Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

The Shroud of Turin

Some time ago I came across a 2019 piece from The Remnant about new scientific tests on the Shroud of Turin. These are not a repeat of the much debated Carbon-14 ones which indicated a date from the later thirteenth or early fourteenth centuries but ones using spectroscopy which indicate a time frame of somewhere in the period 300BC to 400AD. The report can be seen here

Discussion of the scientific tests can become forceful and quite - or very - heated, as these two linked reports from The Independent from July and August 2018 show: Scientists prove Turin Shroud not genuine (again) and Believers hit back in almighty row over whether the famous Turin Shroud really did contain Jesus' body

I experienced something of this in the comments on a post I published about the Shroud in 2012 at The Shroud of Turin

My own interest in the Holy Shroud began with a chance discovery of a book about it in a shop on my hometown many years ago. Ian Wilson’s The Turin Shroud was a fascinating and stimulating book to read in Lent on two occasions and remains an excellent study and survey of the evidence.

Last year in Lent, and before lockdown intervened in our lives, the Oxford Oratory hosted a travelling exhibition about the Turin Shroud. This was an excellent and very informative display, including the latest research and there was also a good and well-attended lecture one Saturday by the organiser, Pam Moon, and entitled “The Cross, the Resurrection and the Shroud of Turin.” In addition there was a handsome and splendidly presented illustrated booklet on sale which summarised the story of, and case for, the Shroud.

The website for this touring exhibition is www.shroudofturinexhibition.com, and hopefully as things open up again, the exhibition will be once more available for others to see.

I have thought, and said, for years that the Holy Shroud and its image, is actually a terrifying object. If it really is what it is claimed to be, what one believes it to be, then it challenges us as individuals, as Christians, as a society, as humanity, to take it seriously... very seriously. If churchpeople do not, then what does that say about their belief? Is their Faith challenged ironically by that which might make it empirically true?

That is not to say that the Turin Shroud provides a “proof” that the Gospels and a lived Christian life do not. It is rather to say that here in an age that relies so much on physical demonstrations of facts there is, it would seem, such a piece of complementary evidence can not only exist, but that only since the development of photography and other analytical methodologies has it been made manifest.

Yet I am aware there are practising Catholics who seem to cling to a belief in the absolute truth of Carbon 14 testing which had “confirmed” that the Turin Shroud is a medieval forgery. Telling them that distinguished archaeologists these days are sceptical about it as a technique cuts no ice. Science has “proved” the Shroud to be a fake for these people and no other evidence or argument is therefore admissible.

Science can prove some things, Faith can prove other things, Historians can prove yet others. In the kaleidoscope of our understanding we need to align the various images we are presented with.

There is an excellent case for the authenticity of the Shroud  - not least its unique nature and its preservation - never mind the unresolved matter of how it came to be, and the extreme unlikelihood of it being a medieval forgery. No-one can come near to reproducing how it might have been made by human hands, let alone at the time when it might have been created as a forgery. We can never “know”  with absolute 100% scientific and historical certainly that this was indeed the actual burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth - but not accepting that there is an extraordinarily good case to believe that it is in fact genuine seems to me very sad.

It seems an appropriate subject to ponder on today, the day the Gospel at Mass is the story of Doubting Thomas.


Patricius said...

I suggest that the strongest case against the authenticity of the Holy Shroud of Turin is one of provenance or tradition. I read Ian Wilson's book when it was first published and , impressive as is the case he makes for identifying it with earlier manifestations such as the Image of Edessa and the Mandylion, it is by no means secure. That the image was produced by means of contact with a three-dimensional "body" seems to me undeniable. Nevertheless, to dismiss it as a "forgery" without a clear understanding of the means of its production and utterance is laziness. An interesting case for its production within a medieval context has been made by Hugh Farey, sometime editor of the journal of the British Society for the Turin Shroud, archived editions of which may be found via the shroud.com website.

Once I Was A Clever Boy said...

Thank you for these comments.

I agree that Wilson’s case for the transmission of the Shroud, whilst impressive and credible, cannot due to the nature of the evidence, be absolutely watertight. It requires a positive reading of such evidence as there is, and there are long gaps. I am prepared to accept his thesis bearing those reservations in mind.

I completely agree about the laziness of those who dismiss the Shroud as a “forgery” or as not genuine. The explanations that are offered are far less credible than accepting it as what it is claimed to be. I have heard the argument that if it is a product of the medieval centuries by some unknown process then it is a far more miraculous object than if were indeed the actual burial cloth.

Thank you for the reference to the Hugh Farey article, which I will aim to look at.

Unknown said...

In medievil France, convicted murderers had their right hand chopped off on the scaffold immediately before they were hanged. It was all part of the public spectacle, and intended to increase the deterrent.

The right hand of the figure on the shroud is noticeably longer than his left, and his wrist is hidden by the positioning of the left hand. See the high-resolution image at:


As holy relics were big money-spinners in medieval Europe, it is fairly obvious that some enterprising monk bribed an executioner to give him the body and right hand of a sturdy bearded rogue who had just been hanged, and the monk then used some form of camera obscura (which were known about even then) to imprint a prone image of the deceased on a cloth impregnated with a light-sensitive chemical (silver nitrate? )


The cloth could then have been held near a uniformly red hot iron plate, and heat preferentially absorbed by the dark areas until these were singed, after which the chemical could be washed out. That is how I would have tried to do it in forger's place.

It would have taken a lot of practice and experimentation. But the effort would have been amply worthwhile for what, if it could be pulled off, would be the forgery of the age!

That said, however, there are still a couple of straws for the faithful to cling to.

Firstly, obviously, crucifixion would also distort the wrists, even if just in the process of removing the body from the cross afterwards, during which it may have been briefly hanging by just one wrist, enough to stretch it significantly.

Also, a camera obscura inverts its image top to bottom and left to right. So, unless the executioner was drunk and/or confused and hacked off the wrong hand, or witnesses claimed the felon was left-handed or at least committed the murder with his left hand, this means it may have been the figure's left hand that was wonky, which somewhat detracts from my French felon theory!

So in summary, I believe the image is almost certainly a fake. But there is some small room for doubt.


John Ramsden ( jhnrmsdn@yahoo.co.uk )

P.S. After typing all the above, I feel another blog post coming on! So a more considered and illustrated version of the above may appear on my blog site at https://www.highranges.com