Jesus in 3D: The Shroud of Turin Meets the 21st Century

Just over a century ago, when Turinese photogtrapher Secondo Pia received permission to create glass-plate renderings of a tattered piece of cloth in a local church, he had no idea that his camera would capture images fit for both scripture and film noir. Since that fateful photoshoot, Pia’s snapshots—the first of the religious artifact known as the Shroud of Turin, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus Christ—have been reproduced around the world, turning up every few years like crime scene photos from the coldest of cases.

The lastest cops on the beat are the makers of a new documentary for the History Channel, which purports to reveal “The Real Face of Jesus” through three-dimensional imaging and CGI graphics that make the viewer wonder if Christ might be revealed to have blue skin and a Nav’i tail.

Because I have written about religious relics, I was brought in to serve as a talking head on the documentary. My main purpose in the film was to explain that the Shroud is one of the objects related to the events Christians commemorate this past weekend, including the Spear of Destiny (said to be the Roman soldier’s lance that pierced Jesus’ side), the Crown of Thorns, a handful of Holy Nails, and a Holy Sponge (from which Jesus drank gall before he died).

Given the dubious provenance of such artifacts (my clear dismissal of the possibility that the Shroud is what believers claim has apparently been left on the cutting-room floor), I hoped to make the case that the most interesting question to ask of them has little to do with authenticity: Why should physical objects hold such enduring spiritual fascination? In general, it is not the fact of relics that matter, but the stories behind them.

The Missing Years

Like any good true-crime story, the mystery of the Shroud starts with a body. To know who he is, and why he matters, we need to ask how he got there.

A partial answer came around this time last year, when a report from Rome shined new light on Christianity’s most hotly-contested stretch of cloth. With the announced discovery of a document explaining the 150 years in which the Shroud disappears from the historical record, Vatican researchers attempted to provide a missing link that could bolster claims of authenticity. Inevitably, the light of this renewed interest shone just as brightly on longstanding doubts.

“The Shroud is not Christ, but a reminder of him,” Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, former Archbishop of Turin, has said. Such statements remind us that it is the very physicality of these relics that makes them important to believers; this same factor may make them meaningful to nonbelievers as well. Showing as it does that universal, unavoidable image—a man, naked, prepared for the grave—the Shroud serves as a reminder that the stories of religion are first of all stories of human lives.

To wade into the murky waters surrounding the Shroud and its history is immediately to contend with conspiracy theories both grand and mundane. The recently discovered document puts the Shroud briefly in the hands of a controversial band of crusading knights. According to the text (uncovered by Vatican researcher Barbara Frale), until 1354 the Shroud was safeguarded by the Knights Templar, a military order that was popular and well supported within the Church, even if they were occasionally accused of idolatry and sodomy.

Dr. Frale’s document may explain such allegations. She writes of a young French Templar, Arnaut Sabbatier, who joined the order in 1297 after undertaking a ritual in which he was instructed to kiss “a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man.” This cloth, Dr. Frale says, was no idol. It was the Shroud, and it was the Templars who brought it from Constantinople to French Diocese of Troyes, where it would soon be “discovered” before being moved to Turin.

Apparently ignored by Dr. Frale and others who have seized on the story is a slight complication. According to the most recent research, at the time when the Templar initiate claims to have seen it, the Shroud now housed in Turin probably didn’t exist.

The Will to Believe, the Need for Proof

In 1988, groups of scientists from three countries were allowed to perform radiocarbon dating on fibers from the Shroud. Undertaking separate studies using accelerator mass spectrometry in the laboratories of the University of Arizona, the University of Zurich and Oxford, these studies found, with 95% certainty, that the fabrication date of the linen of the Shroud was sometime between 1260 and 1390. Twelve hundred years too young, the Shroud is most likely a medieval creation.

This is not to say the puzzle has been solved. Even if it was created by an artist or charlatan several hundred years ago, as of yet there has been no explanation how such an ingenious rendering could have been created with the technologies of the day.

But maybe so much focus on explanation misses the point. Belief—any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force—requires a partial abandonment of the rational. This does not mean that faith is irrational, only that it involves a recognition that there are some things that can be explained only through acknowledgment that proof is not always the highest good.

Faith fashions itself as a challenge to our assumptions, our expectations; relics are an embodiment of that challenge. As the early Christian author Tertullian said in defense of his belief that Jesus rose from the dead, “it is certain because it is impossible.”

As much as it is a tradition passed down through the generations, an inherited vocabulary for describing the inexplicable, belief is also an act of the will. Despite scientific investigations, the beliefs that make phenomena like the Shroud relevant are not something required by the rules of logic. There is no rational need to write a poem or to paint a picture, and there is no rational need to believe, which is to search for something meaningful in the enigmatic markings that define our lives.

Yet the tension remains: the will to believe, the need for proof. Perhaps this is what the Shroud is really about: our divine aspirations bound up with our mortal concerns.

A Craze for Relics

The earliest reference to an object believed by the faithful to be this very cloth (now kept hidden from public view in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in the northern Italian city of Turin) can be found in the Gospels. After the crucifixion, the Gospel of John says, “they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths… as is the burial custom of the Jews.” Two days later, according the Gospel of Luke, when the followers of Jesus went back to visit his grave, they found the tomb empty but for those same linens.

After the Gospel accounts, the shroud of Christ is not mentioned in early Christian writings until the fourth century, when St. Nino, niece of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, writes of asking her teacher what became of the cloth the apostles found in the tomb. Not to worry, she is told, St. Peter took it for safekeeping.

Though St. Nino couldn’t find it, another holy woman of her era apparently did, at least according to legend. St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem and gathered up as many relics as she could transport back to Constantinople. Most famously, she happened upon a cave containing three crosses, one of which she was certain must have been the wood to which Jesus was nailed during the crucifixion. Lacking the kinds of technologies that would later be applied to the Shroud, St. Helena relied on a scientific method of another kind. She had a sick companion lay down on each of the crosses one after another, and asked the ill woman each time how she felt. When the companion seemed on the mend, St. Helena knew she had the “True Cross.”

Similar tales can be told of the acquisition of other relics, which disappeared from Jerusalem between the fourth and ninth centuries. Such relics were prized in both the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom because the moments each became an object of religious significance were recorded so clearly in scripture. As the church expanded far beyond its Mediterranean origins, relics served as a kind of portable sanctity—if you couldn’t go to the Holy Land, the Holy Land could come to you.

Most of these objects have their roots in legend, but they also intersect with history. For many relics, that point is clearly identifiable as the Crusades. The “liberation” of religious artifacts from Jerusalem was a primary motivating factor for the epoch-shaping battles that to some extent still define the world today. In a sense, they started with the passions of St. Helena. Whether the passion for relics attributed to her is historically accurate or existed mostly in pious memory is difficult to say, but it is clear that within her lifetime the relics associated with Jesus, his burial clothes among them, began to be described as treasures not of Jerusalem but Constantinople.

By the end of 12th century, when Jerusalem was all but emptied of relics, Western Christians looking on their Eastern Christian counterparts could not have helped but be jealous of the impressive collection Constantinople had amassed. So it was that in 1204, the city named for Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, became the victim of an intra-Christian crusade, and the Shroud associated with St. Helena vanished.

Like most relics, the Shroud of Jesus was so popular during the Middle Ages that it was hard to keep track of how many there were. Some relics multiplied by being chipped apart, as happened to the True Cross. By the time of the Reformation—more than 1,000 years after St. Helena kicked off the relic-hunting craze—there were so many pieces of the cross of Christ in existence that John Calvin quipped, “If all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they could build a ship.”

Other relics multiplied even more curiously, a fact to which John the Baptist would surely attest, if only we knew which of his three heads to ask.

In other words, the fact that there were multiple Holy Shrouds does not necessarily mean that they all are phony. It only means that like every other relic of the time, it was part of a religious economy in which portable pieces of sanctity had become currency as valuable as it was easy to counterfeit.

A Work of Human Skill

What sets the Shroud apart is that few relics have been as tied to questions of authenticity in the way it has been. Officially, the Vatican has made no statement on its origins, which is odd since relics usually come attached to documents attesting to their provenance and the date of their recognition as related to a particular saint.

It seems the popularity of the Shroud has allowed it to sidestep that system, which perhaps is why concerns over its genuineness may be as old as the cloth itself.

Not long after its first appearance in 1353, the Shroud was denounced in a letter to the pope explaining that the local bishop had studied the linen and the image it held. “Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination,” the letter states, “he discovered how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed.”

From the beginning, the possibility that the Shroud had been born of the techniques of talented medieval artisans was not ignored, even by the Church. For this reason, it has been examined and inspected many times in its history. Having survived minor fires and threat of flood, it has also been preserved and repaired. Raising questions of what it means to be made by human versus divine hands when all things are considered the handiwork of the creator, it has served as a centuries-old test case into the complexities of how faith and doubt intersect with technology and art.

It’s the logic of history, then, that the Shroud became famous in the modern world only with the application of a more recent meeting of art and technology. The blurry, bearded visage most recognized as the face of Jesus shown on the Shroud of Turin is not the actual image, but rather a photonegative of what appears on the cloth.

In 1898, amateur photographer Secondo Pia was allowed access to the Shroud during a public exhibition, with the intention to manufacture prayer cards for the pilgrims who would continue to flock to Turin after the exhibition had closed. Mr. Pia was so surprised by the images he captured, he nearly dropped his photographic plate in the developing room. He had not been expecting to see a man’s face staring so clearly back at him.

Mr. Pia’s stark photonegative images of the Shroud spread to the far corners of globe. At the dawn of a new century, they suggested that science might be used to support and understand faith rather than undermine it. This seemed true for a time. Scientific papers were published using recent experiments in the anatomical sciences as evidence of the Shroud’s authenticity. Simultaneously, the new images of the Shroud were used to reimagine religious events. The crucifixion, to begin with, could once again be seen in all its torment now that the first-century version of an autopsy report was available.

21st-Century Magic

More recently, the love affair between science and the Shroud has been strained. For the last 30 years, technologies unimaginable to Secondo Pia have been used to date the cloth, scan its image, and even examine traces of oils and pollen that may have been left by the hands of the faithful through the centuries. For the most part, all this science has sided with the obvious: that the image made famous by Secondo Pia a century ago is as likely to be the work of the divine as any picture of Jesus in a frying pan.

The obvious can be a tough sell, however. As The Real Face of Jesus proves, 3-D imaging is far more sexy than radiocarbon dating. To judge from the coverage of mainstream media and the response of much of the religious blogosphere, the Shroud documentary offered on basic cable this week has succeeded in blurring lines between Catholic and Protestant, and even belief and non-belief. No matter what Paul says, seeing has always been believing, and at the moment the ways in which we see is changing dramatically.

And so the mystery of the man is likely to remain, drawn on our collective imagination. Whether it is an image made through the first-century equivalent of photography, the 14th-century equivalent of Photoshop, or 21st-century light and magic, it is an image that insists we not look away.