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The Shroud revealed

Church Times
April 2010

In the bright spring sunshine outside the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin on Saturday, two large red fire engines were discreetly parked at the edge of the piazza. But they were almost invisible, because what really grabbed the attention was happening in the body of the piazza.

There, before the white renaissance facade of the cathedral, hundreds of hopeful pilgrims were pressing up against the barricades and enduring body searches before being allowed up the steps and into mass. Holding them back were large numbers of police officers in theatrical Italian uniforms and menacing dark glasses, in a display of police strength that would give overkill a bad name.

Meanwhile, behind the pilgrims were TV lights, satellite dishes, cameramen, presenters and crews from around the world. They were lavishing attention on every passing monk and nun, who were enjoying the unfamiliar experience of being interviewed by journalists. Suddenly, a group of medics dashed out of mass with a woman in a stretcher, racing down the steps to a waiting ambulance, shamelessly followed all the way by a TV crew.

Despite it all, the fire engines captured my interest because it seems that Turin is not taking any chances with the object at the centre of this very Italian scene: the Holy Shroud of Turin. It was here, 13 years ago almost to the day, that another drama unfolded when fire broke out one April night in 1997 in the cathedral dome. On that occasion, Mario Trematore, a fireman, took a sledgehammer to the 39mm bulletproof glass protecting the Shroud, while the dome disintegrated above him, and carried it to safety.

Trematore said later, ‘The bulletproof glass can stop bullets, but it cannot stop the strength of values represented by the symbol inside it. With only a hammer and our hands, still bleeding, we broke the glass. This is extraordinary!’

Almost everything is extraordinary about the Shroud of Turin, which is now on public display for the next six weeks, closing on 23rd May. An estimated 2 million people will come from across Italy and around the world to view the Shroud, which many believe is the burial cloth of Christ (while many more hotly dispute the claim), and Pope Benedict will come to pray before it on Sunday 2nd May.

Watching the electrified crowds, the proudly processing clergy and the ever-present police on this first day of the exposition, I came across Bob and Eleonor, an American and an Italian. Bob is a physicist and an atheist who saw the Shroud 10 years ago and didn’t think much of it. ‘It seems it was something made in the Middle Ages,’ he says.

But Eleonor’s attention was on the fast-moving activity in the piazza. ‘In Torino they’re very religious, they’re very observant Catholics. It’s a very different attitude to where I am from, in Livorno in Toscana. You go into church on a normal day here, and there are lots of people going in, young people. Religion is an issue here. It’s a very religious and emotional town.’

Around the corner on Via Garibaldi, the trinket sellers were doing the sort of brisk trade which would be the envy of their medieval huckster forebears, if they could only be there to see it. Some traditions of religious festivals never change, especially where money is changing hands. Here was the face on the Shroud printed on mugs, key rings, candles, plastic plaques, embroidered hangings, and a plate that disturbingly looked like it could easily double as an ashtray. And there was a 3D postcard where the dead face of Christ turns into a living, blue-eyed Saviour with a twist of the wrist. ‘Just three euros,’ said the woman sitting behind the splendid display.

It is only 10 years since the Shroud was last seen in public, in the jubilee year of 2000, and before that it was seen a mere two years earlier, in 1998. It has not always been like this. Historically, appearances of the Shroud were strictly rationed by the Church and the Shroud’s former owners, the House of Savoy, who had a penchant for bringing out the ancient relic at family weddings. In the mid 20th century, it was not seen for 45 years, apart from a brief live TV appearance in 1973.

But huge public interest in the identity of the Shroud has guaranteed a large turnout this time round. That interest comes first and foremost from Catholics, of course, but also from Christians of all denominations and traditions, including large numbers of evangelicals and Pentecostals who have overcome their instinctive suspicion of relics to wonder whether this ancient bolt of cloth, 4.4 metres in length, might actually be the ‘strips of linen’ which lay in the tomb of Jesus on the morning of the resurrection, as recorded in John’s Gospel.

Although the Catholic Church has unguardedly accepted the veracity of the Shroud in past centuries – one 16th century Pope calling it ‘that most famous Shroud in which our Saviour was wrapped when he lay in the tomb and which is now honorably and devoutly preserved in a silver casket’ – in recent times it has been more circumspect. John Paul II, speaking in Turin the year after the fire of 1997, said, ‘Since it is not a matter of faith, the Church has no specific competence to pronounce on these questions. She entrusts to scientists the task of continuing to investigate, so that satisfactory answers may be found to the questions connected with this Sheet.’

Science has in turn raised and dashed the reputation of the Shroud. In 1898, the relic was photographed for the first time, and the photographer, Secondo Pia, watched in shock as his first negative plates emerged from the developing tank. Since the image on the Shroud is itself a negative, the face of Christ on the cloth was now revealed for the first time in positive. Pia almost dropped the plates when he saw them, and his pictures caused a worldwide sensation when they were published. They triggered the first scientific investigations into the Shroud.

But 90 years later, science again brought the Shroud into the spotlight, when the results of carbon-14 dating tests were announced in 1988. Three independent teams working in laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona dated cloth samples taken from the sheet to between 1260 and 1390. This placed the origins of the Shroud not in the first century but the 14th, when the forgers of relics were doing excellent business, and Geoffrey Chaucer was making the whole trade in relics a laughing stock in The Canterbury Tales.

Since that shattering announcement, which seemed to confirm the Shroud as the most famous hoax in history, the science has been in flux. The apologists for Shroud authenticity have claimed that the cloth sample used in the carbon-14 tests came either from the edge of the sheet (which they say had been contaminated by centuries of handling by priests); or that the cloth chosen was a medieval repair of the Shroud, rather than the original material. Whether these claims stand up remains to be seen. Further salvoes are expected on both sides.

Meanwhile, technology has also come to the aid of the Shroud. A far-reaching (and controversial) restoration of the sheet was carried out in 2002 which saw the burned edges of a previous fire (in 1532) tidied up. A local convent of Poor Clare nuns was given the job of repairing the burned sheet at the time, and their patches and backing sheet were also removed in the 2002 work. The pilgrims at this year’s exposition will see the Shroud in its post-Poor Clares state for the first time.

They are also seeing the relic in its new reliquary. In the past, this was a solid silver box decorated with jewels. However, the Shroud is now in a seamless casket milled from a single bar of aluminium alloy, just like an Apple laptop, and made by an Italian company which produces modules for the international space station. The space-age box, which is the same size as the Shroud when laid flat, has a bulletproof glass front and is filled with inert argon gas. All of which must say something about the Church’s actual position on the identity of the Shroud.

As the 2010 exposition opened its doors for the first time on Saturday evening, I joined the kilometre-long queue that began in the royal gardens behind the cathedral. That evening, 12,000 people saw the Shroud, the vast majority of them Italian. Only 480 of these pilgrims came from abroad, with just 21 of us from the UK.

We made our way through the turnstiles and halted at the ecclesiastical traffic light system put in place to regulate the flow of the faithful. A red light, and the queue of people obediently stopped; a green light, and everyone surged forward. This was a good-natured crowd, with young children carried on dad’s shoulders, friends chatting and laughing, and everyone out for an enjoyable evening on this warm Turin night.

I asked the Italian pilgrims around me for their thoughts on the Shroud, or, as it’s known in Italy, the Sindone. Antonella, a dark-haired, middle aged woman from Favria, just north of Turin, is a non-practising Catholic and came to see the Shroud out of curiosity.

‘If you believe in God, you can see the image of God on the Sindone, but if you don’t believe, it’s a curiosity, a strange image which someone has created.’

But what does she believe? Is this the image of Jesus, imprinted on cloth which actually touched his skin? ‘Si, si, si, si’ she replies emphatically. She turns away, impatient or maybe even offended at being asked the question.

The lights changed to green and we surged into a long, brick-vaulted corridor at the back of the cathedral. The signs on the wall read ‘Silenzio’, and the crowd calmed, becoming more sombre. There was a feeling that the Shroud was near, and it was a definite sense of presence. Waiting again, I turned to a young couple, Francesco and Anna, who had travelled from Genova, although Anna is from Madrid. Francesco saw the Shroud in 2000 and was bringing Anna for her first viewing.

‘Seeing the Sindone is an experience which has a deep impact on you,’ he said. ‘We don’t need any proof of Jesus’ existence or resurrection, but the Sindone reminds us of the passion of Christ. It’s an image which brings you closer to faith.’

In contrast, Juan, also in the queue, and visiting with friends from Spain, said that the spectacle of the relic was his main motive for being there. ‘I am a Catholic and I suppose the Sindone is one of the most important relics of the Catholic faith. But I am mainly here out of curiosity!’ he said with a broad grin.

We finally reached the cathedral, and our pilgrimage (or, for the merely curious, our tourist trail) ended as we were shepherded into three tiered viewing stands before the Shroud. The great relic hung before us inside a vast, wide frame, surrounded by swags of red velvet and flanked on either side by two soldiers with tall, red and blue plumed hats.

The Shroud is lit by an otherworldly, milky white light. Its linen looks paper thin and silky, and on its surface is the faint and famous double image, front and back, of a man who has died a terrible death, but now lies at peace, beyond the reach of cruelty. The image, with its burn holes and discolorations, is complex and hard to read, but I quickly found the face and hands, which are the clearest of the unfocused stains on the linen, and focused on them.

Standing to one side, a woman read a prayer for the pilgrims, linking the death of Jesus to our own daily call to take up the cross and follow him. Then we were left in silence for a generous two minutes to contemplate the Holy Shroud of Turin, and, who knows, of Jerusalem and of the tomb of Jesus itself. The people around me were still. A man next to me wiped his eyes as we left the stands and walked down the aisle to the cathedral door.

Cardinal Poletto, the custodian of the Shroud, in his homily in the cathedral earlier on that opening day, spoke of ‘the silent image of a crucified man with all the marks of violence suffered by the body of Jesus during his passion.’ He said that the Shroud can ‘help us discover how the passion of Jesus is like a ray of light which shines on the sorrow and death of every human person.’

It is this sense of connection with suffering in the world, and in our own mortal and vulnerable lives, which partly gives the Shroud of Turin its enduring hold over the imagination. That, and the electrifying possibility – even if it is only that, a dwindling possibility – that the image on the cloth might be the imprint of Jesus himself, captured in the moment which changed the world forever, between death and resurrection.

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