The Mystery of the Holy Shroud of Turin
By R.J. Matava
On Good Friday, April 10, the Holy Shroud of Turin was publicly exhibited online in response to thousands of requests made to Archbishop Caesare Nosiglia of Turin, Italy, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This was an extraordinary opportunity, for the shroud is usually only revealed a few times per century. The shroud is an ancient textile 14 ½’ long by 3 ¾’ wide bearing the mysterious image of a crucified man. It is widely acclaimed to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus. Over the last half century, it has been the object of hundreds of thousands of hours of scientific investigation, leading to the opinion of some experts that, from a scientific standpoint, it may be the single most exhaustively examined historical artifact in human history. While the Church has not issued any official verdict regarding the shroud’s authenticity (and probably never will), what is beyond doubt is that the shroud is not only a sign of our Lord’s passion and death, but also of his Resurrection, which we celebrate in this season.
The shroud is a linen twill with the characteristics of a costly burial cloth from Jesus’s day. Its threads are woven in a 3:1 under-over herringbone pattern, uncommon, but not unheard of, in first-century Palestine (such a weave was similarly uncommon in medieval Europe). While the textile is strong and in exceptionally good condition for its age, it has sustained visible fire and water damage from an accidental chapel fire in 1532, as well as multiple burn holes when, in the Middle Ages, the folded cloth was repeatedly pierced with a hot, sharp object. Despite this damage, the fabric appears clean and smooth with a kind of sheen, which may be explained by the clear, varnish-like biogenic coating on the shroud’s fibrils (the microscopic threads of a fiber). This coating—like the plastic insulation around an electrical wire—is naturally produced by the microorganisms that populate the surface of the shroud, and may hold the key to the late, controversial radiocarbon dating of the shroud: The bioplastic coating, which builds up over time (somewhat like a coral reef), was unknown at the time of the carbon dating and is rich in (comparatively) “young” carbon 14—especially on the edges where hands have handled the shroud for centuries and the C-14 test sample was taken.
The image on the shroud is remarkable for its detail, as well as its anatomical and pathological accuracy. Medical scientists have determined that the image is of a 5’ 11’ man weighing about 178 lbs. who died of injuries consistent with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion. The image also includes information absent from later artistic representations, but which corresponds to other known historical facts. For example, the man has nail marks in his wrists, not his hands. Accordingly, his thumbs are retracted, consistent with each nail’s severance of the median nerve, which controls the thumb. Also, the man has puncture wounds on the top and back of his head, consistent with the botanical facts determining a real Jerusalem crown of thorns, which would have to be cap-like, not ring shaped, as commonly depicted by artists. The man’s face is swollen and abraded, especially on the right side and nose. He has swollen and abraded shoulders. In his right side, he has an elliptical puncture wound beneath his rib cage. The side wound appears to be post-mortem, because there are distinct stains from separate blood and serum (a clear water-like component of blood plasma). Covering his entire back side (including his legs) are well over 100 diagonal wounds consistent to the finest detail with the Roman flagrum—a whip with three leather thongs each tipped with lead balls in the shape of miniature dumbbells. He appears to have been lashed at least 40 times by two men of different heights. The shroud is stained in multiple locations with blood consistent with the pictured wounds. While shroud blood test results are not 100% conclusive, it appears that the blood is probably human, type AB. DNA fragments on the shroud appear to indicate a male.
The pollens and mineral deposits embedded in the shroud’s warp and weft also help to tell its story. Some of the pollens are not local to Europe, but are particular to present-day Turkey and Israel. One type of pollen was even localized to a 10-mile radius of Jerusalem (making the alleged medieval European provenance of the shroud extremely unlikely). The shroud also contains mineral particles invisible to the naked eye—i.e. dirt—on the feet and abraded nose of the figure. The bottom of the back side of the shroud—the surface that would have laid in contact with the tomb—also has mineral deposits whose crystalline structure is consistent with the signature of stone common to tombs in the area of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the shroud is the straw-colored monochrome human image it bears. Unlike a drawing, this image has no lines. Unlike the strokes of a painting or drawing medium, the coloration on the shroud displays no application directionality of any kind. Contrary to what one would expect if the image were made by wrapping a flat cloth around a contoured, 3-D body, there is no distortion of the shroud image (unlike the way that a flat Mercator-projection map of earth, for example, distorts a picture of high latitude regions that looks proportionate on a globe). Unlike pigment on a canvas, or the blood, serum, and even water stains on the shroud, the human image has no apparent material density. Unlike organic compounds, the coloration is not affected by temperature. The color shows no capillary action into the fibers and appears to be insoluble in water. According to experts, the image is not anything on or soaked in to the fibers, such as paint, dye, body fluids, or the residue of these. Rather, it is the fibrils themselves that are colored. The color and shade of the colored fibrils is uniform. What makes for a “darker” area of the shroud is a greater number of colored threads, not threads that are more colored. Moreover, microscopic observation reveals that only the crowns, or rounded tops, of the colored fibrils are colored. Whatever cause was powerful enough to produce the image was still so gentle that the yellow coloration of the top of the fibrils is not present where one fibril passes under another and is masked by it. Fibrils under the blood stains are not colored, suggesting that the stains were produced before the image.
Whatever caused the image seems to have had something like a photolytic effect on the linen, similar to the way that the pages of old books are yellowed by exposure to sunlight. In the case of the shroud, areas of the cloth closer to the body are more yellowed than areas more distant, almost as if the body were a source of some radiant energy, like light. The result is that the image on the cloth is effectively a photographic negative of the body: The “light” (close) areas of the body appear “dark” (colored) on the shroud, and the “dark” (distant) areas of the body appear light (uncolored) on the shroud. This remarkable feature was discovered when the shroud was first photographed in 1898 by Secondo Pia. His negatives displayed a startling positive image of the crucified man. In this ecce homo moment, Pia could at last vividly perceive the face of the crucified man—perhaps for the first time in nearly two-thousand years.
A still more astonishing discovery was made in 1976 when the shroud was viewed through a light-mapping 3-D imaging device called the “VP-8 image analyzer.” This device was designed to translate the light and darkness into raised relief, thereby converting flat images of varying light density (such as medical x-rays) into 3-D pictures. When a photographic negative of the shroud image was analyzed (really a positive image, since the shroud itself is a negative), the result was an accurate three-dimensional representation of the crucified man. This does not happen with a normal photograph, because darkness in a photo typically does not correspond to depth: For example, the dark beard of a light-skinned man is not actually farther away from a viewer than are his ears, neck, or cheeks. However, VP-8 analysis would produce just such a distortion, because the computer does not register depth in the way that the human mind visually perceives, but rather by simple (mindless) quantification of darkness and light. This means that, like an x-ray, but unlike a normal photo, the shroud is loaded with accurate visual information about the three dimensions of the body it covered—information imperceptible without (modern) 3-D analysis.
The abiding significance of the shroud for believers lies partly in its reminder that the Catholic faith is based on factual, historical events that occurred in real time and space, such as the Resurrection of Christ. Might the Shroud of Turin be the world’s most valuable historical artifact, testifying to the central event of that first Easter, over 2,000 years ago? Perhaps so. It is impossible to adjudicate here the complex debates surrounding the evidence. However, what is certainly greater than even this mysterious artifact is the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, whereby we may regularly encounter not just a remnant of Jesus’s earthly past, but the risen Lord himself, really present under the veil of bread and wine.
If this article has piqued your interest, be sure to visit the comprehensive website of official Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) photographer, Barrie M. Schwortz, www.shroud.com.