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Shrouded in Mystery

Negative image of the face on the Shroud, 1978 STURP tests. | ©1999 Barrie M. Schwortz Collection, STERA, Inc.

Mystery and Faith:
The Shroud of Turin
The Museum of the Bible
400 4th Street, S.W.
Washington, D.C.
Through July 31

In 1998, Pope John Paul II greeted fellow pilgrims who had come to see what many believe to be the burial cloth that wrapped the body of Jesus after his crucifixion, and declared it “a distinguished relic” and “the mirror of the gospel.”

In the spring of 2010 the Archdiocese of Turin, Italy, displayed the cloth to coincide with the papal theme of the year, the Passion of Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI attended the exhibition that May. Moved by this object, he asserted that it should be seen through “the eyes of faith.” Across six weeks, more than 2 million pilgrims came to look at the Shroud in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, where it has resided for more than four centuries, now protectively encased in bulletproof glass.

And in 2013, Pope Francis referred to it as an “icon of a man scourged and crucified.”

Inspired by the words of these pontiffs, the Museum of the Bible is presenting an innovative, high-tech, and digitally interactive exhibition about the Shroud of Turin (also known as the Holy Shroud), perhaps the world’s most studied and debated fabric. Over five sections and eight interactives (including a facsimile of the Shroud), visitors learn how the Shroud has been understood by some to reflect the Passion narratives, the place it occupies in European history, and its spiritual effect on millions of people. But the exhibition also includes sections that discuss when and by what methods the Shroud has been subjected to scientific testing to determine its authenticity.

The Shroud is a rectangular cloth measuring about 14½ and 3½ feet, woven in a three-to-one herringbone twill composed of flax fibrils. It bears the faint brownish, negative images of the front and back of a man, his hands folded across his groin, on a non-photographically sensitive linen cloth. The muscular, nearly 6-foot figure has a beard and moustache, and shoulder-length hair parted in the middle. The two views are aligned along the midplane of the body, pointing in opposite directions, and the front and back views of the head nearly meet at the middle of the cloth.

19th-century stained glass window at the Collegiale Church of Notre-Dame de St. Hippolyte-sur-Doubs, France. Humbert de Villersexel, the Comte de la Roche, holds the Shroud. |
Photo: Dorian Rollin

Lacerations on his body and scalp suggest that he was brutally beaten, his wrists and feet were pierced, and there is what appears to be a gash on the right side of his body. In the view of proponents of the cloth’s authenticity, reddish-brown stains (some of which are burn marks and water stains resulting from a fire in 1532) are consistent with blood from the five wounds on Jesus’ body, as described in gospel accounts of the crucifixion.

Although all four of the Gospels refer to Jesus’ burial, they differ about the cloth’s form. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body in a piece of linen cloth and placed it in a new tomb, John’s Gospel refers to “strips of linen.” In a striking example of the show’s extensive use of technology, the museum gives its position on this point through a brief video showing that the entire length of cloth was used, and that the body was placed on one half, with the other folded over it, thereby explaining the back and front images of the figure imprinted on the fabric.

Since 1969, when the Shroud first underwent direct testing, it has been subjected to various scientific analyses, most notably in 1978 by the Shroud of Turin Research Project, which were in turn declared by an adviser to the project as the work of a medieval artist who used various red pigments to paint the cloth. Findings went back and forth until 1988, when the Holy See permitted radiocarbon dating on portions of a swatch taken from a corner of the cloth. Those results determined that the material probably dated from the 13th to 14th century. As recently as 2017, independent researcher Tristan Casabianca obtained all the data from the 1988 carbon tests held by the British Museum and reported two years later that they were seriously flawed and unreliable, which inspired demands for new tests.

Displayed in a roomy circular gallery, the large exhibition is a comprehensive presentation that sets out to demystify what has long been — and remains — a mysterious object. While traditional wall labels predominate in relating the story of the Shroud, the interactive digital tables enliven it and serve as additional tools for accessing information.

A full-size replica of the Shroud, created by the Lino Val Gandino Project (Bergamo, Italy), is the show’s centerpiece. Visitors may wave their hand over any one of the several sensors imbedded on specific places on the Shroud to activate a voice that reads either a gospel passage or historical event relating to that place.

This exhibition stands in clear but subtle support of the cloth as a holy relic showing a figure whose features and markings correspond directly to the Passion accounts.

But the show is equally respectful of and makes room for science, which can interrogate — and disagree with — that faith without threatening it. Well researched and engaging, this is an exhibition worth seeing and pondering.


The Shroud of Turin in natural color as photographed during the 1978 scientific examination | ©1999 Barrie M. Schwortz Collection, STERA, Inc.


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