Todesbanden: On the Shroud of Turin

A talk given as part of the Musical Oratory on May 10.  The various hyperlinks provide illustrations.  They are not necessarily an endorsement of the material found on the pages linked. For the recording of the music part of this Oratory go to

The musical focus for today is Bach’s “Christ lag in Todesbanden”, which has been variously translated as “Christ lay in death’s bonds” or “in the throes of death” or even “in death’s dark prison”.  But these Banden – these bonds – are related, at least etymologically, to bands or strips of cloth, as in “bandage”.  We find the German “banden” again in a verse from the Gospel according to John:  “They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”  So tonight I would like to focus on these linen cloths, and especially on the largest one, which is known as the Shroud of Turin, after the city where it has been kept since the 16th century.  It is a cloth that speaks both of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Many of you are familiar with the Shroud.  If there is one scientific fact that everyone seems to know it is that the cloth has been carbon dated to 1325 plus or minus a few decades, and thus found to be a medieval forgery.  On the other hand, you may also be aware that Saint John Paul II referred to the cloth as a “relic” and that he, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all taken the time to venerate it during the all too brief and infrequent public expositions that literally draw millions of the faithful to Turin.  Clearly there must be much evidence in favour of the authenticity of the Shroud.  Could it be that the high-tech carbon dating is wrong?

The Shroud is a highly controversial artifact and much has been written both for and against its authenticity.  I cannot hope to address all the scientific and historical evidence that has been brought up in the debate.  Instead, I want to present you with some interesting facts that clearly have a significant bearing on whether the cloth was there in the tomb with Christ.

The Shroud (click here for picture) is a piece of linen 4.4 meters long by 1.1 meters wide.  It usually takes some time for first time viewers of the Shroud to figure out what they are looking at because the most salient features are just distractions.  The repeating triangles, the long dark creases, and the repeating pattern of four holes that resembles the letter L were not part of the original cloth.  During most of its existence, the Shroud was folded up in various reliquaries.  So  if some damage occurred – say if a hot iron were poked through the cloth – the ensuing holes would be repeated several times as a geometrical pattern across the whole Shroud.

We can only surmise that the L shaped pattern of holes was caused by a hot poker.  It is the most ancient damage for there are pictures of the Shroud going back to 1516 and perhaps earlier with this pattern clearly visible.  And we know that the repeating triangles are pieces of cloth sown on to the Shroud to give it structural integrity after it was severely damaged by a fire in 1532 during its sojourn in Chambery, France.  But while these salient features catch the eye, their only message is that some dark power has been trying to destroy the cloth.

If we look more closely at the Shroud, the main image comes into view.  If it does not, then looking at the black and white negative will be a big help.  This is one of the mysteries of the Shroud.  The image as we see it is really a photographic negative.  It is the negative of the Shroud that is the really the positive image.  This was the discovery of Secondo Pia, who was permitted to take the first photograph of the Shroud when it was exhibited in 1898.  When he pulled the negative out of the chemical bath, he was stunned by the clarity of the human face staring at him.  It is hard to believe that a forger trying to impress a medieval audience would draw the picture as a negative!

But not all is negative on the Shroud.  The blood stains around the head, near the wrists, in the chest area, at the feet, and all over the body from the scourging are all dark on the original and light – clearly reversed – on the negative.  They are not such a mystery and we can easily see how they would transfer to a linen sheet if the body of Christ were to placed as in the picture by Della Rovere.  This painting also explains the orientation of the body on the Shroud: the front and back; and the front of the head being next to the back of the head.

The blood turns out to be real blood and not some pigment.  At first, the deep red colour of the bloodstains made some people skeptical that it was real, but it turns out that the intense red is precisely what one would expect on account of the chemical changes to blood through a long drawn-out traumatic death.  The blood type is AB, which is rare.  And it matches the blood type on the Sudarion of Oviedo, to which I will return briefly later on.

The blood stains match all the descriptions of the sufferings of Christ as described in the Bible.  And they provide two very important details that would have been just about impossible for a medieval forger to portray accurately.  The first is the location of the wound in the hand.  Just about every crucifix shows the nails going into the palm.  Certainly a medieval audience would expect this location.  But it turns out that flesh in the palm would never be able to sustain the weight of the crucified victim.  The Roman executioners, of course, knew this through experience and would have driven the nails through the wrist.

The second historical detail is the pattern of the scourging.  The Shroud shows many welts.  Excavations in Herculaneum, near Pompey, have provided us with an example of a Roman flagrum, which would have caused much the same kind of damage.  Certainly, it was not the kind of whip that was used in Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

As revealing as the blood stains are of the sufferings and death of Christ, the deep mystery of the Shroud is the image depicting the body.  It is clear that it is not painted.  Some people insist that there are traces of pigment on the Shroud and that is true, because the Shroud has been in various artists’ studios where reproductions of it have been made.  It is also very likely that the paintings were touched to the Shroud to give them the status of relics.  But these are minute amounts of pigment, that can in no way explain the image.  The image is caused by some modification of the fibrils making up the thread of the linen.

Each of the threads is composed of about a hundred fibrils.  In a newly-woven cloth, all the fibrils are uniformly smooth.  They are equally good at reflecting light.  In the case of the Shroud, the darker areas are caused by fibrils that are rough and which seem to be corroded.  These fibrils do not reflect as much light as the smooth ones.  The really strange thing is that sometimes in the same thread, there are both smooth and rough fibers.  The greater the ratio of rough fibers to smooth fibers, the darker the thread.

There is more to the mystery.  First, whenever a thread is covered in blood, its fibrils are smooth as though protected from whatever caused the corrosion.  This indicates that the blood went on first and then the image.  We have this same kind of shielding effect whenever a thread crosses over another.  The “hidden” fibrils are uniformly smooth.  Second, the image is superficial; it does not penetrate deep into the thread.  In 2000, scientists were able to scan the back of the image.  Whereas the blood has soaked through the cloth and is clearly visible on the reverse side, the image is not – at least not readily.  In 2004, some scientists claim that there is an ever-so-faint image on the back, but that there is nothing in the intervening layer, that is to say in the bulk of the thread.  Even with modern nanotechnology, we have not been able to reproduce these details of the Shroud.

There is one more high-tech effect worth mentioning: the image contains three-D information.  When one of the physicists in the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) put a photograph of the Shroud into an image analyzer that was originally designed to analyze x-rays by turning image density into relief information, he found that there was three-D information packed into the two-dimensional Shroud.  No other photograph, unless specifically doctored to produce the effect, contains this information.  Once again, the question comes to mind: why — and how — would a medieval forger put this kind of effect into the artifact if none of his contemporaries had any means of detecting it?

I have mentioned a hypothetical medieval forger, because almost no one disputes that the Shroud was shown in the village of Lirey, France, in 1353.  And this date, of course, is perfectly consonant with the year 1325 given by the carbon-14 tests.  But several scholars have contributed to tracing the history of the Shroud right back to the time of Christ.

The Shroud was in Jerusalem in around 30 A.D.   Experts in textiles have confirmed that the cloth is of the type that was found in the area at the time, and what is more, the dimension is an exact multiple of Jewish cubits.

From Jerusalem, the cloth made its way to Edessa.  It is difficult to be precise as to how the Shroud got here, because there are conflicting accounts, but all of them have something to do with the first-century King Abgar V, who received an image of our Lord.  This was hidden for some time – probably to protect it.  When it came to light in the early 6th century it must have caused quite a sensation.

Up until that time, there was no consensus about the appearance of Christ in art.  Saint Augustine, for one, lamented that Christians had no idea what Jesus looked like.  But starting in the 6th century, the iconography quickly converged on an image that clearly resembles the face on the Shroud.  The 6th century icon from St Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai and a coin from the 7th century are probably the best known images with many points of resemblance to what the artists at the time would have known as the Image of Edessa or the Mandylion, a Greek word meaning “hand-towel”.  Most intriguingly the image was also referred to as the “tetradiplon”.

The word “tetradiplon” is uniquely applied to the Mandylion.  It means “doubled in four” an the linked pictures contain a schematic diagram showing the folds and the resulting image, which was a gilt frame with just the face showing through.  The word “tetradiplon” and the fact that the Mandylion is in “landscape” rather than “portrait” orientation, typical of icons, suggests that there was more to the icon that met the eye.  The surmise is that the Mandylion was the Shroud folded up.  And yes there are reports of faint crease marks on the Shroud to corroborate this conclusion.

It is known that the Mandylion was taken to Constantinople in 944 by the Byzantine Emperor.  In 1204, one of the crusaders besieging the city wrote of rumours of a devotion which involved a contraption that raised a life-sized image of Christ from the horizontal sleep of death to an upright resurrection.  This contraption disappeared the wide scale looting.  But shortly afterwards, the Knights Templars were accused of venerating an image on linen cloth of a bearded man.  This order, which took part in the fourth crusade, was suppressed at the beginning of the 14th century.  When the Shroud finally made its appearance in the undisputed historical record, it was in the hands of Geoffroi de Charny, who was probably a nephew of one of the knights who were burned at the stake by Philip the Fair.

The Shroud’s voyage through history is further corroborated by more scientific observations.  First, the dust on the Shroud around the feet and the knees of our Lord, very closely matches the chemical composition of the dust in the limestone burial places near Jerusalem.  Second, there are pollen grains on the Shroud.  These prove that the cloth was in Jerusalem, Edessa, Constantinople, and the various places in Europe, for the pollen comes from plants that are indigenous to all those places and in some cases no where else.

But what about the carbon-14 dating?  Does that not throw a bucket of cold-water on all these other scientific and historical details that all point to the authenticity of the Shroud?  The answer is no.  At about the time that the tests were done in 1988, the British government body that funds science sent a sample of Egyptian mummy wrapping to over thirty carbon-dating laboratories, just to see whether such labs were worthy of public money.  Only eight of the labs returned dates that agreed with one another and with what the archeologists who devised the test were fairly certain were the real dates.  At the time, several archeologists indicated that they never put their complete faith in carbon-14.  They appreciate the results as another angle on a puzzle, but they do not look upon them as infallible arbiters of historical dating.

Since then, in 2005, Ray Rogers, the leader of the STURP Chemistry Group, published a detailed analysis of the 1988 tests in Thermochimica Acta, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal.  The conclusion of the article read:  “The combined evidence from chemical kinetics, analytical chemistry, cotton content, and pyrolysis / mass spectrometry proves that the material from the radiocarbon area of the shroud is significantly different from that of the main cloth.”  Succinctly put, the dated was not part of the original Shroud.

Carbon dating is destructive, so the labs in 1988 were allowed to take only a small piece of cloth about 1.2 by 8 cm from near the corner of the Shroud.  Half of that was destroyed in the testing.  The other half was saved for other possible tests, such as those carried out by Ray Rogers.  The edges of any cloth are stressed by handling and often get frayed, so it is not surprising that the medieval owners of the Shroud should have employed skilled artisans to repair the edges and match them as exactly as possible.  It turns out that the medieval artisans were so good that it was mainly their patchwork that was dated – quite accurately – by the labs in 1988.

Apart from destroying more of the Shroud –  and this time more of a central part – to redo the carbon dating, is there anything else that can tell us that the Shroud dates from much earlier than the middle ages?  Yes, there is the Sudarion of Oviedo.  The cloth is 84 by 53 cm.  It contains stains from blood, sweat, and other bodily fluids that would have come from our Lord’s head and face after he died.  It was probably put on him right after He died and buried along with Him.  It the “napkin”, mentioned in John’s Gospel, “which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself”.

I already mentioned that the blood type matches the Shroud.  What is not obvious at first sight – and in fact is obvious only to those who spend all their waking hours studying the Shroud and the Sudarion – is that the stains on the Sudarion closely match the stains on the Shroud.  But best of all, the Sudarion comes with a historically uncontested pedigree back to the 7th Century, clearly beyond the dates given by the carbon-14 tests.

Is the Shroud important to our faith?  Clearly it is not part of the deposit of faith.  Many Saints had never heard of it; and some faithful Catholics who were very aware of it thought that it was a forgery.  John Paul II is the only recent Pope who called it a “relic”.  Both Benedict and Francis, although positive about its religious importance, are more reserved.

Yet history is of central importance to our faith.  And historical claims are buttressed by material objects.  We need to be cautious, because history has provided many examples of forgeries.  But that does not mean that we should dismiss every material object as unworthy of belief.

Perhaps one indication of the potential of the Shroud to help people to come to faith in Christ or to strengthen their faith in Christ are the many hostile reactions to it.  The Shroud bears the marks of attempted destruction – the poker holes and the patches from the fire in Chambery.  It was only thanks to the heroic firemen of Turin that we still have the Shroud, because an arsonist set the Cathedral on fire before the 1998 exhibition.  The resulting blaze did extensive damage to the building.  There are the myriad attempts to replicate the Shroud, trumpeted in the news media as “Mystery Solved”, which come nowhere close to solving the mystery.  And there is the carbon-dating result, which is portrayed as the definitive word.  Science has spoken, the matter is closed.

Should a new carbon dating test be done?  Should we use science against science?  Apart from destroying more of the cloth, such tests would not prove anything.  Already there are theories that the Shroud will always test younger because the resurrection might have involved some sort of a high energy particle interaction that would have created some radio-active carbon in the process and scorched the cloth to create the mysterious negative image.  Science is not equipped to deal with such theories.  But apart from the carbon dating, science has provided many important arguments for the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin as the burial cloth of Christ.

It is not difficult to transfer blood to a linen cloth.  The Shroud is not a unique cloth in that respect, just as the death of Christ can be seen as a sharing in the common historical reality in the life of every man – death.  But the resurrection of Christ, although it happened in history, is a unique event that is transhistorical.  As John Paul II put it:  “It is an event pertaining to the transhistorical sphere, and therefore eludes the criteria of simple human empirical observation. It is true that Jesus, after the resurrection, appeared to his disciples. He spoke to them, had dealings with them, and even ate with them. He invited Thomas to touch him in order to be sure of his identity. However, this real dimension of his entire humanity concealed another life which was now his, and which withdrew him from the normality of ordinary earthly life and plunged him in mystery.”  So it should not be too surprising that there is one mysterious image in the world that cannot be explained by scientific means.  It is a silent but eloquent witness to something much greater.

By Fr Martin Hilbert, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]