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The Holy Shroud, among science, history and mystery

Since its appearance, dating back to 1356, the relic of the Holy Shroud has aroused emotions, theories, variegated and contrasting beliefs, and still now it represents one of the biggest and unsolved mysteries of humanity. The exceptional image, imprinted on a linen cloth, preserved in Turin, has an unparalleled symbolic value that goes beyond a mere matter. Definetely, what is the Holy Shroud? Is it an authentic object, icon of faith of million people spread over the world, or is it a false? Is it a scientific enigma or a historical document still to be examined?

Finding and description of the Holy Shroud 

The event concerning the finding of the Holy Shroud started in 1356 in Lirey, France, when a crusader knight, Geoffroy de Charny, declared to own a precious linen cloth coming from the East. Its appearance was sudden and shocking at the church of the canons in a little village of Northern France. Here, in fact, Geoffroy de Charny had donated it to a brotherhood of the place. 

When the canons were visioning the cloth, they did not believe their eyes. It was a large cloth, 4,36 meters long and 1,10 meters large, or maybe more. In the background of the sturdy cloth, herringbone (the ratio between warp and weft is 1:3) and about 0,34 millimiters thick, there was a confusing figure of man, as if that indistinct stain would want to disappear at any moment.

Shroud

Holy Shroud and the Christ’s passion 

Immediately, it was hypothesized that the Holy Shroud was a cloth on which Christ was deposed in the sepulcher, and the image was impressed on the cloth miracously. Effectively, the linen cloth seemed so ancient and the image of the man projected on it showed the signs of a real crucifixion. Nonetheless, at the period someone suggested that it was a false, probably a pictorial reproduction well realized.

Holy Shroud and the signs of a crucifixion 

On the Shroud there are the traits of a life-size figure, with beard and long hair. The relic shows both the anterior and posterior vision, and it could be comparable to a sepulchral cloth. It shows a man lying with his legs slightly bent, his arms crossed at the level of the pelvis and his eyes wide open.

Shroud

Although the image is visible to the naked eye only from a certain distance (one-two meters), it is possible to observe some details, maybe revealing. According to the supporters of the authenticity, among the details there are streams of blood on the head, which seem to mimic the wounds due to a crown of throns; some bruises compatible with blows of flail across the chest; the lesions present on the right and left supra-scapular region, probably caused by the transport of a great weight, as was the Cross for Christ; a wound in the side, as described in the Gospels regarding the episode of Saint Longino; the marks and sores on the wrists (whose thumbs are not visible) and the feet, which would have been pierced as was the custom in the 1st century Roman crucifixions.

Is the man of the Shroud Jesus Christ? 

Could all these elements suggest that the man of the Shroud was effectively subjected to a terrible torture? Extraordinarily, the identikit of the condemned could correspond to Jesus Christ. 

In fact, the Gospel of John (John 18, 1 – 19, 42) tells the event of the Passio Christi:

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.  And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head […]. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha […]. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out […]. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews […].

Shroud
The painter Giovan Battista della Rovere illustrates how the Shroud would have been (17th century)

Nonetheless, if the Shroud had been a Medieval false, it would have been simpler for the falsifier to reproduce what was written on the Gospels. Hence, the compliance between the Shroud and the event of Christ is not a guarantee of its authenticity. For what concerning the real existence of a so enigmatic image, other are the issues to be examined and demonstrated.

The Holy Shroud as a faith and contradiction sign 

In any case, the Shroud is sign of contradiction since it embodies the essence of a ultra millenial mystery, that has divided the opinion of the faithfuls themselves. It has the power to reveal the heart of men: what is the approach in front of the faith? Believing in God, in the afterlife, or in the truthfulness of a mystical object, is a process of a complete irrationality or a need of a tangible and demonstrable testimony, or a sign? It is an existential and vivid contrast, since its finding, when the bishop of Troyes Pierre d’Arcis forbade the ostension, questioning its veracity.

Addition, is it a faith issue as material object, expression of the story of Christ, or as entrusted with a symbolic and evangelical message? Indipendently form its nature, in the history of humanity nothing similar had existed, nothing that could reveal so clearly the faith of man. 

Is the Holy Shroud a false or really the shroud of Christ? 

The large debate about the Shroud is based on contrasting thesis. Some scholars point out that the relic is a false, probably from the Medieval period. Other ones argue about its authenticity. In this regard, the issue was examined in two different ways: one based on the study of the historiographical sources, the other one has contributed to the debate by a technical-scientific analysis.

If the Shroud was a false, it would be a work by a genius, and similarly it could be possible to demonstrate when and how it was made. If it was authentic, it would be necessary to reconstruct the historical path and demonstrate the impossibility that it was made by a man. Below a deepen examination of the historical sources and scientific reasons that have tried to shed more light over the mystery of this incredible story.

Study of sources: discovering the origin of the Shroud

Overtime, the historiography has tried to understand and reconstruct the complex story of the Shroud across the centuries. It is not a simple work, since the multiplicity of sources, sometimes doubtful, makes the examination extremely complex. 

The history of the Shroud could be analyzed by three hypothetical documentary moments: the sources concerning the finding; the attestations coming from the end of the 14th century to now; finally, the story of the relic leads to an interpretative crossroad: if the Shroud is a Medieval false, the historiographical sources will end here, but if it is authentic, it will be necessary to find the traces of an existence before its arrival in Lirey. Hence, it is clear the importance of a honest and sincere documental research, since it is determinant to understand the nature and veridicity of the relic.

Date of discovery and first disputes 

Since the years of its discovery, the Holy Shroud generated great debates and perplexity. From one side, it was venerated in all the region, attracting many pilgrims from Europe to Lirey. From the other side, it became an object of examination by the bishop of Troyes, Pierre d’Arcis, who forbade its ostension, considering it a false. This decision generated a dispute and the canons of Lirey, who were not agree, asked the intervention of the antipope, Clement VII, considered the legitimate pope in France [1].

In those years (1389-1390) an exchange of letters took place between the antipope and the bishop. It is fundamental for the historiographical reconstructions of the relic [2]. In particular, in a missive the bishop attested the first ostension of the Shroud 34 years before, and the examination made by him suggested that it was not authentic, since “if the funeral sheet of Christ was visible, the Gospels would talk about it”. The letter evidenced the avarice of the canons of Lirey, above all it revealed that a painter of that period had declared to have painted it. This fact could have caused the hiding of the relic the years later.

Clement VII bull and the Paris medallion

Nonetheless, Pierre d’Arcis could not provide tangible evidences to his considerations. Then, Clement VII, whose real name was Roberto di Ginevra, answered him by four bulls dated 1390. By them, he would allow the ostension of the Shroud if it was expressly declared as a pictura seu tabula, that means a pictorial work, made by a man. In other terms, the authenticity and the supernatural dimension of the relic was denied [3].

A third document seems proving the effective historicity of what argued. It is a lead medallion, found inside the Seine River in 1855 (now preserved in Cluny), which has the coats of arms of Geoffroy de Charny, of his wife and the image of the Shroud. Considering that Geoffroy died in 1356 during the Poitiers battle, the Shroud could have been exposed when he was still alive.

Shroud
Seine River medallion

Historiographical critic 

Over the centuries, the missive by Pierre d’Arcis to Clement VII has represented the most important document by the skeptics for what concerning the authenticity of the Shroud. In particular, the historian Ulysse Chevalier (1841-1923) supported the thesis that the relic was a false. Although Catholic, he wanted to free society and the Church from false beliefs and not provable conjectures. Nonetheless, the long series of documents provided by him could not convince the counterpart. Among them, the Salesian Luigi Fossati evidenced that the letter by Pierre d’Arcis was not a historical source but affected by impartiality from the author who had written it.

From the finding to the Savoia, the link between the Shroud and the city of Turin 

The Shroud appeared in a document of 1418, when the count Humbert de La Roche mentioned it in a receipt to the canons of Lirey. In fact, he got into custody the relic, and the church furnishings, due to some implications of the Hundred Years War. Lirey was considered an unsafe area, and it was an excuse so that the Shroud was never returned to the canons, not even when the religious asked the  intervention of the court (1443), obtaining a positive outcome. 

This event had un unexpected twist in 1453, when the widow of Humbert, Marguerite, gave the relic to to Anna of Lusignano, spouse of the duke of Savoia, Ludovico. The sudden decision attracted the excommunication, but Marguerite preferred to die out of God’s grace rather than return the linen cloth to Lirey church. Hence, the canons asked the intervention of the duke of Savoia. The noble answered with a missive dated 6th february 1464, when he rejected the return of the Shroud, offering a yearly contribution. So, the relic was preserved in Chambéry.

Veneration and fire of 1532 

The starting of the public veneration of the Shroud dates back to 1506, since the pope Giulio II,  great innovator of the arts and proponent of the Roman Renaissance, approved a liturgy and a matins. 

28 years later, the Holy Shroud was in danger of being lost forever, due to a fire broken out the morning of 3rd and 4th december 1532, inside the Sainte-Chapelle of the Chambery castle, where it was preserved. The cloth fortunately resisted, but it was marked by a series of symmetrical burns along its length, partially attributable to the pouring of molten silver that contained it. In 1534 the Poor Clare nuns tried to repair to the damage, patching up the burnt parts as best as they could with the clothes of that time. Moreover, they placed the Shroud in a more resistant support, composed of cloth from Holland.

Was the Holy Shroud damaged by the fire? 

The Shroud image is, with no doubt, characterized by the burns caused by the fire of 1532,  from the halos left by the water used to suffocate it, as well as from the patches made. Moreover, there are several testimonies that the Shroud had already been touched by the fire, due to the candles placed near it. There is also an evidence from some circular burn marks at the level of the hands. These signs were also copied on a painting of 1516, that someone attributed to Albrecht Durer, who reproduced the relic. Then, it is possible to assume that these signs were in the Shroud before the Chambéry fire. 

The burn and patch episodes made difficult and debated the scientific analysis, particularly the carbon-14 dating.

Shroud
To be noted, the triangular patches and the longitudinal signs of the burn, clearly visible and superimposed to the Shroud image

Arrival to Turin 

In 1578, the cardinal San Carlo Borromeo expressed the desire to see the Shroud. According to the tradition, he would take the vow to venerate the relic if Milan was free from the plague. However, when the epidemic ceased, the cardinal was tired. Then, the duke Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia ordered that the linen cloth was moved to Turin so that San Carlo Borromeo could dissolve his vow. From that moment on, the Holy Shroud stayed in the Piedmont city.

Turin, Piazza Castello

Initially, the relic was positioned inside the church of San Lorenzo, and then moved to the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista. Finally, it was located in the chapel of the Holy Shroud by Guarino Guarini (1694). Contextually, the cloth was again patched up by the blessed Sebastiano Valfrè.

Church of San Lorenzo

Last years

After the death of Umberto II di Savoia in 1983, the ownership of the Holy Shroud passed directly to the Holy See by testamentary will. However, the pope Giovanni Paolo II decided that the relic had to remain in Turin. Five years later, it was possible to extract a fragment of cloth in order to execute some scientific analysis, particularly a dating estimating, operated with the method of the radiocarbon-14.

In 1997 the Shroud again risked being lost, since the Guarini Chapel caught fire. Providentially, in that period the image had been moved to the center of the Cathedral choir, since the chapter behind was restored.

Turin Cathedral and, behind, the Chapel of the Holy Shroud by Guarino Guarini

In 2002 the Shroud was subjected to a conservative restoration, by which the patches inserted by the Chambery nuns in 1354 were removed.

Hypothesis about the alleged existence of the Shroud before its finding 

If the Holy Shroud was authentic, it should be possible to reconstruct the historical path before its appearance in France. In fact, it is unthinkable that a so important relic could disappear, nor be mentioned for thirteen centuries from its origin. If it had been the shroud that wrapped Christ during the deposition, there would have taken place an enormous veneration and several writings about it.

Actually, this circumstance has never occurred, but there are several reasons. A first hypothesis, pointed out by the supporters of the authenticity, concerns an etymological issue. Particularly, the word “Shroud”, referred to the relic, could have been used only after its Medieval finding. In fact, the term “shroud” (from the Greek sindon) was generally used to indicate a cloth, a sheet. If the Holy Shroud was authentic, is it possible that in ancient times another word would be used to indicate it? In essence, are there historical sources about a relic which could be associated to the Shroud, but indicated with different terms?

Hypothesis about the possible existence of the Shroud before its finding

The first evidence about the existence of the Shroud before the Middle Age, supported by the “sindonologists” [4] is that referred to the Christ’s iconography. In fact, this would change the image of the Good Shepherd teenage, of the first centuries, to a figure of an adult and bearded man, sometimes in the act of leaving the tomb (imago pietatis), which could derive from the Shroud tradition.

Iconography of the Good Shepherd without beard, at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna

Particularly, this last iconographic expression started during the Theodosius reign in Ravenna (379-395), although some contemporary and subsequent buildings still show a beardless Christ.

Bearded Christ of the 4th century, Catacombs of Commodilla in Rome

Nonetheless, the attention of the authenticity supporters is primarily addressed to the identification of that relic, known with another name, of which we have a historical knowledge, and which could be actually the Shroud before its finding in Lirey. Although the logical jump seems objectively too big, two “candidate” icons were historically suggested. So that a icon could be “candidate”, three characteristics have to be respected: its existence has to be deducible by proved historical sources, its dimensions and features have to be compatible with the Shroud, nowadays it has to be disappeared or lost.

Veronica Veil

The first “candidate” icon is the so known Veronical Veil, a saint face venerated in Rome until 1608, when it was lost, contextually to the edification of the new Basilica of San Pietro. It was a cloth that, according to the tradition, showed the real face of Christ; the name Veronica, the woman who could have cleaned the bloody face of Christ with that cloth, during his ascent to Calvary, is a Latin contraction of the terms real icon. A substantial part of the criticism argues that the Veronica Veil was lost and it is not in Turin: it was moved to Manoppello, where still today it is venerated as a relic, so similar to that called Holy Face. 

Shroud
Holy Face of Manoppello

Mandylion of Edessa

Another story concerns the so known Mandylion di Edessa. The image of Christ is historically attested in the Turkish city since 544 [5]. This relic was considered acheiropoieta and bearer of many miracles. The pictorial reproductions of the Mandylion, now lost, represent a cloth with a bearded face. Could be possible that figure contributed to the spread of the image of a bearded Christ, according to the Byzantine model of the Pantocrator Christ? Moreover, this detail suggested that it could be the folded Shroud, so to expose, inside the reliquary, only his face. 

Icon inspired by the Mandylion

The Mandylion is mentioned during the Council of Nicaea of 787, and also in the writings by Giovanni Damasceno [6], in order to preserve it from destruction. In fact, in those years there was a  fierce iconoclastic fight. 

In 944 the Byzantine general Curcuas took the Mandylion for moving it to Constantinople. Here, its traces were lost during the Fourth Crusade, since the city suffered a heavy siege in 1204.

Origin of the Mandylion tradition

Eusebius of Caesarea was a historian. Nevertheless, the first source that he reported in his Ecclesiastical History is, curiously, a letter that Jesus had sent to the Edessa king, Abgar (king between 13th and 50th AC). In the letter, Jesus assured to Abgar that he would have sent him a disciple to heal him, since he was ill. Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AC) did not mention the Mandylion nor the holy face, but his story could have contributed to the birth of the Edessa acheiropoieta icon tradition. In fact, some historiographical sources about the Mandylion cited the Jesus letter, attributing and translating some miraculous power from the letter to the sacred icon.  

SIndone
10th century icon showing the king Abgar and the Madylion. At the monastery of Santa Caterina  sul Sinai, Egypt.

Among them, the Acts of Thaddeus, a writing of the 6th-7th century, which firstly attested the presence of a miraculous relic in Edessa. It tells that the sick king, Abgar, had sent his painter in order to paint live the face of Christ. In fact, the king hoped that it could heal him. However, the painter could not and Jesus, took pity, gave him a cloth with his face imprinted.

Finally, Evagrio the Scholastic [5] testified the presence of the Mandylion in Edessa during the 544 siege. The icon “of divine workmanship, that the hands of men did not make, but Christ our God sent to Abgar” protected the city. It is another citation of the Abgar legend, referred by Eusebius and contained inside the Thaddeus Acts. 

Is the Mandylion the Holy Shroud?

There is not a historical certainty that the Mandylion was lost. This has contributed to the rise of several hypothesis about its destiny. The Mandylion could be in Manoppello, or in Genoa (icon at the church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni; it is possible that it is a copy), or at the Vatican in Rome (Mandylion of Rome; which, however, is painted on wood and not on canvas) and finally that it is the Shroud.

Mandylion of Genoa, at the church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni

This last is the predominant hypothesis by the supporters of the Shroud authenticity. Ian Wilson was the first who, in 1978, evidenced the similarities between the two relics and their respective traditions [7]. In particular, Wilson argued that the Mandylion was the Shroud folded in width three times. This could allow to show only the face. Hence, the cloth could be preserved in a reliquary. This hypothesis is corroborated by some bends present in the Shroud of Turin, that Wilson says have seen by X-rays photographs.

Ian Wilson’s thesis

Moreover, the ancient representations of the Mandylion could reproduce a reliquary with similar dimensions. It is the case of the Thaddeus Acts, which reported the legend of a cloth folded four times. The cloth is the Mandylion, and overlapping the Shroud for three times in width, it results folded in eight parts. 

Additionally, Wilson demonstrated that an archdeacon of 944, Gregory, wrote that the Mandylion was not a pictorial work, but only “splendor, imprinted of the sweat drops of Christ” [8]. It is singular that the archdeacon referred also of “blood drops gush from his side”, hinting that the image was much larger than his face. 

There is not unanimity about this source: it is possible that Gregory referred to the image of a living person, which is incompatible with a mortuary cloth.

Roberto di Clary’s story

In the hypothesis the Holy Shroud is effectively the Mandylion of Edessa, a part of the critics tried to reconstruct the possible historical path that would conduct it to Lirey. The Mandylion was attested in Constantinople until 1204, when it disappeared, probably taken by the besiegers of the city. In this sense, it is singular that a chronicler of the time, Roberto di Clary, probably referred to a disappeared relic not simply as a face, but as a shroud: “There was another of the monasteries called My Lady Santa Maria of Blakerne, where the shroud, where Our Lord was wrapped, was there, and every friday it was stood up straight, so that it was possible to see the figure of Our Lord. And nobody knows, nor Greek or French, what happened to this shroud when the city was besieged” [9].

The Holy Shroud and the Knights Templar 

Roberto of Clary attested the extraordinary similarity between the Mandylion and the Holy Shroud (although some scholars pointed out it could refer to another relic [10]), and then it was hypothesize that the two were the same shroud. In this sense, someone suggested that the Knights Templar stole the Mandylion-Shroud in 1204, during the fourth crusade, and conducted it to Lirey. The fascinating thesis argues that the Order of the Temple was dissolved one century later (1312) due to the veneration of a bearded idol, the Baphomet, which recalled the Shroud. Actually, there were other historical and documented reasons attesting the political motifs of the dissolution of the Templars, and the contextual accusation of heresy.

The Pray manuscript of Budapest

Another proof supporting the existence of the Shroud before its finding could be a manuscript preserved at the National Library Széchényi of Budapest, the so known Pray Codex of 1192-1195 [11]. According to the supporters of this thesis, the text reported an image of the burial of Christ, as described by the Holy Shroud of Turin. In particular, the miniature could reproduce the exact posture of the dead, with the crossed arms at the level of the pubis, with flexed thumbs not visible. Moreover, the same shroud represented in the Budapest code, could mimic the circular burns and the herringbone pattern of the Shroud. 

As usual, an alternative hypothesis is suggested: the representation in the manuscript could not be a cloth, but a stylization of the stone surface.

Scientific analysis 

The debate about the truthfulness of the Holy Shroud as the shroud that wrapped the body of Christ, or as a Medieval false, was subjected also to scientific analysis in order to find a solution to the secular enigma. With the evolution of the linen shroud was subjected to several insights: the famous radiocarbon analysis, the medical-legal tests, the detailed examination of the cloth and the organic matrices on it. Each of them was discussed and, still today, it represents the subject of a bitter controversy among the sindonologists, supporters of the authenticity, and most of the scientific critiques.

Below, the different approaches of the shroud analysis.

Medical-legal appraisals and analysis 

Several medical-legal analysis on the Shroud tried to establish if it is effectively an image compatible with that of a man, or a representation. The discriminating criterion of the analysis was to demonstrate if the Shroud man could or could not be really dead, since the identification of elements not compatible with the rigor mortis could address the criticism towards the false hypothesis. 

Sindonologists position 

The position by sindonologists is historically well represented by the works and studies by Pierluigi Baima Bollone [12], pathologist at the Turin University. He argues that the body imprinted on the Holy Shroud corresponds to a man just taken down from the cross, in a rigor mortis state. Bollone detects a slight decline of the head and the knees, and the fixity of the neck and facial muscles.

The medical-legal analysis by Garlaschelli

Garlaschelli, a famous chemist of the University of Pavia, has risen some doubts on the fact the image imprinted on the Shroud could be a dead [13]. His medical-legal analysis evidences how the arrangement of the body along the shroud could not be compatible with that of a man in a rigor mortis state. The signs on the shroud (for instance, the hands on the pubis) could be referable to a forced position of the limbs, which in a natural condition of death would tend to withdraw at the stomach level. 

Moreover, the analysis evidences that also the signs of the flagellations, in the case of a comparison with the Christ’s events, appear so unrealistic, since the lacerations are too much symmetric and regular respect to a real situation. The same thesis is applied to the streams of blood in the head, which the tradition associates to a crown of thorns. In fact, according to gravity, they would run downwards and along the hair, a fact that in the Shroud does not happen.

Comparison between the Shroud image and a photo elaboration (Secondo Pia). To be noted the presumed streams of blood on the head 

Bernardo Hontanilla Calatayud’s thesis

A similar but, at the same time, contrasting thesis was suggested by the professor Bernardo Hontanilla Calatayud of the University of Navarra. In a recent publication (edits on August 2019 in the journal Scientia et Fides), he tried to demonstrate the semi-bent position of the neck, the knees and the ankles could not be compatible with the rigor mortis. However, Hontanilla suggested another suggestive thesis: the Holy Shroud could be the image of a living person. This is what could be deducted from the analysis about the time needed to a rigor mortis, accelerated by the beatings the man was subjected to. The image imprinted on the Shroud could represent a man and, according to Hontanilla, he is Risen Christ, in the act of getting up after the three days in the burial. 

Location of the nails

The position of the imprint of the nails could allow to verify the authenticity of the Shroud. To this aim, the French doctor Pierre Barbet explored the issue. He tried to verify if the signs of the nails could correspond to a realistic situation. According to the tradition, the lacerations of the crucifixion are in the palm of the hand, and it could be also in the Holy Shroud.

Actually, it is widespread the opinion that a man crucified through the palm of the hand could not stay in that position for a long time. The soft tissues tend to tear, precipitating the body. Barbet considered more realistic that the nails were stuck on the wrist, in correspondence to the Destot space. Effectively, the image of the Shroud seems to be without the thumbs. Here, the nails would damage the median nerve, causing a flexion towards the palm.

Hands of the Shroud man, detail

Face problem 

Professor Garlaschelli evidenced that, if effectively the Shroud cloth had been placed on the face of a real person, the imprint obtained would have been wider. Instead, the Shroud man shows a too proportioned face, whose front is the only visible element. 

Mask of Agamemnon, in gold foil

According to Garlaschelli, this lack is attributable to the use of a bas-relief, rather than of a dead body, who could have been smeared with red ocher and on whom the linen cloth could have been placed.

The sindonologists’ objection is that it is not known the exact mechanism of image formation, then it could be formed not by contact, as argued by Garlaschelli, but by irradiation. So, the portion of the face shown during such a process would have only the front one, for prospectic projection reasons.

Radiocarbon examination

In 1988 the Holy See authorized the so expected carbon 14 analysis on the Holy Shroud. The examination aimed at identifying the spectrum of the carbon isotopic frequencies to estimate a possible dating of the finding. 

In fact, a carbon atom is a chemical element with an atomic mass equal to 12. Nonetheless, it is also present in a isotopic form as a carbon 13 or carbon 14. Particularly the latter is radioactive and has a decay time of 5570 years, at the end of which it becomes nitrogen 14. By an estimate of the relative abundance of the carbon 14, it is possible to indicate the period of formation of an object that has an organic residue.

Franco Testore, teacher of fabric technology at the Politecnico of Turin, and Giovanni Riggi di Numana, microanalyst, have taken some strips of tissue of around 10 mm x 70 mm. The sample were compared with other nine control findings attributable to a Nubian burial of 1100 AC, to the cloak of Saint Louis of Anjou (dated between the 13th and 14th centuries) and to an Egyptian mummy of the 2nd century AC. Hence, the samples, located inside unidentifiable metal cylinders, in order to make the analysis objective and not falsiable, were sent to three different laboratories. Finally, they were tested, by a well defined protocol, at the laboratories of Radiodatation of the Oxford universities, the departments of Geoscience and Physics of the Arizona University, and to the department of Physics of the Zurich Polytechnic, by the technique of mass spectometry.

Results of the examination

In October 1988 the cardinal Ballestrero announced the examination results. The three fragments analyzed gave a surprising dating. The results of the radiocarbon 14 analysis revealed, with a statistical confidence interval of 95% and an error margin of 10 years, an estimation between 1260 and 1390. Working independently, the three laboratories had the same results: the Shroud could have a Medieval origin. Additionally, the estimated dating is compatible with the mysterious appearance in Lirey.  

Critiques to the radiocarbon analysis 

Most of the critiques about the dating obtained by the radiocarbon 14 technique regards a possible contamination. According to this theory, the linen could have got a higher percentage of isotopes during the centuries of prolonged ostension and due to the fumes of the Chambery fire. Moreover, the backing made of Holland cloth and the patches, both added by the nuns who preserved it in 1534, could have had a relevant role in the Shroud contamination.

According to this hypothesis, the fragment got from the Shroud could be one of the part most exposed to the contamination, due to the proximity to the burns and the patches. To this purpose, Dmitri Kouznetsov, director of the E.A. Sedov Biopolymer Research Laboratories of Moscow, said to have experimentally verified that a linen cloth dating between 100 BC and 100 AC, if subjected to the fumes of a fire, could be dated to the 11th century by the radiocarbon dating.

Further thesis opposed to the determination of the dating by the radiocarbon test

Garza Valdés, researcher of microbiology at the University of San Antonio, in Texas, releaved the presence of Lichenotelia on the threads of the Shroud. It is a complex of microorganisms, mainly fungi and bacteria, that would have altered the isotopic percentanges of carbon during the mass spectometry. 

In 2000 two researchers of chemistry, Joseph Marino and Mervyn Benford [14], suggested another hypothesis according to which the sample examined with the carbon 14 technique was part of a not original flap of cloth. The thesis which, at the same time is so imaginative, could be based on a possible exchange of cloth: Margherita d’Austria, duchess consort of Savoia, gave a portion of the Shroud to a church she founded. After, she replaced the missing part with most recent fabric threads. 

Moreover, it should be also mentioned a study by the doctor Flury-Lemberg [15], expert in ancient fabrics, who rejected the thesis. During the restoration of the Shroud, in 2002, she meticulously examined the Shroud and she did not find a replacement darning. 

Analysis on the cloth 

For what concerning the type of weaving of the Shroud, some comparative analysis were made, for verifying if the composition of the cloth could be dated to the 1st century or to the Middle Age. The linen cloth has a rudimentary texture, known as herringbone, with a warp-weft ratio 3:1 diagonally. This type of processing was the object of a study and deepen research. 

Fragment of the Shroud cloth 

The Turin Shroud was compared with mortuary sheets of the Jewish era; among them, the so known Akeldamà Shroud, dated to the 1st century and found by the archaeologist Shimon Gibson. The shroud was found together with a handkerchief that, during the Jewish era, was placed on the face of the deceased, for containing the blood flow and avoiding the evaporation of aromatic ointments. The finding of the Akeldamà presents several differences with respect to the Shroud. Firstly, it differentiates for a warp to wept ratio of 1:1. The intertwining is certainly more compatible with other mortuary shroud found the the Middle Eastern area, which have the same ratio 1:1, or sometimes 2:2, and a spinning in S [16]. 

Moreover, the Holy Shroud seems more similar to Medieval fabrics dating to the 14th century, which have also a a warp-weft ratio 3:1. One of them is preserved at the Victoria and Albert Museum of London [17]. 

Against, the arguments suggested by the sindonologists concerning the origin of the Shroud to the 1st century seems to labile and without a real scientific evidence. These thesis were analyzed and refuted also by Gian Carlo Rinaldi [18]. 

The presumed existence of Roman coins 

In 1931, in the occasion of the wedding between the prince Umberto II of Savoia and the princess Maria José, the Holy Shroud was exhibited to the public. In that event, the photograph Giuseppe Enrie was authorized to make a series of photos. The images, black and white, were analyzed overtime and scanned instead of the original linen cloth. 

One of the photos made by Giuseppe Enrie

Among the several observation studies made on it, there was that by the professor Francis Filas, teacher at the Loyola University of Chicago. In 1979 he announced to have found, in the right eye of the shroud man, a coin. Moreover, Filas affirmed to having found the coinage, which could be dated to Pontius Pilate period, in a temporal time between 29 and 32 AC. In fact, the teacher referred to having identified the lituus stick, effigy of the emperor Tiberius, and the letters UCAI.

A coin with the lituus similar to that Fillas declared of having found in the Shroud. Source: see the note [a].

Based on this consideration, the analysis by Baima Bollone and Nello Balossino can be added. They confirmed the veridicity of Filas’ finding, but they added of having observed the presence of a Roman coin, coeval to the previous one, even in the left eyebrow, known as the simpulum coin.

The simpuIlum coin. Source: see the note [a]. 

After, Filas affirmed to have found two coins of Pilatus compatible to that present in the right eye of the Shroud, which could present the same ortographic errors. 

What coins?

Nonetheless, it is necessary to examine some issues, which suggest how the studies by Filas and Bollone are scientifically robust. Firstly, both the presumed coins were identified on a single black and white photo of 1031, and not on the original Shroud cloth. In any case, this last has a too limited resolution (around half centimeter) to allow the identification of elements of few millimiters, like a lituus or some letters [20]. If it is not possible from the original, nor it will not be possible from reproductions.

Three-dimensional elaboration of the Shroud portion of the right eye, which Filas used to demonstrate his thesis. Source: see note [b].

For what concerning the coins found by Filas, there are not agreed opinions among the sindonologist. In fact, some of them point out that the presumed coind of the Shroud and that found coincide in a right-handed sense, whilst others affirm they overlap in a left-handed sense; this could be attributed to some presumed erroneous substitutions of the letters. The writing of the coins under the emperor Tiberius was Tiberiou Kaisaros, string of letters where there is not the C seen by Filas [21]. Then, sindonologists hypothesized several errors of coinage, without finding a point of convergence. 

In addition, in all the most recent photos of the Shroud, in the three-dimensional scans and the deepen analysis, there is no trace of a coin, as Bollone himself has admitted later [22].

Was it only a pareidolia phenomenon? 

Pollen and plants

A controversial analysis on the powders and pollens, object of collection on the Shroud, was conducted by the criminologist from Zurich, Max Frei Sulzer, in  1973. The results, published three years later, generated many doubts. Conducted with the electron miscroscopy, the analysis allowed the identification of 60 different pollen species, of which 21 are original of Palestine and 1 from Constantinople [11]. The author’s conclusione was that the palynological distribution was perfectly compatible with that of the Shroud (or the alleged one). 

The results of the study led by Max Frei Sulzer have been widely criticized, since they had not taken into consideration the contaminations occurred during the centuries [23]. Additionally, it appears unlikely to identify a so high number of vegetables species since, by the study of the pollen, it is so difficult to identify the genre.

Possibility of blood traces

How the image of the Holy Shroud has formed? It is probably the fundamental question for trying to discern if it is authentic or not. If the Shroud is the image of a dead, and it is real, then blood traces, that smeared the fabric, will be found. Moreover, if it was, there would be too many circumstantial elements for not affirming that it is effectively of Christ. Nonetheless, if it was a false, the work could be inspired clearly by the same story of the crucified Christ. A false could be obtained by the use of a mannequin, or even a human model still alive. In both cases, the blood could be used, whose traces should be found equally.

How the spots of the Holy Shroud have formed?

Different and fundamental probative value could be to demonstrate that there is not any trace of blood in the Shroud. In this last case, it could be necessary a robust analysis, in order to be sure that it is a false. However, among the several test made on the Shroud, it was certainly found iron, but nobody could understand if this element is the result of a degradation process of the blood hemoglobin or some dye, like the red ocher. In addition, the spots that have formed the image of the man of the Shroud are of two categories: if the darker ones could seem streams of blood, how the brighter spots, which correspond to the almost totality, have formed? 

Lastly, it could not be deny, for mere skepticism, a process of formation of the image which is not understandable, or that science could not confirm. In fact, there is always a possibility, for faith, that the Shroud is actually the result of a Resurrection miracle.

First laboratory exams and blood test 

The several exams made on the Holy Shroud to evidence the possible presence of blood traces ca not be analyzed in detail; below a resume of the main ones.

Guido Filogamo, anatomy teacher, and his collaborator Alberto Zina were the first to search for the presence of traces of blood corpuscles (1969). The exams did not show the presence nor of red blood cells nor other corpuscle elements [24]. Instead, the scientists affirmed to having found residuals of coloring substances.

Later, in 1973, the forensic analysis laboratory of Modena, led by the professor Frache, examined some filaments of the Shroud cloth. According to the author, the results of the exam identified the absence of blood traces and residues of dyes [25].

Walter McCrone’s test

Walter McCrone, at the time microscopist consultant of the STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project, 1980), found the presence of traces of iron oxide. He attributed the finding of a mineral from the process of degradation of the red ocher, a pigment of vegetable origin [26]. Nevertheless, the STURP, still in business today, was not agree with the McCrone thesis, since the methodology was not considered correct. In particular, the most ferocious criticism was that the samples taken from the Shroud were analyzed by the polarized light microscopy, without being previously purified. The tape they were attached to could have altered the detection.

Reply by the STURP

In the same year, contextually to McCrone, the same sample were analyzed by the chemists John Heller and Alan David Adler, belonging to the STURP. Contrary to what affirmed by their colleague, they declared that the iron presence was due to the degradation of the blood traces. If it was not true, the scholars suggested that they could be found even other elements present in the red ocher, like  aluminum, sulfur, potassium, calcium, etc. 

Moreover, Heller and Adler sustained that the Shroud contained residuals of hemoglobin, albumin and bilirum[27]. Their conclusion derived from the fact that the spot disappeared from the Shroud if subjected to proteolytic enzymes. Nonetheless, they reveal also the presence of small traces of dyes, like the cinnabar. The main critic to the Heller and Adler study is the poor specificity of the test performed that, according to Garlaschelli, could give a positive outcome if subjected to a vegetable.

Red blood cells in a blood smear, light microscopy. The hemoglobin is a protein structure inside the red globes, which contains iron and has the role of linking the oxygen. Although the protein structures and the cells degradates overtime, it is possible to find the traces by the residuals composed by iron atoms.

Immunohistochemistry exams 

In 1982 Baima Bollone, Maria Jorio and Anna Lucia Massaro found iron traces. The study is based on an immunological type test. According to the authors, it reveals that the stains of the Shroud are compatible with human blood of the group AB [28]. Even in this case, the limits of the study could be attributable to the insufficient specificity of the analysis, although Bollone guaranteed that it was calibrated for the identification of a specific type of hemoglobin, called acid methemoglobin. 

Another critique to the Bollone’s study came from Vittorio Pesce Delfino, professor of anthropology from the University of Bari. He declared that the iron found in the traces of the Shroud is not necessarily compatible with hemoglobin (1982), but it could be attributable to the iron oxide of the red ocher [29].

Giulia Moscardi and the Raman microscopy

Giulia Moscardi, PhD student in Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry from the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, has affirmed to having found the presence of non-crystalline iron oxides (2008), by using the Raman microscopy technique. They could be products deriving from the blood degradation, or pigments and materials used in painting [30]. The author of the study support the first thesis, affirming that the contaminations were attributable to the non-hemoglobin pigments.

A Bloodstain Pattern Analysis test

In 2018 Matteo Borrini from the university of Liverpool, and Luigi Garlaschelli, from the Committed for the Control of affirmations on the pseudosciences (Cicap) have replicated, with the Bloodstain Pattern Analysis forensic techniques, the distribution of blood traces of the Shroud. The study has suggested that they are not compatible with any positions of a real body, both standing upright and lying down [31].

The thesis by Simone Scotto di Carlo

By a careful analysis on the possible blood traces on the relic, the engineer Simone Scotto di Carlo reveals that, actually, they could be a residual of a chemical compound with the same characteristics of the blood; an acid could be used to reproduce the most superficial stains [32]. The scholar concludes that the relic is a Medieval false, realized by a team of exceptional counterfeiters with multiple competences.

Conclusions and hypothesis

Over the centuries, the debate about the Holy Shroud has got increasingly absolute positions. The supporters of the veridicity of the Shroud are opposed by the supporters of the scientific method, of the non-objectivability of the same. In fact, it is not sufficient a proposal of a study, which could be realized under the rules of the technique and science; it is necessary that even this analysis could be replicated and lead to the same results. Science is not a persuasion. If it is affirmed the presence of an imprint of a Roman currency on a linen cloth, it will be necessary to provide the conditions of provability, so that everyone, through the same tools, could detect it.

First photo of the Shroud, by Secondo Pia (1898).

The criticity is not if the Shroud is a faith or science issue; but whether faith and science are mixed in such a brutal way. This does not mean that they are incompatible! But if one has to believe in science by faith or vice versa, this will appear so singular. It is a common trap. This does not occur only for some sindonologist, it is only one side of the same coin; the other side is scientism: the blind belief that science is absolute and infallible truth, that even appears as a form of fideistic approach. Actually, science works as long as it is not falsifiable and falsified. The inductivist turkey by Russell and Popper well knows how it is perfect only the Christmas’ Eve!

A debate destined to last for a long time 

Here the tormented events about the Shroud debates. There are not scientific proves, nor historical, so robust to end the discussions about its authenticity. Someone could object that the circumstantial picture could lean towards one of the opposite poles, but this will be true until the next analysis, the next historical research, who knows.

Actually, the Holy Shroud is not authentic, nor a false. Or better, it is authentic to the extent to which it is to be believed authentic; it is false until contrary proven. Its value goes beyond the importance of the context, as happens for symbolisms.

The Shroud is symbol of humanity, it overcomes the mere value of the object. It is a mirror: every man could project himself in it and find what he truly believes, he could see the way to approach the world. The Shroud is that page of infinite white the writer fixes silent, before he asks himself what he really wants to put it on.

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

NOTES

[1] These were the years of the Western schism, that the Church lived after the Avignonese captivity.

[2] It is clear from the correspondence exchanges between the antipope Clement VII and the bishop of Troyes, Pierre d’Arcis, that the Shroud was in Lirey thanks to Geoffroy de Charny in 1356.

[3] Bull by the antipope Clement VII at the IP address of the State archive: https://archiviodistatotorino.beniculturali.it/SalaStudio/dettaglio_inventari.php?id=457510

[4] Supporters of the authenticity.

[5] Evagrio lo Scolastico, Storia Ecclesiastica; Eusebio di Cesarea, Historia ecclesiastica.

[6] It is described in a writing by the theologian Giovanni Damasceno: “It is told that Jesus took a cloth and, pressing it on his face, he left his image on the cloth”.

[7] Ian Wilson, Holy Faces, Secret places, 1991; The Shroud of Turin, 1979.

[8] Sermone di Gregorio Referendario, at the arrival of the relic in Constantinople.

[9] Roberto di Clary, citato in Luigi Garlaschelli, Processo alla Sindone.

[10] Thomas Madden, Donald Queller (1997). The forth crusade: the conquest of Constantinople. University of Pennsylvania Press, Second Edition.

[11] Sindone, un’immagine impossibile, Emanuela Marinelli, 1998, Edizioni San Paolo.

[12] P. Baima Bollone: Sindon, giugno 2000.

[13] Luigi Garlaschelli, Micromega, 4/2010. 

[14] Joseph G. Marino, M. Sue Benford (2008). Discrepancies in the radiocarbon dafing area of the Turin shroud. Chemistry Today 26(4). 

[15] Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, The Invisible Mending of the Shroud, the Theory and the Reality.

[16] Antonio Lombatti, La Sindone e il giudaismo al tempo di Gesù. 

[17] Donald King, and Santina Leve,The Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textile Collection: Embroidery in Britain from 1200 to 1750 (1993).

[18]http://sindone.weebly.com/uploads/1/2/2/0/1220953/2018_rinaldi_le_fonti_di_emanuela_marinelli_per_il_tessuto_della_sindone.pdf

[19]https://www.sindone.org/pls/diocesitorino/v3_s2ew_consultazione.mostra_paginawap?id_pagina=24099

[20] Gian Marco Rinaldi (2018). Le fonti di Emanuela Marinelli per il tessuto della Sindone; Luigi Gonella, fisico del Politecnico di Torino e consulente scientifico del cardinale Ballestrero, citato in Mariano Tomatis, “Sindone di Torino”CICAP.

[21] https://www.cicap.org/n/articolo.php?id=273767

[22] P. Baima Bollone: Sindon, giugno 2000, p. 133, citato in Gian Marco Rinaldi, “La farsa delle monetine sugli occhi”.

[23]  Bernard Ruffin, The Shroud of Turin: the most up-to-date analysis of all the facts regarding the Church’s controversial relic, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 1999; Paul Craddock, Scientific investigation of copies, fakes and forgeries, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2009.

[24] Filogamo, G., Zina, A. (1976). Esami microscopici sulla tela sindonica. Supplemento rivista diocesano torinese: 1-53.

[25] G. Frache, E. Mari Rizzati, E. Mari (1976). Relazione conclusiva sulle indagini d’ordine ematologico praticate su materiale prelevato dalla Sindone, suppl. Rivista diocesana Torinese.

[26] McCrone, Walter C. (1987). Microscopical study of the Turin Shroud. Wiener Berichte über Naturwissenschaft in der Kunst.

[27] John H. Heller e Alan D. Adler. (1980). Blood on the Shroud of Turin. Applied Optics, vol. 19, n. 16, pp. 2742-2744.

[28] Bollone, P.B., Jorio, M., Massaro, A.L. (1981) La dimostrazione della presenza di tracce di sangue umano sulla Sindone. Sindon, vol. 5, n. 30.

[29] Delfino, V.G. (1987). E l’uomo creò la Sindone. Feltrinelli.

[30] Moscardi, G. (2008). Analysis by Raman Microscopy of Powder Samples Drawn from the Turin Shroud, poster presented at the Ohio Shroud Conference, Columbus, Ohio.

[31] Borrini, M., Gargaschelli, L. (2018). A BPA Approach to the Shroud of Turin, in 66th Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, February 17‐22, 2014, Journal of Forensic Sciences, Seattle, 10 luglio 2018. 

[32] Simone Scotto di Carlo (2021). Se questo è un falso. La Sindone come falso medioevale.

[a] http://biblicalcoins.wordpress.com e https://www.cicap.org/n/articolo.php?id=273767#prettyPhoto

[b] By Jordi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61221288

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