A centuries–old ‘divine jest’ that’s shrouded in mystery

The Shroud of Turin—which many believe to be the burial cloth of Christ—is back in the religious news again.

Shroud of Turin face

A closeup of the Shroud of Turin

Mr. Russell Breault, president and founder of The Shroud of Turin Education Project, Inc., is touring American churches and colleges with a life size, museum-quality replica of the controversial artifact.

The replica, made from “the highest quality digital scans,” is said to recreate every aspect of the Shroud’s image, revealing all the nuances between the bloodstains, the image, and the scorches from a fire which, in 1532, damaged the relic.

Mr. Breault has been lecturing on The Shroud for more than 25 years, He has appeared on numerous national television documentaries and has participated in nearly every international conference since 1981. 

And he has a fascinating tale to tell: not least, The Shroud might aptly be described as a divine joke at the expense of skeptics. It is unique in that it would be even more miraculous if it were to be a fake than if it were to be genuine.

The shroud is a piece of linen some 4.8 yards long and 1.2 yards wide. Its first recorded appearance was in the small town of Lirey in 14th century France. It has been held in the Italian city of Turin since 1578.

On its front can been seen the image of a tall, bearded man bearing the marks of crucifixion. Experts, over the years, have detected traces of blood, as well as pollen and soil typical of Jerusalem.

Skeptics were cock-a-hoop, however, when, in 1988, three separate laboratories announced that Carbon 14 tests conducted on small piece of the shroud proved the artifact dated from the 14th century—indicating it, thus, was a fake.

This still left the doubters with problems on their hands—not least explaining, how, if the shroud is a forgery, the forgers had intimate knowledge of scientific discoveries and technologies that did not come into being until many centuries later.

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin

For example, The Shroud—which bears the image of a crucified man—is a high quality photographic negative. But the principles of photography were not discovered until the 19th century.

Some skeptics have advanced the theory that Leonardo da Vinci painted the shroud using a projection method known as camera obscura.

Aside from the fact Leonardo was born long after the shroud was first exhibited, it still isn’t a satisfactory explanation for the contention it is a “fake.”

The shroud appears to bear a conventional, two-dimensional image. But scientific studies show that it is, in fact, a precise, undistorted three-dimensional image.

Scientists, however, have been unable satisfactorily to reproduce the three dimensional image of the crucified man. Computer technology so far available has not been sufficiently advanced to decipher the huge volume of data encrypted in the shroud.

Be that as it may, the findings of shroud scholars has presented the skeptics with many more problems to resolve than those presented by the photographic nature of the image on The Shroud.

For starters, doubts have been cast on the Carbon 14 tests that initially appeared to call the authenticity of The Shroud into question.

It now appears that some of the fabric samples taken for testing came from portions of The Shroud heavily contaminated by centuries of human handling. Others were taken from a piece of Holland cloth sewn on to the shroud by nuns in the 16th century to cover up fire damage.

Testimony in support of the shroud’s authenticity has also come from Swedish textile expert Dr. Mechthilde Flury-Lemberg, who discovered a seam on the back of the cloth apparently sewn in the first century AD.

“There have been attempts to date the shroud from looking at the age of the material,” she said, “But the style of sewing is the biggest clue. It belongs firmly to a style seen in the first century AD or before.”

On top of all this, Italian scientists have found images on the back of the shroud that match the face and possibly the hands on the front.

“The fact that the image is two-sided makes any forgery difficult,” Professor Giulio Fanti of the University of Padua said.

The findings of Professor Fanti—a life-long atheist—and Roberto Maggiolo, both from the university’s department of mechanical engineering, were recently published in the highly regarded journal of the Institute of Physics in London.

While the front of the shroud has been studied intensively over the years, the back has remained hidden under the Holland cloth sewn on by the nuns. However, in 2002, that protective layer was removed for restoration and the back of the cloth was photographed.

The two scientists studied these photographs, using mathematical and optical techniques to process the images. They discovered that the face that can be seen on the reverse of the shroud matches that on the front.

“We can detect the presence of a nose, eyes, hair, beard and mustache on the back surface that correspond in place, form, position and scale to those of the front,” Prof. Fanti said.

The findings, he said, support the contentions of those who maintain the cloth is genuine.

Don’t expect the skeptics to take the news quietly. This is a comedy that isn’t going to close any time soon. Indeed, it’s already run for seven centuries.

Something over a decade ago the Adult Education Department gave a presentation on The Shroud as a Lenten Series. Perhaps it is time we revisited the issue. We would be interested to hear your views on the subject. ISAAC THE EAGLE

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