The Holy Shroud, among science, history and mystery

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Since its appearance in 1356, the Holy Shroud has generated various and contrasting emotions, theories and beliefs. It represents one of the greatest and most unsolved mysteries of humanity. The image, preserved in Turin, is impressed on a linen cloth and has an incomparable symbolic value that goes beyond the simple material. What is the Holy Shroud? Is it an authentic sovrannatural relic, icon of the faith, or is it a false one? Is it a scientific enigma or a historical document yet to be examined?

Discovery and description of the Holy Shroud

The story of the Holy Shroud began in 1356 in Lirey, France, when a crusader, Geoffroy de Charny, claimed to possess a precious linen cloth coming from the Orient. Later, Geoffroy de Charny decided to donate it to the church of the Canons of the small town in Northern France. This is how the Shroud suddenly and mysteriously made its appearance.

When the Canons saw the cloth, they were incredulous. It was a large cloth, 4.36 meters long and 1.10 meters wide. On a robust herringbone canvas, (the ratio between warp and weft is 1:3) about 0.34 mm thick, there was the blurred figure of a man, as if that indistinct stain was about to disappear at any moment.

Holy Shroud

The Holy Shroud and the Christ’s passion

Since its discovery it has been believed that the Holy Shroud was a linen cloth on which Christ was laid in the tomb, and the image was miraculously impressed on it. In fact, the linen cloth looks so old and the image of the man seems to show the signs of a real crucifixion. However, at that time, somebody suggested that it was an artifact, probably a well-made pictorial reproduction.

Signs of a crucifixion

The Shroud shows the traits of a life-size figure with a beard and long hair. The relic reveals both front and back views, and may be comparable to a burial cloth. It shows a man lying down with his legs slightly bent, his arms crossed over his pelvis, and his eyes opened.

Holy Shroud

Although the image is visible only at a certain distance (one to two meters), it is possible to observe some revealing details. According to the supporters of the authenticity, the Shroud contains rivulets of blood on the head, similar to the injuries caused by a crown of thorns; some contusions compatible with hits of a flagellum to the chest; lesions on the right and left suprascapular region, probably caused by carrying a heavy weight, as was the cross for Christ; a lesion on the side, as described in the Gospels about the episode of St. Longinus; the marks and plagues on the wrists (whose thumbs are not visible) and feet, pierced according to the custom of Roman crucifixions in the first century.

Is the man of the Shroud Jesus Christ?

Could all these elements suggest that the man of the Shroud was really subjected to a terrible torture? The identikit of the man could effectively be that of Jesus Christ.

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

“Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged.  And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head […]. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha […]. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out […]. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom […]”.

Holy Shroud
The painter Giovan Battista della Rovere illustrates how the Shroud could be (17th century)

If the Shroud was a Medieval forgery, however, it would be easier for the forger to reproduce what was written in the Gospels. Thus, other questions need to be examined and demonstrated.

The Holy Shroud as a sign of faith and contradiction

Anyway, the Shroud is a sign of contradiction: it is the bearer of a mystery which has divided the opinion of the faithful. It has the power of revealing the hearts of men: what is the approach to faith? Is believing in God, in the afterlife or in the truthfulness of a mystical object, a process of complete irrationality or a need for a tangible and provable testimony, as a sign? Since its discovery the Shroud has represented an existential discussion. This is why the bishop of Troyes Pierre d’Arcis forbade its ostension, doubting about its authenticity.

Moreover, is it a matter of faith as a material object, an expression of the story of Christ, or does it have a symbolic and evangelical message? The Shroud is the first object in human history that could so clearly reveal man’s faith. 

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

The great debate over the Shroud is based on conflicting theses. Some scholars point out that the relic is a forgery, probably from the Medieval period. Others argue for its authenticity. The question has been examined in two different ways: one based on the study of historiographic sources, the other has contributed to the debate with a technical-scientific analysis.

If the Shroud were a forgery, it would be the product and we could show when and how it was made. If it were authentic, it would be necessary to reconstruct the historical path and prove that it was not made by a man. Below is an in-depth examination of the historical sources and scientific reasons that have tried to shed light on the mystery of the Shroud

The study of the sources: discovering the origin of the Holy Shroud

Over time, historiography has aimed to understand and to reconstruct the complex history of the Shroud. It is not easy, since the multiplicity of sources, sometimes questionable, makes the examination extremely complex. 

The history of the Shroud could be analysed by means of three hypothetical documentary moments: the sources related to the finding; the attestations from the end of the 14th century to today; finally, the history of the relic results in an interpretative crossroads: if the Shroud was a Medieval forgery, the historiographic sources would be finished here, but if it was authentic, it would be necessary to find traces of an existence before its arrival in Lirey. Hence, it is important to do an honest documentary research to understand the authenticity of the relic.

The discovery of the Holy Shroud and the first disputes

Since its discovery, the Holy Shroud has raised many debates. It was venerated in the whole region, attracting many pilgrims from Europe to Lirey. However, it was subject to an investigation by the bishop of Troyes, Pierre d’Arcis, who prohibited its ostension, considering it a forgery. So the canons of Lirey, who disagreed, asked for the intervention of the antipope Clement VII, who was considered the legitimate pope in France [1].

In those years (1389-1390) the antipope and the bishop wrote numerous letters to each other. This correspondence is crucial for the historiographic reconstructions about the relic [2]. In particular, a letter by the bishop attested that the Shroud had been exhibited for the first time 34 years before revealing that he did not believe in its authenticity because “if an imprint had been visible on Christ’s burial cloth, the Gospels would have mentioned it”. The letter emphasised the avarice of the Canons of Lirey and pointed out that a painter had claimed to be the author of the sindonic image. Due to this fact it could be the relic was hidden in the following years.

The bull of Clement VII and the medallion of Paris

However, Pierre d’Arcis could not provide any concrete proof for his considerations. Then Clement VII, born Robert of Geneva, answered him by four bulls in 1390. He allowed the ostension of the Shroud only if it was expressly declared to be a pictura seu tabula, a painting made by a man. So, the authenticity and the supernatural dimension of the relic were rejected [3].

There is a document that seems to prove the real historicity of the claim. It is a lead medallion, found in the Seine in 1855 (now in Cluny), showing the coats of arms of Geoffroy de Charny, his wife and the image of the Shroud. Considering that Geoffroy died in 1356 during the Battle of Poitiers, it is possible that the Shroud was displayed while he was still alive.

Seine River medallion

Historiographical criticism

Over the centuries, Pierre d’Arcis’ letter to Clement VII has been the most important document regarding the Shroud’s authenticity. In particular, the historian Ulysse Chevalier (1841-1923) argued that the relic was a fake. Although he was a Catholic, he wanted to free society and the Church from false beliefs and unprovable conjectures. However, the documents he provided failed to convince the opponents. A Salesian, Luigi Fossati, pointed out that Pierre d’Arcis’ letter was not a historical source, but was influenced by the author’s impartiality.

The Holy Shroud and the city of Turin

The Shroud is newly mentioned in a document of 1418 by Count Humbert de La Roche in a receipt addressed to the canons of Lirey. He had obtained the custody of the relic and of the church furnishings because of some implications of the Hundred Years War. Lirey was considered an unsafe area, and it was an excuse for never returning the Shroud to the Canons, even after a favourable judgement of the court whose intervention they had requested (1443).

An unexpected event occurred in 1453: Humbert’s widow, Marguerite, donated the relic to Anne of Lusignan, wife of the Duke of Savoia, Ludovico. Marguerite was excommunicated for this sudden decision, but preferred to die without the grace of God rather than return the linen cloth to the church of Lirey. The Canons therefore asked the Duke of Savoy to intervene. He answered with a letter on February 6th, 1464, refusing the restitution of the Shroud and offering an annual fee. Since then the relic was preserved in Chambéry.

The veneration of the Holy Shroud and the fire of 1532

The public veneration of the Shroud began in 1506, when Pope Julius II, a great innovator of the arts and promoter of the Roman Renaissance, approved a proper liturgy. 

In 1532 the Holy Shroud risked being lost when a fire broke out in the Sainte-Chapelle of Chambery Castle on the morning of 3-4 December. The cloth fortunately resisted, but was marked by a series of symmetrical burns along its entire length, partially attributable to the melted silver from its reliquary. In 1534, the Poor Clare nuns tried to repair the damage by patching up the burnt parts. They also placed the Shroud in a stronger holder of cloth from Holland.

Was the Holy Shroud previously damaged by the fire?

The shroud image is characterized by the burns caused by the fire of 1532, the halos left by the water used to extinguish it and the patches made. In addition, there are several testimonies that the Shroud had already been exposed to fire because of the candles placed near it. Some circular burn marks can be observed at the height of the hands. These signs have also been reproduced on a painting from 1516, which some scholars have attributed to Albrecht Durer. Therefore, it is possible to assume that they were present on the Shroud before the Chambéry fire. 

The Shroud’s patches have made its dating, through the carbon-14 method, difficult and controversial.

Holy Shroud
Note the triangular stains and the longitudinal burn marks, clearly visible and overlapping the Shroud image.

In Turin

In 1578, Cardinal San Carlo Borromeo expressed his desire to see the Shroud. According to tradition, he promised to venerate the relic if Milan would be free of the plague. However, when the epidemics ended, the cardinal was tired. For this reason, the Duke Emanuele Filiberto of Savoia ordered that the linen cloth was transferred to Turin and St. Charles Borromeo could fulfill his vow. From then on, the Holy Shroud remained in Turin.

Turin, Piazza Castello

The relic had first placed in the church of San Lorenzo, and then moved to the cathedral of San Giovanni Battista. Finally, it has been located in the chapel of the Holy Shroud made by Guarino Guarini (1694). In the meanwhile, the linen was patched again by the Blessed Sebastiano Valfrè.

Church of San Lorenzo

Last years

After the death of Umberto II of Savoia in 1983, the Holy See became the new owner of the Shroud according to his testamentary will. However, Pope John Paul II decided that the relic had to remain in Turin. Five years later, it was possible to extract a fragment of the cloth for scientific analysis, in particular for estimating the date using the radiocarbon-14 method.

In 1997 the Shroud was at risk of being lost again by a fire inside the Guarini Chapel. Providentially, the linen cloth had been previously moved to the center of the choir in the Cathedral, since the chapel was under restoration.

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

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

The hypotheses about the supposed existence of the Holy Shroud before its discovery

If the Holy Shroud were authentic, it would be possible to trace its history before its first appearance in France. In fact, it is unimaginable that such an important relic as it is could disappear or not be mentioned for thirteen centuries after its origin. If it had been the Shroud of Christ, it would have been highly venerated and mentioned in several written documents.

This has not happened, allegedly due to several reasons. A first hypothesis, supported by the authenticity promoters, concerns an etymological issue. In particular, the word ‘shroud’, referring to the relic, was probably used only after its Medieval discovery. The term ‘shroud’ (from the Greek sindon) was generally used to indicate a cloth, a sheet. If the Shroud was authentic, could it be that some other term was used for it in ancient times? Are there historical sources about a relic that could be identified as the Shroud, but referred to by different terms?

The iconography of Christ

A first proof of the existence of the Shroud before the Middle Ages, argued by the ” sindonologists” [4] is referred to the iconography of Christ. They claim that the image of the adolescent Good Shepherd of the first centuries changed into a figure of an adult and bearded man because of the Shroud. Even the depiction of the imago pietatis in which Christ walks away from the tomb could derive from the Shroud tradition.

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

The iconographic expression of a man with beard has begun during the reign of Theodosius in Ravenna (379-395), although some contemporary and later buildings still exhibited a beardless Christ.

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

However, according to the proponents of authenticity, the Shroud corresponded to a different historically known relic. Two “candidate” icons have been identified. In order for an icon to be a “candidate,” three characteristics have to be satisfied: its existence has to be deducible from proven historical sources, its dimensions and characteristics have to be compatible with the Shroud, and it has to be missing or lost today.

The Veil of Veronica

A first “candidate” icon is the well-known Veil of Veronica, a holy face venerated in Rome until 1608, when it was lost while the new St. Peter’s Basilica was being constructed. It was a cloth that, according to tradition, showed the true face of Christ. It was used by Veronica to wipe the bloody face of Christ during his ascent to Calvary. The term Veronica is a Latin contraction of the terms “true icon”. Some critics claim that the Veil of Veronica is neither lost nor in Turin: it was transferred to Manoppello, where the Holy Face is still venerated today. 

Holy Shroud
The Holy Face of Manoppello

The Mandylion of Edessa

Another story concerns the so-known Mandylion of Edessa. The image of Christ has been historically attested in the Turkish city since 544 [5]. This relic was considered acheiropoietic and the giver of many miracles. Pictorial reproductions of the Mandylion, now lost, depict a cloth with a bearded face. Could it be possible that this figure has contributed to the spread of the image of a bearded Christ, according to the Byzantine Christ Pantocrator? Furthermore, this detail has suggested that the Mandylion could correspond to the Shroud folded, so that only his face is exposed inside a case.

Icon inspired by the Mandylion

The Mandylion is mentioned during the Council of Nicaea in 787, and also in the writings of John of Damascus [6] whom wanted to preserve it from destruction. In fact, in those years there was a ferocious iconoclastic struggle. 

In 944, the Byzantine general John Kourkouas got the Mandylion and transferred it to Constantinople. Its traces were lost during the Fourth Crusade, as the city suffered a heavy siege in 1204.

The origin of the Mandylion tradition

Eusebius of Caesarea was an important historian. Nevertheless, the first source he reports in his Ecclesiastical History is a letter that Jesus would have sent to the king of Edessa, Abgar (king between 13 and 50 BC). In the letter, Jesus assured Abgar that he would send him a disciple to heal his illness. Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 A.D.) did not mention either the Mandylion or the Holy Face, but his story contributed to the tradition of the Acheiropoeian icon of Edessa. Indeed, some historiographical sources on the Mandylion cited the letter of Jesus, attributing some miraculous power to the sacred icon.  

A 10th century icon showing the king Abgar and the Madylion, Monastery of Santa Caterina sul Sinai, Egypt.

These include the Acts of Thaddeus, a 6th-7th century writing that first attested the presence of a miraculous relic in Edessa. It narrates that the sick king, Abgar, sent his painter to depict the face of Christ in the hope of being healed. However, the painter failed and Jesus took pity and gave him a cloth with his face impressed on it.

Finally, Evagrus Scholasticus [5] testified the presence of the Mandylion in Edessa during the 544 siege. The icon which “they brought the divinely created image, which human hands had not made, the one that Christ the God sent to Abgar” protected the city. This is another citation of the Abgar legend, contained in the Thaddeus Acts. 

Is the Mandylion the Holy Shroud?

There is no historical certainty that the Mandylion was lost. This has contributed to the rise of several hypotheses about its location. The Mandylion could be in Manoppello; in Genoa (the icon in the church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni. It is possible that it is a copy); at the Vatican City in Rome (but this Mandylion is painted on wood and not on canvas); finally that it is the Shroud.

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

The latter is the predominant hypothesis by supporters of the Shroud’s authenticity. Ian Wilson was the first who, in 1978, pointed out the similarities between the two relics and their respective traditions [7]. Specifically, Wilson argued that the Mandylion was the Shroud folded three times in width. This could allow only the face to be shown. Therefore, the cloth could keep in a reliquary. This hypothesis is supported by some signs of the folds on the Turin Shroud, which Wilson says he saw by X-ray photographs.

Ian Wilson’s thesis

In addition, ancient representations of the Mandylion could reproduce a similarly sized reliquary. This is the case of the Acts of Thaddeus, which report the legend of a cloth folded four times. The linen is the Mandylion, and overlapping the Shroud for three times in width, it results folded in eight parts. 

Wilson has shown that an archdeacon in 944, Gregory, wrote that the Mandylion was not a pictorial work, but “has been imprinted only by the sweat from the face of Jesus, falling like drops of blood, and by the finger of God” [8]. Thus, the archdeacon implied that the image was much larger than just the face.

There is no consensus about this historical source: it is possible that Gregory referred to the image of a living person, incompatible with a mortuary cloth.

The chronicles by Robert de Clari

In the hypothesis that the Shroud was the Mandylion of Edessa, some critics have tried to reconstruct the possible historical events that led it to Lirey. The Mandylion was attested in Constantinople until 1204, when it disappeared, probably stolen by the besiegers of the city. A chronicler of the time, Robert de Clari, refers to a disappeared relic as an entire shroud: “There was another of the monasteries called My Lady St. Mary of Blakerne where the Shroud, in which Our Lord was wrapped, was located and every Friday it was entirely exposed, so it was possible to see the figure of Our Lord. And no one knows, neither Greek nor French, what has happened to this Shroud when the city was besieged” [9].

The Holy Shroud and the Knights Templar

Robert de Clari attested to the similarity between the Mandylion and the Holy Shroud, although some scholars have pointed out that it was a different relic [10]. Based on his narrative, it has been speculated that the two cloths were the same shroud. Therefore, some scholars have suggested that the Knights Templar stole the Shroud-Mandylion in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, and brought it to Lirey. According to this hypothesis, the Order of the Temple was dismissed a century later (1312) because of the veneration of a bearded idol, the Baphomet, which resembled the Shroud. Actually, there were other historical and well-documented reasons that prove the political reasons for the dissolution of the Templars and the accusation of heresy.

The Pray Codex of Budapest

Another evidence about the existence of the Shroud before its discovery is a manuscript preserved at the Széchényi National Library in Budapest, the so-called Pray Codex of 1192-1195 [11]. Supporters of this thesis argue that the manuscript contains an image of the burial of Christ as the Holy Shroud of Turin. In particular, the miniature could reproduce the correct posture of the dead man, with his arms crossed on the pubis, with the thumbs flexed not visible. Moreover, the figure of the Budapest codex imitates the circular burns and the herringbone pattern of the Shroud. 

Holy Shroud

An alternative hypothesis is suggested: the representation in the manuscript may not be a fabric, but the stylization of a stone surface.

Scientific analysis

The debate on the authenticity of the Shroud, as the sudarium that wrapped the body of Christ, has also involved some scientific analyses. The progress of science has made it possible to analyze the Shroud through different techniques: the famous radiocarbon analysis, the medico-legal investigations, the detailed examination of the cloth and its organic materials. Each of these has been discussed and is still a topic of discussion among sindonologists, supporters of authenticity, and the majority of scientists.

Below, the different approaches of the Shroud analysis.

Medical-legal appraisals and analysis

Different medico-legal analyses on the Shroud have tried to establish whether it is the imprint of a real man, or only a representation. One criterion of the analysis has been to demonstrate if the man on the Shroud was dead, since the identification of elements not compatible with a rigor mortis could address the critics towards the hypothesis of a forgery. 

The sindonologists’ point of view

The sindonologists’ opinion is well represented by the studies of Pierluigi Baima Bollone [12], pathologist of the University of Turin. He argues that the body imprinted on the Shroud corresponds to a man who has just come down from the cross, in a state of rigor mortis. Bollone notes a slight lowering of the head and knees, a fixity of the neck and facial muscles.

Garlaschelli’s medico-legal analysis

Garlaschelli, a famous chemist at the University of Pavia, has raised some doubts that the image imprinted on the Shroud is of a dead person [13]. His medico-legal analysis shows that the disposition of the body is not compatible with a rigor mortis. The signs on the Shroud (e.g. the hands on the pubis) show a forced position of the limbs that in a natural condition of death should instead retreat to the height of the stomach.

In addition, the analysis shows that the signs of the flagellations would also be unrealistic, since the lacerations are too symmetrical and regular. The same thesis applies to the rivulets of blood in the head, which tradition associates with a crown of thorns. In fact, according to gravity, they should flow downwards and along the hair, but in the Shroud this does not happen.

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

The research of Bernardo Hontanilla Calatayud

A similar thesis was proposed by the Professor Bernardo Hontanilla Calatayud, University of Navarra. In a recent study (published in August 2019 in the journal Scientia et Fides), he tried to show that the semi-curved position of the neck, knees and ankles is not compatible with rigor mortis. However, Hontanilla did suggest another evocative thesis: the Holy Shroud could be the image of a living person. This would be deducible from the time required for rigor mortis, which was accelerated by the beatings to which the man was subjected. According to Hontanilla, the image imprinted on the Shroud could represent a man getting up after three days of burial, just like the resurrected Christ. 

Position of the nails

The position of the nail print could permit to investigate the authenticity of the Shroud. For this purpose, French physician Pierre Barbet has studied this question. He tried to verify if the nail marks correspond to a realistic situation. According to tradition, the lacerations of the crucifixion were in the palm of the Christ’s hand, and so it appears on the Shroud.

Actually, it is widely believed that a man crucified through the palm of the hand could not remain in that position for a very long time. The soft tissues would tend to tear, causing the body to fall. Barbet considers it more realistic that the nails were hammered into the wrist, at the Destot space. In fact, the Shroud image appears to be without the thumbs. Here, the nails would damage the median nerve, causing it to flex toward the palm.

Holy Shroud
Hands of the man of the Shroud, detail

Doubts about the face

Professor Garlaschelli pointed out that the imprint would be larger if the Shroud was placed on the face of a real person. Instead, the man of the Shroud shows an over-proportioned face, whose front part is the only visible element.  

The Mask of Agamemnon, in gold foil

According to Garlaschelli, the lack of width is attributable to the use of a bas-relief, rather than a dead body, which was smeared with red ochre and on which the linen cloth could be placed.

The objection of sindonologists is that the exact mechanism of formation of the image is not known. It could be formed not by contact, as claimed by Garlaschelli, but by irradiation. Therefore, the portion of the face shown during this process is only the front one, for reasons of perspective projection.

Radiocarbon examinations

In 1988, the Holy See authorized the long-awaited carbon 14 analysis of the Shroud. The examination served to identify the spectrum of carbon isotopic frequencies in order to estimate a possible date for the artifact.

A carbon atom is a chemical element with an atomic mass of 12. However, it is also present in isotopic form as carbon 13 or carbon 14. In particular, the latter is radioactive and has a decay time of 5570 years, at the end of which it becomes nitrogen 14. By estimating the relative abundance of carbon 14, it is possible to indicate the period of origin of an object with organic residues.

Franco Testore, professor of tissue technology at the Politecnico di Torino, and Giovanni Riggi di Numana, microanalyst, took some strips of tissue measuring about 10 mm x 70 mm. The sample was compared with nine other control finds attributable to a Nubian burial from 1100 AD, the cloak of St. Louis of Anjou (dated between the 13th and 14th centuries) and an Egyptian mummy from the 2nd century AD. Then, the samples, located inside unidentifiable metal cylinders for making the analysis objective and not falsifiable, were sent to three different laboratories. Finally, they were analyzed, with a well-defined protocol, at the Radiodating Laboratories of the Universities of Oxford, the Departments of Geosciences and Physics of the University of Arizona, and the Department of Physics of the ETH Zurich, with the technique of mass spectrometry.

The results of the examination

In October 1988 Cardinal Ballestrero announced the results of the examination. The three fragments analyzed gave a surprising dating. The results of the radiocarbon analysis 14 revealed, with a statistical confidence interval of 95% and a margin of error of 10 years, an age estimate between 1260 and 1390. Working independently, the three laboratories had the same results: the Shroud could be of Medieval origin. Furthermore, the estimated date is compatible with the mysterious apparition at Lirey.    

Critiques to the radiocarbon analysis

Most of the critiques of the dating obtained with the radiocarbon 14 technique concern possible contamination. According to this theory, the linen obtained a higher percentage of isotopes during the centuries of prolonged display and due to the fumes of the Chambery fire. In addition, the Holland cloth backing and the patches, both added by the nuns who preserved it in 1534, would play a significant role in the contamination of the Shroud.

According to this hypothesis, the fragment taken from the Shroud is one of the parts most exposed to contamination, due to its proximity to burns and 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 eleventh century by the radiocarbon dating.

Further thesis

Garza Valdés, a microbiology researcher at the University of San Antonio, Texas, said he found the presence of Lichenotelia on the threads of the Shroud. This is a complex of microorganisms, mainly fungi and bacteria, that could alter carbon isotopic percentages during mass spectometry. 

In 2000 two chemistry researchers, Joseph Marino and Mervyn Benford [14], suggested a hypothesis according to which the sample examined with the carbon 14 technique was part of a non-original piece of cloth. The thesis, which seems fanciful, is based on a possible exchange of cloth: Margaret of Austria, duchess consort of Savoy, donated a part of the Shroud to a church she founded. Later, she ordered the replacement of the missing part with newer threads of cloth. 

In this regard, it is also worth mentioning a study by Dr. Flury-Lemberg [15], an expert on ancient textiles, which has rejected this thesis. During the restoration of the Shroud in 2002, she meticulously examined the Shroud and has found no fibers from a later period.

Analysis of the cloth

Concerning the type of texture of the Shroud, some comparative analyses have been made to verify whether the composition of the cloth could be dated to the first century or to the Middle Ages. The linen cloth has a rudimentary weaving, called herringbone, with a weft-/warp-ratio of 1:3 diagonally. This type of manufacture has been the subject of extensive study and research.

Holy Shroud
Fragment of the Shroud cloth 

The Shroud of Turin has been compared with mortuary sheets from the Jewish period; among these, the Akeldamà Shroud, dated to the first century and found by archaeologist Shimon Gibson. This shroud was discovered together with a tissue that in Jewish times was placed over the face of the deceased to contain the flow of blood and prevent the evaporation of aromatic ointments. The Akeldamà finding has several differences from the Shroud. First, it differs in a weft to warp ratio of 1:1. The weave is certainly more compatible with other mortuary shrouds found in the Middle Eastern area, which have the same 1:1 ratio, or sometimes 2:2, and a spinning in S [16].

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

On the other hand, the arguments proposed by sindonologists concerning the origin of the Shroud to the first century seem weak and without a real scientific evidence. These theses have been analyzed and rejected by Gian Carlo Rinaldi [18].

The presumed existence of Roman coins

In 1931, for the wedding between Prince Umberto II of Savoia and Princess Maria José, the Holy Shroud was exposed to the public. During the event the photographer Giuseppe Enrie was authorized to take a series of photos. Over time the images, in black and white, were analyzed and scanned in place of the original linen cloth. 

Photo taken by Giuseppe Enrie

In 1979 Francis Filas, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, announced that he had found a coin in the right eye of the man in the Shroud. Filas claimed that the coin dated to the period of Pontius Pilate, sometime between 29 and 32 AD. The professor reported that he had identified the lituus, the effigy of Emperor Tiberius and the letters UCAI.

A coin with the lituus similar to the one Fillas claimed to have found in the Shroud. Source: see note [a].

Baima Bollone and Nello Balossino conducted studies in an attempt to confirm the plausibility of Filas’ finding. In addition, the two scholars stated that they had found on the left eyebrow a Roman coin, the simpulum, coeval with the coin identified by Fillas.

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

Some time later, Filas claimed to have found two coins of Pontius Pilate compatible with the one in the right eye of the Shroud, which also have the same spelling errors. 

What coins?

However, a few questions need to be examined, which suggest that Filas and Bollone’s studies are not scientifically robust. First, both of the alleged coins were identified on a single black-and-white photo dating from 1931, and not on the original sindonic cloth. In addition, the Shroud has a too limited resolution (about half a centimeter) to allow the identification of elements of a few millimeters, such as a lituus or some letters [20]. If it is not possible from the original, neither will it be possible from the photos.

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

Even among sindonologists there is no a shared opinion about the coins found by Filas. Some of them point out that the supposed Shroud coin and the other coincide in a right-handed sense, but someone else in a left-handed sense; this is attributable to possible incorrect substitutions of the letters. Moreover, the writing of the coins during the Tiberius empire was Tiberiou Kaisaros, a string of letters where there is no C as seen by Filas [21]. Then, sindonologists have speculated on several errors of coinage, without reaching a common opinion. 

Moreover, in the most recent photos of the Shroud, three-dimensional scans and in-depth analyses, there is no trace of a coin, as even Bollone had to admit [22].

Was it just a pareidolia phenomenon?

Pollen and plants

A controversial analysis on the dusts and pollens found on the Shroud was conducted by the Zurich criminologist Max Frei Sulzer in 1973. The results, published three years later, have raised many doubts. Through analysis using electron microscopy, Sulzer has identified 60 different species of pollens, of which 21 are original of Palestine and 1 of Constantinople [11]. The criminologist has argued that the palynological distribution was perfectly compatible with the history of the Shroud (or the presumed one). 

The results of the study conducted by Max Frei Sulzer are widely criticized because they do not consider the contaminations occurred over the centuries [23]. Moreover, it seems implausible to identify such a large number of plant species since, since it is already difficult to identify the pollen genus.

Blood traces on the Holy Shroud?

How was the image of the Holy Shroud formed? This is probably the fundamental question in trying to discern if this relic is authentic. If the Shroud were the image of a dead person, traces of blood would be found on the cloth. Also there would be much evidence that it is the Shroud of Christ. On the other hand, if it were a forgery, the work could only be inspired by the story of the crucified Christ. A forgery could be obtained by using a mannequin or a living man as a model. In both case, the linen would contain traces of blood.

Holy Shroud
How did the stains form on the Holy Shroud?

Another chapter of the research is to prove that there is no trace of blood in the Shroud. In this scenario, we would be certain that it is a forgery. The various analyses conducted on the Shroud have found traces of iron, but no one has been able to verify whether this is the result of a degradation process of the hemoglobin in the blood or some dye, such as red ochre. In addition, the stains that form the Shroud man’s image are of two categories: the darker ones look like rivulets of blood, the origin of the others is rather mysterious. 

Finally, it is not possible to deny an image formation process that is not yet known. In fact, there is the faith-based possibility that the Shroud is actually the result of a resurrection miracle.

The first laboratory exams and blood test on the Holy Shroud

Below is a summary of the main exams on the Shroud aimed at testing the presence of blood traces.

Guido Filogamo, an anatomy teacher, and his collaborator Alberto Zina were the first to look for the presence of blood cells on the Shroud (1969). The tests reveal the absence of either red blood cells or other corpuscular elements [24]. Instead, the scientists have claimed to have found residues of dyes.

In 1973 the forensic analysis laboratory of Modena, led by Professor Frache, examined some filaments of the Shroud. The findings indicated the absence of blood traces [25].

Walter McCrone’s test

Walter McCrone, who was a consultant microscopist at STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project, 1980) at the time, found the presence of traces of iron oxide. He has attributed this discovery to the degradation process of red ochre, a pigment of plant origin [26]. However, STURP is in disagreement with McCrone’s thesis because the methodology was not considered correct. In particular, the samples taken from the Shroud were analyzed under a polarized light microscope, without a previous purification. Also, it could be the tape they were attached altered the sample.

The reply by the STURP

The same sample has been analyzed by chemists John Heller and Alan David Adler, belonging to STURP. Contrary to what stated by McCrone they have interpreted the presence of iron as being due to the degradation of traces of blood. The scholars argue that other elements present in the red ochre, such as aluminum, sulfur, potassium and calcium should also be found.

Moreover, Heller and Adler have stated that the Shroud contains residuals of hemoglobin, albumin and bilirum[27]. Their conclusion comes from the evidence that the shroud stain disappears when exposed to proteolytic enzymes. Nonetheless, they also reveal the presence of small traces of dyes, as the cinnabar. The main critique of Heller and Adler’s study is the low specificity of the test which, according to Garlaschelli, could give a positive result when subjected to a vegetable.

A blood smear with red blood cells, optical microscopy. Hemoglobin is a protein within red blood cells that contains iron and has the role of binding oxygen. Although protein structures and cells degrade over time, traces of it can be found by residues consisting of iron atoms.

Immunohistochemistry exams

In 1982 Baima Bollone, Maria Jorio and Anna Lucia Massaro found iron traces on the Shroud. 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 argues that the iron found in the Shroud traces is not necessarily compatible with hemoglobin (1982), but could be attributable to the iron oxide in red ochre [29].

Giulia Moscardi and the Raman microscopy

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

Bloodstain Pattern Analysis test

In 2018, Matteo Borrini (University of Liverpool) and Luigi Garlaschelli (Cicap) replicated with forensic Bloodstain Pattern Analysis techniques the distribution of blood traces on the Shroud. The study suggested that they are not compatible with any position of a real body, neither standing nor lying down [31].

The thesis by Simone Scotto di Carlo

Through a careful analysis of the possible blood traces on the relic, the engineer Simone Scotto di Carlo has proposed that they could be only a residual of chemical compounds with the same characteristics of blood; an acid could be used for reproducing the most superficial stains [32]. The scholar concludes that the relic is a Medieval forgery, made by a team of counterfeiters.

Conclusions and hypothesis

Over the centuries, the debate on the Shroud has evolved into polarized opinions. Supporters of the Shroud’s authenticity are opposed by supporters of the scientific method. In fact, it is not enough to propose a study that cannot be replicated and lead to the same results. Science is not persuasion. If a scholar affirms the presence of an imprint of a Roman coin on a linen cloth, he must provide the conditions of demonstrability, so that everyone, through the same instruments, could detect it.

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

The critical issue is not whether the Shroud is a matter of faith or science; but that faith and science are confused with each other. This does not mean that they are incompatible, but that people often believe in science by faith or vice versa. This is not just true for sindonologists, the other side of the coin is scientism: the blind belief that science is the only infallible truth, which even appears as a form of fideistic approach. In reality, the central property of science is falsifiability. Bertrand Russell’s inductivist turkey knows how science is perfect only until Christmas Eve!

A debate destined to continue

There is neither scientific nor historical evidence robust enough to end discussions of its authenticity. If someone claims to know the truth, that will be true until the next analysis, until the next historical research.

Actually, the Holy Shroud is neither authentic nor a forgery. Or rather, it is authentic if it is believed to be authentic; it is false until proved otherwise. Its value goes beyond the importance of the context, as happens with symbols.

The Shroud is a symbol of humanity, it goes beyond the mere value of the object. It is a mirror: everyone can see himself in it and find what he really believes in. The Shroud is a page of infinite white that the writer stares at in silence, before asking himself what he wants to write about the life.

Samuele Corrente Naso and Daniela Campus

Notes – 1

[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: link

[4] Supporters of the authenticity.

[5] Evagrius Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History; 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.

Notes – 2

[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] Link pdf

[19] Link

[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.

Notes – 3


[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] e

[b] By Jordi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, link


Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and old-fashioned things, such as uncertain symbolism or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues mystery through adventure but that, inexplicably, is always one step further.

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