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The Origins of the Shroud of Turin

The Origins of the Shroud of Turin

By Charles Freeman

History Today, Vol.64:11 (2014)

Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), View of the Piazza del Castello, Turin, during the ostension of the Holy Shroud, 1613

Introduction: A rectangular linen cloth 4.37 metres long and 1.13 metres wide, the Turin Shroud, housed in that city’s cathedral since 1578, is famous for its two images of a mutilated man, apparently naked, one of his front, with the arms crossed over the genital area, the other of his back. The wounds resemble those of a crucifixion, with an additional wound in the side similar to the one inflicted on Jesus when he was on the cross (John 19:34). Here we have negative images of Christ’s body as if they had been transferred from the body to the cloth. The linen is woven in a three-to-one herringbone twill, one of the many variations that weavers in wool, linen and silk were capable of from ancient times. The folded Shroud was heavily damaged in a fire of 1532 and the burn marks remain prominent.

There is enough uncertainty about the Shroud’s origins to convince some that it is the actual burial shroud of Christ. The mystery is deepened by the claim that no artefact has ever been the subject of so much research. However, when the scope of this research is considered, it is obvious that many areas of its history and the iconography of its images have not been fully explored. For example, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which examined the Shroud in 1978, when it was still owned by the Savoy family, did not have a single expert in the history of relic cults, techniques of ancient weaving or the iconography of medieval painting on its team. No one appears to have investigated the kinds of loom, ancient or medieval, on which a cloth of this size may have been woven. Nor has anyone closely examined the many early depictions and descriptions of the Shroud that illustrate features now lost.

These depictions, which date largely from between 1578 and 1750, acted as souvenirs of occasions when the Shroud was exhibited. They show the assembled clergy and, in later cases, the Savoy family, standing behind their relic, which is always shown with the frontal image on the viewer’s left. Survivals are rare, for the paper on which they were printed was often of poor quality, but there are enough – perhaps 50 different depictions in total by a variety of artists – to see the images on the Shroud as they once were. Many from the Savoy collections are illustrated in the catalogue of a 1998 exhibition held in Turin. They vary in details and accuracy (some show the Crown of Thorns more clearly than others, for instance) but, as a group, they have not yet received serious study.

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