One of my recent assignments in a religious studies class was to research the Shroud of Turin and post what I found to the class’s blog, which is actually a pretty cool idea. I’ve decided to re-post it here because I really enjoyed researching the history and debate surrounding the relic. Remember that because it is a religious studies class, I was supposed to remain “methodologically agnostic”, but it is pretty obvious that I think the Shroud is not authentic. Nonetheless, it is fascinating.
The Shroud of Turin has been surrounded by mystery and interest in the West for over a hundred years. Few relics can rival the amount of controversy raised by this 4.4 x 1.1 m piece of cloth whose authenticity has been fiercely debated among skeptics and believers alike. With the Catholic Church taking no official stance on its authenticity, scientists and historians have been conducting investigations that seem to raise more questions than answers. This post will contain minimal information about the ritual uses, but will instead focus mainly on the history and debates surrounding the Shroud. Here is some of the most interesting information I have found.
The earliest documentation we have for this shroud dates back to 1389 and is a letter written by the Bishop of Troyes, Pierre D’Arcis, to Pope Clement VII. What prompted the writing of the letter was the following: Geoffrey de Charnys, the head of a family in Lirey, France, had been giving expositions of a shroud he claimed as the authentic “Shroud of Jesus” that bore the image of Christ. D’Arcis was
convinced it was a forgery that was being exploited by Geoffrey and thus wanted the Pope to ban these exhibitions. He also claims that some 34 years earlier one of his predecessors had denounced these expositions (also presumably given by the same family) and actually acquired a confession from the man who painted the shroud. As it turns out, Pope Clement was related to de Charnys and threatened D’Arcis with excommunication if he did not remain silent on the issue. The compromise he made was to order that image be declared as merely a representation of the Shroud, not the original.
The Shroud was eventually passed on to Geoffrey’s daughter, Margret, who in 1438 took it to Belgium to be displayed. At this point, the second (possibly third) inquiry into its authenticity was made by another clergyman who assigned the task to two professors. Their verdict: fake.
Some 25-ish years later the Shroud was given the House of Savoy, a family that would become the royalty of Italy, in exchange for a large estate. It was one among many relics that family used to “bolster their standing.” The Shroud was then kept out of public view for about 40 years, and curiously during this period its authenticity was championed by the Pope (his nephew also declared that May 4 would be the feast day of the cloth). As with many medieval relics, the investment of the Savoy family became a lucrative business that brought pilgrims from all over to the chapel in Chambery that housed the cloth. In 1532 the cloth was damaged in a fire and eventually moved to the Cathedral of Turin, the new capital of Savoy lands, in 1578. The public displays of the cloth were very showy, even before the creation of the great chapel that eventually housed it in its new home. It is a significant fact that the chapel was placed between the cathedral and palace, attesting to the tension that existed between its religious devotional uses and the status it represented for the dynasty. It remained in the possession of the family unil 1983 when it was given to the Vatican after King Umberto II’s death. Though a fire greatly damaged the chapel in 1997, the cloth was not damaged.
The only possible attestations to the existence of the Shroud from Lirey before the 1350’s are two theories that take the Shroud back to the 6th century. In one theory put forth by believers, a French knight from the Fourth Crusade described seeing a similar cloth in Constantinople in 1203 – a cloth they believe eventually made it to Lirey, France. The history of the Mandylion cloth, which also was reportedly looted in Constantinople during the same period, dates back to the latter 500’s and is believed by some to be the same cloth.
Of course, the historical debate does give the whole picture. Science has also played a role in the controversy of the
Shroud, particularly, the use of carbon-dating. Three independent laboratories tested a piece of the Shroud and all gave the same dates for its age: 1260-1390. Given that the emergence of the Shroud from Lirey falls conveniently into the dates provided by the laboratories, skeptics suggest the evidence against the Shroud’s authenticity is pretty damning.
That being said, the Shroud of Turin could never be dismissed as a phony relic that has no place in the study of religion. To the contrary, examining the role the Shroud has played over the years is invaluable to understanding the history of the Catholic Church and importance that relics have had in the Christian tradition. For members of the religion, the Shroud has been a reminder of their faith and of their Savior that was crucified almost 2,000 years ago. Despite its exploitation, the Shroud has been used for devotional purposes for over 600 years and will continue to awe believers who stand in its presence – regardless of the century of its origin.
Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince. 1994. Turin Shroud. Harper Collins Publishers
Robert Drews. 1984. In Search of the Shroud of Turin. Rowman & Allanheld Publishers
John Beldon Scott. 2003. Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin. The University of Chicago Press