by William Bennetta
The Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot-long piece of linen that bears
two full-length images - one a front view, the other a rear view
- of a man who seems to have been flogged and crucified. The two
images lie head to head, separated by some six inches of bare
cloth. There are no side-view images.
The shroud belongs to the House of Savoy but is kept (at Turin,
Italy) by functionaries of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church
has explicitly encouraged the veneration of the shroud and has
palpably, if informally, promoted various beliefs about it. These
include the idea that it is the cloth in which the corpse of
Jesus was wrapped for burial, as well as the correlative idea
that the images and the ostensible bloodstains on the shroud are
direct impressions of that corpse. According to one vigorous
advocate of those beliefs, the most recent public exposition of
the shroud, held at Turin during the summer of 1978, drew some
3.5 million people.
On 14 October 1988 the [New York Times] reported that the shroud
had been discredited by radiocarbon dating: Tests had indicated
that the linen was no more than 750 years old. The [Times] also
recounted the tortuous statements by which the archbishop of
Turin, in announcing the results of the tests, had tried to
obfuscate the Church's promotion of the shroud and had given
assurance that the shroud, even if bogus, had "produced
I was in Port Chester, New York, at the time, visiting members of
my family. When I showed the [Times] to my brother, Bob, he said
that the Corpus Christi church - one of several Catholic churches
in Port Chester - had a shrine entirely devoted to the shroud. I
suggested that we go over to the church to see how the shroud was
being promoted to the faithful.
As Joe Nickell relates in [Inquest on the Shroud of Turin], the
shroud was condemned, very early in its strange history, as a
fake. In 1389 the bishop of Troyes, in France, sent a report
about the shroud to Pope Clement VII. It began:(2)
The case, Holy Father, stands thus. Some time since in this
diocese of Troyes, the Dean of a certain collegiate church . . .
falsely and deceitfully, 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, . . . he falsely declaring and
pretending that this was the actual shroud in which our Savior
Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb.
Pope Clement declined to suppress the shroud entirely, but in
1390 he imposed restrictions on any future exhibitions of it.
There would be no ceremonies or candles or incense or guard of
honor, he decreed, and each exposition would have to include the
announcement that "it is not the true Shroud of Our Lord but a
painting or picture made in the semblance or representation of
The Pope's prudent judgment, however, was soon eclipsed. The
Savoys acquired the shroud in 1453, and they immediately began to
exhibit it as Jesus's burial cloth and to attribute miraculous
powers to it. Their enterprise succeeded, and the shroud became
widely accepted, among Catholics, as an authentic relic. It
enjoyed that status for the next 500 years or so, even though the
Church's central administration remained conspicuously ambiguous.
They repeatedly provided [de facto] endorsement of the folklore
and superstitions that adhered to the shroud, but they never said
definitively that the shroud was the thing that believers
believed it to be.
The most engaging episode in the shroud's history has come in our
own century, as it has been subjected to scientific and
pseudoscientific examinations. The proceedings have been odd,
sometimes Byzantine, and often absurd, because they have included
the repeated conflation of a real question with a purely
theatrical one. The real question, arising from some puzzling
visual and physical properties of the images, has been: How were
the images formed? The theatrical one, promoted by some Church
officials and other believers, has been: Is the shroud authentic?
In the context of this latter question, some people - committed
to finding that the shroud is genuine - have misrepresented their
tests or their results and have tried to explain contrary results
by inventing supernatural forces.
The question of the authenticity of the shroud and its images is
a nonsense because the shroud itself declares unequivocally that
it is a work of art. The evidence can be plainly seen and does
not require the intercession of microscopes, spectroscopes or any
of the other devices that have been enlisted. Let me explain.
The shroud's devotees imagine that the people who buried Jesus
placed His body on a part of the shroud and then drew the rest of
the up and over, so that it enfolded the head and entirely
covered the body's front and sides. The part of the cloth that
was under the body, they say, acquired the rear-view image; the
part that was laid atop acquired the front-view image.
This is consistent with the head-to-head orientation of the two
images, but it is irreconcilable with the geometry of the images
themselves. That geometry is so right that it is wrong: When the
shroud is laid flat, the images are realistic and well
proportioned; they are not the distorted images that you would
see if you wrapped a three-dimensional corpse in a cloth, then
somehow transferred an impression of the corpse's surface to the
cloth, and then laid the cloth out in two dimensions.
In other words, the images do not conform, even crudely, to the
explanation by which believers purport to account for them. Nor
do they conform to any other explanation but this: The images
were devised by an artist who did what artists - graphic artists,
at least - always have done. He represented his three-dimensional
subject by making planar projections, and he omitted features
that had no projections on the two planes that he had chosen.
This explains two stark properties of the shroud for which, as
far as I know, the believers have no explanation at all. It tells
why there are no images of the corpse's sides, and it tells why
the space between the two images - which, according to a
believers' scenario, should have acquired an impression of the
top of the corpse's head - is bare. For me, the naive geometry of
the images has always been conclusive. Readers who want to learn
about other impeachments of the shroud's authenticity will find
an abundant supply in Joe Nickell's book. I cannot even begin to
summarize them here, but I must mention the business of the
The shroud shows many red marks that represent blood from the
wounds that Jesus incurred, during a period of many hours, as He
was flogged, crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and stabbed
with a lance. And like the images of the corpse, these
"bloodstains" are much too good to be true. Nickell says:
The "blood" stains on the shroud are suspiciously still red,
whereas aged blood turns black. In addition they are
"picturelike". . . . Other questions arise: How could some of
the "clots" or "flows" which had [dried] (for example, those on
the arms) have transferred to the cloth at all? As to blood
flowing onto the cloth after the body was supposedly wrapped. . .
, how could such [wet] blood have dried without causing the cloth
to adhere to the body? And if such blood had not dried, how could
it fail to smear when the body was removed?
Among those "picturelike" stains, the ones that represent flows
from wounds induced by the crown of thorns are especially
notable. They depict blood arranged in rivulets, outside of
Jesus's hair, but real blood from scalp wounds does not flow in
that way; it spreads into the hair, sticking to it and matting
it. Various examinations of the shroud's "blood stains" have
failed to disclose corpuscles, hemoglobin or any other materials
that are specific to blood, but they have given evidence of
several substances that were used by medieval artists as
The reason why the Corpus Christi church has a shrine devoted to
the shroud is that Father Peter M. Rinaldi was the church's
pastor from 1950 to 1977. Rinaldi was a believer if there ever
was one, and he wrote several books about the shroud.
Copies of his [I Saw the Holy Shroud] were displayed for sale in
the church's vestibule when Bob and I got there, and I bought
one.3 The text - credulous, sophistic and highly distortive -
includes a brief, sterilized version of the shroud's history and
some commensurably bogus invocations of science. As a whole, it
is comparable to a creationist pamphlet.
As Bob and I walked from the vestibule into the shrine, we met a
full-sized, fully colored statue of Jesus on His cross. It was
meant to be both clinical and horrific; the nearby placard said
the statue had been made by a devotee of the shroud and that it
reflected what the shroud told about Jesus's awful death.
The statue captivated me for several minutes - not only because
it was wonderfully garish but also because it did indeed resonate
with the shroud. Jesus's body bore many spots and stripes of red
paint, representing blood from the lacerations inflicted when He
was flogged; and even though the flogging had been administered
well before the crucifixion, this blood was no different in color
from the fresh blood that was flowing from newer wounds. Nor had
the spots and stripes been smeared or smudged; nor had they been
blurred by the sweat that Jesus had shed during His considerable
exertions on the way to His execution. The artist who had painted
the statue had made errors like some of the ones that had been
made, 600 years earlier, by the artist who had painted the
The shrine itself was rather dark and physically unimpressive.
Its principal resources comprised a reduced-scale photograph of
the shroud, some other pictures, and a number of explanatory
placards. The placards said outright that the shroud was the
true, miraculous shroud of Jesus, asked rhetorically what else it
could be, and told that scientists had affirmed that its
authenticity had resisted all scientific challenges.
The results of the radiocarbon dating of the shroud, along with
the announcement of those results by the archbishop of Turin,
have been reported widely and prominently by the popular media,
including the daily newspaper that serves Port Chester. And I am
sure that the current pastor of Corpus Christi - even if he has
had no particular interest in the Shroud of Turin - knows, even
now, that his shrine needs an overhauling. Just for fun, I intend
to visit the church again to see if any changes have been made.
I'll let you know what I find out.
1. R. Suro. 14 October 1988. "Church says shroud of Turin isn't
authentic". [New York Times].
2. J. Nickell. 1983. [Inquest on the Shroud of Turin]. Prometheus
3. P.M. Rinaldi. 1983. [I Saw the Holy Shroud:A Study of the
Shroud of Christ]. Don Bosco Publications, New Rochelle, NY.
(William Bennetta is an advisor to Bay Area Skeptics, a consulting
biologist, and a professional editor, and has published many signifi-
cant works on creationism.)
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