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Shroud of Turin: The Mystery Remains

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Image: Wikipedia

It was the photograph that got things going again. One hundred years ago this month, on May 28, 1898, amateur photographer Secundo Pia applied the new science of photography to a mysterious relic. The Holy Shroud of Turin, Italy, perhaps the burial shroud of Jesus himself, was on display in the cathedral chapel that had been built to house it 280 years earlier. Many people had decided the shroud was a medieval hoax, a painting. Others clung to the belief that this was the authentic shroud of Jesus. Turin’s bishop had agreed that photography might be a way to save the faint, reddish image of a crucified man in case the shroud itself would be lost or destroyed.

The bishop had good reason to take a chance with photography. The shroud in Turin had been nearly lost to fire and who knows what else depending upon its true age. During its worst episode, in 1532, Franciscan priests and Poor Clare nuns had rescued the shroud from a roaring fire that was melting its silver container and burning holes in the shroud. The nuns repaired the shroud.

Secundo Pia’s photographs were stunning. The negative photographic plate reveals the image of a man in far greater clarity than anyone had ever seen on the shroud itself. Copies of Pia’s negative image traveled around the world and generated tremendous interest in the Shroud of Turin. That which had been seen by a handful of people once each generation when the shroud went on display now could be seen by millions via photography. Scientists began studying the image.

Decades of research, especially intense during the 1970’s and 1980’s, revealed many facts about the shroud and raised even more questions. It seems that every time a scientist said something certain about the shroud, another scientist or group of scientists would challenge the results. That’s even true of the 1988 carbon test that dated the shroud’s origins between 1290 and 1360.

It is said that the Shroud of Turin is the most studied artifact in the world. Yet, after 100 years of scientific inquiry, we are left, ultimately, with the same possibilities that shroud viewers shared in the 1800’s and before: The shroud is either a genuine relic or an icon. (A relic is either the remainder of a saint or a sacred object that has come into contact with a saint’s body, or, in this case, with Jesus. An icon is a sacred image created to awaken people’s faith.) If it was a hoax, its own history has made it into an icon.

The Church has never made an official ruling on the shroud. So here we will consider the two possibilities, because the shroud is back in the news. From April 18 until the Feast of Corpus Christi (June 14) the shroud is on exposition, at the Turin Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, for the first time since 1978. It will be exhibited again in 2000. Understanding some of the authenticity debate can put the shroud exhibits into context.

In this article we will talk with a medical doctor who has studied the shroud for 20 years and a Redemptorist priest who is the shroud’s principal promoter in the United States. But first we consider some possibilities.

Relic or Icon?

Pope John Paul II is traveling to Turin May 24 to venerate the shroud: He believes the image draws people to Christ. The pope, in fact, has stated that he considers the shroud authentic. After the 1988 carbondating tests were performed and shroud advocates were reeling from questions about the shroud’s authenticity, he said to a group of reporters that the shroud is “certainly a relic” and not merely an icon. “If it weren’t a relic, one could not understand these reactions of faith that surround it and that express themselves even more strongly because of the scientific results.”

That’s a pretty heavy endorsement, but the Church does not consider the shroud’s authenticity a matter of faith. Therefore Catholics are free to draw their own conclusions. Yet they might consider the assessments of some other shroud fans: Pope Paul VI found it “so true, so profound, so human and so divine, such as we have been unable to admire or venerate in any other image.” In 1578 St. Charles Borromeo walked from Milan to Turin to venerate it. During a 1613 exposition St. Francis de Sales was one who held the shroud in front of the crowds. St. Jane Frances de Chantal venerated the shroud when it was shown in 1639. The shroud, in brief, has been one of the most venerated objects of the Church since it first was moved to Turin in 1535.

If its roots can be traced to the ancient Icon of Edessa, as some claim, then the shroud might well be the source of many ancient images of Jesus. From 50 until 1204, there was a faint image of Jesus’ face on a cloth enshrined in two ancient cities. Iconographers copied that face. It had been brought to Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire, from Edessa, a town in southern Asia Minor that was one of the first Christian cities. Some shroud scholars, studying the folds on the Shroud of Turin, have shown how it could have been the Holy Icon of Edessa, folded over so that only the face was displayed. There is a strip sewn along the side of the shroud that centers the face exactly for that type of display. These historians speculate that the earliest Christians could easily have brought the shroud from Jerusalem to Edessa.

One theory, developed by historian Ian Wilson, is that the face was discovered to be part of an entire body image at some point during its later years in Constantinople. Though there was a major, well-documented parade and ceremony for the arrival of the Edessa icon at Constantinople, there is no mention ever of a shroud’s arrival. Yet after 1157 there begins to be mention of a burial shroud of Jesus in the records of tourists who visited Constantinople. During the shameful Fourth Crusade, when European knights occupied and looted Constantinople, the burial shroud disappeared. That was about 150 years before the shroud that is now in Turin first showed up in the possession of a French knight, Geoffroy de Charney. He may be related to another Geoffroy de Charney, a monk-knight whose order collected and safeguarded religious relics, suggests Wilson. The links among these events are tenuous, and certainly debatable.

If it’s a relic, the Shroud of Turin is invaluable. It would be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, bearing an imprint of Christ’s body, perhaps at the moment of the Resurrection. But what if it’s not real?

Any number of people accept 1988’s carbon-dating tests as the final word on the shroud’s medieval origins. New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown, S.S., writing before 1988, suggested that the man of the shroud could be any of thousands of Christians who were crucified during the Roman persecutions. David Sox, former general secretary for the British Society for Turin Shroud, suggested this past February that the shroud’s man could have been a 14th-century knight who was ritually crucified. For Sox the carbon dating was conclusive.

Father Frederick Brinkmann, president of the U.S.-based Holy Shroud Guild, tells St. Anthony Messenger the shroud would still be of tremendous value even if it isn’t authentic: “It’s either Christ or someone who was made up to be crucified like Christ,” he says. Since the shroud “supports the Passion narratives of the Gospel to the letter,” he says, it puts us in touch with the Lord’s passion and death. He notes that the man on the Shroud of Turin bears the “scourge marks, marks in the head that would suggest a crown of thorns, nail marks in the hands and in the feet, and the wound in the side. Especially the crown of thorns and the wound in the side and the lack of broken bones mark the crucifixion of Christ uniquely.”

The Holy Shroud Guild is a small Redemptorist guild founded in 1951 at Mt. St. Alphonsus Seminary in upstate New York. The guild exists to disseminate information about the shroud through a newsletter and now a Web site (

Father Brinkmann seems typical of many well-educated people who are drawn to the shroud. “It appeals to me because I’m interested in physics, chemistry, biology,” he says. “All of those things are brought to bear on the study of the holy shroud.” The considerable number of people who write books and give lectures on the shroud tend to be scientists, he observes. That is especially true after an international team of 40 scientists and forensics experts known as STURP (Shroud of Turin Research Project) studied the shroud for five days straight in 1978. That team did a battery of tests that included even a computer imaging process developed by NASA to create 3-D maps of Mars. The 3-D image that resulted (see photo above) is one evidence that the shroud image was not painted. No medieval painting could produce a proportional 3-D image.

There are seemingly countless angles to shroud research, and each inquiry seems to have its advocates and foes. There is Swiss crime investigator Dr. Max Frei’s theory that pollen particles on the shroud prove it has been in Asia Minor and in the Middle East—even in the Jerusalem vicinity—at some point in its history. That would have to be before it turned up in France, since the Turin shroud hasn’t left Europe since. Opponents say the pollen could have been brought by pilgrims.

There is Duke University’s Dr. Alan Whanger, who discovered what he interprets as Pontius Pilate coins (minted in the 30’s) over the eyes of the shroud’s man, and most recently has announced finding faint images of ancient objects in the shroud’s background. The coin theory is widely accepted; the images theory is new and more controversial. Chicago’s microscope expert, Walter McCrone, insists that the bloodstains are paint; renowned forensics experts swear it is blood, even showing where the serum separated out.

Archaeologists weigh in pro and con on the weave of the shroud’s linen: Is it medieval or ancient? Physicists debate the carbon dating’s validity: Did smoke from the 1532 fire introduce extraordinary levels of carbon? Historians argue the connections to the Edessa icon.

To get a flavor for this type of research, St. Anthony Messenger tracked down an author of one of at least seven new books published about the shroud this year. Dr. Gilbert R. Lavoie is a medical doctor who has been studying the blood marks on the shroud ever since he witnessed the STURP members at work in 1978. In his new book, Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud (Thomas More Press), he moves from the study of blood marks on the shroud to an interpretation of how his discoveries relate to biblical texts. Our interview took place in the Burns Library at Dr. Lavoie’s alma mater, Boston College.

A New Doctor at Calvary

It was by accident that in 1961 Boston College freshman Gilbert Lavoie became interested in the shroud. He walked into an old bookstore and chanced upon the classic work A Doctor at Calvary: The Passion of Our Lord As Described by a Surgeon by French Academy surgeon and archaeologist Pierre Barbet. It was Dr. Barbet’s medical analysis of the shroud image in the 1930’s that brought so many details about the shroud into popular discussion: the position of the nails (in the wrists rather than the hands), the shape of the crown of thorns as a clump of thorns rather than a circular wreath and so on.

“I read the book and I was fascinated by the detective work this surgeon had done with regard to the blood marks,” says Dr. Lavoie. He soon forgot about the book, though, as he pursued his medical training. By 1978 Lavoie had served a brief stint in the service as chief of epidemiology and communicable disease for the European Command, and spent a year in Bangladesh with the World Health Organization. He was devoting his energy to a growing medical practice back in Boston. “I was reading the Boston Globe one Sunday afternoon and there was a picture of the shroud,” he says. Memories of Barbet’s book came back to him.

The pull was strong. He wound up going to the 1978 Turin exposition and convincing the late Father Peter Rinaldi, a key member of the Holy Shroud Guild, to get him admission to the exposition and to a subsequent Turin research conference. Afterward he asked Father Rinaldi how he could help further shroud research. The priest told him to apply his medical knowledge to the shroud’s blood.

So began a 20-year interest that included weekends of blood tests, cajoling bearded parish priests to be models for replicating the shroud’s facial blood marks, constant observation of the shroud photo he placed across from his desk at work, even lying under a full-length shroud replica to understand how the blood marks arrived at their positions on the shroud. Then there were papers given at shroud symposia, lectures given to any number of groups. His youngest son, Andre, now a student at Boston College, who stopped by with lunch during the interview, agrees that he was raised in the shroud’s presence.

“What really fascinated me and kept me interested in this all those years, almost subconsciously,” Lavoie says, “was the direction of the blood mark that flowed down the wrist. That gravitational flow is at 65 degrees from the vertical. So we know that this man died in the position of crucifixion.” The doctor was also fascinated by Dr. Barbet’s study of the nail holes in the wrists: “If the nail hole were in the palm of the hand, it would have torn through the flesh. The nail had to be within the bony structure of the wrist to hold the weight of the body.” Barbet showed that such a wound would touch the median nerve, causing the thumb to extend inward. That explains the absence of thumbs in the shroud image: “How could any artist imagine such a thing?” asks Lavoie.

Before he began his blood studies, says Lavoie, he set out to become an expert on Jewish burial customs. “I really began to venture into an area I knew nothing about,” he admits. He depended upon Jewish friends to be his guides, and he made a discovery that challenges much of current New Testament scholarship regarding Jesus’ burial. He discovered a law in the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish law, that says a person who has died a violent death would be buried without the blood being washed from the body.

He spells out his discovery in detail in his book, but the essence of it is that Jesus, in accordance with Jewish law, would have been entombed covered with blood, as was the man on the shroud. That’s a new idea. His understanding of Jewish burial law—but nothing more—is endorsed by Jacob Neusner, one of the leading rabbinical scholars in the United States. Professor Neusner told St. Anthony Messenger in a brief phone interview that he had read Lavoie’s book and that “the man has done his homework. He knows Jewish law very well. He’s got it right about the blood.” Neusner’s name is one of several prominent endorsements that appear on the cover of Lavoie’s book.

One blood study Dr. Lavoie conducted explains one of many apparent discrepancies on the shroud. In the position of the right elbow there is a bloodstain that seems to come from nowhere. “For three years I tried to understand what the blood mark was and how it got there,” he remembers. Then one day he lay on his living-room floor beneath his shroud replica and it all became clear. Blood had run down the arm of the crucified man and pooled at the elbow. That moist clot transferred to the shroud upon burial, Lavoie says. But there is no image of an elbow at the blood spot. If the man’s image were made by the body coming into contact with the shroud, there would be an elbow there, he figured. He deduced that the image must have gotten onto the cloth some other way.

Another object of his study: Blood spots on the shroud appear to be in the middle of the shroud man’s hair, yet the hair is not matted. “I wondered if that same phenomenon was not occurring there that occurred at the elbow,” he recalls. “One day I took that picture home and had my daughter create a tracing.” Lavoie created a stencil of the blood marks and placed it over a human face. By painting through the holes on the stencil, he shows that the blood marks actually land on the forehead, cheeks and temples of the man on the shroud.

But more remarkably, he demonstrates again that the blood marks and the shroud image were not made at the same time: The blood marks were made when the shroud was wrapped around the body, he says; the image was made when the shroud was stretched flat. That’s why the blood marks seem out of place in relation to the image. The STURP team had demonstrated that the blood marks penetrate the cloth of the shroud, but the image itself only goes one or two fibers deep into the cloth—less than the width of half a human hair.

It took Dr. Lavoie a book to explain his many studies and conclusions. We cannot do them justice here. But some of his book’s assertions are so new that they demand further examination. They evoked mixed and strong reactions from Scripture scholars we consulted.

Gospel Secrets?

The more Dr. Lavoie studied, the more convinced he became of the shroud’s miraculous origins. Though the blood indicates a person who had been both in the position of crucifixion and in the horizontal position of burial, the inexplicable image indicates a man in a fully upright position, he says. “Everything about him—the hair hanging straight down, the shadows under his eyes and lips, under his hand, under his pectoral muscles—points to an upright man with light coming from above.”

Lavoie began to see it all pointing to the moment of Resurrection. He began to study his Bible, looking for answers. His controversial conclusion is that if you drop the Turin shroud, image and all, into the Gospel stories, it fits as neatly as a glove. “When you put the shroud into that scenario, it answers a lot of the questions that biblical scholars have been asking for years.” One example stands out: John 20:8-9. When the beloved disciple looked into the tomb, we hear that he “saw and believed,” yet he did not understand about resurrection. What did he see? Lavoie says it could well have been the image of Jesus on the burial shroud. Lavoie suggests that “John” and the early Christians kept the shroud a secret for fear of it being taken and destroyed by the authorities for a number of reasons. He admits that’s speculation.

These and other equally novel biblical interpretations sent us to two Catholic New Testament scholars for an assessment. Both are widely published and respected. Neither wanted their names associated with this story, for fear of being dragged into a debate. Both have read the entirety of Lavoie’s book. To be blunt, both expressed the view that Dr. Lavoie’s scriptural work was ludicrous and naive. He was accused of “having an agenda,” using the Scripture to prove his own theories. One expressed that “no Catholic Scripture scholar from St. Jerome to Raymond Brown would agree with Dr. Lavoie’s approach to Scripture.”

Brown, in fact, did write about the shroud in 1984, taking no position on the shroud’s authenticity, but attempting to make peace amidst passionate debate. He observed that shroud advocates “have been quite critical of biblical scholars…almost as if the shroud disproves modern biblical criticism.” Brown more recently wrote about scriptural evidence pertaining to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus in the two-volume, 1,600-page reference work, Death of the Messiah. It is no surprise that many readers would be disappointed by Lavoie’s book, which seems to ignore that mass of evidence.

But Dr. Lavoie has his supporters, including one notable Catholic Scripture scholar, the Jesuit Walter Abbott. Father Abbott has had a distinguished career as religion editor ofAmerica, translator of Vatican II documents, then as an appointee of Pope Paul VI to implement Vatican II’s decrees on Scripture translation. He retired as a New Testament professor at Pope John XXIII Seminary in Massachusetts.

It was Father Abbott to whom Dr. Lavoie brought his biblical theories early in his research. Abbott tells St. Anthony Messengerthat he encouraged Lavoie strongly: “The first time I heard his discoveries, it was stunning!” he says. Abbott encouraged Lavoie to write the book, and now calls it “one of the most important books of the 20th century.” He sent the manuscript around, helping to gain the book’s several endorsements, including Cardinal John J. O’Connor’s and Jacob Neusner’s.

Father Abbott says that the dismay of mainstream Catholic Scripture scholars is understandable: “There’s a deep-seated prejudice against such people as Dr. Lavoie trying to come in and interpret the Scriptures. That’s human nature. But what they should be doing is taking a good look at his evidence. Is this possibly a case where a rank amateur comes up with something they’ve never thought of before?”

Lavoie’s book has been made into a Dutch TV documentary that will be shown in Europe this summer.

Easter Mystery

So how’s that for a story? Experts taking opposing sides viewing the same evidence—that seems unavoidable when it comes to the shroud. Meanwhile, the faithful throng to the shroud during these eight weeks, simply praying for the Lord’s presence.

Father Brinkmann of the Holy Shroud Guild puts things into perspective. He says he considers the shroud “the real McCoy,” but doesn’t make it the center of his faith: “For me, it’s a curious relic. If it were determined to be absolutely false, to have nothing to do with Christianity, I would let it go in an instant, and it wouldn’t affect my faith.”

In the meantime, preservation of the shroud has become an issue. It belongs to the pope now; the last king of Italy gave it to him in 1983. The shroud will remain in Turin, but it has been decided that the shroud will never be rolled up again. There is talk of a hermetically sealed, leaded crystal display case that would protect the shroud from further harm for future generations. Those generations, says Father Brinkmann, will develop new ways to determine the date of its creation and discover how the image was created. “These things have natural answers because the thing exists in nature,” he insists. Until then the shroud will continue to be an enigma, he says, based on the Passion and the mystical thing that happened to Christ in the Resurrection, “and the tantalizing notion that this is a relic of the Resurrection itself.”

John Bookser Feister is the editor-in-chief of this publication. He holds an M.A. in humanities from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He is a coauthor with Richard Rohr, O.F.M., of the 1996 book Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (St. Anthony Messenger Press).