Positive and negative images of the Shroud

With a lot of hope, and also with a little trepidation, I am happy to announce that a special exhibition of the Holy Shroud will be held in the Cathedral of Turin in 2015.” Cesare Nosiglia, Archbishop of Turin, Papal Custodian of the Holy Shroud.

Millions of Christians around the world believe the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth that covered Jesus' dead body in the sepulcher before his resurrection Easter morning. Over the centuries there has been controversy over the Shroud’s authenticity, and its long life has become a source of legend.

The shroud itself is fourteen feet long and three and one half feet wide. The threads are hand spun.  The fabric is hand woven in a distinctive herringbone twill. Since most crucifixion victims were criminals, it was remarkable that one would be adorned with such a valuable piece of linen. More often the corpse of a crucifixion victim was left to the tender mercies of wild animals and carrion birds.

Yet St. Matthew stresses that one crucifixion victim was wrapped “in a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:29). Then his body was placed in “a new sepulcher, wherein no man had yet been laid” (John 19:41). The burial shroud was next seen by St. John on Easter morning. The linen cloth was no longer clean. It held the blood stains and complete body image, front and back, of the crucified man. That was all it held, for the man was gone.

The shroud was taken and hidden by Christ’s disciples, and secretly venerated. In 726 it was moved to Edessa for safety reasons. Edessa deputies handed the Shroud over to the besieging Constantinople army in 944, in return for the armies departure. In 1204 it was Constantinople’s turn to be on the wrong side of an army. French crusaders sacked the city and left with, among many other things, the Holy Shroud. Then the Shroud disappeared for one hundred and fifty years.

In the 1300’s the Shroud popped up in Lirey, France. In 1532 the chapel the Shroud resided in caught fire. The heat from the blaze melted the silver lining of the reliquary protecting the Shroud. Today one can see burn holes where molten silver dripped onto the fabric.

After that the Shroud was moved permanently to Italy. The dukes of Savoy housed the Shroud in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in their capital city of Turin. The Shroud has been there ever since, which accounts for it being referred to as the Shroud of Turin (it is equally well known as the Holy Shroud).

Shroud "negative" image

In 1898 the Shroud was displayed in a special exhibition. What could be seen by the naked eye was a faint, full scale outline of a man. An amateur photographer, Secondo Pia, used a new invention, the camera, to photograph the Shroud. When he developed the film he discovered that the Shroud image was actually a “negative” image of the crucified man. The positive image showed up on the photographic negative. This new image was full of remarkable detail not visible on the Shroud fabric. This inadvertent discovery changed everything.

Secondo Pia

The photographic negatives revealed the stark, violent beauty of a savagely beaten man whose disfigured face bore a calm dignity. It was as if the Holy Shroud had waited patiently until mankind had the knowledge to make cameras in order to begin revealing its mysteries.

In the ensuing century, no archeological artifact has been studied more than the Holy Shroud. Critics point to a 1988 carbon dating of parts of the Shroud fabric as medieval to dismiss the Shroud as a forgery. Others argue: what sort of medieval forger would have the technology to create a photographic negative and positive image on a piece of linen, or the patience to wait centuries for his genius to be discovered?

3D Jesus

Researchers have used cutting edge technology to discover astounding facts about how the man on the Shroud was tortured and crucified. There are blood rivulets that flow in the proper direction, scourge marks that perfectly match the sort of scourges used by Roman soldiers during Christ’s life, and puncture wounds in the forehead from a crown of thorns. Medical examiners were astonished to find that the location of the puncture wounds and clotted blood on the image corresponded exactly to cranial veins and arteries known in anatomy.

There was another detail that seemed forgery proof. Artists have always depicted Christ as having nail holes in the palms of his hands. The figure on the Shroud has a nail hole in his wrist. Medical examiner Pierre Barbet performed experiments putting nail holes through the hands of cadavers. The hand always pulled away from the nail when pressure was applied. But when he put the nail hole through a fold in the wrist (known as the “space of Destot”) the nail was supported by surrounding bone and ligaments and did not give way when traction was applied.

On the Shroud image the nail wound is right on the space of Destot. Doesn’t this contradict the biblical prophecy: “They have pierced my hands and feet”? Not necessarily, because anatomically the wrist has always been considered part of the hand. Would a medieval forger have dared to contradict traditional artistic depictions of Christ with holes in his palms for the sake of anatomical correctness?  

The gospels mention a Roman soldier thrusting his spear into Christ’s side. This is the experienced death blow of a soldier: the spear blade would enter the chest cavity and pierce the heart. On the Shroud image there is an elliptical wound on the right chest two inches long and an inch wide: large enough for a doubting apostle to thrust his fingers through.

The way the details of the figure on the Shroud corresponded to history, anatomy, and biblical accounts was remarkable enough to create a new branch of science: Sindonology, the study of the Shroud. Another recent discovery was the ability of the faint image on the flat linen to yield a three dimensional head.

History Channel

The History Channel aired a two hour documentary  in 2010 on the recreation of a three dimensional CGI image of the face on the Shroud. The results were startling. The graphic artists involved remarked on how impossible it seemed that a flat piece of linen could yield such an image that conformed perfectly to the strictures of modern technology.

How many corpses can transmit a three-dimensional image of themselves onto a burial cloth? Perhaps a research project could be done on this, but it is likely that this phenomenon is peculiar to the Holy Shroud. The body image on the Shroud is perhaps its greatest mystery: a high resolution, anatomically perfect three dimensional image that is not absorbed into the Shroud linen, but rests lightly atop each minute linen fiber.

Tests have proven the body image is chemically pure, that is, not created by paint pigments, stains, dyes, blood, or protein deposits. Furthermore, the body image is “non-directional”, which means there are no brush strokes or any other indication the image was somehow applied to the linen by human hands. Really, what man-made conjuring could account for a body image on linen being inherently high resolution?

Microscopic examination of body image fibers reveal tiny granules at the top of each fiber. The granular density corresponds to the distance from the body of a particular part of the Shroud. Somehow the body transmitted these granules to the fabric, even though the granules were not absorbed by the fabric. Scientists agree there was some physical force emanating from the body that created the body image on the linen: a “flash of irradiation", of light and energy intense enough to almost scorch the linen while leaving a picture for the world to marvel at. Christians would explain this by saying that at the moment of Resurrection divine life filled the body in an explosive spiritual and physical event; the evidence on the Shroud is proof of Jesus' victory over death.

On Holy Saturday, 2013, the Archdiocese of Turin released high definition images of the Shroud online and on television. When magnified (on a tablet, for example), the images revealed details invisible to the naked eye. This was a controversial move by the Archbishop of Turin because of concern inside the Catholic Church that showing images of the Shroud on TV and the internet might cause the holy relic to be commercialized or trivialized. One year later it seems this concern was unwarranted.

Pope Francis

One might wonder at this point: what does the pope think of all this? Well, Pope Francis recently issued a statement about the Holy Shroud urging veneration of the object, but did not say whether he thought it was the actual shroud Jesus was buried in. In so doing he is following recent papal precedent. The Vatican has been skittish about the Holy Shroud since the 1988 carbon dating controversy and all the negative press about the Shroud that came after that. Even though today there are peer reviewed papers being published that openly question the validity of the 1988 carbon dating, the Vatican follows its own course. In previous centuries popes took the Shroud's authenticity for  granted. 

The Catholic Church, as owner of the Shroud of Turin, urges Christians to venerate the Shroud and what it represents. As a practical matter, however, it doesn’t matter whether the Shroud is real or not, because Jesus is real and everything he did is real and that is the essence of Christianity, not an ancient piece of linen. For Christians, everything is still true with or without the Shroud. However, the Shroud is a physical testament to Christians that their faith is not in vain.

We humans are fascinated by mysteries, so scientists will keep researching the Shroud, graphic artists will keep trying to reproduce it, and millions of people will come to Turin each year for a glimpse of the Shroud through its bulletproof casing. Perhaps some who look upon the image on the Shroud will wonder: is the Shroud of Turin the most remarkable forgery in the world? Or does the body it held belong to the most remarkable man in the world?

The Face of Jesus?


Pierre Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary, Dillen & Cie, 1950, Roman Catholic Books, Harrison Pennsylvania.

Werner Bulst, The Shroud of Turin, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1957.

Mark Fellows, A Second Coming, The Holy Shroud In the 20th Century, 1996, The Remnant Press.

John Heller, Report on the Shroud of Turin, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983.

Kenneth Stevenson, Verdict on the Shroud, Servant Books, 1981.

Ian Wilson, The Shroud of Turin, Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1978.

Frederick T. Zugibe, The Cross and the Shroud: A Medical Examiner Investigates the Crucifixion, Exposition Press, Inc., 1982.