Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Real Mystery of the Shroud of Turin: Why Does the Catholic Church Not Publicly Declare That It Is Not Authentic?

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

The Real Mystery of the Shroud of Turin: Why Does the Catholic Church Not Publicly Declare That It Is Not Authentic?

Article excerpt

I was sorry not to have met Gordon Moran. We communicated, and he asked me to contribute to this edition of the Journal, after my article on the origins of the Shroud of Turin was published in the November 2014 edition of the UK journal History Today. We were due to meet in Italy in the spring of 2015, but alas it was not to be. I assume that my article interested him because, while the conventional wisdom was that the images remaining on the Shroud could not be explained, I felt that they could, in fact, be relatively easily understood as discoloration of the linen after it had been overlain for centuries by paint that had disintegrated, probably in the nineteenth century. There had been a complete neglect of the substantial evidence that the Shroud was originally a painted linen whose iconography, notably the pattern of bloodstains on the body of Jesus and the all-over, front and back scourge marks, could not be dated earlier than 1300.

I have not received any public hostility, other than from a few determined authenticists, even though my article, high up on a Google search list, has been widely read. The feedback has been positive. The problem is rather that scholars in relevant disciplines have been reluctant to become involved in the debate and so my suggestions, though consistent with the surviving evidence, remain hypotheses which need specialist support. The Shroud as an academic subject is still seen as toxic. Yet my concern here is that the Catholic Church, although owner of the Shroud since 1983 and initiating or overseeing many of the tests that show the Shroud is not authentic, still maintains a stance of neutrality. This stance combined with the reluctance of academics to become involved allows authenticity views, many of them far-fetched to the point of absurdity, to spread unchecked.

The Shroud is a linen cloth, 4.37 meters long and 1.13 meters wide with a rare three-in-one herringbone weave. The only other surviving example of this weave in linen-fragments of a fourteenth century vestment-is stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. There are two shadowy figures on the surface of the weave that are clearly intended to represent the body of Christ, front and back, after he had been taken down from the cross.

Chances of any pre-medieval origin for the Shroud were always slight. The survival of a large linen cloth over two thousand years would be unprecedented outside the arid atmosphere of Egypt. That such a cloth might actually be the burial shroud of Jesus was extraordinarily unlikely especially as there is no evidence that Christians collected or gave spiritual power to relics before the fourth century. Later, of course, there would be no shortage of medieval cloths claiming to be the real shroud but most complied with the gospel accounts of the originals. Some, now known to be Islamic, had actually been brought back from the Holy Land by crusaders or pilgrims. As a large imaged cloth, the shroud now in Turin had no obvious connection with the gospel accounts and fared badly among its competitors in not having a legend to explain its origin when it first appeared in a small chapel at Lirey in northern France around 1355 and proclaimed there as authentic.

In the desperate years after the Black Death had ravaged Europe, many such cults sprang up and the claim for authenticity was soon rejected by the local bishop (of Troyes) on the grounds that the images were painted and there had been fraud behind its exposition. Later, in 1390, however, the Avignon pope, Clement VII, did allow the Shroud to be exposed at Lirey so long as it was publicly announced that it was NOT the real thing. Such compromise solutions were common in permitting popular veneration of sacred objects and implies that the Shroud had been associated with miracles or visions but no more than this. Soon afterwards it was described simply as "a representation of the shroud of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The early travelers' descriptions emphasize the vivid nature of the blood on the Shroud and depictions, notably a fresco of 1583 in the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican, show that the images could then be seen from a distance. …

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