A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Shrouded in Mystery

Not an actual photograph of Last Supper!
Christ: All right, who made this mess on the table?
Apostles: Not me!  Surely not I, Lord!
Judas: Food fight!

One of those things that periodically shows up on one message board or another is the ever-popular subject of the Shroud of Turin.  It is one of those matters regarded as a done deal in certain quarters, though the deal done differs from one quarter to another.  For some, it has been shown -- usually by Science!™ -- to be a medieval hoax perpetrated by preternaturally clever medieval hoaxers.  For others, it has been shown -- usually by some nit-picking of those Science results -- to be the burial shroud of Christ.  A small cottage industry has grown up around it: the Shroudies. 

Coming down squarely in the We-don't-know camp is of course the Catholic Church.  She points out quite reasonably that an object need not be factual to be useful in focusing the mind on veneration.  (No one supposes DaVinci's The Last Supper to be a photograph of the actual event, but it is often found in altarpieces and the like.)  But neither is she prepared to dismiss the Shroud tout court.  Even if it is a weird work of art, it is still a valuable and important indicator of a lost technology.

John Walsh in The Shroud (Random House, 1963) wrote:
"The Shroud of Turin is either the most awesome and instructive relic of Jesus Christ in existence... or it is one of the most ingenious, most unbelievably clever, products of the human mind and hand on record."
But there are, of course, other logical possibilities.
  • It is neither a relic nor a clever product, but simply a natural occurrence.
  • It really is a first century burial cloth, but it is Yussuf Schmoe, crucified in AD 80, not Jesus Christ.
  • It really is the burial cloth of Jesus, but it evidences only his death, not his resurrection.
And of course, that the Shroud may have a train of material causes that account for it does not preclude its being miraculous. The word for "miracle" is simply mirabilium, which means "marvel." 
"We marvel at something when, seeing an effect, we do not know the cause.  And since one and the same cause is at times known to certain people and not to others, it happens that some marvel and some do not."       -- St. Thomas Aquinas. Contra gentiles
Is the production of a rainbow by double-refraction of sunlight through water droplets, as described by Bishop Theodoric of Freiburg in the 13th cent., any less marvelous than some mumbo-jumbo involving the goddess Iris?  Catholic and Orthodox Christians can get away with this since their notion of God as primary cause does not preclude secondary (or "intrumental") causes.  This is all much more clear in Latin, which possesses an instrumental case and in which no one could utter such absurdities as "I flew to Los Angeles," except perhaps a rational bird.  But we digress.

Shroud image at this link may be inspected in close-up zooms
A 1983 paper by archeologist William Meacham summarized the Shroud situation as follows:
From its first recorded exhibition in France in 1357, this cloth has been the object of mass veneration, on the one hand, and scorn from a number of learned clerics and freethinkers, on the other. Appearing as it did in an age of unparalleled relic-mongering and forgery and, if genuine, lacking documentation of its whereabouts for 1,300 years, the Shroud would certainly have long ago been consigned to the ranks of spurious relics (along with several other shrouds with similar claims) were it not for the extraordinary image it bears.
--- "The Authentication of the Turin Shroud:
An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology." 
Current Anthropology
, v.24 No.3 (June 1983)
The Face of Jaen Cathedral
is supposedly a copy of the
medieval Veronica Veil.  Clearly
a painting in medieval style
The only "other" shroud mentioned in the article is the Cadouin Shroud.  It is a monument to the capacity of bumpkin Frankish knights to be taken in by Middle Eastern sharpies that they could believe a Fatimid era shawl with Qur'anic inscriptions was the burial shroud of Christ.  The Cadouin Shroud bears no image, so although clearly not genuine, it does indicate that medievals had no a priori expectation that such a shroud would have an image on it. 

There are also a number of other art works purporting to be copied from the "Veronica Veil" kept in the Vatican; but they are self-proclaimed as copies, and are clearly paintings with the stylized features of the art of the time. The only close up inspection of what is supposed to be the original Veronica Veil in 1907 described it as "a square piece of light coloured material, somewhat faded through age, which bear two faint rust-brown stains, connected one to the other." 

However, from the copies made of the original image, we can get an idea what an artist of that era would consider a good Face-O'-Jesus.  It is hardly the Modern Ages concept of representationalism in art!  The face is stylized and set in a metal matting cut frame the face.  The three points of beard and hair at the bottom is a common feature of all the copies, so the original was likely the same: an image within an opening. 

This essay and the next make heavy, if tentative, use of a number of on-line resourses, which will be linked here and there, and summarized at the end. 

A Medieval Fake

The first person to call the Shroud a medieval fake was... a medieval bishop!  Bishop Pierre d'Arcis of Troyes wrote to Pope Clement VII at Avignon, stating that an artist had confessed to painting the Shroud.  For some, this settles the matter, since congenial evidence is accepted without debate while displeasing evidence is nitpicked to death.  The good bishop's problem may have had more to do with pilgrims (and their ducats) going to Lirey to see the purported burial shroud rather than to Troyes.  Then as now, tourist dollars were important in some economies and there was brisk competition among shrines.

It is not enough to claim it is a painting, since it is unlike any other medieval painting.  One must show how this painting was produced.  Modern scientific analysis has shown that the image is not painted on the cloth -- or else painted with magical pigments that do not penetrate the fibers.  The particles comprising the image are superficial - that is, they are entirely on the surface of the linen.  So the hypothetical medieval painter invented paints that did not soak into the cloth.  That is itself something of a miracle. 

There are all sorts of scientificalistic reasons given for why the Shroud really must be a fake, the most important of which is that since the Shroud cannot possibly be genuine, it must be a fake, QED.  You can see this in many of the comments at the end of "The Authentication of the Turin Shroud: An Issue in Archaeological Epistemology," by William Meacham.  It is hard to tell who is the more doctinaire: the Shroudies or their critics.  But the major problems with the medieval fakery thesis are not scientific, but artistic. 

First of all, there is no reason why Christ's burial shroud should bear an image at all.  There is no such claim in the gospels or in Acts.  None of the epistles say, Oh by the way there's this magical picture of the Lord...  Some fundamentalists reject the Shroud for that very reason: It's not in the Book!  So this brings up the curious question: Why would anyone claim that the image indicates the cloth to be the burial shroud of Christ?  Had no such claim been made, it is likely even the most determinedly atheistic scientist would have ooh-ed and ah-ed over a fascinating first century artifact revealing the details of a Roman crucifixion of some poor, unknown schmoe. 

 12th century "realism"
Crucifixion, 12th century,
by Master Guglielmo,
Sarzana Cathedral, La Spezia, Italy.
But secondly, given that an image was to be faked, why make an image utterly unlike any image in medieval art.  Photographic realism is a Modern Ages invention.  (See "Renaissance" for details.)  Medieval art was pretty much All Allegory, All the Time.  The realistic, naked, degraded figure discernible on the Shroud would have shrieked "FAKE" to  medieval viewers.  Where are the iconic objects?  Where is the Triumph Over the Grave in the posture and expression?  Where is the loincloth, fer crying out loud?

Not only that, but the nail wounds on Shroud Man are in the wrists, not the palms, contrary to all crucifixion figures since artists began to depict them.  The wounds in the head suggest a cap of thorns, when "everyone knew" it was a circlet crown!  There seems to be a single nail wound running through both feet, while perhaps half of all crucifixion icons and paintings showed each foot nailed separately.  At the time the Shroud is supposed to have been fabricated, no one had witnessed a Roman crucifixion for a thousand years.  Yet the creator of Shroud Man got these details right.  If we're looking for miracles, look no further.

Some scientists and their camp followers are so eager to label the shroud the work of a medieval artist that they don't pause to wonder that it is so utterly unlikely as a work of medieval art.  Not only in terms of the medium, but in terms of the artistic tropes that the medievals would have expected. 
Did the artist learn this strange art in one fell swoop, with no learning curve, and then never use the technique ever again?  No shrouds purporting to be those of Lazarus or the daughter of Jairus?  Nor is a burial shroud the only possibility.  What about straight up works of art done using the strange new technique?   

The negative imageis sharper and better defined.
Or as one writer put it, if it's a forgery, it's a miraculous one. Perhaps it is evidence of a time traveler taking modern tropes into the past.  Or perhaps a medieval artist (anticipating modern photography and laser techniques) decided to prepare a portrait nearly invisible to the naked eye but with three-dimensional information embedded within a negative image that people would not see until 1898, when black-and-white photography...
"...had the fortuitous effect of considerably heightening the contrast of the image, thus bringing out details not readily discernible to the naked eye. Remarkably, its negative image was found to be an altogether more lifelike portrait of the body and, especially, of the face. From the rather grotesque and murky facial imprint visible on the cloth, reversal of light and dark revealed a harmonious and properly proportioned visage. This discovery of course created a sensation in the media, with claims of miraculous intervention and accusations of darkroom hoax."  -- Meacham
That was a miraculous bit of foresight on the medieval artist's part, one must admit.

Giddyup!  Giddyup!
Sorry, TOF, that horse is dead.  

What You See Is What You See

Those who affirm the shroud as genuine point to such things as the weave of the cloth and the pollen from Palestine, Syria, and Anatolia found in the threads.  They also point to the clearly Semitic features of Shroud Man.  Skeptics look at the same image and see clearly Greek/European features.  This is the well-known phenomenon of pareidolia, the tendency of our sensory imagination to see patterns even where there are none.  This is illustrated in the discovery of spurious scientific theories, Virgins Marys in potatoes,evolutionary pathways amid a scattering of fossils, and the Face of Jesus in the following plate photograph:

left-center: Face of Jesus???
Now, the face just left of center is not a face.  It is a baby.  The "forehead" is the baby's cap, the "eye" is the baby's face, the "nose" is the baby's right sleeve.  This is more evident when the plate is colorized:

But who says that babies' aren't the face of Jesus?
Supporting the idea of pareideolia is the curious fact that as one gets closer and closer to the Shroud,

the image becomes harder and harder to discern.  This is a bit reminiscent of the "canals" seen on
Was this face formed when Jesus
visited Mars?
Mars from a distance that disappeared into random dark and light es as telescopes became more powerful.  Or perhaps even the infamous Face on Mars.  

But there is clearly a man's image on the Shroud of Turin.  No one denies that, skeptic or enthusiast.  (The debate is on how it got there.)  But some enthusiasts have claimed to see details like inscriptions on coins on the eyes of Shroud Man!  However, some of the lettering on the coins, when examined, falls in the spaces between threads, so they're clearly spurious.  It is not even clear that there are coins on the eyes at all, though this was indeed a common practice of both Jews and Greeks at the time. 

Some critics claim to have duplicated the Shroud by one technique or another - such as by rubbing a shroud over a statue that has been dusted, or by shining a light on a shroud through a glass pane on which has been painted an image -- and each effort is duly reported in the press as having "finally" duplicated the Shroud... again.  Oddly, this often brings out the partisans of earlier duplications to war with partisans of the new duplication, much as monophysites attacked the Nestorians who attacked the Arians, or as each new Modern philosophical school trashes its predecessor.  One attempt to debunk the Shroud came from a fundamentalist because -- wait for it -- some details of the image contradicted his literal reading of the Biblical account. Alas, none of these efforts could duplicate the image in all its properties, though some came close.   Mostly, they lack the 3D (height-field) information.  We can imagine a dialogue between two scientists:
Adam: I have duplicated the Shroud!
Bruce: But your duplication lacks height field information, which the Shroud possesses.  (or double image, superficial coloring, etc.)
Adam: No, it doesn't!
Bruce: Yes, it does.
Adam: You only say that because you're a Believer!
Bruce: You only say that because you're a Skeptic!
Adam: Poopy-head!
Bruce: Wuss!
This would account for the layout of the image, but
was not the normal means of burial.  It indicates
a hasty job, because of the Great Sabbath.
And so on, in the spirit of reasoned scientific debate.  But of course, lots of effects can be duplicated artificially.  That doesn't mean the duplication method is how the original was formed.  When a magician saws a woman in half, that is not actually how, say, Genghis Khan would have done it.  When you get out of a flight simulator you aren't actually at your destination. 

Sometimes the skeptics seem to forget that all of this must be done by a medieval using medieval technology.  So it's less a question of whether a Modern can imagine how to duplicate the Shroud as whether a Medieval would have thought up the same gimmick.  Their categories of thought were different.  And that, having discovered a new way of making iconae, our mysterious medieval was never tempted to use it again for any other purpose and never told anyone else.  If you know artists, this too would be miraculous.  It's a bit like Thomas Edison inventing the motion picture camera, using it to make The Great Train Robbery, and then never using it again or telling anyone else how to do it. 

Wishful thinking affects both enthusiasts and skeptics.  The Shroud is the sort of thing that brings out cranks of every stripe, from the Discovery Institute to the Skeptical Inquirer. 

Imagine That!

The best current theory of how the image was formed -- the diffusion theory -- cites natural causes not the intelligent (artist) design favored by skeptics.  A natural cause explanation has the additional advantage that one need not postulate preternaturallyclever medieval artists with double-secret pigments and such. 

1.  In ancient clothmaking, the starch used during weaving is removed afterward by washing the cloth in soapwort suds,  As the cloth dries, it leaves a very thin layer of carbohydrates consisting of starch fractions and saccharides.   This layer has been observed on the Shroud using phase-contrast microscopy and the thickness has been estimated to vary between 180 to 800 nanometers.
The browning of
a biscuit

2.  Within a few hours, a dead body begins producing amines in its tissues, such as the delightfully-named putrescine (1,4-diaminobutane) and cadaverine (1,5-diaminopentane).  As these vapors diffuse, they react with the carbohydrate layer on the cloth in what is called a Maillard reaction
The Maillard reaction is responsible for the browning and flavor of biscuits and steaks, of french fries, malted grain, and so forth. 
3.  These amino vapors chemically alter the Shroud's carbohydrate coating, thinning it and turning it yellow.  These yellowed regions comprise the image.  The actual linen fibers beneath the coating are not discolored.  (This was observed when the carbohydrate layer was dissolved with diimide or peeled away with an adhesive.)  The layers are believed to be evaporation concentrations.

Vapor deposition on the linen produces colors
of varying  intensity, resulting in a "height-field"
that can be processed into a 3D image.
Paintings will not do this.
But if it's so natural, why don't all burial shrouds have images on them?  Well for one thing, images of yellow on white are notoriously hard to see, especially close up.And in the second place, for all we know these images are a dime the dozen.  Who looks? 

Recall too that in the gospel accounts, the body of Jesus was put away in great haste because it was a Great Sabbath (a Sabbath that fell on Passover) and the body was not washed or otherwise prepared.  (That's why the women went back to the tomb on Sunday.)  That's why the body was likely only draped, not wrapped up and tightly bound.  The women would need to get at the body to wash and anoint it come Sunday morning.

Also in most burials, the deceased generally did not get up afterward and leave the shroud behind neatly folded up.  One way to find out: a) Donate your body to science, b) get nailed up on a cross for a couple hours so you get all bloody and sweaty, c) don't wash, d) have it laid upon and covered by a long linen cloth.  e) Lay it in a hot, dry tomb for thirty six hours, giving the amine vapors a chance to condense on the cloth. f) See if an image happens.  Who knows?  You could be the next Shroud Man!

IOW, to be an image of Jesus, it need not be a miraculous image caused by a resurrection "flash."  It could be an entirely natural event caused by that "he suffered death and was buried" thingie, either as the common course of nature or as a result of the peculiar circumstances attending the non-standard, temporary burial.  

Radiocarbon Dating Service

Despite the first century weave of the cloth and the near eastern pollen particles found in its fibers, the Modern Mind is entranced with the carbon-14 dating, which as all men know found the Shroud to be medieval.  Case closed. 

Well not quite.  There is still some controversy -- not about the lab work, despite wishful thinking by enthusiastic Shroudies -- but about the sampling, which violated the previously agreed-upon protocols.  Consequently, a single sample swatch from a single location on the shroud was used in all the testing.  Sampling variation and lack of homogeneity in the material being sampled are generally more problematical than are the lab test procedures themselves, esp. regarding area sampling, where the desired property may vary in both X and Y directions.  TOF knows of this from sampling reels of paper and coils of aluminum, and would hate to estimate the tensile strength of aluminum based on a single specimen taken from one location in a coil. 

Further, the sample was taken from a location where the Shroud was repeatedly touched and handled in days of yore.  The material may have been hopelessly compromised by centuries of contamination, cleaning, and repair.  The region from which the sample was taken was a different color than the main portion of the Shroud and may have been part of a repair.  Alan Adler claims ("Updating Recent Studies on the Shroud of Turin." pp. 223-228 in Archaeological Chemistry: Organic, Inorganic and Biochemical Analysis, ed. M.V. Orna,  ACS Symposium Series, vol. 625. American Chemical Society, 1996) that the area adjacent to the C-14 sample had significantly different chemical characteristics from the rest of the cloth.  In an interview, he said:
You have no way of knowing if the area you took the C-14 sample from represents the whole cloth. That’s an area which has obviously been repaired. There’s cloth missing there. It’s been rewoven on the edge. The simplest explanation why the date may be off is that it’s rewoven cloth there. And that’s not been tested.
Radiographs of the Shroud changed as they approached the sample area, indicating different chemical and physical characteristics; and pictures of the samples show differences in thread size and weave patterns, possible indications of a patch and "touch-up" to prevent unraveling.  A seam appears to run diagonally across the sample, dividing original Shroud material (40%) from the possible 16th century patch (60%).  The three increments cut from the swatch for the three laboratories therefore received differing amounts of patch and original cloth, which may be why the three test labs obtained results that failed a χ²-test for homogeneity. That is, the variation among the three lab results could not be assigned to random testing variation.*
(*)  The χ²-test is not an especially powerful test, but there is something satisfying in using χ in a test involving Christ.  Had they done a correlation coefficient to estimate ρ, we could have had a χ-ρ (chi-rho) test, not to be confused with the capital of Egypt. 

There was also a theory about a bioplastic layer due to bacterial growth.  Such a layer would test younger than the cloth it grew upon, and there is evidence of mummies testing out older than the shrouds they are wrapped in.  However, this would make a difference of only a few centuries at best.  To throw the date off by 1300 years would require a bioplastic film so thick as to be remarkable in itself.  So, despite wishful thinking by enthusiasts, this theory is nowadays not accepted.

There are also arguments made regarding the specific wounds revealed in the image, whether or not there is blood on the cloth, and so forth.   A series of FAQs regarding the shroud, with as many grains of salt as you wish, can be found at


The vapor deposition theory seems to be the best account of the image at this point.  The image is neither miraculous (in the sense of suspending the laws of nature) nor fraudulent (in the sense of medieval forgery) but rather the result of a chemical reaction consequent to the peculiar circumstances attending a temporaty interment.  These circumstances -- as well as the scourging, spear to the side, the crown of thorns, etc. that were not especially standard conditions of a crucifixion -- seem peculiar to the account of Jesus; but there is nothing in that account that might preclude the possibility that they might be shared with other executions within that milieu. 

Both skeptics and enthusiasts should keep several points in mind:
  • That the image is produced chemically does not mean that it is not the shroud of Christ.  There is no need for the image to be produced "miraculously" in order for it to be the image of Jesus. He was, after all, fully human.  He did not eat or sleep miraculously, either. 
  • Even if it is the burial shroud of Christ, it only indicates that Shroud Man died, not that he rose again.  If the Shroud is ever proven genuine, expect this to be the fall-back position of the skeptics. 
  • Even if the C14 sampling protocols were not properly followed, we cannot conclude that the radiocarbon dates obtained were inaccurate.  It is possible to take an unrepresentative sample that fortuitously yields an accurate result. 
There seems a general belief that the facts of the Shroud prove more than they really do and You Know Who lies at the end of the trail of breadcrumbs.  Fearing this, some believe it is highly rational to deny the breadcrumbs.  We need only ask ourselves what the reaction would have been had the Shroud been discovered in the modern era, and came with no religious claims at all attached to it.  We might treat it no differently than we treat the weirdly-preserved bodies of the ruins of Pompeii.

To Be Continued

PART II of this post will be a reconstructed history of the Shroud, based on material from these sites. 


  1. Thanks, Great posting. See mention at

  2. For my part, I think the Shroud is both authentic and the product of a supernatural miracle. I was originally skeptical (good Protestant here), and expected that as I looked into it more, the less it would hold up, but the opposite is actually true. The more you learn about the image, the more impossible it seems that it could be a forgery. Aside from the C14 date and the lack of

    One thing that is for certain is that, barring time-travel, the reasons we have today for thinking it authentic and possibly miraculous could not possibly have been forged.

    The 3D information, the photo-realism of the image, the image-negativity, and the extreme superficial and uniform depth (200-600nm), among other things, weren't even visible at the time of the supposed forgery, and wouldn't be for centuries. So any forgery theory must say that the supposed forger, in setting out to make a faintly smudged-looking cloth to fool people with, somehow created all those effects by accident as a side-effect.

    There are also a number of less-obvious features that must be factored into that as well, such as the very-accurate placement of what seems to be real blood on what would have been a barely-visible image, particularly up-close, and the various ways you mentioned in which the image is simply unlike Medieval depictions of Jesus.

    The diffusion theory is the best *naturalistic* explanation, imo, but not the best explanation. For one thing, we don't know if it's even possible to make a detailed image that way, much less likely. As you say, we could imagine that it happens frequently but is never checked, but it still seems odd that we wouldn't have at least a couple other known examples.

    My expectation would be that any image formed that way would be more, well, diffused. More seriously, I don't believe that theory even hypothetically accounts for why the hair and beard are included in the image.

    The other issue is that the diffusion theory pretty much hinges on the conclusion that the Shroud really is Jesus' burial cloth, and to my knowledge, all of its proponents believe that to be the case (though they don't all believe that he rose from the dead). But given the premise that it is Jesus, and given that the only known case of this sort of seemingly-miraculous image-formation happened to the one guy in history who we have independent reason for believing rose miraculously from the dead - together with the clarity of the image and the presence of the hair - it seems to me most reasonable to conclude that the apparent image-miracle and the independently reported resurrection-miracle are tied together.

    1. Ah, I left a sentence incomplete up there. It was supposed to read, "Aside from the C14 date and the lack of detailed known history concerning the Shroud, which you find out up-front when you start looking into it, all the other evidence favors authenticity."

    2. And one other thing besides the hair that I don't believe the diffusion theory is capable of accounting for in principle: If both the body's front and back left imprints on the cloth by Maillard reaction, then the top of the head (which the cloth was draped over) should have done so as well. That is, the front and back images should be one continuous image, connected at the top of the head.

  3. Also, it seems to be pretty certain and well-attested, in my own research into the matter, that the blood is really blood. Less certain is the blood type (tested as AB), whether blood type testing on old blood gives meaningful results in the first place, whether the blood really contains traces of Y-chromosomes, etc.

  4. Can we expect more carbon dating/testing of the shroud one day?

  5. Mr. Flynn, Do read, if you haven't, The Physics of Christianity by Professor Frank J. Tipler, a Christian and a physicist and mathematician. He includes discussion of the blood type and DNA testing of blood taken from the shroud in the initial modern examination. The DNA results are consistent with an XX-male (a rare occurrence—about 1 in 20,000—which would also be consistent with a virgin birth.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer


  7. Hello, have you heard of this?
    What do you think of it?


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