Miracle or Fraud? The Turin Shroud (Joe Nickell, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is the 18th chapter from The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible:

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The Shroud of Turin continues to be the subject of media presentations that treat it as being so mysterious as to imply a supernatural origin. One recent study (Binga 2001) found only ten credible skeptical books on the topic versus over four hundred promoting the cloth as the authentic, or potentially authentic, burial cloth of Jesus—including a revisionist tome, The Resurrection of the Shroud (Antonacci 2000). Yet since the cloth appeared in the middle of the fourteenth century it has been at the center of scandal, exposés, and controversy—a dubious legacy for what is purported to be the most holy relic in Christendom.

BOGUS SHROUDS

There have been numerous “true” shrouds of Jesus—along with vials of his mother’s breast milk, hay from the manger in which he was born, and countless relics of his crucifixion—but the Turin cloth uniquely bears the apparent imprints of a crucified man. Unfortunately the cloth is incompatible with New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial.

John’s Gospel (19:38–42, 20:5–7) specifically states that the body was “wound” with “linen clothes” and a large quantity of burial spices (myrrh and aloes). Still another cloth (called “the napkin”) covered his face and head. In contrast, the Shroud of Turin represents a single, draped cloth (laid under and then over the “body”) without any trace of the burial spices.

Of the many earlier purported shrouds of Christ, which were typically about half the length of the Turin cloth, one was the subject of a reported seventh-century dispute on the island of Iona between Christians and Jews, both of whom claimed it. As adjudicator, an Arab ruler placed the alleged relic in a fire from which it levitated, unscathed, and fell at the feet of the Christians—or so says a pious tale. In medieval Europe alone there were “at least forty-three ‘True Shrouds’” (Humber 1978, 78).

 SCANDAL AT LIREY

The cloth now known as the Shroud of Turin first appeared about 1355 at a little church in Lirey, in north central France. Its owner, a soldier of fortune named Geoffroy de Charney, claimed it as the authentic shroud of Christ, although he never explained how he acquired such a fabulous possession. According to a later bishop’s report, written by Pierre D’Arcis to the Avignon pope, Clement VII, in 1389, the shroud was being used as part of a faith-healing scam:

The case, Holy Father, stands thus. Some time since in this diocese of Troyes the dean of a certain collegiate church, to wit, that of Lirey, falsely and deceitfully, being consumed with the passion of avarice, and not from any motive of devotion but only of gain, procured for his church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by a clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say, the back and the front, he falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Savior Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb, and upon which the whole likeness of the Savior had remained thus impressed together with the wounds which He bore…. And further to attract the multitude so that money might cunningly be wrung from them, pretended miracles were worked, certain men being hired to represent themselves as healed at the moment of the exhibition of the shroud.

D’Arcis continued, speaking of a predecessor who conducted the investigation and uncovered the forger: “Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination, he discovered the fraud and how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed” (emphasis added).

Action had been taken and the cloth hidden away, but now, years later, it had resurfaced. D’Arcis (1389) spoke of “the grievous nature of the scandal, the contempt brought upon the Church and ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and the danger to souls.”

As a consequence Clement ordered that, while the cloth could continue being exhibited (it had been displayed on a high platform flanked by torches), during the exhibition it must be loudly 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” (Humber 1978, 100). Thus the scandal at Lirey ended—for a time.

 In October 2009 it was announced that scientists in Italy had made a cloth bearing an image very similar to the shroud.
In October 2009 it was announced that scientists in Italy had made a cloth bearing an image very similar to the shroud.

FURTHER MISREPRESENTATION

During the Hundred Years’ War, Margaret de Charney, granddaughter of the Shroud’s original owner, gained custody of the cloth, allegedly for safekeeping. But despite many subsequent entreaties she refused to return it, instead even taking it on tour in the areas of present-day France, Belgium, and Switzerland. When there were additional challenges to the Shroud’s authenticity, Margaret could only produce documents officially labeling it a “representation.”

In 1453, at Geneva, Margaret sold the cloth to Duke Louis I of Savoy. Some Shroud proponents like to say Margaret “gave” the cloth to Duke Louis, but it is only fair to point out that in return he “gave” Margaret the sum of two castles. In 1457, after years of broken promises to return the cloth to the canons of Lirey and later to compensate them for its loss, Margaret was excommunicated. She died in 1460.

The Savoys (who later comprised the Italian monarchy and owned the shroud until it was bequeathed to the Vatican in 1983) represented the shroud as genuine. They treated it as a “holy charm” having magical powers and enshrined it in an expanded church at their castle at Chambéry. There in 1532 a fire blazed through the chapel and before the cloth was rescued a blob of molten silver from the reliquary burned through its forty-eight folds. The alleged talisman was thus revealed as being unable even to protect itself. Eventually, in a shrewd political move—by a later Duke who wished a more suitable capital—the cloth was transferred to Turin (in present-day Italy) (see figure 18.1).

In 1898 the shroud was photographed for the first time, and the glass-plate negatives showed a more lifelike, quasi-positive image. Thus began the modern era of the shroud, with proponents asking how a mere medieval forger could have produced a perfect “photographic” negative before the development of photography. In fact the analogy with photographic images is misleading, since the “positive” image shows a figure with white hair and beard, the opposite of what would be expected for a Palestinian Jew in his thirties.

Nevertheless, some shroud advocates suggested the image was produced by simple contact with bloody sweat or burial ointments. But that is disproved by a lack of wraparound distortions. Also, not all imaged areas would have been touched by a simple draped cloth, so some sort of projection was envisioned. One notion was “vaporography,” body vapors supposedly interacting with spices on the cloth to yield a vapor “photo,” but all experimentation produced was a blur (Nickell 1998, 81–84). Others began to opine that the image was “scorched” by a miraculous burst of radiant energy at the time of Jesus’ resurrection. Yet no known radiation would produce such superficial images, and actual scorches on the cloth from the fire of 1532 exhibit strong reddish fluorescence, in contrast to the shroud images that do not fluoresce at all.

Figure 18.1

SECRET STUDY

In 1969 the archbishop of Turin appointed a secret commission to examine the shroud. That fact was leaked, then denied, but (according to Wilcox 1977, 44) “at last the Turin authorities were forced to admit what they previously denied.” The man who had exposed the secrecy accused the clerics of acting “like thieves in the night.” More detailed studies—again clandestine—began in 1973.

The commission included internationally known forensic serologists who made heroic efforts to validate the “blood,” but all of the microscopial, chemical, biological, and instrumental tests were negative. This was not surprising, since the stains were suspiciously still red and artistically “picturelike.” Experts discovered reddish granules that would not even dissolve in reagents that dissolve blood, and one investigator found traces of what appeared to be paint. An art expert concluded that the image had been produced by an artistic printing technique.

The commission’s report was withheld until 1976 and then was largely suppressed, while a rebuttal report was freely made available. Thus began an approach that would be repeated over and over: distinguished experts would be asked to examine the cloth then would be attacked when they obtained other than desired results.

JN

SCIENCE vs. “SHROUD SCIENCE”

Further examinations were conducted in 1978 by the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP). STURP was a group of mostly religious believers whose leaders served on the executive council of the Holy Shroud Guild, a Catholic organization that advocated the “cause” of the supposed relic. STURP members, like others calling themselves “sindonologists” (i.e. shroudologists), gave the impression that they started with the desired answer.

STURP pathologist Robert Bucklin—another Holy Shroud Guild executive councilman—stated that he was willing to stake his reputation on the shroud’s authenticity. He and other proshroud pathologists argued for the image’s anatomical correctness, yet a footprint on the cloth is inconsistent with the position of the leg to which it is attached, the hair falls as for a standing rather than a recumbent figure, and the physique is so unnaturally elongated (similar to figures in Gothic art) that one proshroud pathologist concluded that Jesus must have suffered from Marfan syndrome (Nickell 1989)!

STURP lacked experts in art and forensic chemistry—with one exception: famed microanalyst Walter C. McCrone. Examining thirty-two tape-lifted samples from the shroud, McCrone identified the “blood” as tempera paint containing red ocher and vermilion along with traces of rose madder—pigments used by medieval artists to depict blood. He also discovered that on the image—but not the background—were significant amounts of the red ocher pigment. He first thought this was applied as a dry powder but later concluded it was a component of dilute paint applied in the medieval grisaille (monochromatic) technique (McCrone 1996; cf. Nickell 1998). For his efforts McCrone was held to a secrecy agreement, while statements were made to the press that there was no evidence of artistry. He was, he says, “drummed out” of STURP.

STURP representatives paid a surprise visit to McCrone’s lab to confiscate his samples. They then gave them to two late additions to STURP, John Heller and Alan Adler, neither of whom was a forensic serologist or a pigment expert. The pair soon proclaimed that they had “identified the presence of blood.” However, at the 1983 conference of the prestigious International Association for Identification, forensic analyst John F. Fischer explained how results similar to theirs could be obtained from tempera paint.

A later claim concerns reported evidence of human DNA in a shroud “blood” sample, although the archbishop of Turin and the Vatican refused to authenticate the samples or accept any research carried out on them. University of Texas researcher Leoncio Garza-Valdez, in his The DNA of God? (1999, 41), claims it was possible “to clone the sample and amplify it,” proving it was “ancient” blood “from a human being or high primate,” while Ian Wilson’s The Blood and the Shroud (1998, 91) asserted it was “human blood.”

Actually the scientist at the DNA lab, Victor Tryon, told Time magazine that he could not say how old the DNA was or that it came from blood. As he explained, “Everyone who has ever touched the shroud or cried over the shroud has left a potential DNA signal there.” Tryon resigned from the new shroud project due to what he disparaged as “zealotry in science” (Van Biema 1998, 61).

DNA

POLLEN FAKERY?

McCrone would later refute another bit of proshroud propaganda: the claim of Swiss criminologist Max Frei-Sulzer that he had found certain pollen grains on the cloth that “could only have originated from plants that grew exclusively in Palestine at the time of Christ.” Earlier Frei had also claimed to have discovered pollens on the cloth that were characteristic of Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and the area of ancient Edessa—seeming to confirm a “theory” of the shroud’s missing early history. Wilson (1979) conjectured that the shroud was the fourth-century Image of Edessa, a legendary “miraculous” imprint of Jesus’ face made as a gift to King Abgar. Wilson’s notion was that the shroud had been folded so that only the face showed and that it had thus been disguised for centuries. Actually, had the cloth been kept in a frame for such a long period there would have been an age-yellowed, rectangular area around the face. Nevertheless Frei’s alleged pollen evidence gave new support to Wilson’s ideas.

I say alleged evidence because Frei had credibility problems. Before his death in 1983 his reputation suffered when, representing himself as a handwriting expert, he pronounced the infamous “Hitler diaries” genuine; they were soon exposed as forgeries.

In the meantime an even more serious question had arisen about Frei’s pollen evidence. Whereas he reported finding numerous types of pollen from Palestine and other areas, STURP’s tape-lifted samples, taken at the same time, showed few pollen. Micropaleontologist Steven D. Schafersman was probably the first to publicly suggest that Frei might be guilty of deception. He explained how unlikely it was, given the evidence of the shroud’s exclusively European history, that thirty-three different Middle Eastern pollens could have reached the cloth, particularly only pollen from Palestine, Istanbul, and the Anatolian steppe. With such selectivity, Schafersman stated, “these would be miraculous winds indeed.” In an article in Skeptical Inquirer Schafersman (1982) called for an investigation of Frei’s work.

When Frei’s tape samples became available after his death, McCrone was asked to authenticate them. This he was readily able to do, he told me, “since it was easy to find red ocher on linen fibers much the same as I had seen them on my samples.” But there were few pollen other than on a single tape that bore “dozens” in one small area. This indicated that the tape had subsequently been “contaminated,” probably deliberately, McCrone concluded, by having been pulled back and the pollen surreptitiously introduced.

McCrone added (1993):

One further point with respect to Max which I haven’t mentioned anywhere, anytime to anybody is based on a statement made by his counterpart in Basel as head of the Police Crime Laboratory there that Max had been several times found guilty and was censured by the Police hierarchy in Switzerland for, shall we say, overenthusiastic interpretation of his evidence. His Basel counterpart had been on the investigating committee and expressed surprise in a letter to me that Max was able to continue in his position as Head of the Police Crime Lab in Zurich.

Monochrome fresco at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France.
Monochrome fresco at the Palace of the Popes in Avignon, France.

C-14 FALSEHOODS

The pollen “evidence” became especially important to believers following the devastating results of radiocarbon dating tests in 1988. Three laboratories (at Oxford, Zurich, and the University of Arizona) used accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) to date samples of the linen. The results were in close agreement and were given added credibility by the use of control samples of known dates. The resulting age span was circa 1260–1390 CE—consistent with the time of the reported forger’s confession.

Shroud enthusiasts were devastated, but they soon rallied, beginning a campaign to discredit the radiocarbon findings. Someone put out a false story that the AMS tests were done on one of the patches from the 1532 fire, thus supposedly yielding a late date. A Russian scientist, Dmitrii Kuznetsov, claimed to have established experimentally that heat from a fire (like that of 1532) could alter the radiocarbon date. But others could not replicate his alleged results and it turned out that his physics calculations had been plagiarized—complete with an error (Wilson 1998, 219–23). (Kuznetsov was also exposed in Skeptical Inquirer for bogus research in a study criticizing evolution [Larhammar 1995].)

A more persistent challenge to the radiocarbon testing was hurled by Garza-Valdez (1993). He claimed to have obtained samples of the “miraculous cloth” that bore a microbial coating, contamination that could have altered the radiocarbon date. However, that notion was effectively disproved by physicist Thomas J. Pickett (1996). He performed a simple calculation that showed that for the shroud to have been altered by thirteen centuries (i.e., from Jesus’ first-century death to the radiocarbon date of 1325±65 years) there would have to be twice as much contamination, by weight, as the weight of the cloth itself!

The Shroud of Turn held by Catholic Bishops
The Shroud of Turn held by Catholic Bishops

SHROUD OF RORSCHACH

Following the suspicious pollen evidence were claims that plant images had been identified on the cloth. These were allegedly discerned from “smudgy” appearing areas in shroud photos that were subsequently enhanced. The work was done by a retired geriatric psychiatrist, Alan Whanger, and his wife Mary, former missionaries who have taken up image analysis as a hobby. They were later assisted by an Israeli botanist who looked at their photos of “flower” images (many of them “wilted” and otherwise distorted) and exclaimed, “Those are the flowers of Jerusalem!” (Whanger and Whanger 1998, 79). Apparently no one has thought to see if some might match the flowers of France or Italy or even to try to prove that the images are indeed floral (given the relative scarcity of pollen grains on the cloth).

The visualized “flower and plant images” join other perceived shapes seen—Rorschach-like—in the shroud’s mottled image and off-image areas. These include “Roman coins” over the eyes, head and arm “phylacteries” (small Jewish prayer boxes), an “amulet,” and such crucifixion-associated items (see John 19) as “a large nail,” a “hammer,” “sponge on a reed,” “Roman thrusting spear,” “pliers,” “two scourges,” “two brush brooms,” “two small nails,” “large spoon or trowel in a box,” “a loose coil of rope,” a “cloak” with “belt,” a “tunic,” a pair of “sandals,” and other hilarious imaginings, including “Roman dice,” all discovered by the Whangers (1998) and their botanist friend.

They and others have also reported finding ancient Latin and Greek words, such as “Jesus” and “Nazareth.” Even Ian Wilson (1998, 242) felt compelled to state: “While there can be absolutely no doubting the sincerity of those who make these claims, the great danger of such arguments is that researchers may ‘see’ merely what their minds trick them into thinking is there.”

Black Madonna

CONCLUSION

We see that “shroud science”—like “creation science” and other pseudosciences in the service of dogma—begins with the desired answer and works backward to the evidence. Although they are bereft of any viable hypothesis for the image formation, sindonologists are quick to dismiss the profound, corroborative evidence for artistry. Instead, they suggest that the “mystery” of the shroud implies a miracle, but of course that is merely an example of the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance.

Worse, some have engaged in pseudoscience and even, apparently, outright scientific fraud, while others have shamefully mistreated the honest scientists who reported unpopular findings. We should again recall the words of Canon Ulysse Chevalier, the Catholic scholar who brought to light the documentary evidence of the shroud’s medieval origin. As he lamented, “The history of the shroud constitutes a protracted violation of the two virtues so often commended by our holy books: justice and truth” (quoted in Nickell 1998, 21)

Dr John Jackson and the late Professor Giovanni Riggi, examine the Shroud in Turin, Italy, in 1978
Dr John Jackson and the late Professor Giovanni Riggi, examine the Shroud in Turin, Italy, in 1978

Also see:

https://scottnevinssuicide.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/the-true-cross-chaucer-calvin-and-relic-mongers-joe-nickell-2010/

https://scottnevinssuicide.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/holy-shrouds-joe-nickell-2007/

https://scottnevinssuicide.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/artistry-and-the-shroud-joe-nickell-2013/

Artistry and the Shroud (Joe Nickell, 2013)

NOTE: The following is the 19th chapter from The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible:

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Science has established that the Shroud of Turin is a medieval artwork, even though devotees refuse to accept such findings. Much of the continuing debate centers on the question of how the image was formed and what artist could have produced such a work.

MAKING SHROUDLIKE IMAGES

Proponents have suggested that the quasi-negative image might have been the result of simple contact between cloth and a body covered with oils and spices used in the burial process. However, such imprinting would have resulted in severe wraparound distortions that are lacking in the shroud image. Moreover, not all of the features that printed would have been in contact with a simple draped cloth.

Recognizing these problems, proponent Paul Vignon proposed an imaging process that would have acted across a distance, what he called “vaporography.” Supposedly, weak amoniacal vapors (from the fermented urea in sweat) interacted with spices on the cloth (likened to a sensitized photographic plate) to produce a vapor “photo.” However, vapors do not travel in perfectly straight (vertical) lines; instead, they diffuse and convect, and therefore—as I showed experimentally in 1977—the result will simply be a blur (Nickell 1998, 77–84).

Undaunted, shroud proponents even invoked a miracle, suggesting a mechanism they called “flash photolysis”—described as a short burst of radiant energy at the moment of Christ’s resurrection. It was at this point that skeptics began remarking sarcastically that proponents would need to develop a science of miracles. One problem is that real scorches on linen exhibit a strong reddish fluorescence, while the shroud images do not fluorescence at all. Moreover, there is no natural source for such radiation, but even if there were, it would have had to have been focused to produce an image like that on the shroud (Nickell 1998, 85–94). Besides, suggesting “flash photolysis” is rather like proposing an “x-factor”: one cannot explain a mystery by invoking another mystery. In fact, shroud advocates have no visible hypothesis of image formation.

Microscopist Walter C. McCrone’s discovery of red ocher and vermilion tempera paint on the shroud led him to conclude that the entire image had been painted, despite the problems artists have in creating quasi-negative images. As an alternative, some two years before McCrone published his findings I reported the results of my own experiments in creating shroudlike “negative” images. I molded wet cloth to a relief—a bas-relief to minimize distortions—and, when it was dry, I rubbed on powdered pigment using a dauber. This technique (similar to making a rubbing from a gravestone) automatically yields quasi-negative images that, since dry powder is used, do not soak into the cloth. It also produces encoded three-dimensional information and other shroud features. http://mcri.org/v/64/the-shroud-of-turin

http://mcri.org/v/64/the-shroud-of-turin
http://mcri.org/v/64/the-shroud-of-turin

REPLICA SHROUD

Using hypotheses I advanced in my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), my friend and colleague Luigi Garlaschelli, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, determined to reproduce the shroud as a full-size replica with the properties of the original. (For example, the shroud image has sparse red-ocher pigment confined to the tops of the threads, and an attendant yellowish stain of apparent cellulose degradation.)

He used specially hand-woven linen, laid over a volunteer, with a bas-relief substituted for the face to avoid critical wraparound distortions. He employed a version of my rubbing technique with my added hypothesis of an acidic pigment that, over time, mostly sloughed off but left behind a ghostly image due to the acid degrading the cellulose (Nickell 1998, 138–40). Garlaschelli artificially aged the result and then washed off the pigment. As he notes, the resulting image possessed “all the characteristics of the Shroud of Turin.” He added, “In particular, the image is a pseudo-negative, is fuzzy with half-tones, resides on the topmost fibers of the cloth, has some 3-D embedded properties, and does not fluoresce” (quoted in Polidoro, 2010, 18).

I was on hand in the fall of 2009 when Garlaschelli presented his results in Genoa at Italy’s largest science fair. He dedicated his illustrated lecture to me, too generously saying that I was “the brain” and he “only the hands.” In fact I am humbled to have been mentioned regarding such a wonderful accomplishment. It shows shroud science trumped by real science.

An archive negative image of the Shroud of Turin (L) next to one created by Luigi Garlaschelli and released in Pavia, Italy, on 5 Oct 2009/Turin Diocese (L) and Luigi Garlaschelli (R)/Turin Diocese (L) and Luigi Garlaschelli)
An archive negative image of the Shroud of Turin (L) next to one created by Luigi Garlaschelli and released in Pavia, Italy, on 5 Oct 2009/Turin Diocese (L) and Luigi Garlaschelli (R)/Turin Diocese (L) and Luigi Garlaschelli)

NAMING THE SHROUD ARTIST

On occasion in the field of art history and criticism it becomes useful to assign a name to the unknown artist of a particular masterwork. Such is now the case with the medieval painting of the crucified Jesus known as the Shroud of Turin.

Long held to be the authentic burial cloth of Jesus, the “shroud” is now well established as the work of a mid-fourteenth-century French artist. As discussed in the previous chapter, the supposed relic first surfaced at a little church in the village of Lirey, in north-central France, about 1355. At that time it was being used in a faith-healing scheme to bilk pilgrims. Stylistic and iconographic elements provide corroborative evidence that the image is indeed the work of a medieval artisan, and “blood” flows on the image are also indicative of artistry, being suspiciously still red, “picturelike,” and rendered in tempera paint.

This cumulative evidence for artistry is finally underscored by the radiocarbon dating. Provided by laboratories at Oxford, Zurich, and the University of Arizona, the results were consistent in dating the cloth to ca. 1260–1390 (or about the time the artist was identified, in 1355 [Damon et al. 1989]).

Who was this artist? As with so many of his fellow craftsmen, his name remains unknown to us. We are aware that he flourished in the 1350s in north-central France, probably living in the diocese of Troyes—possibly even in the city of Troyes itself—since he seems to have been accessible to the investigating Bishop of Troyes.

An archive negative image of the Shroud of Turin (L) in full length next to one created by Luigi Garlaschelli and released in Pavia, Italy, on 5 Oct 2009/Turin Diocese (L) and Luigi Garlaschelli (R)
An archive negative image of the Shroud of Turin (L) in full length next to one created by Luigi Garlaschelli and released in Pavia, Italy, on 5 Oct 2009/Turin Diocese (L) and Luigi Garlaschelli (R)

While the artist’s genius has sometimes been exaggerated, he was certainly a skilled and clever artisan. He did make mistakes, such as depicting the hair as hanging rather than splayed (i.e., consistent with a standing rather than a recumbent figure). But he showed ingenuity, study, and skill in many ways, not the least of which was accurately distributing the darks and lights in a manner consistent with the bodily imprint that was supposedly represented. That he did not include the wraparound distortions a real body would have left is no doubt merely attributable to his overriding artistic sensibility.

The traditional way of naming an unknown but important artist is to designate him “Master,” followed by an appropriate descriptor—such as place (for example, Master of Flémalle, or Master Honoré of Paris) or work of art (such as the Master of the Altar of St. Bartholomew or Master of the Castello Nativity). One fifteenth-century engraver is known as the Master of 1466, and a sixteenth-century Limoges enameller has been given a designation based on the monograms on his works: Master K. I. P. (Janson 1963; Davidson and Gerry 1939).

Following this tradition, we may now name the creator of the work presently known as the Shroud of Turin, or as the great French scholar Ulysse Chevalier termed it, the Saint Suaire de Lirey-Chambéry-Turin (i.e., the Holy Shroud of Lirey-Chambéry-Turin [Chevalier 1900]). This recognizes the cloth’s first public appearance at Lirey as well as its subsequent homes. It also recognizes the tradition of naming a purported shroud by its place of display: for instance, the Shroud of Cadouin (after a cloth taken as crusader’s booty from Antioch in 1098 to Cadouin, France), the Shroud of Besançon (considered a sixteenth copy of the Turin shroud, exhibited at Besançon, France), and the Shroud of Compiégne (an eight-foot shroud that surfaced in 877 and was venerated for eleven centuries at the St. Cornelius in Abbey Compiégne) (Nickell 1998, 53, 64).

In this light, it seems appropriate to use the original place name when referring to the artist, since that is the one connected with him historically. Therefore, the title, “Master of the ‘Shroud’ of Lirey,” seems appropriate. The designation is not only useful but also helps to deemphasize the accusation of deliberate fraud against the artist. Although the cloth was originally misrepresented as the authentic shroud of Jesus, it is far from certain that the artist was initially aware of the intended deception. He could have been commissioned to make a symbolic shroud—albeit an unusually realistic one—for reputedly ceremonial purposes. In any event, such a skilled craftsman must have produced many additional works of art, all of which are part of his implicit legacy.

The Turin Shroud is shown in this August 1978 file photo in negative version. An Italian scientist says he has reproduced the Shroud of Turin, a feat that he says proves definitively that the linen some Christians revere as Jesus Christ's burial cloth is a medieval fake.
The Turin Shroud is shown in this August 1978 file photo in negative version. An Italian scientist says he has reproduced the Shroud of Turin, a feat that he says proves definitively that the linen some Christians revere as Jesus Christ’s burial cloth is a medieval fake.

Holy Shrouds (Joe Nickell, 2007)

NOTE: This article is taken from Relics of the Christ, pp. 111-121

Among the most revered—and disputed—relics of the Passion are those associated with the burial of Jesus. Such relics include bits of the angel’s candle that lit Jesus’ tomb and the marble slab on which his body was laid, complete with traces of his mother’s tears (Nickell 1998, 52); most, however, are burial linens. This chapter examines Jewish burial practices, the various alleged winding sheets of Jesus, the controversial Holy Shroud of Constantinople, and what are known as liturgical shrouds.

Jesus’ Jewish Burial

The synoptic Gospels are in agreement about Jesus’ burial but give scant information. The Gospel of Mark, believed to be the first written, states that Joseph of Arimathea requested and received custody of Jesus’ body: “And he bought fine linen, and took him down, and wrapped him in the linen, and laid him in the sepulcher” (Mark 15:46). Luke (23:53) follows Mark almost verbatim, and Matthew (27:59) states that the body was wrapped “in a clean linen cloth.”

For “linen” or “linen cloth,” the synoptics use the ancient Greek word sindon, a linen cloth that could be used for a garment, shroud, or other purpose. For instance, sindon is used to describe the garment worn (like a robe) by the “young man” who fled Gethsemane at Jesus’ arrest (Mark 14:51–52). In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament), Samson uses the word to describe a linen garment worn with a coat or a tunic (Judges 14:12). Toward the end of the first century, a tunic, possibly with a sindon wrapped around it, was used for burial by Coptic Christians in Egypt. The body was then wound with ribbons of cloth, like a mummy. In a collection of such burial tunics in the Louvre in Paris are some facecloth-size linens, which are significant in light of the Gospel of John (Wilcox 1977, 60–62; Nickell 1998, 31–32), which provides the fullest account of Jesus’ burial (19:38–42):

“Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.”

These spices (Mark refers to “sweet spices” and Luke to “spices and ointments”) were used to embalm the body. (See figure 7.1.)

JN Figure 7.1

First, however, the body was ritually washed. (This issue becomes important in the discussion of the Shroud of Turin image in chapter 9.) Both the washing and the anointing are expressly mandated by the Jewish Mishnah (Humber 1978, 62). In Acts 9:37 we find a mention of the ritualistic pre-burial washing of the deceased. John continues:

“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.

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden: and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid.

There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews’ preparation day; for the sepulcher was nigh at hand.

Note John’s use of the plural “clothes”—another important issue in the question of the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin.

When the tomb is later found empty, John again refers in the plural to “linen clothes.” He says that Simon Peter and “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved,” came to the entrance; then Peter “went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in place by itself” (John 20:6–7). John clearly refers to multiple burial garments, using the plural othonia. These are generally understood by biblical scholars to be “strips of linen cloth” or “wrappings” or “linen bandages,” indicating that the body was wrapped mummy style. According to one scholarly source, the “bandages” would be “wound fold upon fold round the body” (Dummelow 1951, 808). Some believed that the sindon, or sheet, was torn into strips for this purpose (Wilson 1979, 57–58). Another possibility is that othonia could include a sindon, wound mummy style with ribbons of cloth (as in the case of Coptic burials). Although Luke uses the singular sindon, he later reports (24:12) that upon coming to the empty tomb, Peter “beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves.” Luke here uses the plural othonia, thus reinforcing John’s account.

We know that various burial garments were used by the early Christians. According to Pierre Barbet (1950, 161):

“The custom of the first Christians, which must have been inspired by that of the Jews, is confirmed for us by the Acta Martyrum, where we always find references to shrouds, linen fabrics, plain linen garments or others more or less ornamented. . . . In the loculi of the catacombs one finds linen cloths, cloths dyed purple, figured and ornamented fabrics and silks, cloth of gold and precious garments, such as those in which St. Cecilla is clothed in the cemetery of Domitilla.

Returning to the “napkin” mentioned by John, he employs the Greek word sudarium (“sweat cloth”), that is, a handkerchief or napkin (reminiscent of the Coptic facecloth-size linens mentioned earlier). That the sudarium refers to the face veil is clear from John’s statement that the napkin “was about his [Jesus’] head”; also, in describing the burial of Lazarus, John (11:44) notes, “his face was bound about with a napkin.” John states that Jesus was buried “as the manner of the Jews is to bury,” and the sudarium was used in ancient Jewish practice (Nickell 1998, 33).

The weave of such burial linens was almost certainly plain (unlike, for instance, that of the Shroud of Turin, which is a complex herringbone pattern). Most linens of Jesus’ time—whether Roman, Egyptian, or Palestinian—were of a plain weave. States David Sox, “All of the extant Palestinian linen, including the wrappings from the Dead Sea Scrolls, is a regular weave” (quoted in Brown 1981, 31).

Holy Winding Sheets

Regarding the fate of Jesus’ burial wrappings, John Calvin (1543, 67) observed, “the evangelists do not mention that either of the disciples or the faithful women who came to the sepulcher had removed the clothes in question, but, on the contrary, their account seems to imply that they were left there.” Surely the Gospel writers would not have omitted mentioning that the othonia were saved—if indeed they were. Yet there is no mention of a shroud of Jesus being preserved, nor of one being discovered by St. Helena in the Holy Sepulchre, where she allegedly found the True Cross and so many other reputed relics of the Passion.

Nevertheless, certain apocryphal texts later claimed that Christ’s othonia had been preserved. The apocryphal writers made many such additions. For example, to rectify the embarrassment of Christ appearing after his resurrection to some of his disciples but not to his mother, some apocryphal texts (including Pseudo-Justin and Acts of Thaddeus) “remedied this serious oversight of the canonical Gospels” (Craveri 1967, 424).

Hence, in the now-lost second-century Gospel according to the Hebrews (in a fragment quoted by St. Jerome), it was said that Jesus himself had presented his sindon to the “servant [puero] of the priest.” Some took puero to be an error for Petro and supposed that Peter had received the cloth. A fourth-century account mentioned that Peter had kept the sudarium, although what subsequently became of it was unknown. The narrator (St. Nino) alleged that the burial linen had been obtained by none other than Pilate’s wife. This then passed to Luke, who supposedly hid it away—but neglected to mention that fact in his Gospel. Another account (about 570) averred that the sudarium was in a cave convent on the Jordan River, even though the anonymous chronicler had not viewed it himself.

Approximately a century later, a French bishop, Arculf of Périgueux, was shipwrecked near the island of Iona (off the coast of Scotland) and reported seeing a shroud of Jesus on the island. Arculf spun a tale about how this shroud had been stolen by a converted Jew, subsequently fell into the possession of infidel Jews, and was finally claimed by Christians—with an Arab ruler judging the dispute. He subjected the cloth to trial by fire, whereupon it rose into the air, unscathed, and fell at the feet of the Christians, who placed it in a church. According to the credulous Arculf, the shroud was “about eight feet long” (Wilson 1979, 94; Nickell 1998, 53).

A shroud of the same length surfaced in 877 and was presented by Charles the Bald to the St. Cornelius Abbey in Compiègne, France. This Holy Shroud of Compiègne was venerated for more than nine centuries—being the object of great pilgrimages and many state occasions—before perishing in the French Revolution.

A rival shroud was taken in 1098 as crusaders’ booty from Antioch to Cadouin. It was revered as the Holy Shroud for centuries and survived the French Revolution, only to be proved a fake in 1935. The Holy Shroud of Cadouin, it turned out, was of eleventh-century origin, its ornamental bands actually consisting of Kufic writing bestowing Muslim blessings (Wilson 1979, 94–95).

Also in the eleventh century, othonia of Christ were listed among the relics kept at the emperor’s palace in Constantinople. In 1201 these were described by the patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas Mesarites, as still fragrant with the myrrh used in the anointing of Jesus’ body. The cloths were said to have been “of linen, a cheap material, such as was available.” To explain their excellent state of preservation, Mesarites claimed, “they have defied decay because they enveloped the ineffable, naked, myrrh-covered corpse after the Passion” (quoted in Humber 1978, 78).

Over the centuries, there have been some forty-three “True Shrouds” of Christ in medieval Europe alone (Humber 1978, 78). John Calvin, in his Treatise on Relics (1543, 66), decries the “wicked impostures set up to deceive the public by the pretense that they were each the real sheet in which Christ’s body had been wrapped.”

For nearly twelve centuries, such reputed burial garments had not borne any image of Jesus’ body. However, in 1203 a French crusader may have encountered such a cloth in Constantinople. The Holy Shroud of Constantinople (discussed in the next section) was apparently divided into pieces and distributed in Europe. A century and a half later, another putative sindon, now known as the Shroud of Turin, surfaced in Lirey, France. It has been the subject of controversy and even scandal that continue to this day (see chapter 8).

Yet another alleged sindon, the Holy Shroud of Besançon (see figure 7.2), appeared in that French city as early as 1523. Proof is lacking that it existed before that time (Panofsky 1953, 364–65); indeed, it was obviously “a mere sixteenth-century copy of that at Turin” (Wilson 1979, 300). Like the Holy Shroud of Compiègne, it was destroyed during the French Revolution.

JN Figure 7.2

Shroud of Constantinople

In 1203, a French crusader named Robert de Clari visited the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae in Constantinople, “where was kept the sydoine [sic] in which Our Lord had been wrapped, which stood up straight every Friday so that the features of Our Lord could be plainly seen there. And no one, either Greek or French, ever knew what became of this sydoine after the city was taken” (quoted in McNeal 1936, 112). Although some understood Robert to be describing a shroud with a body imprint, an authority on his text states: “Robert seems to have confused the sudarium (the sweat cloth or napkin, the True Image of St. Veronica) with the sindon (the grave cloth in which the body of Jesus was wrapped for entombment). Both relics were in the Church of the Blessed Virgin in the Great Palace, and not in the church in the palace of Blachernae, as Robert says” (McNeal 1936, 112). Not surprisingly, there are other instances of the confusion between the sudarium and the sindon (Nickell 1998, 54, 55).

Regarding the image on the cloth, Robert de Clari’s word translated above as “features” is the Old French “figure”; whether it carried the modern connotation of “face” is debatable. So is the question of whether Robert himself actually saw the cloth. Wilson (1979, 169) argues that he did, but Humber (1978, 79) seems nearer the truth when he notes that, since Robert arrived with the crusaders, “it would seem that he did not see the relic with his own eyes.” Humber’s view gains support from Robert’s confusing the sudarium (facecloth) with the sindon (shroud).

Robert de Clari’s statement that the cloth “stood up straight every Friday” might suggest a trick, much like the one the same church effected with its alleged Virgin’s robe. The robe “was made to appear and miraculously part to reveal an icon of the Virgin beneath,” and “it would have been a shrewd psychological move to display the cloth to the superstitious Byzantines for the first time, just as the Virgin’s robe was displayed” (Wilson 1979, 169–70). One theorist, Dr. John Jackson, has described how the cloth—if it indeed bore a full-length figure—could have been wound around a batten for this purpose. It could then be lifted by a mechanical device so that the imaged cloth seemed “to raise itself jack-in-the-box style from its casket in exactly the manner Robert de Clari reported of what he saw at the church of St. Mary at Blachernae” (Wilson 1998, 156).

In any event, Robert de Clari could not say whatever became of the cloth. In 1204 the crusaders launched a determined attack on Constantinople. The Byzantines’ resistance was soon overcome, the walls were breached near the Blachernae church area, and crusaders streamed into the city. Sacred items were trampled, treasures looted, and wine cellars broken into, whereupon drunken Christian crusaders perpetrated further outrages in the name of religion, representing “one of the most shameful episodes in Western history” (Wilson 1979, 171). (See figure 7.3.)

Although the fate of the Holy Shroud of Constantinople is unknown, we do know that alleged pieces of it were distributed throughout Germany and France. One portion was retained for a time at Constantinople before passing in 1247 to the king of France, who then divided it into smaller parts to be exchanged for other relics (Humber 1978, 79).

Although it is clear (and will become clearer in the following chapter) that the Shroud of Constantinople was not the Shroud of Turin, Robert de Clari’s description might have suggested the creation of such a shroud imprinted with Christ’s body. Or a later French artist might have gotten the idea of producing an image-laden, double-length shroud, like the Turin one, from other sources—including artistic ones.

Shrouds in Art and Liturgy

The concept of what Jesus’ burial garments, or othonia, should look like evolved in art. As noted earlier, the synoptic Gospels are vague on this issue, and John’s more specific account is open to interpretation. In addition, knowledge of ancient Jewish burial practices dimmed over the centuries in Byzantium and Europe.

Thus, the earliest depictions of Christ’s burial showed a mummy-style method of wrapping the body, consistent with that of Lazarus (John 11:44) and Jesus (John 19:40, 20:5–7). When shrouds were depicted, they tended to be only a little longer than a body (approximately eight feet long), like the previously mentioned shrouds of Iona (sixth century) and Compiègne (ninth century). By the eleventh century, artists began to represent the use of a double-length cloth, sufficient to go under the body, turn over the head, and cover the front (like the later Shroud of Turin). Such depictions appeared in certain artistic scenes of the Lamentation (a gathering of Jesus’ followers grieving over his body after its removal from the cross) and the Deposition (the placing of Christ’s body in the tomb), some of which were rendered in fresco (Wilson 1979, 160).

Also important to the discussion of the evolution of depictions of Jesus’ shroud are epitaphioi, or liturgical cloths, which were symbolic shrouds. The earliest surviving examples are from the thirteenth century, although Wilson (1979, 160) argues that their similarity to shrouds in Lamentation scenes suggests that they may have emerged in the preceding century. Similar ceremonial shrouds, he notes, remain in use in the Eastern Orthodox Church, covering Christ’s ceremonial bier in Good Friday processions. Images on the ceremonial shrouds were full-length depictions of the dead Christ with his hands crossed over the loins. These were typically embroidered onto linen (Sox 1978, 57; Wilson 1979, 160–61).

In addition to artistic depictions and ceremonial shrouds, there is a third source that has relevance to Christ’s othonia. From the twelfth and thirteenth centuries came exaggerated accounts of the so-called True Image (or veronica). It was claimed that Christ had imprinted not merely his face but the length of his body on white linen cloth. Veronica’s Veil was sometimes termed the sudarium (facecloth), including in at least two references in the twelfth century (Wilson 1979, 109). The same word was used by John to describe the cloth that covered Jesus’ face in the tomb. But we have already seen that the burial sudarium was sometimes confused with the sindon.

With all these cloths came a merging of traditions: blank, double-length linen holy shrouds (shown in art since the eleventh century) on the one hand, and whole-figured non-shroud linen cloths (liturgical shrouds) from the thirteenth century on the other hand, plus the twelfth- and thirteenth-century veronicas. These were combined and extended in the Shroud of Turin into a “real” shroud with both a front and a back image of Christ’s body. That concept was then copied to produce the Shroud of Besançon. In 1624, I. I. Chifflet published his history of Jesus’ burial linens, De Linteis Sepulchralibus Christi, Servatori’s Crisis Historica. He regarded the Shroud of Turin as having wrapped Christ’s body ante pollincturam—prior to the performance of full burial rites—“thus enabling [Chiffl et] to recognize the Besançon Shroud as also authentic” (Wilson 1998, 294).

plaschanitsa

Weeping Icons (Joe Nickell, 2004)

NOTE: The following article is the 39th Chapter from The Mystery Chronicles: More Real Life X-Files,

The Mystery Chronicles - More Real Life X-Files,

A paranormal phenomenon enjoying favor in the new glasnost of Russia is that of “miraculous” icons-notably one that was reported to be weeping in a Moscow church in 1998.

The Russian Orthodox Church has a tradition of venerating icons (from the Greek eikon, “image”), which are painted on varnished wood panels and over time acquire a dark patina from candle smoke. Russian icons were produced in greatest number at Kiev, where Christianity took root in 988 (Richardson 1998, 222). Perhaps because they naturally depicted holy subjects and miraculous events-such as the imprinting of Jesus’ face on Veronicas veil, shown in a fourteenth-century icon that I viewed in the Tretyakov Gallery-they seemingly began to work miracles themselves.

The claim that an effigy is in some way animated (from anima, “breath”) crosses a theological line from veneration (reverence toward an image) to idolatry (or image worship) in which the image itself is regarded as the “tenement or vehicle of the god and fraught with divine influence” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1960). Nevertheless, reports of weeping, bleeding, and otherwise animated figures continue. In one modern case, in Sardinia, in which a small statue wept blood, samples were analyzed; the DNA proved to be that of the statue’s owner. Yet her attorney reasoned, “Well, the Virgin Mary had to get that blood from somewhere” (Nickell, l997).

“Salty tears” were said to flow from another image in Pavia, Italy, in 1980. No one witnessed the initial weeping, only the flows in progress, and the owner seemed to be alone with the figure (a small plaster bas-relief) whenever it wept. Soon, suspicious persons, peeking through the windows and a hidden hole in an adjacent apartment, saw the owner apply water to the bas-relief with a water pistol (Nickell 1997)!

In 1996, in Toronto, pilgrims were charged $ 2.50 at a Greek Orthodox Church to view an icon that “wept” oil. As it happened, the priest had once presided over another “weeping” icon in New York, and had even been defrocked for working in a brothel in Athens. I was involved in the case twice, the second time at the request of the parent church. With a fraud-squad detective standing by, I took samples of the oily “tears” for the Center of Forensic Sciences. The substance proved to be non-drying oil, as expected; its use is an effective trick, since one application remains fresh-looking indefinitely. Because no one could prove who perpetrated the deception the case fizzled, but the church’s North American head pronounced it a hoax (Nickell 1997, Hendry 1997).

The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.
The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.

One interesting feature of the exuding icons is the variety of substances involved (blood, salt water, oil, etc.), as well as the different effects (e.g., weeping tears, sweating blood, exuding oil). When the cases are collected and compared, some trends become apparent. In Catholicism, the images tended to yield blood or watery tears until relatively recently, when-more in line with the Greek Orthodox tradition (possibly due to a number of oil-weeping or -exuding icons at such churches that received media attention)-there has been a shift to oil (see, e.g., Nickell 1999).

For instance, among the reputed miracles that attended a comatose girl at a Catholic family’s home in Massachusetts in the 1990s were oil-dripping statues and images. Analysis of one sample of oil found that it was 80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken fat, according to The Washington Post, which ordered the test. Such a concoction would have been readily available in a home kitchen (Nickell 1999).

Interestingly, icons in the Russian Orthodox tradition seem, rather uniquely, to exude myrrh-or rather, apparently, myrrh-scented oil. Myrrh is a fragrant gum resin used in making incense, perfume, and herbal medicines, and in ancient times it was also employed in embalming. (For instance, it was one of the spices used in Jesus ‘ burial, interspersed with his linen wrappings [John 19:39-40].) Indeed, in St. Petersburg in 1998, when an unidentified mummy began to exude a myrrh-like substance, it was regarded as a miracle that helped identify the remains as the lost relics of a sixteenth-century saint, Alexander of Svira. His relics had disappeared in 1919 when Bolsheviks seized them during repressive actions against the church. “According to Orthodox tradition,” explains one source, “the appearance of fragrant liquids on relics is a miracle and means they belong to a saint” (Laguado 1998). Although forensic experts cautioned against a rush to judgment, priests were satisfied that droplets of the substance between the mummified toes were myrrh and therefore evidence of a miracle. They seem to have ignored the possibility that myrrh could simply have been used in the embalming.

St. Alexander of Svir was reported to have myrrh exude from between his toes.
St. Alexander of Svir was reported to have myrrh exude from between his toes.

Given this cultural backdrop, it is not surprising to find that Russian Orthodox icons—when they are in a reputedly miraculous mode—tend to yield myrrh as the substance of choice. This is true even of icons at Russian Orthodox monasteries in the United States. In 1985, an icon in Blanco, Texas, was discovered “weeping Myrrh.” The Christ of the Hills Monastery subsequently produced a brochure advertising itself as a “Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” claiming “She weeps tears for all mankind.” Anointment with the tears from this icon had produced “great miracles,” including “cures of cancer, leukemia, blindness, mental illness” and so on (“Shrine” n.d.).

The “Myrrh Weeping Icon” of Our Lady of New Sarov
The “Myrrh Weeping Icon” of Our Lady of New Sarov

Similarly, in 1991, an icon that now reposes in a Russian Orthodox monastery in Resaca, Georgia, commenced to “exude myrrh.” It welled in the eyes of the Virgin Mary and was held to be “the external tears of the Mother of God, revealed in the Weeping Ikon”-according to an advertising brochure circulated by the monastery (“All-Holy” n.d.).

In 1998, in Moscow, an icon portraying the last czar, Nicholas II, reportedly produced myrrh almost daily after a parishioner brought it to the church on 7 November, the date of the Russian revolution in 1917. Nicholas-along with the czarina, their children, servants, and a personal physician-was assassinated on the night of 1 6 June 1 9 1 8. (Eventually their remains were discovered, identified through DNA and given a funeral in 1998.) (“Church” 1999).

When I learned I was going to Moscow, I resolved to try to track down the lachrymose icon of Czar Nicholas. Subsequently, friend and colleague Valerii Kuvakin and I made our way by bus and Moscow’s excellent subway system to one of the oldest districts in the city, where we soon found the onion-domed church called the Church of Nikola in Pyzhakh. There, as we looked around the interior, we observed the usual proliferation of icons, displayed on the iconastasis (a high screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave) and elsewhere. At least one depicted a weeping female saint, and I wondered if such depictions might have sparked the idea of “actual” weeping icons. On making inquiry about taking photographs, we learned that they were prohibited, although a few rubles later we had permission to take a single picture. We also obtained a devotional card featuring the icon of the czar (FIGURE 39-1).

Joe Nickell fig. 39.1

We were surprised to learn, according to the text on the reverse of the card, that the miraculous icon was only a color photocopy. The original was painted by an American artist commissioned to glorify “the suffering czar.” In 1987 a monk brought it to Russia, where photocopies were made, and one of those photocopies was received in Moscow in 1 998. After prayers were made on the czar’s behalf, the picture became fragrant on 6 September and began weeping on 7 November. Actually, the word used translates as “myrrhing”—that is, “yielding myrrh.”

The picture went on tour in Russia, Belorussia, and Serbia, and more than a dozen “healing miracles” were attributed to “the myrrhing image of our last czar,” and thousands of believers who prayed to him supposedly received help and support.

Unfortunately, when we visited the church the icon was no longer weeping. Nevertheless, people were coming into the sanctuary every few minutes to view the icon: typically they kissed the glass that covered it and prayed, though a few even prostrated themselves before it. When I was able to get a look at the icon myself, I could see that, indeed, it was merely a cheap facsimile. I sought to learn more about the circumstances of the previous “myrrhing,” but Valerif s questions to the church staff were met with obvious suspicion (because, Valerii concluded, we were not showing devotion) . We therefore learned little apart from press reports and the text of the devotional card.

The staffs’ reaction made me suspicious in turn, as I have more than once found a wary attitude masking pious fraud. Further suspicions are raised by the fact that, as we have seen, other “weeping” icons have been proven or suspected to be fakes; that Russian Orthodox icons exhibit a culturally distinct form of the “miracle” (“myrrhing”); and that the phenomenon occurred at a time when there was a campaign to bestow sainthood on Czar Nicholas II and his family. The patriarch of the church, Alexy II, opposed the canonization, stating that the imperial family were undeserving because of their poor leadership of both church and state (“Church” 1999). The “miracle” seems an attempt to counter that view by faking a semblance of divine approval .

An icon of the czar has reportedly been oozing myrrh

REFERENCES

  • “The All-Holy Theotokos.” N.d. Brochure of the [Russian] Orthodox Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, Resaca, Georgia.
  • Church to test Moscow icon. 1999. AOL News (AP), 30 January.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1960. s.v. “Idolatry.”
  • Hendry, Luke. 1997. “Weeping” icon called a fake. Toronto Star, 28 August.
  • Laguado, Alice. 1998. Orthodox Church sanctifies mummy. Arizona Republic, 22 August.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1997. Those tearful icons. Free Inquiry 17, no. 2 (Spring): 5, 7, 61.
  • —. 1999. Miracles or deception? The pathetic case of Audrey Santo. Skeptical Inquirer 23, no. 5 (September/October): 16 – 18.
  • Richardson, Dan. 1998. Moscow: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, Ltd.
  • “Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” N.d. Brochure of the Christ of the Hills Monastery, Blanco, Texas.
  • maryoutoforder

The True Cross: Chaucer, Calvin and Relic Mongers (Joe Nickell, 2010)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Investigative Files, Volume 34.6, November/December 2010: 

Calvin suggested that “if we were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.”

Pieces of True Cross

Although there is little justification in either the Old or the New Testament to support what would become a cult of relics in early Christianity, such a practice did develop. The earliest veneration of Christian relics can be traced to about ce 156 when Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was martyred and his burned remains were gathered for veneration. In time, the distribution and veneration of packets of dust and tiny fragments of bone or cloth, and the like–associated with martyrs and saints–became common. At about CE 400, St. Augustine deplored the excesses and outright fraud of the relic business, disparaging “hypocrites in the garb of monks for hawking about the limbs of martyrs,” adding skeptically, “if indeed of martyrs” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1978, s.v. “Relics”).

Among other, later, critics was Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400), whose great unfinished work The Canterbury Tales contains a satirical attack on relic mongering. An even more scathing condemnation comes from John Calvin (1509-1564), the Protestant reformer, whose Treatise on Relics is a surprisingly modern look at the Roman Catholic Church’s veneration of relics. Both Chaucer and Calvin weighed in on those most quintessentially Christian relics, fragments of the reputed Holy Cross itself. Here is a summary of their views, supplemented by my own investigations and research on the cross, which according to legend was discovered in the fourth century by St. Helena.

Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’

The Pardoner is a man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves.
The Pardoner is a man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves.

The Pardoner is a man who openly discusses his false actions of selling fake relics to others. He is honest to his task of fraud and openly tells a tale about three rioters who kill themselves.

The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1386 -1400) is Geoffrey Chaucer’s fictional classic compilation of stories told by traveling pilgrims, including the host of the Tabard Inn in Southwark, England, from whence said Pilgrims set out, wending their way to Canterbury Cathedral. “The Pardoner’s Tale” satirizes phony relics in a classic of skepticism worthy of a brief retrospective here. The Pardoner–one who sells the church’s forgiveness of sins–is a pretentious fellow, as hinted in the opening lines:

“My Lords,” said he, “in churches when I preach, I do take pains to have a haughty speech, And ring it out as roundly as a bell, For I know by rote all that I tell. My theme’s to be the same and always will That ‘Greed is at the root of all evil.'”

But the Pardoner is merely a hypocrite. First, he displays his letters of approval signed by the Pope. Then he brings out his reliquaries, with bits of cloth and other alleged relics, including the shoulder bone of a sheep, and declares:

“If when this bone be washed in any well, If cow, or calf, or sheep, or ox should swell From eaten worm, or by a snake’s been stung, Take water of that well and wash its tongue, And it is healed forthwith; and furthermore, Of poxes and of scabs and every sore Shall every sheep be healed, that of this well Drinks a draft; take heed of what I tell.”

He adds that the relic-treated water will cause farm animals to multiply and will put an end to all human jealousy, including distrust of a wife’s faithfulness–even if she has lain with two or three priests! Of another ruse, he admits,

“By this trick I’ve won, year by year, A hundred marks since I was Pardoner. I stand as if a cleric in my pulpit, And when the common people down do sit, I preach, so as you’ve heard me say before, And even tell a hundred falsehoods more.” Acknowledging his hypocrisy, he states: “Thus can I preach against the self-same vice Which I do use, and that is avarice. But, though I too am guilty of that sin, Yet can I make other folk to turn From avarice, and hurry to repent. But that is not my principal intent.”

The Pardoner then goes on to tell his tale. (It features three young rogues who set out on a drunken quest to slay evil Death. An old man directs them to a spot where they instead discover a treasure of gold coins. Unfortunately they end up killing each other out of avarice and so indeed find death.)

Finished with his morality tale, the Pardoner makes a direct pitch to his host, who rails against the fraudulent relics while indicating his own belief in the relic of the True Cross. The Pardoner begins the exchange:

“Come forth, sir host, and offer first then, And you shall kiss the relics every one, Yes, for fourpence! Unbuckle now your purse.” “Nay, nay,” said he, “then I’d have Christ’s curse! It shall not be, however you beseech me. You would have me kiss your old breeches, And swear they were a relic of a saint, Although they’re stained with your own fundament! But by the cross which Saint Helena found, I’d like to have your bollocks in my hand Instead of relics or reliquarium; Let’s cut them off, I’ll help to carry them; They shall be enshrined within a hog’s turd.” This pardoner answered not a word…. (The Knight helps make peace between the two men, whereupon the pilgrims “rode forth on their way.”)

Now, Chaucer’s own view of the True Cross is unstated, but having it endorsed by his central character, a good Christian and a man of seeming integrity, suggests that Chaucer accepts the relic allegedly found by St. Helena as authentic. Nevertheless, if he does not condemn all relics outright, Chaucer does identify and disparage fraudulent relic practices. At the time when he was writing, this was a bold stance for a writer to take. Reformist John Calvin, however, writing a century and a half later, took the matter several steps further.

Calvin on Relics

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John Calvin’s condemnation of relics is sweeping. In his Treatise on Relics (1543), he observes that “the desire for relics is never without superstition, and what is worse, it is usually the parent of idolatry” (Calvin 1543, 218). He is unrelenting in his withering look at relics–from the reputed Holy Blood, “exhibited in more than a hundred places” (226), to the many bogus Holy Shrouds (including today’s controversial one, which was kept at Nice in Calvin’s time; it wasn’t transferred to Turin until 1578 [Nickell 2009, 40]).

Calvin had much to say about the pieces of the alleged True Cross–the location of which was supposed to have been miraculously revealed to St. Helena in ce 326. Calvin suggested that “if we were to collect all these pieces of the True Cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo.” He also said that there were more relics of it “than three hundred men could carry!” adding: “As an explanation of this, [the relic mongers] have invented the tale, that whatever quantity of wood may be cut off this true cross, its size never decreases. This is, however, such a clumsy and silly imposture, that the most superstitious may see through it” (233).

Calvin specifically refers to the alleged fragment known as the Titulus Crucis (cross title board). Bearing the inscription “This is the King of the Jews,” the Titulus–with text in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew–was ordered by Pilate to be placed on the cross (Luke 23:38). Two churches, Calvin delights in observing, lay claim to this relic. Actually, Helena supposedly divided the Titulus into three pieces, only one of which now remains–kept, as Calvin noted (234), in Rome’s Church of the Holy Cross.

Modern science has validated Calvin’s skepticism of the Titulus. First, the artifact contains a number of anachronisms and other problematic elements that indicate it is a probable forgery (Nickell 2004). For example, although the Hebrew (or Aramaic) letters are correctly written from right to left, so–incorrectly–are the Greek and Latin lines. Based on my research on the history of writing, as soon as I saw this error (See my drawing, figure 1), I thought it a prima facie indication of spuriousness. (See my Pen, Ink, and Evidence [Nickell 1990].)

Nickell-cr2

Another paleographic error is found in the Greek line. Although it is written in mirror-image fashion from right to left, one letter–the z–is not reversed. This further emphasizes the problematic nature of the writing and suggests that the writer may not have been familiar with the ancient languages. Unless we accept the rationalizations of the Titulus’s defenders (Thiede and d’Ancona 2000, 96-100), spelling errors also cast doubt on the inscription. Another doubtful feature is the letters having not just been painted but first incised into the wood–a seemingly gratuitous enhancement–whereas one would instead expect a hastily prepared placard intended to be used quickly and then discarded.

Indeed, such suspicions are confirmed via radiocarbon dating. A sample of the walnut wood ( Juglans regia) was taken from the back of the slab, cleaned to remove any contamination, and then subjected to the carbon-dating process. Control samples of varying ages were also included to confirm the accuracy of the process. The tests on the Titulus revealed that it was made between ce 980 and 1146 (Bells and Azzi 2002)–a date range incompatible with its alleged first-century origin, but consistent with the period (1144-1145) when the artifact was apparently acquired (Nickell 2007, 86-90).

The Fragments

Over the years I have encountered pieces of the alleged True Cross (figure 2), together with the pious legends of their acquisition. In my own collection are a pilgrim’s token of the True Cross (reputedly made in the seventh century by mixing clay with some ash from a burned piece of the cross) and a small bronze Byzantine cross of about the same time period (Nickell 2007, 79, 93). The latter was a legacy of Constantine the Great (274-337), who made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion after having a miraculous vision of a flaming cross in the sky–a vision, as doubtful as it is, of late vintage (Nickell 2007, 77-79).

Nickell-cr1

It is another reputed vision–that of Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena (later St. Helena)–to which is attributed the finding of the True Cross. In 326, nearly three centuries after the crucifixion, Helena went to Jerusalem where she allegedly discovered the site of the cross’s concealment, supposedly with divine inspiration: either by heavenly signs, dreams, or the guidance of a Jew named Judas. In fact, she supposedly located, beneath rubble, three crosses–supposedly of Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him (Matthew 27:38)–but was unable to distinguish which was Jesus’s own. Each cross was then tested on a mortally ill woman, and one–according to the fanciful legend–miraculously healed her, thus proving it was the Vera Crux, the True Cross.

Supposedly a portion of the cross was given to Constantine, while another was taken to Rome. The main portion remained in the custody of successive bishops of Jerusalem; it was captured by Persious in 614 but then victoriously returned in 627. Finally, in 1187 it was lost forever, after crusading Franks occupied Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, alleged fragments of the True Cross and Roman nails from the crucifixion proliferated. As early as the mid-fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315-386) wrote that “already the whole world is filled with fragments of the wood of the Cross.” From the fifth century on, a “cult of the Cross” developed and churches were erected in the True Cross’s name. In a letter, St. Paulinus of Nola (353-431) dared to explain (and Calvin would later satirize, as we have seen) the claim that, regardless of how many pieces were taken from the cross, it never diminished in size–a “fact” that has been compared with Jesus’s miracle of the multiplying loaves and fishes (Cruz 1984, 39).

In Turin in 2004, I was able to view a purported piece of the True Cross, set in a cruciform reliquary (along with a purported relic of the Holy Blood). The lighted reliquary is the focal point of a relic chapel–the crypt of the Church of Maria Ausiliatrice–which contains a fabulous collection of some five thousand relics of saints, exhibited in seemingly endless panels and display cases along the walls. Included are relics alleged to be from Mary Magdalene and, more credibly, St. Francis of Assisi.

In 2009 in Genoa I saw no fewer than four pieces of the “True Cross” arrayed in an elaborate reliquary cross (figure 2). The fragments were specifically claimed to be from the True Cross–or so “tradition has it.” (Translation: “This is only a handed-down tale.”) Known as Croce degli Zaccaria (or “cross of the Zaccaria”), it was formerly owned by a family of that name, who were among the major merchant traders of the eastern Mediterranean when Genoa was at its commercial and political peak. The reliquary was reportedly first commissioned in the ninth century, then remade in its present form (again see figure 2) between 1260 and 1283–a gilt and bejeweled cruciform artifact now displayed in the Museum of the Treasury of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) of Genoa (Marica 2007, 6; “Museum,” n.d.).

Again, the lack of any credible provenance (its traceability to some known point)–together with the incredible proliferation of such fragments and even the suspicious neatness of these four pieces of the “True Cross”–makes the Croce degli Zaccaria a piece to be entirely skeptical of, not revered.

The Titulus Crucis, allegedly the placard on Jesus’ cross, as mentioned in the Gospels, has now been radiocarbon tested.
The Titulus Crucis, allegedly the placard on Jesus’ cross, as mentioned in the Gospels, has now been radiocarbon tested.

Conclusion

There is no credible evidence that Helena, or anyone, found Jesus’s cross (with or without accompanying crosses of the two thieves) in the fourth century–or at any other time for that matter. The provenance is laughable. Even more so is the absurd tale of its miraculousness: its infinite ability to restore itself, no matter how many pieces were taken from it.

The proliferating pieces of the True Cross have been rivaled for outlandishness by many other bogus relics–such as over forty shrouds of Jesus and multiple corpses of Mary Magdalene (Nickell 2007, 40, 116). Geoffrey Chaucer and John Calvin were justifiably critical of relic hucksterism in their respective times, and we–with our modern scientific means of analysis, such as radiocarbon dating–must be no less so. n

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to my many Italian friends–notably Massimo Polidoro, Luigi Garlaschelli, and Stephano Bagnasco–for helping make possible my visits to many relic sites in Italy. At the Center for Inquiry, Director of Libraries Timothy Binga assisted as usual with research. Financial assistance came from John and Mary Frantz and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, whose executive director is Barry Karr. I also want to express my gratitude to Paul Kurtz and his Prometheus Books for publishing John Calvin’s Treatise on Relics and inviting me to write the introduction. To the many others who help make such investigations possible: CFI staff, donors, friends, and family–especially my wife, Diana Harris–I express my sincerest thanks.

The Titulus Crucis, allegedly the placard on Jesus’ cross, as mentioned in the Gospels, has now been radiocarbon tested.

References

  • Calvin, John. 1543. Treatise on Relics, trans. Count Valerian Kasinski 1854; 2nd ed. Edinburgh: John Stone, Hunter and Co., 1870, 217-18; reprinted, with an introduction by Joe Nickell, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, 49-112.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. Ca. 1386-1400. The Canterbury Tales. Various editions, e.g., trans. by Coghill (2003) and Tuttle (2006); see also No Fear (2009) and Dunn (1952).
  • Coghill, Nevill, trans. 2003. Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. London: Penguin Books.
  • Cruz, Joan Carroll. 1984. Relics. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor.
  • Dunn, Charles W., ed. 1952. A Chaucer Reader: Selections from The Canterbury Tales. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
  • Encyclopedia Britannica. 1978. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Marica, Patrica. 2007. Museo del Tesoro di San Lorenzo. Genoa, Italy: Sagep Edditori Srl.
  • “Museum of the Treasury of the Cathedral of St. Lawrence of Genoa.” N.d. Four-page guide text in English, provided by the museum.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1990. Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.——. 2009. Introduction to Calvin’s Treatise on Relics 1543. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2009, 7-48.
  • ——. 2007. Relics of the Christ. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
  • No Fear: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. 2009. New York: Spark Publishing (div. of Barnes and Noble).
  • Thiede, Carsten Peter, and Matthew d’Ancona. 2002. The Quest for the True Cross. New York: Palgrave.
  • Tuttle, Peter, trans. 2006. The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics.
Geronda Ephraim's mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).
Geronda Ephraim’s mother, Nun Theophano, holding a piece of the nail from the Cross, at Holy Archangel Michael Monastery, Thassos (a dependency of Philotheou Monastery).

“Weeping” Icon in Toronto Greek Schismatic Church Exposed as Fraud (Joe Nickell, 1996)

On September 1, 1996, an icon in a non-canonical, schismatic Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto[1], Ontario, Canada, began to “weep.” CSICOP paranormal investigator Joe Nickell was invited by the Toronto Sun to the site for a promised opportunity to examine the “miracle.” However, permission to conduct an examination was subsequently withdrawn, but Nickell’s observation of the icon (actually a color photographic print) persuaded him that the substance was probably a non-drying oil (e.g., olive oil) applied to the surface. It was not freshly flowing and did not emanate from the eyes.

The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.
The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.

As it happened, the priest had formerly preached at a church in Queens, New York (St. Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Church), which had also been embroiled in a controversy over a weeping icon[2]. Worse, he had been defrocked for having worked in a brothel in Athens, Greece[3].

Subsequently, Nickell was re-invited to Toronto— this time by the Greek Orthodox parent church authorities who had regained control of the church. With a police fraud squad detective standing by, and two constables posted outside, Nickell examined the picture and took samples for the lab to analyze. He told the media, “There is nothing that distinguishes this icon from a fraud.” (See Joe Nickell, “Something to Cry About: The Case of the Weeping Icon,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1997, pp.19-20.)

This display shows photographs from that event. At the left is a votive candle and at right some oil-soaked cotton recovered by Nickell from the site.

toronto_icon

http://www.tubechop.com/watch/5834393

NOTES:

1. The Holy Synod in Resistance, of which this parish was a part (under the Archdiocese of Etna (California)), united itself to the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece and formally ceased to exist.

2. An icon of St. Irene began crying and drawing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, some as far away as India and Japan. More than a year later, after that icon had been investigated by NY Area Skeptics who concluded that the phenomenon was bogus, the icon was stolen at gunpoint. Supposedly, Fr. Ieronymos Katseas refused to cooperate in producing the key to the Plexiglas case that housed it and was pistol-whipped, after which the bandits broke the lock and made off with the “miraculous” icon. It was subsequently returned— minus $800,000 in gems and golden jewelry that decorated it—under conditions that still remain controversial (Christopoulos 1996).

3. Fr. Ieronymos Katseas was also defrocked in 1993 when it was learned he had previously worked in a brothel in Athens. A church document on the priest’s excommunication states that a New York ecclesiastical court found him guilty of slander, perjury, and defamation, as well as being “in the employ of a house of prostitution” (Goldhar 1996). In fact, in 1987 sworn testimony before a Greek judge, Fr. Ieronymos Katseas admitted he had been so employed (Magnish et al. 1996).

Also,  shortly after this 1993 excommunication, he refused to leave the parish in Toronto to which he had later been assigned. This parish was in the midst of financial difficulties when the icon began to weep as well, and was also attacked by Greek Orthodox leaders. Fr. Ieronymos Katseas also owed C$95,000 in back taxes and mortgage payments.

Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Martyrs Raphael, Nicholas, & Irene in Toronto, Canada.
Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Martyrs Raphael, Nicholas, & Irene in Toronto, Canada.

Also see:

Connie Hargrave, Visit to the Weeping Madonna Icon in Toronto, (March 1997) http://www.share-international.org/archives/appearances/ap_chvis.htm

https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/ont.general/YgLKRACRgss[1-25-false]

http://www.tdavis.org/holysmoke/thread.html?threadid=1:278/15%20000348a6&msgid=1:278/15%20000348a6 

Figure 10.1

https://www.scribd.com/doc/246116809/Adventure-of-the-Weeping-Icon-Joe-Nickell

Saint Irene Chrysovalantou Icon in Queens, NY (Joe Nickell)

Joe Nickell is an expert in exposing and debunking "paranormal" and religious frauds.
Joe Nickell is an expert in exposing and debunking “paranormal” and religious frauds.

Another Greek Orthodox icon seems to have caught the weeping condition while on loan to the Chicago Greek Church of St. Athanasios and John the Baptist. This began on October 17, 1990, when the icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, patron saint of the sick and of peace, supposedly began to cry immediately after a service for peace in the Persian Gulf. Returned to its home (the church of a breakaway Orthodox faction) in Astoria, Queens, New York, on October 23, the icon attracted additional thousands of pilgrims over the following days as it was reputed to continue weeping.However, the tears dried after the Gulf War ended.

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Although an investigation was refused at the time, on May 11, 1991, I was able to examine the icon, under rather limited conditions, in company with members of the New York Area Skeptics (NYASk). A previous NYASk ultra-violet examination had revealed only some streaks and markings that were clearly not the result of weeping. Our examination included stereo-microscopic viewing which also failed to show traces of any tearstains.Subsequently, forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I obtained a videotape of the earlier, October 1990, phenomenon. At first we regarded the evidence as too ambiguous to assess, but further study indicated that there were wet-looking streaks that seemed to have been on the painted panel rather than the clear plexiglass cover. It appeared to us that the two “rivulets” flowed down the face just to the outside of the eyes and that the scale of the “tears” was greatly disproportionate to the diminutive size of St. Irene’s face. These observations suggested to us a rather crude hoax.4

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A curious sequel to the story of the St. Irene icon came just before Christmas 1991. On December 23, three armed men and a woman burst into the church, forced two priests and four others to lie on the front altar, pried the icon from its case, and fled. Whether they sought the icon for its alleged powers, or for the estimated $800,000 value of its gold frame encrusted with jewels, could only be speculated upon. Said Bishop Vikentios:

Only we need the icon back, we don’t care for the gold of the jewels. It is a holy icon, it is a miracle icon. She is the patron saint of peace. We don’t know why the Lord allowed this to happen.6

Within a few days, however, the icon was returned—although missing the frame and most of its jewels—anonymously through the mail.

A final (?) episode in the icon saga came when representatives of the mainstream church—the traditional Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (mentioned earlier in the stonewalling of the 1986 Chicago weeping-icon case)—suggested that the breakaway faction that owns the icon might have staged the theft as a hoax. “We have doubts about the tears and so on,” added the archdiocese’s press officer. To what appeared as a case of the pot calling the kettle black, members of the breakaway Greek Orthodox Christians of North and South America, responded that the other church was simply envious of the icon.7

…I witnessed a different illusion when I examined the St. Irene icon in Queens, New York. The glistening varnish and certain surface irregularities created a play of light that produced the appearance of weeping. A religious supplicant predisposed to see tears could, especially if carrying a candle, see in the resultant glimmering in the tiny eyes, aided by vertical cracks and other streaks, the effect of tears.Aided in part by the sad expression of St. Irene, we easily experienced the illusion of seeing tears welling up in the saint’s eyes, although a low-power stereo microscope showed us the true state of affairs.9

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NOTES

Nickell, Joe, “Magical Icons.” Chapter 3 of Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures, 1993, pp. 54-55, 57.

Mireya Navarro, “Saint’s Weeping Portrait Draws Curious and the Faithful,” New York Times, November 5, 1990.

See Joe Nickell, “Weeping Icon Revisited—Still Dry-Eyed,” The New York Skeptic (Newsletter of the New York Area Skeptics), Summer 1991, pp. 6-7.

Examination of St. Irene videotape, conducted at Gotha, Florida, by Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer, August 6, 1991.

“Congregation Prays for Return of Stolen Icon,” Newark Star-Ledger, December 24, 1991.

“Greek Factions Duel over Theft of the Icon,” Newark Star-Ledger, January 2, 1992.

Nickell, “Weeping Icon Revisited,” p. 7.

Ibid.

Ibid.

"Looking for a Miracle" exposes religious frauds mainly in the Catholic Church, though it has a section on Orthodox icons mainly from Old Calendarist factions.
“Looking for a Miracle” exposes religious frauds mainly in the Catholic Church, though it has a section on Orthodox icons mainly from Old Calendarist factions.

See also:

November 20, 1990: N.Y.’s weeping icon draws area faithful http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1990-11-20/news/1990324110_1_greek-orthodox-church-weeping-icon-irene

October 31, 1990: St. Irene: Looking For A Miracle http://www.qgazette.com/news/2007-06-27/features/089.html

December 24, 1991: Queens Church Robbed of ‘Weeping’ Icon http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/24/nyregion/queens-church-robbed-of-weeping-icon.html

1991 Dec. 24, St Irene Icon

December 25, 1991: Faithful Pray for New Miracle To Aid Stolen ‘Weeping’ Icon http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/25/nyregion/faithful-pray-for-new-miracle-to-aid-stolen-weeping-icon.html

December 28, 1991: Church Robbed of Icon Gets Prank Calls http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/28/nyregion/church-robbed-of-icon-gets-prank-calls.html

December 29, 1991: Astoria Sings Joyful Praises as a Lost Symbol is Found http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/29/nyregion/astoria-sings-joyful-praises-as-a-lost-symbol-is-found.html

December 29, 1991: ’Weeping’ Icon Returned to New York City Church http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/29/nyregion/weeping-icon-returned-to-new-york-city-church.html

1991 - St Irene Icon

December 30, 1991: ’Weeping’ Icon Returns To Prayers of Celebration http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-07-17/news/9407170365_1_icon-church-sanctuary-cigna

January 1, 1992: Story of the Weeping Icon Divides Greek Orthodoxy http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/01/nyregion/story-of-the-weeping-icon-divides-greek-orthodoxy.html

January 1, 1992: Doubt Cast On Story Of `Weeping Icon` http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-01-01/news/9201010099_1_st-irene-chrysovalantou-bishop-vikentios-greek-orthodox-archdiocese

July 15, 1994: Questions of Belief Arise Once Again Over `Weeping Icon’ (WSJ) http://www.skepticfiles.org/skep2/iconstol.htm

July 17, 1994: `Weeping Icon’ Goes To Court, Church Sues Insurer For Refusing Its Claim http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-07-17/news/9407170365_1_icon-church-sanctuary-cigna

December 23, 1996: Relic Brings Clout and Miracle Seekers to a Queens Church http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/23/nyregion/relic-brings-clout-and-miracle-seekers-to-a-queens-church.html

August 12, 1998: Church Says Burglar Sought Saint’s Icon http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/12/nyregion/church-says-burglar-sought-saint-s-icon.html

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February 1, 2001: Astoria Greek church’s icon recovered after theft http://www.timesledger.com/stories/2001/5/20010201-archive65.html

November 9, 2010: Sister Christonymphi Speaks to Police Regarding St. Irene Chrysovalantou Monastery in Astoria http://www.monomakhos.com/sister-christonymphi-speaks-to-police-regarding-st-irene-chrysovalantou-monastery-in-astoria/

November 16, 2011: Burglary at St. Irene Chrysovalantou Church in Astoria http://ocl.org/burglary-at-st-irene-chrysovalantou-church-in-astoria/

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