo those of the crucified Christ in the Holkham Bible. It is important to note that on the Shroud they are not continuous, rather small individual blotches, and they could not have come from blood flowing down the arms of a body lying down. Note, too, the blood dripping from the lance that, in the negative image of the Shroud, appears to be reproduced outside the body image on its left side. In short, here, too, the artist is copying an iconography similar to that of the Holkham Bible.
One is moving towards an attribution of the images on the Shroud to the 14th century, but what is perhaps the most fascinating evidence is still to come. In the account given by De Baetis he reported the scourge marks on the images. A more explicit description is given by the Clare nuns in the 1530s:
The bruises and the scourge blows on the stomach are so thick that a pinhead-large zone free from all blows can hardly be found. The scourge blows inter-crossed continuously and extended all the way along the body as far as the feet tips.
The crisscross of scourge marks can dimly be seen on the Enrie photograph of the Shroud taken in 1931 and on the Durante photograph of 2002. The earliest examples of an ‘overall’ flagellation come from the late 13th century (one example of this date is a wooden, painted crucified Christ, believed to come from the Rhineland, now in San Domenico, Orvieto) and the iconography is well established by 1325, as seen in the Holkham Bible. What caused this sudden but distinctive change in iconography? The catalyst appears to have been a new fascination with mining the Old Testament for prophecies of the Passion. The key text was Isaiah 1:6: ‘From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness – only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil’. Contemporary commentaries on the Passion described an extensive whipping of Christ, ‘so that there was no soundness left in him: only wounds, bruises and sores’. These extensive flagellations are therefore a development of the 14th century and this helps place the iconography of the Shroud more securely in this period.
As a variety of Old Testament texts were quarried for further evidence, it was claimed that there were three types of instruments used in the torture: ‘rods’, using Isaiah 10:24 as a precedent; ‘thorns and thistles’, from Genesis 3:18; and the ‘scorpion’ of III Kings 12:11, which was believed to refer to the Roman flagrum. The reference to ‘scorpions’ first appears in the Netherlandic Passion narratives only from the 14th century. It was also argued that two floggers were involved, although there are three shown in the Holkham depiction, two with a Roman flagrum and one, smaller than the other two, beating Christ with what appear to be the ‘thorns and thistles’ of Genesis 3:18.
A more recent study of the scourge-marks on the Shroud as they are today has been undertaken by Barbara Faccini of the University of Ferrara, who worked from the 2002 Durante photographs. She found that the images of the Shroud distinctly showed the marks of three different instruments. She grouped them as follows: Type I, about 35 per cent of the total, which are represented as two or three round dots connected by small bars; Type 2, about 65 per cent, of large striped bands; and Type 3, fan-shaped scratches. Faccini does not appear to be aware of the textual developments that underlay the distinction between the three types and it is only tentatively that I suggest that Type I, which Faccini attributes to scourging by the flagrum, echoes the ‘scorpion’ text in III Kings, Type 2 to the rods of Isaiah 10:24, while Type 3 is more typical of the thorns and thistles of Genesis 3:18, also seen on the Holkham flagellation. It is more than possible that whoever created the images on the Shroud was aware of these 14th-century textual developments and chose to reproduce them on the Shroud. The rise of devotional images in the period is now increasingly recognised and further research is needed to place the Shroud within the broader artistic context of its times. There are numerous accounts of images of painted blood that becomes liquid and similar ‘miracles’ (possibly experienced by Jeanne de Charny herself), which may help explain the veneration in which the Shroud was held.
When one sees the variety of depictions of the Shroud in the 16th and 17th centuries it is hard to see any other explanation for their vividness than that they were painted on the linen. There were embroidered images but there is no sign on the Shroud today of any attachments. In fact, painted linens were popular in the Middle Ages. Flags and banners were needed for processions and displays and many churches would use linens with a range of religious images, especially during Lent, when specific images and colours would be appropriate for temporary displays. Yet these linens were acutely vulnerable. Many were simply worn out by continuous folding and unfolding, others were consumed by damp, others must have perished by fire (as the Shroud nearly did in 1532) or been discarded. If these linens had not been so rare, then the Shroud would have been recognised more easily as one whose images, haunting as they are, have now decayed almost to vanishing point. There are examples for comparison, including the faded Zittau Lenten Veil in the Church Museum at Zittau in Saxony and a badly damaged Dutch Adoration of the Magi in the Kupeferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) in Berlin (both are late 15th century and originally of far higher quality than the Shroud). Professional textile conservationists would doubtless be able to pinpoint many more and this remains a neglected area of Shroud research. A study of the depictions of expositions in 1842 and 1868 suggests that serious deterioration of the images set in during the 19th century: it is symbolised by the replacement of the enormous crowds originally able to see the images from afar by the single-file observers of today’s framed Shroud within the cathedral. Each dramatised unfurling would cause the fragmentation of its painted surface, especially when one custom was for the crowds to throw rosaries at it (in the Tempesta engraving the outstretched hands of those awaiting their return can be seen).
While we are left with only the faint images of the original painting it remains an interesting question as to whether any pigments of the original paint still remain on the Shroud. The STURP team, which descended on Turin in 1978 with several tons of imaging equipment, removed a number of samples from different areas of the surface of the cloth with sticky tape, which, remarkably, they were allowed to take back to the US for examination, without any requirement that they should be returned to Turin (they do not appear to be kept together in a single archive, hampering further research). A furious argument took place when an expert microscopist, Walter McCrone, who was given the tapes to examine, claimed that he had indeed found pigments, vermilion on the bloodstains and red ochre for the main part of the bodies. Although McCrone does not seem to have known this, vermilion is the pigment used to depict blood on other medieval painted linens, while red ochre is ubiquitous as a medieval pigment. McCrone dated the painting to the middle of the 14th century (ten years before the radiocarbon laboratories came to the same conclusion). Perhaps too many of the STURP members had become convinced of the authenticity of the shroud and they reacted in horror. The samples were removed from McCrone, his findings derided and the STURP report on the physics and chemistry of the Shroud, produced in 1982, argued that there was no evidence that the images were painted and even suggested that the blood was indeed actual human blood. A 1973 forensic examination of the ‘bloodstains’ by Professor Giorgio Frache and colleagues at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Modena had, however, failed to find any trace of blood and even the STURP investigators failed to find potassium, an essential component of blood. The most likely source of STURP’s ‘human blood’ is animal collagen, probably from rabbit-skin glue, which was often used as tempera (a binding medium for pigments) in medieval painting. The stains are too red to be dried blood.
In its report on the physics and chemistry of the Shroud, STURP discussed the possibility of it having been painted but, amazingly, admitted it had not actually examined any paintings on linen. However it did report that ‘colour does not penetrate the cloth in any image area nor is there any evidence for cementation between fibers or capillary flow of liquids’. This was an important observation, even if, due to the team’s lack of specialist knowledge, the authors of the report, Ray Rogers and L.A. Schwalbe, failed to grasp why. Before linen can be painted, a sealing layer of gesso, a binding mixture, needs to be applied, so that the paint can have a surface to stick to. It was a skilled job as, if the gesso penetrated below the surface, then the flexibility of the cloth would have been lost, an important consideration when a flag needs to flutter in the wind or a cloth is dramatically unfurled. The gesso must cover just the outer fibrils of the linen. The details of how to apply it are to be found in the Libro dell’Arte, an advisory manual compiled in the early 15th century by the Tuscan Cennino Cennini. The crucial point is that the gesso has to be applied, not with a brush, but with a knife so it can be put down and scraped off. ‘The less gesso you leave on, the better it is, just so that you fill up the interstices between the threads’, advises Cennini. Over time the gesso surface will have fragmented on the Shroud but arguably this is the brushless outer layer that the STURP team found. (The layer appears to be consistent across both images and across skin, hair and beard.)
What makes good gesso? Ground chalk (calcium carbonate) was used as a major ingredient in the Middle Ages north of the Alps (usually mixed with a collagen of animal glue) and the STURP team found ‘large’ quantities of just this mineral on their tapes. Again they failed to realise that this evidence was crucial in providing support for an original painted surface. (With no expertise in medieval painting, the authors could suggest no more than that the calcium was the accumulation of dust.) In a 2005 paper STURP member Ray Rogers examined segments of threads taken from earlier testing of the Shroud that had been passed to him. On them Rogers found a ‘viscous coating’, consisting of plant gum containing alizarin, a component of madder, a red pigment. This is indicative of a sealed and/or painted surface, although the sample was too small to make any generalisation from it for painting on the Shroud as a whole. The findings of 1978 desperately need reassessment by conservationists in light of the major developments in microscopy of the past 35 years.
So the argument that the Shroud is a painted linen cloth of the 14th century and that it has decayed significantly seems strong but it is important to see whether there is any evidence that contradicts this. In April 1988 the Shroud underwent a radiocarbon test. The most recent method of dating, accelerator-mass-spectrometry (AMS), was selected as it allowed small samples to be taken. A team of experts met with the Church authorities in Turin to select a suitable sample. It was taken from an area away from the images and the fire damage and inwards from the edge of the cloth. It was divided into three sections on site and then given to three laboratories, in Oxford, Tucson and Zurich, who cleaned each of the samples before testing them. A coordinated result from the three laboratories brought up a date range of between 1260 and 1390, with 95 per cent confidence that the cutting of the flax, the moment when the carbon-14 clock would have started ticking, was within it. Attempts to challenge this result (from those determined to pin down a first-century date), by suggesting that either the samples came from a patch rewoven in medieval times or from contamination, have been unsuccessful. Close examination by textile experts has not shown any reweaving and photographs confirm that the bandings of the weave are uninterrupted throughout. As to contamination, critics cannot even agree what the contaminating substance might be, let alone show that, after cleaning by the laboratories, it was twice the weight of the cloth it would need to be if it really was of first-century origin.
Circumstantial evidence also comes from the nature of the weave. Linen has been woven from 6,000 BC and herringbone weave has been known in Sweden from as early as the second millennium BC. However, three-in-one weave, in which the weft threads go under one thread of the warp and then over the next three, is very rare, with few examples earlier than the silk damasks of the third century ad. No three-in-one herringbone linen weave has ever been discovered from an ancient site, let alone one that has been preserved in such excellent condition as the Shroud. The only surviving example of a three-in-one herringbone twill in linen other than the Shroud is to be found in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It consists of two fragments of a block-printed stole or maniple. The print has been dated to the 14th century, confirming that this pattern of weave was known then. Another pointer to the Shroud’s origins is the spin of the yarn. Linen yarn is naturally spun clockwise, in the so-called ‘S’ twist, and this always occurs if the spindle is spun from the bottom (with the whorl at the top). This has been the custom in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean since early times. If, on the other hand, the spindle is spun from the top (as when the whorl is at the bottom), the twist goes the other way, anti-clockwise, in what is known as a ‘Z’ twist. The custom in western Europe was to spin anti-clockwise, thus creating a ‘Z’ twist and this is that of the spun yarn of the Shroud, suggesting it is of western European origin.
Other features of the Shroud also point to a medieval date. In about ad 1000 treadle looms, first developed by Chinese silk-workers, appear in Europe. They are much faster than traditional looms, as the weaver’s hands and feet can be used simultaneously but, having only a single weaver, the width of the cloth is restricted to less than 1.30 metres, the furthest the shuttle can be thrown by the weaver. In compensation, it is much easier to create length, as the completed cloth can be wound around rods. A long thin cloth such as the Shroud is likely to have been the product of a treadle loom. Deft manipulation of the treadles would allow three in one herringbone to be woven. (Susan Foulkes, an expert on ancient weaving, has confirmed this.)
Another intriguing piece of evidence is provided in a sample taken from a corner of the Shroud by textile expert Gilbert Raes in 1973, who found evidence of cotton fibres within the weave. He suggested that these might have drifted in during either the spinning of the flax or the actual weave. Although cotton of the same species (Gossypium herbacaeum) was known in Roman times, it was only in medieval Europe that flax and cotton were processed together, the raw cotton being imported into Italy in vast quantities from about 1200. In the workshops of northern Italy and southern Germany, for instance, weavers could turn from one to the other, so it is possible that these cotton fibres were floating around in the workshops, as Raes suggested, and settled within the fabric of the Shroud. None of this conflicts with a date in the 14th century.
There is one more fascinating feature of the painting of the Shroud and it concerns the loincloth. A Pilgrim Badge of c.1355 shows the images on the Shroud as naked. Two hundred years later, in a depiction of the Shroud taken from a prayer book of Marguerite de Valois, dated to 1559, the images are still naked. Only 20 years later, when the Shroud was exposed in Turin in 1578 after its transfer to his new capital by Duke Emanuele Filiberto I, the loincloth was on it: an engraving of this exposition by Giovanni Testa shows it clearly. It continues to be shown in depictions of the next two centuries, with enough similarity between portrayals to suggest that artists were copying from the original. Why was it suddenly there?
While I was researching depictions of the Shroud I was shown an engraving from the Royal Library in Turin. Engraved by Carlo Malliano in Rome in 1579, it had been reproduced in different formats with the Shroud as a template, always with a loincloth in place, although with different figures and backgrounds associated with it. In the Turin Library example the presiding clergyman was Francesco Lamberti, Bishop of Nice (which was then within Savoy territory). Intriguingly, Lamberti had been present at the Council of Trent in 1563 and had signed the decree banning lascivia in religious art, the same decree that had led to the nude figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement being covered up. Had Lamberti insisted on placing the loincloth on the Shroud? Possibly: but there was another candidate.
The exposition of 1578 was important because the star guest welcoming the Shroud’s arrival in Turin was none other than the archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, a devotee of the Shroud, who visited it not just in 1578 but in 1581, 1582 and 1584, the year of his death. One of the most powerful figures of the Counter-Reformation, Borromeo had been secretary to his uncle, Pius IV, in the closing sessions of the Council of Trent of 1562-63. He approved of the decree on lascivia and insisted that Milanese artists followed it. It is likely, therefore, to have been either Lamberti or Borromeo who insisted that the naked buttocks of the image be covered up with a painted loincloth. Today the loincloth has vanished and only a lighter patch over the buttocks suggests its previous existence.
What can we say about the painting on the Shroud? The images are crude and limited in tone. They show none of the expertise of the great painters of the 14th century, who, even on linen, were capable of mixing a variety of pigments into rich colours. The join of the head and the shoulders on the frontal image is particularly inept. Although the artist did try to reproduce images that might have touched a crucified body and left a mark, the two images are not even simultaneous representations of the same body. This can be seen from the arms as they are shown in the early depictions. If you lie on the ground and place your elbows in the same position as those on the back image of the Shroud, you can quickly see that it is impossible to hold the position of the crossed arms in the front. There is a difference of seven centimetres between the lengths of the two bodies. Then again the heads do not meet, suggesting that this was not a cloth that was ever folded over an actual head. A cloth laid on a body would pick up its contours, but there is no sign of this. Again, the hair of the body would have fallen back if the figure had been lying down but the blood is as if it is trickling down the hair of a standing figure. In short, it appears to be a painting made by an artist whose only concession to his subject is to imagine that this is a negative impression of the body (as shown by the wound on the chest being on the left of the image in contrast to the conventional right, as seen in the Holkham crucifixion scene) that had been transferred to the cloth.
One possibility can be ruled out, that the artist was deliberately trying to create a forgery, in the sense of an artefact whose predominant intention was to deceive. Apart from the discrepancies between the two body images, everyone would have known the gospel stories well enough to know that Christ was bound in linens (John 20:5) with a separate face cloth. No mention is made in any gospel of a burial cloth with images and a forger would never have convinced anyone by adding them to the cloth. If a forger was deliberately trying to deceive the credulous, the bloodstained face cloth from Oviedo in north-western Spain would be more convincing, especially as, unlike the Shroud, it had its own back story to explain its journey from Jerusalem. (In fact, it is carbon dated to c.ad 700 and has the tell-tale ‘Z’ spin twist of the western Mediterranean.) Crucially, as already noted, the Church authorities did not see the Shroud as a forgery. Clement VII’s permission to exhibit (in June 1390 he even granted an indulgence to pilgrims) suggests that the Shroud had acquired the status of an object of veneration, probably due to some miraculous event.
So the intriguing question remains. If this was not the authentic burial cloth of Christ or even an attempt to forge one, what was it?
While the Shroud cannot be, as many still believe, the burial shroud of Christ, nor can it have been expected to have been passed off as that by whoever painted it. It was only when the Savoy family, who acquired the Shroud in 1453, began associating its exposition with their dynasty and exposing it annually to tumultuous crowds in the Piazza Castello in Turin that the idea that the Shroud might be genuine won popular support. The Church, however, firmly resisted accepting the Shroud’s authenticity as a relic. It was only prepared to recognise that it was an object of veneration, a point stressed by a papal congregation of 1670, which allowed an indulgence to be obtained from visiting an exposition on the sole grounds that it gave rise to meditation on the Passion. This remains the position taken by the Catholic Church, one recently reasserted by Pope Francis. (It is worth remembering that it was the Church itself that commissioned the radio-carbon dating of 1988, which came up with a 95 per cent probability that the flax for the linen was cut between 1260 and 1390.)
There were many such objects of veneration in the medieval church. They were not claimed to be actual relics but some had obtained spiritual power through contact with a genuine relic. These were known as brandea. Others had been objects with religious significance that had acquired a reputation for bringing about miracles. So in the convent of Unterlinden in Alsace there was a Marian icon that had been given to the nuns in the early 14th century. It was claimed to be no more than a copy of an original painted by Luke the Evangelist of the Virgin and Child. Even so it soon developed healing powers and visions of Mary and Christ were reported. Pilgrimages began and the local bishop granted indulgences to visitors. It is probable that the Shroud was similar in that it was first venerated not because it was seen as a relic but because it had become associated with miracles or visions, alas unrecorded.
In many ways the iconography of the body of the Turin Shroud is conventional. As far back as 300 ad, in Rome, Christ is portrayed as a traditional philosopher, with long hair, a beard and a moustache. An excellent example of this is the Christ in Majesty, which can be found in the church of San Pudenziana in Rome and is dated to somewhere between 390 and 420. By the middle of the sixth century the bearded image had spread to the East, most prominently in the Christ as Pantocrator that stares down on the worshipper from the domes of many Byzantine churches. Perhaps more interesting in placing the Shroud are the burial scenes of Christ in which his hands are crossed over his genitals. There is evidence from burials, for instance of the Lombards in northern Italy, that this was a custom for Christian burials (although, in any case, it makes sense for a body fitted into a coffin to have its arms placed in this way). Yet it is also found in the Byzantine world, in the epitaphioi.
An epitaphios was an embroidered cloth displayed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The epitaphios shows Christ, represented conventionally with long hair, beard and moustache, lying on his back with his arms folded over the pelvic area with his bare feet extended. The cloth was borne through the church during the ceremony of the Great Entrance, in which gifts of bread and wine were carried into the church and deposited on the altar; it may have covered the gifts as they were being carried in or when they were on the altar. The ceremony was accompanied by the hymn ‘Noble Joseph’ that honoured Joseph of Arimathea for burying Jesus. In Constantinople the ritual was given added significance in the Church of the Pantocrator, where they claimed to have the stone on which the body of Christ lay while it was being embalmed.
The laying out of Christ with his hands crossed over the pelvic area also appears in western art at much the same time as the epitaphioi, as, for instance, in an enamel of the laying out from the altar in Klosterneuberg (Austria) of 1181 and in the so-called Pray Codex of c.1192-5 from Hungary. It also appears in sculpture. In the Rhineland in the mid 14th century, for example, the so-called Holy Graves, sculptures of the lamentation of Mary and her companions after the Crucifixion, show Christ lying on a tomb with his hands crossed. So anyone painting Christ as he was laid out in the tomb for burial would have been able to draw on a variety of models known from embroidered cloth (the epitaphioi), painting and sculpture. A painting on linen would have been more vulnerable than any of these. Yet we do have records that these once existed. A crude one was once in the cathedral of St Stephen, Besançon, the capital of Franche-Comté.
Apparently destroyed during the French Revolution, the Shroud of Besançon dated from much earlier than the Shroud of Turin. There is documentary evidence tracing it back to 1206, about 150 years before the Shroud, and it represents the earlier tradition, where the blood of Christ is not emphasised. So we know that images of Christ laid out after his death with his arms crossed over his pelvic area painted on cloth could be found from the 12th century. It is the added blood and the marks of the overall flagellation that fix the Shroud of Turin over a hundred years later, in the 14th century. The Besançon Shroud was, like the Shroud of Turin, an object of veneration in its own right, linked in one source to the revival of a corpse. Yet we are no nearer in discovering why such an image should have been painted on a linen cloth.
It was while I was researching the different ceremonies and the liturgies of Easter Week that I came across that of the Quem Queritis, ‘Whom do you seek?’ The ceremony was a re-enactment of the visit of the Three (sometimes Two) Marys to the tomb on ‘the third day’, as recounted in the Gospel of Mark, and it took place early on Easter Day. The earliest records of this come from the 10th century. To make a ‘stage’, a space in the church was set aside for the ‘tomb’. In some cases a recess was made in the church wall, the so-called Easter Sepulchre. This could be a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (as at Aquileia in northern Italy). In other churches the ‘backdrop’ was a temporary stage setting, as in Bamberg (in Franconia) in the 16th century, ‘where a place convenient for representing the sepulchre of Christ ought to be designed as a temple closed in with tapestry or hangings, in which, among other things, a linen cloth should lie, or a fine white sudarium, representing the grave cloth [sindone] in which the dead body of Christ was wrapped, because he rose again, living, from the sepulchre leaving the grave-cloth there.’
The ritual went as follows: When the clergy representing the Three Marys reach the ‘tomb’, they find a man (or ‘angel’) seated, wearing a white robe, by the opened sepulchre. He asks them ‘Quem Queritis?’ ‘Whom do you seek?’ When they reply that they are seeking Christ, he tells them not to be afraid: ‘Christ is not here, He is risen.’
One such account describes the liturgy as it unfolds with clergy playing the part of the angel and the Marys. After the ‘angel’ has replied to the ‘Marys’ that Christ is risen: ‘When this has been sung, he that is seated [e.g. ‘the man in white], as though calling them back, shall say the antiphon Venite et videte locum [‘Come and see the place’] and then rising and lifting up the veil, he shall show them the place void of the Cross and with only the linen in which the Cross has been wrapped. Seeing this the three shall lay down their thuribles … and, taking the linen, shall hold it up before the clergy; and, as though showing that the Lord was risen and was no longer wrapped in it, they shall sing this antiphon: Surrexit Dominus de sepulchra [‘The Lord is risen from the tomb.’]. They then shall lay the linen on the altar.’
All these accounts state that the cloth is linen. In his authoritative study of early medieval drama Karl Young notes that, while in actual depictions of the grave clothes the sudarium (‘facecloth’) and the linteamina (the wrappings from the body) are usually shown separately, ‘the dramatic ceremonies at the sepulchre followed the Gospel traditions with considerable freedom, using sometimes a single cloth called sindo or linteum, sometimes a cloth called sudarium, sometimes several pieces called linteamina, and again both a sudarium and linteamina.’ The representation of the grave clothes by a single cloth is possible but it must be woven in linen (even in a region where imported raw cotton is as easily available), presumably to accord with the gospel accounts that describe Jesus’ shroud as sindon, ’pure linen’.
One of the most important features of the ceremony was the display of the cloth. In one undated account from Mainz, three seniores (‘elders’) receive the sudarium from within the tomb and then hold it up on high. With a specified antiphon to be chanted at each stage, they then process to the high altar where they stand with the sudarium held up in extenso (‘fully extended’), before it is placed on the altar. The three seniores represent the Three Marys but, as Young points out, other accounts record only two figures receiving the grave-clothes and Young suggests that this is because the ceremony is following Matthew’s account, in which there are only two Marys.
In the 11th century there was a significant addition to the number of characters when John and Peter were introduced. This was a re-creation of that dramatic moment, described in Chapter 20 of John’s gospel, when Mary Magdalene tells Peter and that ‘other disciple that Jesus loved’, usually taken to be John, of the empty tomb and they both run to see it. The grave clothes, the facecloth separate from the rest, are lying there and in this extended version of the play, often now called the Visitatio Sepulchri, it is Peter and John who bring out the cloths and display them to the congregation with the chant: ‘See, O brethren, here are the facecloth and the wrappings and the body is not to be found in the tomb.’
After the display of the clothes and the appropriate chants the cloth or clothes are laid out on the altar as in the earlier ceremonies. A Te Deum is sung and bells ring. Judging from 400 or so accounts of these ceremonies, there must have been many hundreds of these grave-clothes, although with use over many decades they were vulnerable to fire, damp and decay. The question is whether the Shrouds of Besançon and Turin were examples of these.
A French Bible dictionary of 1912 states that there were ‘linen cloths, in which it was the custom to paint the body of Christ in the tomb and spread them afterwards on the altar to serve for the Mass on Easter Sunday’. This is a late reference to images on the linen but it is given some support by a few other texts. For instance, in the Mozarabic Rites that originate in the seventh century and are followed in some parts of Spain to this day, the Easter Preface reads: ‘Peter ran with John to the tomb and saw the recent imprints of the dead and risen man on the linens.’
There is an important piece of evidence relating to the Shroud that I have not yet discussed. This is the lead pilgrim badge dated to the 1350s that was found in the River Seine in 1855. It is clearly the Shroud of Turin because the coats of arms are those of Geoffrey de Charny on the left and his wife Jeanne, who was in her own right ‘Lady of Montfort and Savoisy’, a title she had bought as dowry to her marriage.
I have explained how Carlo Borromeo (and/ or Francesco Lamberti) had insisted that the nakedness of the man on the Shroud should be painted over with a loincloth. This badge confirms that the images as they were originally painted were nude. The herringbone weave can be seen and it is clearly two clergy, with clerical stoles, their figures now damaged, who are holding up the cloth. Most fascinating of all, under the Shroud is an empty tomb. Although this remains speculative, this is just how the ceremony of Quem Queritis or the Visitatio Sepulchri is supposed to be conducted, with the grave cloth held out in extenso by, in this case, two clergy in front of the tomb.
There are others who back this solution to the original purpose of the Shroud. In the third volume of the theology section (1790) of the mammoth Encyclopedie Méthodique, which eventually ran to over 200 volumes, the Abbé Bergier contributed the article on Suaire (‘Shroud’). (I am grateful to Antonio Lombatti for this reference.) He describes the Gospel texts and concludes that the linens or shrouds that one sees ‘in several churches’ could not possibly be the actual burial cloth of Jesus. He goes on to note that in the Easter ceremonies, which he dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries, a linen cloth empreint de la figure de Jesus-Christ enseveli (empreint, ‘printed’, enseveli, ‘buried’) is displayed to the congregation. He goes on to tell how these cloths are preserved in church treasuries, which is why there are so many of them. He notes specifically those displayed at Cologne, Besançon, Turin and Brioude and argues that despite their lack of authenticity as the original Shroud they should still command veneration. Furthermore, an article by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit who did much research on the Shroud in the early 20th century and who concluded that it dated from the 14th century, also makes the suggestion that the Shroud was originally an Easter grave-cloth.
Can one get any closer to where the Shroud may have been woven and painted? Ulm and Augsburg, in southern Germany, were important centres where enormous numbers of fustians, cloth in which linen and cotton threads were woven together, were produced each year. With so much cotton in the workshops it is hardly surprising that some fibres might have drifted onto the Shroud while the flax was being spun or woven. This is consistent with the cotton fibres that Raes and the radiocarbon laboratories found in small quantities on their samples. The mendicant orders (the Franciscans and Dominicans), both well represented in this area, appear to be at the forefront of blood stained images and there are many accounts of the Quem Queritis ceremonies from German monasteries. The model for the Christ lying on the tomb with his arms crossed may also have derived from the sculptured Holy Graves first known in the Rhineland, while the use of calcium carbonate in gesso is only known north of the Alps. So there is scope for further research to confirm or rule out the possibility that this was originally a commission for a church or monastery in southern Germany. Later, here or in northern France, the grave-cloth that we now know as the Turin Shroud achieved a status that allowed it to be recognised by the Church as an appropriate subject for veneration.
There will be an exposition of the Shroud in Turin during the spring of 2015, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of St Don Bosco, ‘Father and Teacher of Youth’. Two million pilgrims are expected to visit this most elegant of Italian cities. The Catholic Church continues to offer the Shroud as the focus for meditation on the Passion of Christ and doubtless most of the faithful will be participating in this tradition of more than six centuries of veneration, which probably originated with the miracles associated with the Shroud in the 14th century. However, perhaps now they will be joined by those moved to see what may well be a rare survivor from the most joyous of the medieval liturgies, that commemorating the Resurrection of Christ at Easter. It will be a dramatic development in the fascinating history of this medieval linen cloth.
Charles Freeman is the author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (Yale University Press, 2011). A new edition of his Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient World was published in 2014 by Oxford University Press.