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Home » Mystery and Faith: The Shroud of Turin at the Museum of the Bible
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Mystery and Faith: The Shroud of Turin at the Museum of the Bible

Published in the issue.

The Shroud of Turin in natural color as photographed during the 1978 scientific examination
The Shroud of Turin in natural color as photographed during the 1978 scientific examination

Pope John Paul II, upon seeing the Shroud of Turin, declared it “the mirror of the gospel.” Pope Benedict XVI advised that it should be seen through “the eyes of faith.” And Pope Francis has referred to the Shroud as an “icon of a man scourged and crucified.”

Inspired by the words of these pontiffs, the Museum of the Bible is presenting an innovative, high-tech, and digitally interactive exhibition about the Shroud of Turin (also known as the Holy Shroud), the most studied and debated fabric in the world. Organized over five sections and eight interactive displays (including a facsimile of the cloth), and displayed in a roomy, circular gallery, the expansive and detailed exhibition acquaints visitors with how the Shroud has been understood by some as a true reflection of the Passion narratives, about the place it has occupied in European history, and its spiritual effect on millions of people. But it also includes sections that discuss when and by what methods the Shroud has been subjected to scientific testing to determine its authenticity.

The Shroud is a rectangular cloth measuring about 14-1/2 and 3-1/2 feet, woven in herringbone-patterned twill composed of flax fibrils. It bears the faint brownish, negative images of the front and back of a man, his hands folded across his groin, on a non-photographically sensitive linen cloth. The muscular, nearly six-foot figure has a beard and moustache, and shoulder-length hair parted in the middle. The two views are aligned along the midplane of the body, pointing in opposite directions, and the front and back views of the head nearly meet at the middle of the cloth. Lacerations on his body and scalp suggest that he was brutally beaten, his wrists and feet were pierced, and there is what appears to be a gash on the right side of his body. In the view of proponents of the cloth’s authenticity, reddish-brown stains (some of which are burn marks and water stains resulting from a fire in 1532), are consistent with blood from the five wounds on Jesus’ body, as described in Gospel accounts of the crucifixion.

All of the synoptic gospels refer to Jesus’s burial, but they differ about the cloth’s form. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a piece of linen cloth and placed it in a new tomb, John’s gospel says that “strips of linen” were used. In a striking example of the show’s extensive use of technology, the museum subtly gives its position on this point through a brief video showing that the entire length of cloth was used, and that the body was placed on one half, with the other folded over it, thereby explaining the back and front images of the figure imprinted on the fabric.

The Shroud has had a long and complex journey, beginning (according to one popular theory) with its removal from Jerusalem after Jesus’ crucifixion, until it came into the possession of King Umberto II of Italy, who gave the cloth to the Holy See in 1983. With the exception of during World War II, it has remained in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, protectively encased in bulletproof glass. Traditional wall labels and innovative technology, in the form of interactive digital tables, have been brought together to tell the story of the Shroud and of the various individuals who were associated with it. The interactive displays enliven the exhibition and also serve as additional tools for accessing information.

The Shroud is very fragile, and therefore rarely displayed in public; thus, the inclusion of the show’s centerpiece, a full-size, digitally printed replica of the cloth (certified by the Museum of the Shroud), created by the Lino Val Gandino Project (Bergamo, Italy). Waving one’s hand over any of the several sensors that have been placed on specific points of the Shroud replica activates a voice that reads either a Gospel passage or a brief historical account relating to that part of the copy.

Since the 14th century when it reemerged in France, the Shroud has been hailed as sacred and dismissed as a forgery. When lawyer and photographer Secondo Pia traveled to Turin in 1898 and took the first pictures of the Shroud (his bulky camera and photographic paraphernalia are on view), he opened the door to the various modes of scientific testing it was subjected to in the 20th century: pigment analysis, anatomical forensics, and, most notably, radiocarbon dating, conducted with the Holy See’s permission in 1988, and which determined that the cloth dated from the 13th to 14th century. In 2019, an independent researcher reported that the 1988 tests were seriously flawed and unreliable, which inspired demands for new tests.

The Church takes no position as to the Shroud’s authenticity.

The exhibition stands in clear but subtle support of the cloth as a holy relic showing the figure of Jesus, whose features and markings correspond directly to the Passion accounts. However, recent scholarship has provided new perspectives about what Jesus might have looked like, thereby presenting challenges to long-accepted representations of him. For this reviewer, these iconographic considerations inspire doubt rather than devotion.

“The Shroud of Turin” is nonetheless respectful of and makes room for science, which can interrogate and disagree with faith without threatening it. Well researched and engaging, this is an exhibition worth seeing and pondering.