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The Shroud of Turin

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The Shroud of Turin
The Shroud | Chemical Origins | Jacques de Molay | The Evidence
A replica of the Shroud, as featured in the BBC documentary 'The Shroud of Turin'.

On 28 May, 1898, Secondo Pia, an Italian lawyer and amateur photographer, went through the rather laborious procedure of taking a photograph of a 4.4m × 1.1m (14.3ft × 3.7ft) piece of cloth in the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist ('the Duomo') in Turin. His eyes were squinting as he made the tricky judgements for taking a photo under the powerful glare of the electric lights, and his hands must have trembled as he dabbed at the beads of sweat on his forehead. As he stood in the heat and stark light from his improvised lighting towers, nervousness overcame his feelings of veneration for the sacred object in front of him.

By the time he moved his hand back over the lens to replace the cap and shut out the last of the light he already had one of the most famous photographic images of all time, though he would not know it until he came to develop it. When he finally did open the glass plate in his dark room, what he found almost caused Pia to drop the plate. The result was a photograph he had not expected to take, and it produced an image no-one had ever expected to see. It would catapult that piece of cloth to global renown because some claim that the piece of cloth in question – the 'Shroud of Turin' – contains nothing less than an image of God Himself1.

The Shroud

Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.
–  Gospel of John 19:40
And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock.
– Gospel of Matthew 27:59

Throughout history, it has been customary for the dead to be wrapped before they are buried. In 1st Century Jerusalem, this most likely consisted of winding a single sheet of cloth around the body. A wealthy corpse might be daubed with scented oils and laid in a cave-like tomb; the cadavers of the more financially-challenged would no doubt have been disposed of with less ceremony.

The length of ancient cloth hanging in the Duomo bears on it the image of a man, wrists and ankles pierced, a gash in his side and small cuts on the head. The image appears to show his front and back, touching at the head as though he had been laid on the cloth with his feet at one end, then it had been folded over him. Is it possible that this is the Shroud used to wrap Jesus after his crucifixion, mysteriously imprinted with his image as a consequence of his miraculous resurrection?

A History in Negative - Tracing the Shroud Backwards in Time

One of the few things about the Shroud that is not the cause of controversy is its recent history. It currently resides in the Duomo and has been the property of the Vatican since it was donated to them by the House of Savoy in 1983. With the exception of a highly criticised restoration in 20022, a few scientific studies in the 1970s and 1980s, occasional public exhibitions and of course Pia's photo, its history is then unremarkable back to 1578, when it took up its lengthy and eponymous residence in Turin.

Prior to that, the cloth was passed around various European churches. Its peregrinations during this period are well traced, as various noble houses and religious orders passed ownership between them. The shroud was damaged in 1532 by a fire in the Chapel of Chambéry Castle. Molten silver from the box it was kept in dripped onto the cloth, scorching through it to form a symmetrical pattern of 16 triangular burns where it was folded.

The firm trail comes to a halt in Lirey, France, in 1357 when Jeanne de Vergy, the widow of a prominent French knight, military commander and heraldic expert, had the Shroud displayed. This clearly provoked outrage among the local Bishops, as relics were great ways of extracting money from pilgrims and thus of major financial importance, so the display of an unlicensed relic was akin to a Dark Ages form of copyright infringement.

The local Bishop, Pierre D'Arcis, wrote an appeal to Anti-Pope Clement VII3 in Avignon in 1389 claiming that the previous Bishop had exposed the Shroud as a forgery, whose creator had confessed to painting it. The Pope and the Anti-Pope both issued edicts banning veneration of the Shroud or claims that it was genuine, though neither banned it from being exhibited.

For Shroud skeptics4, this is where the story ends. The Shroud was a pious fraud. The Middle Ages were a boom era for Christian relics. Saintly body-parts – some genuine, others not – criss-crossed the European continent like a religious organ donor programme. But Jesus, of course, was taken bodily into Heaven and therefore Christianity's greatest body had left no relics5.

There was, therefore, demand for relics of items closely associated with Jesus, and especially with his death, the defining moment of Christianity. Numerous Holy Grails, nails and shards of the Cross did the rounds, along with at least one Spear of Destiny, said to be the lance with which the Roman Centurion Longinus pierced Jesus' side during the Crucifixion. According to legend, Longinus later converted to Christianity, and any army carrying the Spear would be unconquerable. A neat enough story, but one that some would say we have reason to disbelieve.

The Templar Option

For Shroud believers6 the history continues, and the drama grows. On a cool spring evening in 1314, two French noblemen Jacques de Molay and Geoffroy de Charnay were taken to the Isle des Juifs, in the shadow of the nearly completed Notre Dame de Paris, to be tortured to death, accused of heresy against the Church. We know that they were fearful in the weeks leading up to their deaths; their confessions and recantations tell us that. Surviving portraits of de Molay show a hale and upright man, more like a statesman than a warrior.

We can imagine that his once-noble frame must have been stooped from weeks of confinement, and both would have lost much of the aura of nobility they once had. They would have been stripped almost naked, and de Molay was well over 60 years old at the time. Whether in their final moments their religious faith gave them the courage to die in serenity; whether de Molay, the older of the two, could offer comfort to his colleague and spiritual brother as they were strapped to the upright poles that would soon fill the clear Parisian night with the smoke of burning wood and the stench of charred flesh, we cannot know.

That notable French knight whose widow first exhibited the Shroud was one Geoffroi de Charny, a close relative7 of the de Charnay who was burned at the stake for heresy. The executed de Charnay was a Preceptor of the Knights Templar, and has become a favourite of conspiracy theorists since. Mystery surrounds the Templars, and no rumour about them is too extreme to be given credence by some. Their rumoured massive treasure has never been discovered, but its location is said to be encoded in various difficult-to-decipher clues. Was it to obtain this treasure that the Vatican had the order suppressed on trumped-up charges of heresy? Or perhaps it was not a monetary treasure but the Holy Grail itself? Or did they, as Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln have suggested (to the derision of historians everywhere and the inspiration of Dan Brown) hold the secret of Jesus' continuing family line?

Alongside all these claims, Templar ownership of the Shroud looks like an almost commonplace suggestion. In 2009, the Vatican released documentation to support this suggestion, in the form of a document written by Arnaut Sabbatier, a Templar initiate, who describes 'a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man' which he was instructed to venerate. On the other hand, we know that many Templars – not least de Molay and de Charnay – were forced to confess to false charges, so we need to be cautious how much faith we place on Sabbatier's claims.

Other Possible Shrouds

In fact there are a bewildering array of cloths associated with Jesus that may be the Turin Shroud, or could be the Shroud with a little imagination, or at least that cannot definitively be ruled out as the Shroud. It does not help that a single artefact is often known by several names, may turn up in different places at different times, or that proponents of one theory will confidently state that a given cloth is the same as another cloth on the sketchiest of evidence. Besançon in France had a Shroud at around the time that the Templars were allegedly worshipping their idol, and this has occasionally been cited as the Turin Shroud, although others point out that there is no clear evidence of its existence prior to 1523, and it appears to be a copy of the Turin Shroud.

Either the Besançon or Templar option would then fill the Shroud's history back to the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. That was where a Shroud-like cloth variously called the Holy Mandylion, Edessa Cloth or St Veronica8's Veil was last heard of9. So the alternative history would have Templars being involved in the Sack, looting the holy relic and secreting it for over a century. After the dissolution of their order, it ended up in the hands of a relative of one of their senior members, and became the modern Turin Shroud. Or perhaps de Molay was himself crucified by the Church, and the Turin Shroud in fact bears his image?

Pushing the history back further, the Edessa cloth is named because it was long displayed in Edessa (modern Urfa) in Turkey. It was (re?)discovered in the 6th Century. Earlier than that, and legend takes over entirely. Its arrival there is described by Eusebius in a scarcely-credible tale of the King of Edessa writing to Jesus personally requesting healing (in a letter which quotes from gospels not written until decades after the King supposedly wrote it), and instead receiving a visit from Thaddeus Jude. The presumption is then that Jude, for reasons not easy to explain but perhaps connected with his mission to found a church, took the Shroud with him and presented it to the King. There is also the problem that the Edessa cloth is described as having an image only of Jesus' face (in most versions, he wiped his face on the cloth – it is not a burial shroud at all), though some Shroud believers (notably Ian Wilson) regard this as describing the Shroud as being folded so that only the face was visible. His fellow Shroudie John Heller, referring to the King of Edessa story, comments that 'I have spoken to no serious historian who gives credence to this essentially fictional story.'

The (now lost) Gospel of the Hebrews tells us (in a surviving portion quoted by St Jerome) that the risen Jesus presented his own shroud to Peter, or to Pilate's wife, or to Luke, though no mention is made of an image. In 600 AD, a shroud was reported on the Scottish isle of Iona. Another shroud was present in Compiègne, France, from before 1000 AD until its destruction during the French Revolution. Physical descriptions make it clear that neither of these is the Turin Shroud. The Holy Shroud of Caduin, recovered in 1098 from a crusade, was discovered in 1935 to have Muslim scriptures woven into it. Constantinople had another shroud around the turn of the 11th Century. Another notable example is the Sudarium of Oviedo, which may be the same as one of the Shrouds listed above, or may not. Now kept in Spain, the Sudarium contains bloodstains which some claim match the Turin Shroud (though, to no great surprise, others dispute this). None of these is said to have had an image upon them.

Another (or the same?) Shroud from Constantinople that did bear an image was divided into pieces. Louis IX of France10 had a selection of relics in his Sainte Chapelle, including not less than two cloths with Jesus' image on them. It is clear that these cannot all have been the Turin Shroud, not least because we know that several were in different places at the same time, differed in size, or have been destroyed. Some seem to have been face-only images. As if that were not enough, something of a cottage industry sprang up in making copies of the Shrouds of Turin and Besçanon, usually indicated with text explaining what the image was.

Pia's Picture and the Birth of Sindonology

By the late 19th Century, many relics were venerated by Christians (especially Catholics), but largely dismissed as pious frauds by science. What Pia saw in his picture changed that – for the first time, he had scientific evidence that one of these relics was truly mysterious. Pia had been asked at short notice to take the first photograph of the Shroud. It was to be used as part of an exhibition, replacing some paintings which had already been made – the Shroud itself was originally not to be displayed, and only a last-minute appeal to the King secured its display and made the photography possible. The photography was technically challenging due to the dim lighting, and this was one of the first times electric bulbs had been used to illuminate a photo. The lighting rigs created so much heat that it made working difficult, yet despite that Pia's first attempt was a failure that produced no usable images.

As with all optical photos, his camera contained a negative image. It was only with processing that he expected to find a clearly recognisable image. Instead, he immediately saw that the photographic negative was much clearer than the shroud itself – the image on the shroud was a photographic negative, created hundreds of years before the first camera! His hands must have shaken as he developed the crisp paper sheets containing the final image.

For many years, pictures like Pia's were the best and most recognisable evidence for the Shroud's authenticity (although ironically they were never used in the publicity posters for which they had been commissioned). How, people asked, could a negative image have been produced centuries before the first photograph? Circulation of a contrast-enhanced negative version of the image also added to the public perception that the image was actually clearer in the negative (whereas in fact it is simply easier to recognise). Nor is it strictly true to say that the image is a negative. Areas of the Shroud where the body (and especially the face) protrude are darker than the recessed areas. Since light usually falls on protruding areas – such as the nose – we usually see these as being lighter than recessed areas, such as the eyes. Thus, the image looks more 'normal' and recognisable in negative because the shading is more natural. However, it is not a true negative; the beard, hair and blood show up as light areas in the negative.


In 1977 the Shroud of Turin entered the modern era when the Vatican agreed to allow limited access to the Shroud for scientific tests. The Shroud of Turin Research Project – universally known as STURP – had been formed around a group of interested scientists (primarily from the US military) a few years earlier, and it was given responsibility for running the tests. After a year of planning, they were given just 120 hours to examine the artefact. By careful scheduling, they managed to gather the absolute maximum data in that time, running a back-to-back battery of tests including high resolution photography, chemical testing and the taking of samples on sticky tape, every step of which was choreographed and rehearsed in advance. It then took them a further three years to analyse their data and publish their results – which have been the foundation for claims from both sides of the authenticity debate ever since.

The STURP committee was controversial almost from the outset. One of the few skeptics, Walter McCrone, soon left amid allegations that his results had been suppressed and that he was bound by a non-disclosure agreement not to contradict the overly-positive statements being made to the press. He subsequently declared the Shroud to be a fake, leading to a series of acrimonious exchanges with the STURP scientists who vigorously maintained its authenticity.

Is It Real?

So the big question is whether the Shroud is real or not. To a large extent, this comes down to questions of dating and whether it could have been made by a human artist. The hypotheses that this is a genuine 1st Century shroud but not Jesus', or that it could have been formed miraculously in the Middle Ages, are discounted by both sides. Instead, it is either the genuine cloth in which Jesus was buried, with inexplicable marks; or it is a 14th Century fake. Each side has produced an impressive array of evidence, which the other has countered.

The single most significant piece of evidence is the result of the carbon dating performed in 1988. This showed that the cloth of the Shroud was woven sometime between 1260 and 1390, appearing to rule out the possibility that this is a genuine 1st Century artefact. As perhaps might be expected, diehard Shroudies have not accepted the carbon dating results, and instead have looked for reasons that they might be invalid. This Entry will not look in detail at the evidence on either side.

The Sindonologists

During the 20th Century, the term 'sindonology' came to be used for the study of the Shroud, derived from the Latin for 'shroud'. Over this period, a few personalities have become inextricably linked to the study:

  • Walter McCrone was a member of the STURP team, specialising in microscopic analysis and artistic forgeries. He was previously best known for his analysis of the 'Vinland Map', showing it to be a forgery (another conclusion that has been disputed ever since). After a series of disagreements with other team members about the presence of blood on the Shroud – McCrone contended that microscopy showed that the red stains were paint, and that the presence of egg white in the tempura paint explained the false positives on the chemical tests for blood, both of which were disputed by his colleagues – McCrone resigned from STURP. He remained a prominent Shroud skeptic until his death in 2002.

  • Raymond Rogers was another member of the STURP team. Later in life he became convinced that the carbon 14 dating tests had been flawed due to the use of a section that had been invisibly repaired, and was chemically different from the rest of the Shroud. He described himself as being initially skeptical of the Shroud, and only slowly coming to believe in its authenticity – however, there are some reasons for doubting this. Rogers died in 2005.

  • Ian Wilson is one of the most prominent publicisers of the Shroud. An author of several popular books on the paranormal, he has also written four volumes specifically about the Shroud, along with at least one on Jesus generally that also mentions the Shroud. Initially accepting the radiocarbon dates, he always expressed puzzlement about them, given the other evidence in favour of the artefact's authenticity, and is a prominent proponent of Shroud authenticity.

  • Joe Nickell is less well known, but probably the most prominent Shroud skeptic author. He has also given a detailed response to Rogers' claims about the carbon dating.

Theories of Creation

The earliest theory of the creation of the Shroud – that espoused by Bishops D'Arcis and de Poitiers, and subsequently by Walter McCrone – was that the image was painted onto the Shroud. McCrone was more specific, claiming that the blood was formed of vermilion tempura and the body of red ochre paints. However, microscopic analysis shows that the image is restricted to the surface of each fibre. The image appears to be part of the fibres of the Shroud itself, rather than a separate layer of paint over the top of it. Shroudies claim that the chemicals that McCrone thought were artificial pigment turn out to be equally distributed over the image and the non-image sections of the Shroud; McCrone has categorically stated that he found pigments only in the image areas of the Shroud.

Of course, for some the image on the Shroud is the after-effects of the mysterious energies involved in the Resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps the unexplained radiation emitted from Jesus' body even altered the nuclear structure of the carbon in the Shroud, thus explaining the carbon dates.

Among sindonologists – at least, those who do not regard 'a miracle' as a complete and sufficient explanation for the presence of the image – one of the most popular explanations is the Maillard reaction. The idea is that certain gases and amino acids released by a decomposing body reacted with the sugars and starches in the Shroud, causing a browning of the fibres. Sudden removal of said decomposing body would then prevent further decay from erasing the image. There are, of course, problems with this idea. Notably, the Maillard reaction tends to take place only at temperatures of several hundred degrees and in dry conditions, not what one would expect in a cave-tomb. Since many of the chemicals released by decay are gaseous, it is also difficult to explain why the image would be so well defined.

Other similar chemical reactions have been proposed, such as auto-oxidation or reactions due to the chemicals released, not by a dead body, but rather by those released by a body in an extreme state of stress. Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas suggest that the body in question is that of Jacques de Molay, one of the Knights Templar who was known to have been tortured before his death. Since in this instance sweat plays an important part in the reaction, they would have a ready explanation for why parts of the shroud close to raised areas of skin would show a darker image.

An even wilder-seeming idea is that the Shroud genuinely is a photographic image. At least one doctoral thesis (that of art historian Nicolas Allen) has been based on reproducing the Shroud via optical techniques known during the Middle Ages. It has even been suggested – just to show that the wide eyes are not restricted to the Shroudie side of the fence – that Leonardo da Vinci may have personally faked the Shroud in his own image, based largely on circumstantial evidence – such as a general resemblance between da Vinci and the Shroud image, da Vinci's heretical Christian views, his technical genius and his habit of using himself as a model for Christ in his paintings. This is sometimes combined with the idea that the Shroud was created using a camera obscura.

Finally, there are a few techniques that seek to explain both the apparent lack of pigment and the '3-D structure' of the image. ND Wilson has formed a Shroud-like image by placing a glass mask over a linen cloth. The sunlight falls at different angles at different times of day, giving a Shroud-like shaded image over time. But the most common idea, and that favoured by most Shroud skeptics, is that the image is a rubbing of some form, probably from a bas relief. Various refinements of this idea have been suggested and tried. The use of a bas relief, rather than a statue or real body, would give the '3-D structure' without the distortion caused by wrapping a cloth around a body. A heated metal relief might scorch the surface of the fabric, giving the form of an image on the Shroud. At the time of writing (late 2009), Luigi Garlaschelli has recently announced that he has produced a full-size replica of the Shroud by covering a volunteer in cloth and rubbing it with a weak acid, then adding details such as painted blood and artificial ageing. Pro-Shroud commenters have alleged that Garlaschelli's 'Shroud' has chemical differences from the actual Shroud. Garlaschelli counters that these are due to the age of the Shroud.

Garlaschelli's 'Shroud' joins versions created by McCrone (by grisaille painting), Professor Nicholas Allen (using a camera obscura) and Nathan Wilson (by passing sunlight through a stained glass). Naturally, none of these are accurate enough to convince Shroudies.

The Vatican's Position

The Catholic Church has maintained an ambivalent attitude to the Shroud. When it was denounced as a fake in the 14th Century, they declined to comment (but approved it as a 'genuine image of Jesus'). When radiocarbon dating appeared to definitively show it was a medieval fake, they likewise remained sanguine. Now the owner of the relic, the Church has no official opinion as to its veracity – although it should be noted that they positively encourage devotion to it, having authorised medals bearing its image. Pope John Paul II in particular made some very positive comments about the Shroud, describing it as: 'the imprint left by the tortured body of the Crucified One'.

This has left many to feel that the Church, like so many others on both sides, is merely hiding strongly-held beliefs behind a veneer of neutrality. It would seem that even here there are no straight answers. We can be certain that the Shroud has gone down as one of the great mysteries of the 20th Century. Perhaps the 21st Century will finally see agreement on whether it is the ultimate proof of God's existence or one of the most successful forgeries of all time.

1Trinitarians – the vast majority of modern Christians – regard Jesus as an equal part of the Trinity, co-equal with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.2This restoration led to the discovery that there is a very faint image of a face – but not a body – on the reverse of the Shroud as well.3The officially recognised Pope in Rome at the time was Urban VI.4In the American sense of one inclined to disbelieve, rather than the British one of a neutral judge.5Although there is a history of the Holy Prepuce – Jesus' foreskin, removed days after His birth in accordance with Jewish custom and therefore not taken into Heaven with Him.6Sometimes disparagingly known as 'Shroudies' – the term 'sindonologist' is used for anyone who studies the Shroud, though is primarily used for believers in its authenticity.7Most sources say nephew, others son.8Being Latin for 'true image', not the name of a person.9Although Manoppello in Italy has a relic claimed to be the Veil.10Later St Louis.

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