Cover Story

Lifting the veil on centuries of mystery and awe

Angela Ferrante January 1 1979
Cover Story

Lifting the veil on centuries of mystery and awe

Angela Ferrante January 1 1979

Lifting the veil on centuries of mystery and awe

The Shroud of Turin, once described by Pope Paul VI as “the most important relic in the history of Christianity,” is without doubt its most defiantly mystifying. For skeptics, the eerily faint image of a crucified man on an aged linen cloth is just one more artful bit of merchandise from the medieval religious trade that produced

hundreds of splinters from the cross of Jesus and countless thorns from his crown. For believers—the scientists, doctors and historians who for a century have painstakingly added to the knowledge about the shroud—it has provided a lifetime rapture, an affair with a mystery. In fact, the shroud has inspired its own cult and its own science—Sindonology—the study of the sindone, Italian for shroud. Says one of the smitten, 32-year-old aeronautical engineer Eric Jumper: "It is one of the few mysteries that can be physically studied and still be an absolute mystery."

Last fall, the mystery was put under a microscope, subjected to 120 hours of tests and space-age technology, including x-ray fluorescence analysis, optical spectrum scan, infrared and ultraviolet ray analysis. The scientists, led by a 30-man American team, were granted that unusual privilege by the Roman Catholic Church (which guards the shroud in a triple-sealed sepulchre in Turin’s cathedral of St. John the Baptist) after three million pilgrims had trekked to see the relic in its first public

showing in 45 years. Turin's Archbishop Anastasio Ballestrero will make their results known, at his discretion, in a year or more. Then skeptics and smitten alike will finally know what the chemical composition of the image is, whether the apparent blood patches contain traces of Jesus’ blood, the probable age of the linen, and perhaps more information will be added to bolster proof of the existence of the historical personage of Jesus. But the crucial question-how was the image formed?—will probably not be answered. Warns Jumper: “We can build up a large probability about the shroud. But will we prove that this

image was formed by the Resurrection? That’s a question we can’t even approach.”

But even without their results, the shroud offers much to marvel at. The proposition—that the shroud, a long piece of linen with a complete frontal and dorsal image of a man, was used by Joseph of Arimathea to wind around the body of Christ before he was put in a tomb—seems unlikely on the surface. But consider the facts. A modern medical examination of the body on the shroud reveals that it is anatomically correct in every detail of a man who was crucified, and died of asphyxiation. The man is five feet, 101/2 inches tall, weighing 175 pounds. His longish hair was gathered at the nape of the neck in Sephardic fashion, an image strikingly similar to gospel descriptions of Jesus. The crucifixion nails,

one inch in width, had been driven through the wrists—not the palms as all religious art depicted—and that’s important because the palms could not support the weight of a body. The victim had blood and gouge marks on his forehead as if from thorns. His body is marked by over one hundred lash marks.

In 1898 when the first photograph of the shroud was taken by Secondo Pia, a startling discovery was made. The image on the cloth is actually a negative, like an exposed film. Later it was discovered that the intensity of the image, its brightness, varies in relation to the distance from the body. Whatever imprinted the image did so accurately and uniformly front and back. Even more startling, the image is three dimensional. It appears only on the surface so it could not have been painted on and in any case there are no signs of pigments. A study of the dust particles and pollen on the shroud show it has been around Jerusalem, Turkey and Western Europe and a study of the linen revealed traces of cotton much like the cotton used in the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

In other words, if a 14th-century forger had fashioned the shroud, he would have had a remarkable knowledge of photography and anatomy.

Historically, the shroud can be dated back to the late 1300s when it appeared in the possession of a French family, descendants of a crusader of the Knights Templar. In 1453 it came into the possession of the House of Savoy, the royal family that ruled Italy until 1946 and still nominally owns the shroud. During that time it survived a fire, earthquake and a flood. But its early history is foggy with hypothesis.

Intrigue with the shroud exacts a price. Jumper and his colleague John Jackson, both U.S. Air Force captains teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado, sometimes spend as much as 40 hours a week above their regular work hours on researching the shroud. They were the ones to first make use of a NASA computer image-enhancing device. One of their discoveries was that the eyes, far from being vacant, were covered with protruberances which resembled coins, a good possibility since coins were sometimes used in burying the dead in Palestine. Other scientists speculate that the shroud could only have been formed by a quick burst of light, that the image was literally “scorched” on the cloth by intense energy—in other words a form of radiation. It makes one think of the blinding light described in the Gospel. The shroud may remain, as it is now, a matter of faith, not science. Says Jumper: “The more is found out about the shroud, the more questions are raised. After all the studies, it still remains a mystery ’ ' Angela Ferrante