Exhibit A in a 2,000-year-old mystery
THE Shroud of Turin. A full-length, double-sided, front-and-back image of a crucified man imprinted on yellowed linen. On the respectable sceptic’s list of extremely dodgy propositions, it’s right up there alongside UFOs and Elvis sightings. But that may be about to change. A book published today argues that the shroud really is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ – and that it turns everything we think we know about the Easter origins of Christian faith, quite literally, on its head.
The author of The Sign, Thomas de Wesselow, is remarkably calm for a man who’s about to step into the stormy waters of shroud-spotting. A youthful-looking 40-year-old Cambridge art historian, he is the epitome of diffident Englishness.
“I’m not somebody who naturally seeks attention and publicity,” he says, almost apologetically, as we perch on seats in an upper room at Penguin’s cavernous publishing headquarters on The Strand in London.
“I wouldn’t have done this unless I really thought the ideas were valuable. And I wanted people to know about it. I think when people read the book they’ll see where I’m coming from. It’s all completely rational, and it helps make sense of, well, the history of the whole world, really.”
Historical art puzzles are de Wesselow’s passion. After having spent four years at King’s College, Cambridge doing post-doctoral research on a 14th-century Italian painting which had been denounced as a fake, he reckons he knows a thing or two about identifying forgeries. “Images are meat and drink to art historians,” he says. “We’re used to looking at them in relation to history, and how that’s represented in texts. There’s also a lot of looking at the technical characteristics of works of art. So in a way, this is just a rather unusual form of art history.”
Art history with attitude, perhaps. Few 14th-century paintings have inspired such intense worldwide controversy as the Shroud of Turin. For centuries, people have tried to replicate the effect - using every technique in the art forgery book - without success. Until very recently, meanwhile, scientists conducted exhaustive tests on the bloodstains and other marks on the cloth, as well as on pollen and fibre samples taken from it.
After immersing himself in all the alternatives, explanations and excuses for the shroud over a period of seven years - and reconstructing them in lively fashion in The Sign – de Wesselow completely accepts its authenticity.
“The evidence of the image itself – blood, everything – points to this being a real burial-cloth from first-century Palestine,” he says.
In the book, however, he goes on to make an even more astonishing claim. Having concluded that the shroud really was the burial shroud of Jesus, he found himself wondering why it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible’s Easter narratives. Then he had a eureka moment. “I’m very visual,” he says. “I see problems visually. So I’m thinking about this, and why don’t they mention it in the gospel texts, and then I think, ‘Hang on a minute. The figure of the angel; the details about one, or sometimes two, men being present in Jesus’s tomb. Oh, my God’ . . .”
He believes that the figures – described in the gospels as dressed in white, and luminous – were not supernatural apparitions but, in fact, the shroud itself, as seen through the eyes of first-century Palestinians.
“Looking at it from an art historical point of view, which is what I’m doing, it’s based on the crucial idea of animism,” he explains. “Before modern times, people saw images as, in some sense, alive. It’s a very difficult concept for us to get now: we live in a scientific age, and it seems so irrational. But it is absolutely how people perceived images in the past.”
Modern readers can identify with this by means of an analogy with film. We all know that the friendly extra-terrestrial ET is just a piece of animated latex: but in the cinema, in the moment, we’re happy to accept him as a creature with emotions, and maybe even a heart.
In the quiet of Jesus’s tomb, his friends and followers interpreted the marks on his burial cloth as a sign that he had been, not bodily resurrected – his body was still there – but reborn in another spiritual form. De Wesselow points out that one of the few characteristics all the “resurrection” stories have in common is that everyone finds it difficult to recognise The Risen Jesus - which would have been the case with the shroud, since it’s a negative image, and famously nebulous to boot.
There is, of course, a very large elephant in this particular room - or rather, tomb. “As far as most people are concerned,” begins chapter 13 of The Sign, “the 1988 carbon dating of the Shroud was a definitive test that proved the cloth to be a product of the Middle Ages.” But carbon dating, de Wesselow points out, can be wrong. “The carbon dating indicates a date in the 14th century, so something went wrong,” he says firmly.
“The shroud is a piece of cloth that has been handled for 2,000 years. That doesn’t provide the perfect conditions for a carbon dating. The fact is that archeologists are used to getting rogue carbon dates. It happens quite frequently. What you do is, you send another piece of cloth to the lab and do the test again.”
The chapter on what de Wesselow called “the carbon dating fiasco” is one of the most entertaining in the book’s 450 highly readable pages. Not only does The Sign revisit all the scientific and art history evidence, it reinterprets the biblical texts concerned with the resurrection – including the conversion of St Paul, who emerges as a kind of Indiana Jones figure rampaging around the Middle East in pursuit of the shroud.
It attempts to trace the shroud’s journey from Jerusalem to 14th-century rural France. And it explores other “strange marks” – among them the Volckringer patterns sometimes left by plant specimens on the papers in which they are pressed, and the partial imprint of a human figure left on the mattress of a man who died of pancreatic cancer in Liverpool in 1981.
“That’s another difficult thing to look at,” de Wesselow says. “I mean, when you know the man died of cancer. They’re uncomfortable, these images. It’s easy to lose sight of that, in the excitement of what the shroud means and everything.
“That’s why I put in an acknowledgement to the historical Jesus in the book, because the shroud is an image of torture. Absolutely horrendous torture.”
Living with the Turin Shroud for seven years has not, de Wesselow says, changed his own spiritual views in the slightest. “I’ve always been agnostic, as long as I can remember,” he says. “I’m a happy, committed agnostic.” As to what the next step in the history of the shroud should be, however, he is in no doubt at all.
“I definitely think that people should press the Vatican to let scientists examine the cloth again. Shroud researchers have been asking them for years. It has become a closed question and it’s difficult to understand why.”
Resurrection Man Forgery or fact
FOR DEVOUT Christians who accept it as an authentic relic, the shroud of Turin amounts to proof of a miracle: the raising from the dead of the historical man, Jesus of Nazareth, to become the messiah of Christian faith.
Those at the more sceptical end of the spectrum, for whom miracles are not on the agenda, regard it as a cynical forgery, concocted as propaganda to bolster the case for the doctrine of resurrection.
According to Thomas de Wesselow in The Sign though, the shroud inspired the doctrine, not the other way around.
The bizarre, disturbing image which appeared on Jesus’s burial-cloth – an imprint caused by physical processes such as blood and sweat, not by some supernatural regeneration – was what his followers referred to as “The Risen Jesus”.
“Once its likeness to Jesus had been recognised,” he writes, “it would almost certainly have been seen and interpreted as signifying a newly created vessel into which his person had been transferred, a successor to his earthly, physical body, which was returning to dust.”
The Sign describes de Wesselow’s own close encounter with the shroud when it was on display in Turin cathedral.
“I don’t want to get all mystical about it,” he says. “The reason it has an extraordinary effect is that there are no outlines – in that respect it’s quite alive, like Leonardo’s sfumato, because you can’t quite define it.
“But it’s also because the eyes – and the rest of the body as well – look as though they’re lit from within. They look huge and they look at though they’re glowing. That’s because of the negative effect. All the tones are inverted in the face.”
‘Oh dear’: The religious affairs correspondent’s view
ON A BRIGHT morning in the summer of 2004, art historian Thomas de Wesselow sat under an apple tree in Cambridge when, like Isaac Newton before him, he had a “Eureka” experience. It concerned the Turin shroud. What is it about English apple trees?
He “couldn’t avoid the conclusion: from a purely historical point of view, [that] the death and burial of Jesus seemed to be the best explanation for the shroud”. It was very disturbing. Then he “glimpsed, for the very first time, the potential significance of the relic”. Ah-hah! A book perhaps?
De Wesselow shows no hint of such cynical motivation, but there is undoubtedly major interest in subjects such as this. Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code had been published the year before. But De Wesselow distances himself from that genre.
He writes: “Among scholars, the shroud is perceived as the plaything of ‘pseudo- historians’ who play fast and loose with historical reality, exploring the gullibility of certain sections of the reading public with imaginative accounts of Templar plots, Masonic secrets and holy bloodlines.”
That 2004 summer morning he found himself “battling with a fierce metaphysical adversary, like Jacob with the angel”. His adversary was “the idea that it [the shroud] might have been found in the tomb of Jesus”.
He wondered why, if the shroud is authentic, “none of the gospels mentions its discovery in the empty tomb?” Then it hit him. Maybe they did and no one had spotted it “because it appears . . . not as an image but as a supernatural person”.
“Seized by this stunning thought, I leapt up from the grass and bounded indoors to check the biblical stories of the empty tomb.”
Possibly anticipating some scepticism, he continued: “confusing the Shroud figure with a person might be taken for a sign of madness, but I had not been struck by a fit of insanity. Rather, I had engaged in a form of historical consciousness that becomes second nature to all historians of medieval art.”
He goes on (and how: 342 pages, a further 106 in notes, index, and so on). “For a split second I saw the shroud as it would have been seen before the Enlightenment, the 18th-century Age of Reason that cuts us off from more suggestible forebears.”
Such as the first Christians.
And so he has a riot reinterpreting the four gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, other gospels, and the Old Testament, to prove that the shroud is “is nothing less than the image of the risen Christ”.
It’s “luminous effect, its staring eyes . . . its overwhelming presence . . . would have assured Jesus’s followers that it revealed him to be once again alive [his italics]. The shroud figure was not a ghost . . . but a glorious, transfigured, re-embodied person.”
Er, yes. Just one thing – an illustration in the book shows that those “staring eyes” are “revealed to be firmly closed”.
Whatever the shroud’s provenance, of one thing we can be certain: it was wrapped around the body of one very dead man. Not much sign there of “a glorious, transfigured, re-embodied person”. PATSY MCGARRY,Irish Times Religious Affairs Correspondent
‘Thorough, well-researched, fair-minded’: the art critic’s view
THE SIGN IS a thorough, well-researched and fair-minded account of the story of the Turin Shroud. Predictably, it is given a sensational spin in its presentation. Thomas de Wesselow’s wider thesis – that the shroud, immediately perceived as a miraculous object, played a crucial role in the rise of the early church – is much more speculative, as he readily acknowledges.
As an art historian, he has in the past taken a detailed, analytical approach to some thorny though relatively arcane problems relating to interpretation and attribution. He is a close reader of visual and textual evidence with a penchant for judicious provocation and an independent cast of mind. Here he takes his art-historical curiosity to a new level.
The self-imposed puzzle he sets out to solve is to identify the spark that ignited Christianity, transforming it from a small dissident movement into a dominant historical force. That spark was, he argues, the reported resurrection of Jesus, the evidence of which lies in the Turin Shroud.
The shroud, he maintains, was wrapped around the body of the crucified Christ, and its existence and discovery galvanised apostles and disciples. Fuelled by the astounding proposition of demonstrable resurrection, de Wesselow maintains, Christianity triumphed and then used its newfound authority to institute Christ’s resurrection as dogma that remained essentially unchallenged for centuries.
When challenges eventually arose, and changes in the intellectual climate cast doubt on inherited dogma, historians of the Catholic Church faced a new problem: “They were left, as it were, with a Resurrection-shaped hole in history.”
De Wesselow’s ambitious suggestion is that virtually all those involved in this unresolved debate have erred in abstracting it from the historical sphere and casting it in theological and intellectual terms.
De Wesselow goes back to the beginning and, in his words: “Trying to figure out what happened at Easter is like investigating a 2,000-year-old crime.” And that is what he does, sifting through a daunting mass of textual material, biblical, historical and cultural. For the most part, he emerges as a helpfully disinterested commentator.
He recounts all major investigations of the shroud, including the remarkable American STURP project in 1978 and what he calls the carbon-dating fiasco of 1988, now widely regarded as questionable.
His art-historical background ideally equips him to refute the idea that the body image is an artistic forgery. He reckons the shroud is genuine, and that one of the original STURP group scientists, the late Ray Rogers, working with food chemist Anne Arnoldi, figured out the process by which the image of the body was imprinted on the fabric. Although they published their findings almost a decade ago, little attention has been paid to them largely because, in de Wesselow’s view, most of those involved simply don’t want a natural explanation.
He’s good on the need to project ourselves, as observers, back in time, showing that medieval forgers would not have made the shroud as it is if they were intent on producing a convincing fake, and why Christ’s contemporaries might have interpreted events as they did. This leads him to his boldest hypothesis: that the visitors to Christ’s tomb took his imprinted image to be a supernatural manifestation or a celestial messenger, even though it is an image of the dead rather than the risen Christ.
His forensic re-readings of all extant accounts of Easter, placing the shroud in a pivotal role, are fascinating, although they inevitably come down to questions of interpretation.
It’s unlikely that those with entrenched view will be persuaded, but he is persuasive and his book is much more than just an addition to the canon of shroud literature. AIDAN DUNNE, Irish Times art critic
The Sign, by Thomas de Wesselow, is published by Penguin Viking at £20.