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:

download (6)

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.


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).


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.


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


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.



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).



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.


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


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


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:




Artistry and the Shroud (Joe Nickell, 2013)

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

download (6)

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.


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



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)


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).