The Mystery of The Turin Shroud

Is there more to the Turin Shroud than a chemical reaction or 'nuclear flash'?Image of Jesus or the world's most incredible fake?

For centuries belief that the Shroud of Turin really bears the likeness of the crucified Jesus Christ had to be a matter of faith alone. Then in 1898 it was photographed for the first time, and suddenly the negative image revealed an astonishingly life-like wealth of detail of a tall bearded man horribly tortured with whip, nails and crown of thorns. Virtually overnight, the age-old faith of the pilgrims seemed to be vindicated. Surely this was the very image of Jesus?

Belief and Disbelief

To many the authenticity of the Shroud was beyond dispute: all that remained was to persuade the outside world of its miraculous nature. The late 1970s saw an upsurge in scientific examination of the Shroud and an increasing clamour for science to prove its authenticity, fuelled by the phenomenal success of British author Ian Wilson's landmark book The Turin Shroud (1978). Within a decade the lobbying - partly masterminded by Wilson himself - succeeded, and in 1988 three laboratories worldwide took small samples of the cloth and subjected them to the process of carbon dating. This marked a watershed in the Shroud's vexed life - and in the lives of many of its devotees, who term themselves 'sindonologists' (from the Greek for 'shroud', sindon), but are known with more or less affection as 'Shroudies'. There are several major Shroudie societies, such as the British Society for the Turin Shroud (BSTS) and the Australian search.

           Negative image of the Turin Shroud.Negative image of the Turin Shroud.

The carbon dating was a disaster for the believers. Instead of giving a date of origin around the year 33 AD - which would tally with the Biblical story - it placed the Shroud some time between the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 15th century. According to the long-awaited pronouncement of science, the Shroud of Turin was a fake...

The Shroud in Focus

However, this was by no means the end of interest in that strangely haunting imaged cloth. The believers, although shaken, largely continued to believe - and devoted themselves to proving the carbon dating wrong - while other researchers became intrigued in it as a unique and inexplicable human artefact. The fact remained, awkward though it was, that the image of the Shroud when seen in negative was so lifelike that it was in a class of its own: no other type of image behaves like that - except for one. Even the Shroudies admitted that the Shroud 'behaves like a photograph'.

             Negative image of the Shroud replica by Professor Nicholas AllenPositive image of the Shroud replica by Professor Nicholas Allen.

This undeniable observation led to the completely independent - but virtually simultaneous - work of the South African Professor Nicholas Allen on the one hand, and British researchers Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince on the other. If, they all argued, the Shroud behaves like a photograph, perhaps that is precisely what it is. Both teams set out to prove that it would have been possible in medieval or Renaissance times to produce such a photograph on cloth - and both appear to have succeeded, using a similar method that involves a camera obscura, or pinhole camera, chemicals and light. The main difference is that while Professor Allen ascribes the Shroud-photo to an anonymous Arab alchemist, Picknett and Prince believe the culprit to have been none other than Leonardo da Vinci whose own face, they say, and not Jesus's, can be seen on the cloth. They claim that the da Vinci Shroud was a substitute for an earlier 'Holy Shroud' and the image was created with subliminal - and profoundly heretical - messages.

Plots and Conspiracies

Meanwhile, others - such as American researcher Walter McCrone and 'Skeptic' Joe Nickell - suggested that the image was created by the use of red chalk, perhaps rubbed American researcher Dr. Walter McCroneover a heated statue. In Germany, writers Holger Kersten and Elmar Gruber experimented by pasting a (living) heated body with a mixture of myrrh and aloes and covering it with a linen sheet. They argue that the Vatican had plotted to prevent the truth about the Shroud being known: that it proved that Jesus was still alive in the tomb, and therefore could not be worshipped as a Redeemer.

To yet others the most important part of the mystery is not so much how the image was created as who the 'Shroudman' really was. British authors Robert Lomas and Christopher Knight believe that it is the image of the last Grand Master of the medieval KnightsTemplar, Jacques de Molay, who was tortured to death in Paris in 1314.

Still a Matter of Faith...

The Shroud still has many devotees who remain unswayed by the various arguments put forward by researchers such as those listed above. To them, the Shroud is simply the real winding sheet of Jesus, horrifically imprinted with his image. Among the Shroudies there is eager ongoing discussion about the many possible ways in which the image got on the cloth, including the idea that Jesus' body gave off some form of nuclear energy as it underwent the metamorphosis of bodily resurrection, or that the ammonia in the sweat-washed body somehow reacted with the spices used to prepare the corpse for burial, producing the image as a side-effect. They also cite evidence of their own for the Shroud's authenticity, such as the work of the late Dr Max Frei, who claimed to find evidence on the Shroud of pollen from plants that are only found in Palestine. Although Max Frei's work is seriously challenged by the 'antis', particularly Joe Nickell and Picknett and Prince, the 'evidence of the pollen' remains a mainstay of Shroudie belief.

The late Dr Max Frei who claimed that pollen from the Shroud only came from PalestineThe mystery deepens as time passes: some researchers quote historical evidence to back up their pet theories while others accuse them of fabricating it, and others stare so hard at the Shroud - such as American believer Alan Whanger and British Shroudie Norma Weller - that they claim to see all manner of images, including flowers, numbers, nails and hammers.

In 1995 one of the more controversial revelations about the Shroud was that fibres taken from a 'bloodstained' area of the cloth were proven to contain both male and female DNA. However, the Vatican argued that the presence of female DNA proved only that the Shroud had been handled by a variety of people over the years.

Amid all the accusations of conspiracy and cover-up, all the near-hysterical belief and equally zealous scepticism, the Shroud itself lies in its silver reliquary and keeps its own counsel. 

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