Requiem for the Shroud of Turin

Michigan Quarterly Review 23 (1984): 243-55.

Denis Dutton

Report on the Shroud of Turin, by John H. Heller. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. Pp. xiii, 225. $15.95.

Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, by Joe Nickell. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1983. Pp. 178. $14.95.

There is no indication in the New Testament that the burial cloth of Jesus, or any other object connected with him, was preserved. Nevertheless, there emerged in Europe during the Middle Ages a thriving market not only in pieces of the True Cross but virtually every other object mentioned or implied in Scripture. One catalogue from that time includes the following: “A fragment of St. Stephen’s rib; Rusted remains of the gridiron on which St. Lawrence died; A Lock of Mary’s hair; A small piece of her robe; A piece of the Manger; Part of one of Our Lord’s Sandals; A piece of the sponge that had been filled with vinegar and handed up to Him; A fragment of bread He had shared with His disciples; A tuft of St. Peter’s beard; Drops of St. John the Baptist’s Blood.”

Like the Dutch museums that competed against each other to acquire van Meegeren “Vermeers,” many churches vied to become known for the number and importance of their relics. As early as 1071 the cathedral at Eichstatt possessed 683 relics, while by the 1520s the Schlosskirche at Wittenburg had 19,013 and the Schlosskirche at Halle boasted more than 21,000 such objects. Jesus’ foreskin was preserved in at least six churches. There were countless crucifixion nails, crowns of thorns, and lances. And there were burial shrouds.

Shroud of Turin (detail)

One such shroud, the one which now resides in a reliquary in the Turin Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, is different from most of the others in that it features a full-length front-and-back image of the crucified Jesus. To the modern mind, the existence of the image ought in itself to have ruled out any possibility of authenticity. But in 1898 a man named Secondo Pia managed to photograph the cloth for the first time. Much to his astonishment (he almost dropped the wet plate), in negative the image of the Shroud revealed itself to be a remarkably lifelike representation of Jesus. It was argued then, as now, that no medieval artist could have known how to produce such a perfect negative image, and that therefore the Shroud cannot be a forgery.

But if it isn’t a forgery, what is it? There are only two alternatives: either it is a rare but natural phenomenon, or it results from a miraculous event. The first alternative can be dismissed immediately: no corpse in history has left a projected, optically focused image of itself on a burial cloth. The second alternative, equally without historical precedent is, however, consistent with the way many people, from Matthias Grunewald to any number of special effects directors, have imagined the moment of Jesus’ Resurrection. As one of the Shroud’s enthusiasts has put it, “I am forced to conclude that the image was formed by a burst of energy — light, if you will.” And in the National Review, Jerome S. Goldblatt has presented the even more up-to-date theory that the image was formed by the bright flash of a pulsed laser beam. This, he says, seems to be what happens when people rise from the dead, and it is what Paul referred to when he prophesied that we would all be transformed at the Resurrection of the Last Judgment “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). As Goldblatt helpfully explains, “Both the speed of a pulsed laser beam and the twinkling of an eye are calibrated in similarly incredible speeds.”

Shroud of Turin (negative)

Incredible indeed, skeptics will snort. But the Holy Shroud has of late been receiving an impressive amount of ink in publications quite beyond the supermarket tabloids, or even the National Review. The most recent spate of coverage began with the work of the Shroud of Turin Research Project, a group of about forty scientists formed in 1977, which subjected the cloth to an extensive series of tests in 1978. Articles by members of the group, known as STURP, have appeared in such technical journals as Applied Optics and Analytica Chimica Acta. A discussion even appeared in Science in 1978, and in 1980 National Geographic had as its lead article a major report by that magazine’s Science Editor, Kenneth F. Weaver. This latter article, published with a nervous introduction by editor Gilbert M. Grosvenor, breathlessly detailed the activities of STURP and many of the pro-authenticity arguments; though it mentioned the possibility, it presented virtually no evidence favoring forgery. By thus seeming implicitly to validate the central miracle of Christianity — a miracle taken by many believers as proof that it is the only true religion — National Geographic departed from its tradition of treating with balanced respect the religions of the world.

Harper’s, not generally known as a religious organ, had a long and very supportive piece in 1981 and perhaps most surprising of all was the appearance in 1982 of an extensive discussion of the Shroud in, of all places, Current Anthropology. Titled, “The authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology,” William Meacham’s article purports to demonstrate “an almost inescapable conclusion” about the cloth: “it is the very piece of linen described in the biblical accounts as being used to enfold the body of Christ.” As for the question of forgery, it “should be permanently buried,” along with “notions of the Marlowe authorship of Shakespeare’s plays or an Egyptian influence on the Mayas.” Meacham brands as outside the realm of “reputable scholarship” hypotheses that a clever Medieval artist might have produced the image on the Shroud. Whether one agrees with Meacham or not, a National Review editorial is right about one thing: Shroud Science has gotten respectable.

Now comes Report on the Shroud of Turin, an account by John Heller of his activities as a member of the STURP investigative team. This book would appear to document how a collection of hard-headed and initially skeptical researchers came to believe, as the evidence was pieced together, that the Shroud must be authentic. The book has, as the jacket blurb puts it, all the elements of a “fascinating scientific detective story.” There are the initial dismissals of the Shroud, followed by nagging questions and curious puzzles that spur on the investigators. When they finally arrive in Italy to analyze the cloth, they cannot get their thousands of pounds of sophisticated and delicate equipment — “$2.5 million worth” — out of Italian customs, and when they do they are forced to move it themselves. In describing what the equipment will do, big words abound: there are devices for “computer image enhancement, mapping function analysis, microdensiometry, laser microprobe Raman spectroscopy, microspectrophotometric transmission spectra, cyanmethehemoglobin and hemochromagen tests,” and so on. There is no question, as we read on, that everybody in the project is “expert,” or “top-notch.” They are among the best in their fields, however narrow those fields may be, and though most are very much younger than biophysicist John Heller, that is perfectly agreeable to him, since “most major discoveries have been made by young investigators.” Besides being extraordinarily intelligent, they are a good-natured lot, ready with an irreverent quip to break the tension of their exhausting 120 hours of examination and analysis.

The tests are conducted in a museum which was once the palace of Umberto II. It makes a deep impact on the scientists: “The surroundings were lush and opulentů Statuary and art were everywhere on display.” Though many of the team members “had never seen royal splendor before,” and though Heller himself “had never before tackled anything remotely like an artistic forgery,” they set themselves to the task of applying to the Shroud the most up-to-date scientific tests — except, of course, for a carbon dating test, since that would destroy a piece of the precious cloth. But after all, Heller remarks, “we have learned more in one space shot than in several centuries of telescopic observation,” and in science “the rate of new discovery techniques and knowledge is on an asymptotic curve. It seems to go straight up, with no end in sight.”

STURP is young, but the Shroud is old, and before we place the labors of Dr. Heller and his friends on that “asymptotic” curve, we would do well to review some historical facts about the relic in question. Around the middle of the fourteenth century there appeared in France a cloth which its exhibitors claimed was the true Holy Shroud. No attempt was made by the object’s owners to establish a provenance for it, and its authenticity was dismissed by Henri de Poitiers, the Bishop of Troves, as well as by his successor, Bishop Pierre d’Arcis. In 1389, d’Arcis sent a memorandum to Clement VII in Avignon, the Pope of the Great Western Schism, charging that the Shroud was a fake. In this letter, the earliest extant written document dealing with the Shroud, the Bishop declares it to be a “cloth cunningly painted upon which by a clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one manů. “ D’Arcis says that it had been determined how the cloth had been painted, “the truth being attested by the artist who painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed.” (Clement eventually issued an edict declaring that whenever the cloth is exhibited it be announced that “it is not the True Shroud of Our Lord, but a painting or picture made in the semblance or representation of the shroud.”) Though Heller fails to quote a single line of the 1389 d’Arcis memorandum, he predictably damns it in a passage which demonstrates an approximately equal grasp of psychopathology and the rhetorical conventions of medieval clerical missives: “the style of writing and invective it displayed had, I thought, been invented by Pravda and Investia. This bishop was not just angry — he was furious, violent, and enraged. He was paranoid, and I use that word in the psychiatric sense.”

St. Augustine had himself been outraged by “hypocrites in the garb of monks” who sold or exhibited spurious relics, and it is not unreasonable to suppose that the Bishop d’Arcis was similarly a man of conscience speaking his mind. But all such considerations are beside the point, as far as Heller is concerned: “It makes no difference if one or ten painters or a whole atelier had claimed that they created the Shroud.” The whole question for him is one to be settled by modern technology, which alone “would provide answers so totally beyond the ability of medieval clerics” as to make their opinions irrelevant.

The answers modern technology can provide are, however, only as good as the questions that are placed before it. Take, for example, the question of whether the apparent bloodstains on the Shroud really are blood. There are prima facie perfectly sound reasons for rejecting the idea that the stains around Christ’s head, hands, feet, and at his lance wound are blood. Blood does not stay in such tidy rivulets as the Shroud portrays; it mats in hair and spreads in cloth. Moreover, the stains are just too red: blood eventually turns nearly black, and could not be expected to retain for two millennia the carmine-rust hue of the Holy Shroud’s bloodstains. Could these stains be paint?

Much of Heller’s book is devoted to his investigations purporting to show that the stains around the wounds are not paint, but blood. Not only does he claim conclusively to have demonstrated that blood is present, but one of his last tests, made on a single serum-coated fibril of Shroud linen, was positive for human blood. This, Heller thinks, invalidates the views of Walter McCrone, a Chicago forensic scientist and erstwhile STURP member who is the only other spoilsport in the book besides the Bishop d’Arcis. McCrone concluded that the relic was forged after he found copious amounts of pigments commonly used in medieval painting in the wound areas, including iron oxide (red ochre) and mercuric sulfide (vermilion). Heller in turn admits that there is pigment on the Shroud, but he says many artists painted it through the centuries, and they probable spilled some on it. (Heller suggests that MeCrone had resigned from STURP because his work was not up to the standards of the team; McCrone says that he was “drummed out” after it became clear that he believed the cloth a fake.)

Heller’s handling of the Great Blood Dispute illustrates how Shroud enthusiasts manage to concoct questions and provide answers which divert attention from the real problems which stand in the way of authenticating the cloth. What, after all, hangs on the question of blood vs. paint? If the history of forgery teaches us anything at all about the wiles of forgers, it demonstrates that it is entirely plausible in a case such as this that a forger would have used blood, even human blood, to dress up the Shroud. Heller makes believe he has covered this possibility by having asked “several professors of art history at Yale and Harvard” whether fourteenth-century artists ever used real blood to paint blood. He was able, obviously, to confirm that they did not; but portraying blood in a painting and forging a burial shroud are two very different things in this regard. In the case of the shroud forgery, some caked and blackened blood, tarted up perhaps with a bit of paint, might produce the perfect effect.

By making it appear as though a positive outcome for the blood tests is a matter of great significance, Heller encourages us to ignore Shroud Science’s most important technical question, the one which Shroud enthusiasts are the least willing to face: How could the famous negative image have been created in the first place? And let it be said immediately that, even leaving aside its negative character, it does represent some kind of miracle if it is not an artifact. For it is not a wraparound impression, the kind of distorted, splayed image which would inevitably result if a body somehow left its mark on a covering cloth. Rather, it is an optically coherent, focused image which is projected on the cloth. It represents, in other words, how a body would look, say, projected on the flat ground glass of a camera viewfinder. If anything can be called optically impossible, it is that a body could without a lens or other collimating device produce a focused image on a cloth. (Consideration of this fact, incidentally, reveals an essential circularity at the heart of Shroud Science. The Shroud is normally promoted as evidence for the Resurrection. But since analysis of the image shows that it is itself physically impossible if it is not a product of artifice, the Resurrection has to be invoked to explain the image.)

So the ultimate question for any serious study of the Shroud has to be whether there exists any imaginable mechanism for producing a negative image like the one on the cloth. It is here that discussions in pro-Shroud quarters invariably become strident in tone and sketchy in content. The game is usually to devise a couple of outlandish methods by which the image might have been produced, show how ridiculous they are, and rest content. The inexperienced reader is left with the impression that every plausible alternative has been explored — after all, these are scientists, aren’t they? This is exactly the tactic of Heller, who dismisses all hypotheses for manufacturing the negative, focused image as “strange ideas, such as hot statues, bas-reliefs, and so on suggested by non-scientists.”

Enter Joe Nickell, perhaps the very non-scientist most on Heller’s mind. His Inquest on the Shroud of Turin was written with the help of a committee of historical, scientific, forensic, and (at last) artistic experts. Here at last is a book — a kind of whole Shroud catalogue — that systematically exposes and explodes the tall tales that have surrounded this remarkable cloth. It begins with a history of the relic, showing how attempts to establish a provenance for it before the mid-1350s fail utterly. There is a lengthy discussion of Jewish burial practices, demonstrating how the Shroud is inconsistent not only with the Gospel of John, but everything else known of how Jews buried their dead. There is an account of Christian iconography as it relates to the style of the image on the Shroud (Erwin Panofsky, Nickell points out, has made some interesting remarks on the subject). And finally, there is a fascinating examination of the mountains of scientific testing and speculation about the properties of the cloth and its image.

One of the most striking aspects of Nickell’s work is his discovery of a simple rubbing method that produces a negative image remarkably similar to the Shroud’s. The technique involves rubbing a cloth that has been anchored over a bas-relief. A full relief statue will not work for this (nor will a body — living, dead, or coming to), as it will produce the splayed distortion mentioned earlier. But a partial relief swill do the trick beautifully, as Nickell’s rubbings show. (I have tried this technique, using a full-face partial relief of Beethoven’s visage, borrowed from a record album. The image produced by the rubbing turns amazingly — but not quite miraculously — lifelike when viewed in a photographic negative.)

Joe Nickell test negative

If we are merely to believe our eyes, the negative photograph of Nickell’s rubbing is the single most damning piece of evidence about the Shroud since the d’Arcis memorandum. But one learns early on from Nickell’s book that it is an implicit rule of Shroud Science never to accept a simple and obvious explanation when a more remote, convoluted, and intriguing one can be found. Nickell describes many examples of this ludicrous anti-Ockhamism. Take, for instance, the appearance and anatomy of the figure on the Shroud. The first reaction of many who view it is that it resembles a Gothic — perhaps vaguely Byzantine — representation of Christ. Since, as Augustine lamented, the world has no idea what Jesus looked like, the conventionally medieval appearance of the image ought to be evidence for its being an artifact. But wait: if the Shroud is authentic, might it not be that the standard Gothic representations of Jesus are in fact derived from the Shroud, rather than vice versa? And that is precisely the argumentative strategy of most of the Shroud enthusiasts. “Where was the Shroud before the mid-fourteenth century?” ask Kenneth E. Stevenson and Gary R. Habermas in their book on the Shroud (Stevenson is a former STURP member, Haberrmas is on the faculty of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College). Clues come from Byzantine art. Before the sixth century Christ’s face was painted in many ways, but then artists began to render it in a way uncannily resembling the face of the man buried in the Shroud of Turin.” Uncanny!

And how shall we explain the strange anatomy of the figure on the Shroud? Again, a mere glance indicates that the limbs are of excessive length, the hands and fingers long and spidery. The right arm is longer than the left, and careful measurement shows the total arm span is considerably greater than the height of the figure. Does this show that the image is an artifact? The Shroud Scientists have at least four responses to these anatomical implausibilities. First, they can be simply ignored; this is the most common way of dealing with the problem. Some, on the other hand, claim that the problem does not exist by insisting that there are no anatomical imperfections in the figure. Meacham, for example, agrees with the investigations of Yves Delage in finding the image “anatomically flawless down to minor details.” (This, in the pages of a journal which regularly publishes work in physical anthropology.) Or there is the tack of Heller, who reasons as follows: the image represents a physically possible anatomy, though it is admittedly unlikely for an actual person. Now if the Shroud is a forgery, the forger must have been a very skillful artist — one certainly masterful enough to produce a more convincing figure than the distorted image on the Shroud. In other words, no competent artist could have been that clumsy; therefore the Shroud must not be the work of an artist. The image is bad enough to have been miraculously induced, but too bad to have been an artistic rendering.

Perhaps the most creative turn of argument on this issue is, however, one described by Nickell. The unnaturally spidery fingers and other anatomical peculiarities are, according to Shroud enthusiast Frederick Zugibe, evidence that Jesus suffered from Marfan’s syndrome. This rare hereditary disease has among its symptoms elongated limbs, long spidery fingers, and a long, thin face. Given the stylized figures so typical of Gothic and Byzantine art, Nickell wonders if Dr. Zugibe “might not ‘discover’ Marfan’s syndrome to have been widespread among the medieval populace.”

One has to admire Nickell’s patience and good humor as he guides the reader through this morass, debunking one after another of the pro-authenticity arguments. And there is a small mountain of material to be discussed, such as Jewish burial customs, Christian iconography, the techniques and pathology of crucifixion, artistic conventions for rendering the crucifixion (including the celebrated question of whether the Shroud portrays Christ as nailed through the wrists rather than the palms), the so-called 3-D projection of the figure, theories of image formation, and the appearance and composition of the “blood.” Since the aim of Nickell’s book is to reveal and explode the inaccuracies and irrationalities of Shroud Science, he must approach his subject with a seriousness it does not deserve. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin performs a great service, but it naturally has little to say about why thinking people ought to take an interest in Shroud Science in the first place. The attempt to give scientific legitimacy to the Holy Shroud resembles in many respects classical pseudoscience, and some of the Shroud Science publications can generally be placed alongside works proving that Atlantis lies beneath the Caribbean or that UFOs helped build the pyramids. But of all the currently fashionable realms of pseudoscience, the one that it perhaps most resembles is Creation Science, and the similarity is a disturbing one.

Like the Creationists, the Shroud Scientists are fond of claiming that they were skeptics before they began their investigations. Nickell’s effective rebuttals to this claim are hardly necessary, since it is obvious that STURP was self-selected and that the prime motivation for its members was a religious, rather then scientific, curiosity. Strange though it may be, many STURP members probably do not even understand this about themselves, as witness Heller, who actually says a mere twenty pages from the end of his book, in describing some of his final tests, “I had been assuming all along that the Shroud was a forgery.” Given all that he has revealed up to that point, the reader can only gasp in disbelief. But he is apparently sincere.

One has to view less charitably the most common tactic used by Shroud scientists in dealing with the counterarguments of skeptics: the ignoring or active suppression of evidence. The literature on the Shroud contains vigorous refutations of utterly implausible hypotheses for explaining peculiar aspects of the Shroud, especially for the formation of the image. Heller’s book provides a good example, when near the conclusion of his discussion he tries to imagine what would have been required for an artist to paint the image as it now appears. He manages quite effectively to make the hypothesis look virtually impossible, thus inclining the reader toward a miraculous event as the best explanation, or at least the only one left. This is the same sort of strategy used to prove that the great Siberian explosion of 1908 was a spacecraft whose “nuclear reactor” overheated or that the Bermuda Triangle is the site of UFO abductions. Among the Shroud Scientists, the most flagrant demonstration of this technique is the way in which Nickell’s rubbing methods are ignored or dismissed. Information on Nickell’s work has been available since 1979, but the Shroud scientists prefer to make believe it has never happened, as they continue refuting a straw opposition of their own invention.

Again, since there is no way rationally to argue for the miraculous, the attempt is to show only how all possible rational explanations — that is, explanations involving artifacture or natural process — are bound to fail. This too has its parallel with Creation Science, where argumentation inevitably takes the form of demonstrations to show that no natural means could produce the marvels of the biological world. In both of these pseudosciences the naive reader is led to believe that something that is eminently possible is really absurd. The absurdity for Creationism is that natural selection could achieve what we see in the biological world; for Shroud Science it is that the image on the cloth could have been made by the hand of a clever medieval artist.

But finally, and most importantly, Shroud Science and Creationism both pretend to a scientific objectivity that they obviously do not possess. In fact, they are both efforts to promote religious beliefs by placing at their service the power and prestige of science. The Resurrection of Jesus is the essential event of a vast and influential religion, and it is fatuous to imagine that the Shroud investigations are merely historical, as Meacham, for example, has insisted. This is clear from the tone and course of argument of much pro-Shroud literature and it is responsible for some intense cheering on the sidelines, from people anxious to find anything that can demonstrate Christianity to be the true religion. Anyone who doubts this ought to look at the National Review editorial, “Secularism: Closing Time.” The Shroud proves Christianity is simply true, with “a degree of probability that would have impressed David Hume,” the editorial claims. And if so, I would add, it is not merely school prayer which follows, but, let’s face it, Christian prayer. The scientific legitimization of the Shroud of Turin is, as the National Review well understands, fine ammunition for the religious right’s attack on the secular state. And this is why the appearance of preposterously uncritical articles on the Shroud in such respected publications as National Geographic, Harper’s, and Current Anthropology must not go unchallenged. There is more at stake here than just the internal confusions and silliness of Shroud Science.

But there is no need to end on such a troubled note. The French scholar and priest, Cyr Ulysse Chevalier, who conducted a thorough study of all the documents dealing with the Shroud — it was he who revealed the d’Arcis memorandum to the modern era — was emphatic in his denunciation of the relic: “The history of the Shroud constitutes a protracted violation of the two virtues so often commended by our holy books, justice and truth.” I cite this as a reminder that there are any number of people within Christianity who are more interested in knowing the truth about this remarkable cloth than they are in using it as prop to sustain faith. Perhaps they will have their way and the cloth will someday be carbon dated. That will undoubtedly put an end to the whole episode, except for a few diehards, including some who are already claiming in advance that the cloth is “too contaminated” by modern handling to be accurately carbon tested. In the meantime, there will be lots of fun to be had and money to be made by publishers such as Houghton Mifflin and the folks who bring us the National Enquirer and the National Review.


Postscript, 2005: In 1986, reviewing Ian Wilson’s Evidence of the Shroud for the Christchurch Press, I predicted that if the cloth ever were to be carbon-dated it would come in at A.D. 1335, plus or minus 30 years. When the Shroud was finally dated and the results came back from the participating laboratories, the collated result was A.D. 1325, plus or minus 65 years. I was ten years off. (See coverage in the Press here.)

Not that this will make any difference to the Shroud Crowd. I was also right that some of them now claim that the cloth has been so contaminated by modern handling that a proper dating could not be achieved. Walter McCrone has dealt with this decisively. Here is a quotation from McCrone’s website. Follow the embedded link for more:

“The results fully confirmed Dr. McCrone’s results and further proved the image was painted twice-once with red ochre, followed by vermilion to enhance the blood-image areas. The carbon-dating results from three different internationally known laboratories agreed well with his date: 1355 by microscopy and 1325 by C-14 dating. The suggestion that the 1532 Chambery fire changed the date of the cloth is ludicrous. Samples for C-14 dating are routinely and completely burned to CO2 as part of a well-tested purification procedure. The suggestions that modern biological contaminants were sufficient to modernize the date are also ridiculous. A weight of 20th-century carbon equaling nearly two times the weight of the Shroud carbon itself would be required to change a 1st-century date to the 14th century (see C-14 graph). Besides this, the linen cloth samples were very carefully cleaned before analysis at each of the C-dating laboratories.”