The Shroud of Turin is one of the most celebrated and revered artifacts in the Christian faith. It is also one of the most controversial and perplexing. Its mysterious origins continue to be debated, probed, and argued over to this day. For some, the Shroud is thought to be the very vestment that Jesus was cloaked in following his crucifixion, while others believe that it dates from no earlier than the medieval period, and cannot legitimately be connected to Jesus.
The exact provenance of the venerated cloth has been something of a mystery since its existence was first acknowledged in 1354. It appears to have surfaced in France during the Middle Ages, belonging to the Knight Geoffroi de Charnay and his heirs, before eventually being gifted to the royal House of Savoy in 1453. Since 1578 it has formed the most important part of the collection of holy artifacts housed in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista in Torino.
Its exalted position is due to the image imprinted on the cloth: the shadowy full-size outline of a Christ-like figure. Bloodstains in the fabric appear to be consistent with the injuries sustained during crucifixion. The markings have led to claims that the shroud was Christ’s burial cloth. However, from the earliest days of its existence the shroud has divided onlookers, and over the years it has been both denounced and venerated—even by those within the Catholic Church—in equal measure.
The debate widened towards the end of the 19th century thanks to the efforts of amateur photographer Secondo Pia. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Torino Cathedral, an exhibition was organised in the city that was to include the shroud among its exhibits. Pia was permitted to photograph the relic, the first person ever given this privilege. On 28 May 1898, he set up a studio in the cathedral, experimenting with powerful electric light bulbs, so as to attain the strongest image.
On developing the first of his plates, Pia was astonished to see an image on the shroud that was not visible to the naked eye: a negative image of the face of Christ, that until then had remained undetected. The revelation of the hidden face immediately amplified the mystery surrounding the shroud, as no one was able to account for its existence. At first Pia was accused of manufacturing the image, and the shroud was swiftly returned to the vault in the royal chapel.
Pia’s photographs succeeded in renewing interest in the controversial relic, and paved the way for others to investigate its origins and authenticity. Further photographs were taken in the 1930s, which confirmed, much to the elderly Pia’s relief, that the spectral image of a face was present.
In the 1980s, fragments of the 4.5-metre long shroud were extracted for carbon dating, but even these tests have not forced a close to the debate. Despite showing that the cloth dates from the 11th or 12th century, some have dismissed the experiments as unsound, and continue to associate the cloth with Jesus. The Catholic Church steers clear of the controversy, and recommends that the shroud be venerated “as an inspiring image of Christ.”
Credit: © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy
Caption: Secondo Pia’s photographs of the Shroud of Turin allowed scientists to finally study the mysterious relic.