We just got home from a visit to Italy. We spent two weeks in Turin, studying Italian and enjoying the good life. While there, we had the great good fortune to see the Shroud of Turin, which is only on display a few times each century.
It’s an ancient relic, much studied and much disputed. Some say that it’s the image of Christ, that it was wrapped around his body after he was crucified. Others say that it dates from the 12th or 13th century, and was probably from the last head of the Templars who was tortured and crucified as an example to the others. Still others say that it’s a total fake.
Here’s what’s known: it’s a piece of linen, 4.4 meters long and 1.13 meters wide. It’s woven in an old manner, in a way that has been used continuously since the time of the Romans. On the cloth is the front and back image of a man who was beaten, scourged, crowned with something that pierced his scalp in many places, nailed to something through the wrists and feet in such a way that his arms were above his head, and stabbed in the side after death. His nose and eye sockets have been broken.
According to the Museum of the Shroud in Turin, this particular piece of linen has been documented continuously since around 1350. In 1453 it was given to the House of Savoy, the rulers of this part of the world. It stayed in the possession of the Savoy family until it was given to the Vatican in 1983, on condition that it remain in Turin.
What is not known is who the man in the image was. It’s not known definitively when the image was made. It’s not known at all HOW the image was made. It’s not a photograph, it’s not a painting, and no technology known today can reproduce this image exactly. The stains on the cloth are from human blood and serum, from someone with blood type AB.
Carbon 14 tests date the linen from between 1260 and 1390. The tests were done by three separate independent laboratories. Nevertheless, there are questions about the validity of those tests. Polen samples were found from plants that grow only in Palestine and Turkey.
When the face in the shroud is compared to early Christian icons painted in the 6th century, a remarkable resemblance can be seen, hinting that the image in the Shroud might have been the model for the icons. Enhanced photos of the face show an object that looks like a Roman coin dating from the 1st century on one of the closed eyes.
That’s it. That’s what we know, and what we don’t know. The rest is speculation. And faith. I think that every single person who views the Shroud does so with faith. Some put their faith in the belief that this is the image of Christ, miraculously left on the linen between the time he was taken from the cross and the time his empty tomb was discovered.
Others put their faith in the science that says that this cloth is about 800 years old, and was produced somehow after someone was tortured and crucified in the same way as Christ. Maybe to martyr him. Maybe as a warning to others.
I like it that we don’t really know, that we have to decide, to invest something of ourselves when we look at it, that we understand ourselves a little better after having seen it.