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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 April, 2004, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Wrapped in the shroud
By Steve Tomkins

The discovery of a second face on the Turin Shroud has again divided opinion. Does this mean it is real after all? Or does it mean it's an even better hoax than was previously thought? Some people, and not just the faithful, never stopped believing in the first place.

Easter could not have been better timed this year for publicity purposes.

First, it coincided conveniently with The Passion of the Christ which attracted audiences several million times bigger than the original crucifixion. And now the Turin shroud - the supposed burial cloth of Jesus, ever-wrapped in controversy - has been showing its contentious face again.

The Passion of the Christ
The Passion of the Christ: Top Easter box office
A textiles expert working on the restoration of that countenance divine has claimed that the cloth is from the 1st Century.

Though carbon-dating performed in 1988 suggested that the shroud dates from between 1260 and 1390, Mechthild Flury-Lemberg found that the fabric was woven in a three-to-one herringbone pattern, used for high quality cloths in the ancient world.

Speaking in a programme broadcast in the US in Holy Week, she said that she also saw stitching patterns surprisingly similar to material from Masada, the Jewish fortress destroyed in AD 74.

Fake features

Then, within days, Italian scientists announced that they had found a second facial image on the opposite side of the shroud, usually hidden by a large safety patch. They ruled out the possiblity that it was the forger's paint seeping through: it was only on the two outer surfaces of the cloth, not in between.

Turin shroud - front and back. Picture: Institute of Physics

Instead the scientists are now talking about electrical fields and corona discharges. "It is extremely difficult to make a fake with these features," they say. Other scientific investigations have also been undermining the carbon-dating conclusions.

So, having been discredited by its apparently fatal blow from carbon-14, the shroud seems to be coming back from the dead.

For many, these latest developments only confirm what they have believed all along. There is a vast international Turin shroud culture and industry. It has its own ology - sindonology, the study of the shroud. Shroud.com lists 29 centres of sindonological research and information in the US alone. There are international conferences, journals and newsletters in several languages, and you can buy CDs and CD ROMs, books and videos, and framed prints up to life size. The Catholic church has prayers and liturgy for shroud-related worship, and it even has its own feast day, 4 May.

Believers - not all Catholic by any means - point to many features of the mysterious linen that are hard for sceptics to explain:

  • Why are the bloody nail prints on the wrists, when all medieval art depicted Jesus nailed to the cross by his hands?
  • How did the 12th Century Hungarian "Pray Manuscript" come to depict Jesus being wrapped in the shroud - with authentic herringbone pattern and burn marks - 100 years before carbon-dating says the material originated?
  • What would possess a 14th Century forger to design the fabricated face in negative - a fact that only emerged when it was first photographed in 1898?
  • Doesn't the evidence for medieval repair of the cloth and sooty deposits from a 1532 fire challenge the carbon-dating?

Shroud enthusiasts come from all walks of life, and all Christian denominations. Those who have written and lectured about its authenticity include professors of archeology, philosophy, history, chemistry, engineering, and surgery, though not sindonology.

It is not surprising to find priests in their midst, but more surprising that believers included the controversial liberal Bishop of Woolwich John Robinson, of Honest To God fame.

Of course there are conspiracy theorists and far-fetched mystics too, but they seem to be outnumbered by scientists. Judging by the three million who queued to see the linen when it was exhibited in 2000, it seems the average shroud fan is simply an ordinary Christian believer.

Religious aid

On the other hand, Roman Catholic authorities themselves remain agnostic about the shroud. "The Church has no specific competence to pronounce on these questions," said Pope John Paul II. "She entrusts to scientists the task of continuing to investigate."

The custodian of the shroud, Cardinal Severino Poletto of Turin, encourages believers to appreciate it as a religious aid rather than a definite historical relic: "It a sign which must help our faith make that journey which leads us to see Christ."

Shroud on view in Turin in 2000
The 14-foot long cloth, as exhibited in Turin in 2000
And even before the carbon-dating, the Catholic Encyclopedia, conservative though it is, argued that the shroud was probably not authentic. It quoted medieval documents that talk of its blood stains still being bright red, though they have since darkened unrecognisably.

It's ironic that the Church's scepticism towards its own sacred laundry is being challenged by scientists, and a Lutheran textile restorer.

The only thing we can be certain about is that it will continue to be shrouded in mystery and to provoke controversy. And as one researcher working on it has pointed out, whatever future investigations reveal, it will always leave plenty of room for faith and doubt: "There's no test for Christness".

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Your comments so far:

The Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus in the book of John Chapter 20 verses 6 & 7 mentions bandages (plural) that were around Jesus body, with the one cloth wrapped that was around his head separately rolled up on it's own. Therefore, holy scripture does not support a singular cloth / shroud around Jesus that was marked by his resurrection.
Peter Garrido, England

The face on the Turin Shroud remain a physical aspect. Christianity is an individual's feelings towards faith and how we have communion with God, that's more important.
Hunggia, London UK

Belief is a powerful thing and if believing that the shroud is real helps people to understand their faith then what difference does it make whether it is real or fake?
Gregory Skorich, US

If it is a fake then why have no other fakes come into the public domain? If this was a fake of such brilliance surely other would have been created - perhaps this is the real thing and as such gives a true reflection of the face of Jesus. Are we still trying to deny something that happened?
Simon, UK

I saw the face of Jesus in a cloud yesterday afternoon
Rebecca, UK

The Shroud of Turin has been proved a fake many times. But the believers still close their eyes to the evidence. There is no worse blindness than the one of the person who doesn't want to see.
Sergio, Spain

The negative images of victims on walls in Nagasaki & Hiroshima were our first indication that the negative image on the ancient shroud was caused by a atomic sized flash. It's no wonder that the guards ran away. Also, the image could not be the imprint of any mortal, because it is a perfectly proportioned 6 foot male. NO ONE exactly fits into Leonardo Da Vinci's famous circle.
Susan, United States of America

I don't really understand why there is such controversy surrounding the shroud. Even if the method and time of its production fitted with the New Testament stories it says nothing about the identity of the face covered or, more importantly, the divinity of the historical figure of Jesus Christ.
Mark, UK

As a Christian I believe in a risen Jesus, not in a stained old cloth. Regardless of whether or not it's his authentic burial shroud (which I personally doubt), the issue really is that people who venerate it are worshipping an object rather than the one who continually said, "Have faith in Me."
Susanna, Canada

If Christ were alive today he would probably recoil at superstitious veneration of relics. Surely it is for his teachings that he is remembered and not the association with magical objects.
Gareth, UK

There are fanatics on both sides, religious and anti-religious, who are determined to use the Shroud for their own purposes. In itself, the Shroud cannot be a foundation for faith, because the Christian faith does not rest on relics, whether authenticated or not. On the other hand, scientists should study this curiosity carefully and with an open-mind. Forgery or genuine artical, medieval or ancient, it is a very interesting item indeed! For or against, there is no room here for preconceived notions about the Shroud.
Leon Pereira, Oxford, UK

The shroud has been carbon dated as no more than 700 years old. Carbon dating does seem to be pretty accurate, so why does the discovery of a second fake Jesus face make the medieval cloth any more significant? Even if it is Jesus' burial shroud, I'm fairly sure he came to Earth to give us a useful message, not sideshow nicknackery!
Chris Jones, UK

As a Roman Catholic, to me personally the (non-)authenticity of the shroud is totally insignificant. Faith in Christ is all that matters.
Michael, Canada

The BBC TV popular science strand QED did a number of programmes on the Shroud over the years. One subjected the shroud to computer-generated image analysis and conculuded that yes, it had been draped over a body. A later programme speculated that it might be the work of Leonardo da Vinci (who was demonstrated to be at least available at around the time that the shroud was dated to), but puzzled over the presence of egg white in the dark areas of the image. This suggests to me (though no-one put these facts together at the time) that Leonardo da Vinci actually made the world's earliest photograph! Egg white is an important element of crude photographic emulsions; so it is not too far-fetched to imagine Leonardo creating this image by coating a piece of cloth and then draping over a suitable volunteer (probably even himself!); and then standing in the sunlight for a time until the image formed - a sort of holy wet t-shirt picture!
Robert Day, Coventry, UK

Taking up Mr. Day's comment, it's also possible to create the ethereal almost 3D effect of the image of the Shroud with a large camera obscura (pin-hole camera). A negative image and the egg residue are so suggestive of photography of some sort that even if the Turin Shroud were not an original image of Christ, it would still be a wonder.
Ben Henderson, UK

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