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What does the shroud reveal?

On Good Friday, April 10 this year, the Shroud of Turin was publicly exhibited online in response to thousands of requests made to the archbishop of Turin during the coronavirus pandemic. This was an extraordinary opportunity, for the shroud is usually only revealed a few times per century. The shroud is an ancient textile bearing the mysterious image of a crucified man and is widely claimed to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus. While the church has not issued any verdict about the shroud’s authenticity, what is beyond doubt is that the shroud is not only a sign of Our Lord’s passion and death, but also of his resurrection.

The shroud has characteristics of a costly burial linen from Jesus’s day. While it is strong and in exceptional condition, it has sustained visible fire and water damage. Despite this, the fabric appears clean and smooth with a kind of sheen, which may be explained by the varnish-like biogenic coating on the shroud’s fibrils (the microscopic threads of a fiber). This coating is naturally produced by the microorganisms that populate the surface of the shroud, and may be responsible for skewing the contentious late radiocarbon dating of the shroud.

The image on the shroud is detailed and accurate. Medical scientists have determined that the image is of a man who died of injuries consistent with the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion. Unlike artistic impressions, the man has nail marks in his wrists, not his hands. Accordingly, his thumbs are retracted, consistent with the nail’s severance of his median nerves. The man has puncture wounds on the top and back of his head, consistent with the botanical facts about thorns from Jerusalem, which required the crown to be cap-like, not ring shaped. Covering his entire back side are well over 100 diagonal wounds consistent to the finest detail with the Roman “flagrum” —  a whip with three leather thongs each tipped with lead balls.

Some of the pollens found on the shroud are not local to Europe, but are particular to present-day Turkey and Israel. One type of pollen was even localized to a 10-mile radius of Jerusalem. The shroud also contains dirt invisible to the naked eye on the figure’s feet and abraded nose. The surface of the shroud, which would have lain on the tomb, has mineral deposits whose crystalline signature is consistent with stone common to tombs in the area of Jerusalem.

The most intriguing aspect of the shroud is the straw-colored monochrome human image it bears. Unlike a drawing, this image has no lines. Unlike the strokes of a painting or drawing medium, the coloration on the shroud displays no application directionality. Contrary to what one would expect if the image were made by wrapping a flat cloth around a contoured body, there is no distortion of the shroud image (unlike the way that a flat Mercator-projection map of earth, for example, distorts what is proportionate on a globe). Unlike pigment on a canvas, or the blood, serum, and even water stains on the shroud, the image has no apparent material density. According to experts, the image is not anything on or soaked into the fibers, such as paint, dye, body fluids, or the residue of these. Rather, it is the fibrils themselves that are colored.

Whatever caused this coloration seems to have had something like a photolytic effect on the linen, similar to the way that the pages of old books are yellowed by exposure to the sun. Did the resurrection cause the body of Jesus to emit some kind of radiant energy, like light? The image on the cloth is essentially a photographic negative, thus allowing the shroud’s first photographer to vividly perceive in his negatives — perhaps for the first time in nearly 2,000 years — a startling positive image of the crucified man. A still more astonishing discovery was made in 1976 when the shroud was viewed through a light-mapping 3D-imaging device. This device was designed to translate the light and darkness of an image into raised relief, thereby converting flat images of varying light density (such as medical x-rays) into 3D pictures. When a photographic negative of the shroud image was analyzed, the result was an accurate three-dimensional representation of the crucified man. This means that unlike a normal photo, but like an X-ray, the shroud is loaded with accurate visual information about the three dimensions of the body it covered.

The abiding significance of the shroud for believers lies partly in its reminder that the Catholic faith is based on historical events, like the resurrection. Might the Shroud of Turin be the world’s most valuable artifact, testifying to the central event of that first Easter, over 2,000 years ago? Perhaps. What is certainly greater however, is the mystery of the Eucharist, whereby we may regularly encounter not just a relic of Jesus’s earthly past, but the risen Lord himself, really present under the veil of bread and wine.

Matava is associate professor and dean of Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria. Graduate.christendom.edu.

Read more

Go to graduate.christendom.edu/shroud.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020