In the late 1970s an unusual documentary film surfaced. When it was shown to London’s film critics, ‘Silent Witness’ caused consternation. Its subject matter was the Shroud of Turin – not a subject commonplace in a Britain then dealing with economic recession and punk rock. It was the first time a major documentary had emerged on that particular piece of cloth based on the then latest research, of which that decade had seen a flurry.
A year or so after, I remember being dragooned by priests into a school lecture theatre where the lights were dimmed and the aforementioned film was screened. It delighted and intrigued in equal measure. The combination of detective story and seeming scientific affirmation of the faith was a heady mix. And who could forget the ending? When all the evidence had been sifted, and the latest findings gone through in detail, we were left with only the Shroud’s head image visible upon a black screen, and then, after a brief silence, and with more than hint of incredulous impatience, a voice demanded: ‘Who is he?’
The question hung there as the lights came back on, and to this day it hangs there still. Of course, the question posed is the crux of any discussion about the Shroud: would the world have had the same interest if it were of anyone other than Him? If, for example, it were instead the fabricated face of an early Renaissance model, even one created by no less an artist than Michelangelo, would we care?
The Shroud is surprising though, consistently so, on that both its supporters and detractors agree. The surprise of the aforementioned London film critics echoes an earlier, if much greater, one. In fact, shock may be a more apt description of what took place in the spring of 1898.
Alone in his dark room, an Italian photographer, Secundo Pia, looked on in amazement at the face staring back at him, something that had unexpectedly emerged. Nevertheless, that face’s characteristics were unmistakable, leading him to believe that what he held in his hands, now caught on the reverse photographic plate, was no ordinary image. But, then, that had always been the impression given by the object that he had been the first man to photograph, namely, the Shroud of Turin. Rumours soon spread that something had happened, or more precisely appeared. The scientific evidence, namely the photographs of the Shroud, found their way to the eyes of agnostic scientists in Paris. Their subsequent reaction was all the more interesting given that many of them were not Christian. On studying the images caught by the camera, they believed that what they were looking at was evidence for the existence of Christ – factual proof. As one of them pointed out, however, this was not the same as believing the claims of that historical Personage. Nevertheless, they were fair minded enough to state that if they had something similar that belonged to say Alexander the Great or indeed some other historical figure there would have been just as much interest if far less controversy. But, the one thing the Shroud has always been is controversial – it is a sign of contradiction.
At the start of the 20th Century the Shroud’s fiercest critics were Catholics, albeit ones tinged with more than a hint of the then heresy of Modernism. These were men who doubted aspects of the historical reality of the Incarnation and, therefore, in that regard at least, wanted no inconvenient proofs suddenly showing up at the dawn of a new century. And yet, ironically, it was to history that these sceptics pointed, placing the object firmly in the medieval period, and thus dismissing it as nothing more than a crude forgery. The rationale was simple: only the gullible could believe in such fabled superstitions. These theologians of reason had moved on, with their modern faith now so much more spiritual and so much more complex than this…
And yet, all the while, staring back at the world was an image that refused to go away, increasingly becoming a likeness as strangely comforting to some as it would become haunting for others.
Why then? Why at that point in history had this ghostly image suddenly shown itself? Photography had been invented around 1839, by 1898 it was commonplace if not quite common, however, the century then just about to commence was to be a visual one. Photography, moving and still, was to become the pre-eminent art form. The photograph and the film reel were to document and collate events, happenings, and people. Was it mere coincidence that this was the time this figure now appeared, and, by so doing, had entered into the collective consciousness at the beginning of that visual century?
Perhaps, there is a deeper mystery to this timing still. The image on the Shroud is of a man beaten and abused, tortured and crucified. And this was the image revealed to the world at the commencement of what was to become the most barbaric century yet seen. A time when a much-vaunted scientific progress did not keep pace with any increase in human charity. Quite the reverse, in fact, as what was to arrive in the middle of that century, some 40 or so years later, in the form of death camps and even deadlier armaments, was something then, in 1898, when peace prevailed throughout Europe, unimagined and unimaginable. Still, into the midst of all this came a figure, come, quite literally, back from the grave.
The scientific discoveries around the Shroud throughout the 1970s were remarkable. Whether it was evidence of pollen and flowers found only in the Holy Land, or the weave of its material being from 1st Century Palestine, or that under computer analysis a closer examination of the eyes seemed to suggest that ancient pennies had been placed on them, consistent with the funeral practices of the Jews some 2000 years ago. Finding after finding proved as singular as it was intriguing; not least the discovery of blood stains on the cloth. At each turn it was as if a new conundrum was being presented, further deepening the mystery around the Shroud.
The pennies on the eyes are indeed curious. They speak of history, a place, a time; they remind us of why, for example, Pontus Pilate is mentioned in the Nicene Creed. Our religion is not a ‘spiritual’ one outside time and space, but rather, one with a history. It speaks of an Incarnation that occurred at a given time in a certain place. Now, think about those coins again. And, then, think of whose standing around the body, hurriedly preparing the lifeless corpse as the Sabbath hour drew near. When many had fled or lost faith, there was one who did neither. Could it have been her hands that placed the coins upon the now closed eyes of her son? And if so, it is more curious still that the monetary value of the coins so placed were the same as those observed at an earlier time when placed by another widow into the Temple coffers, namely, a mite.
A decade after the film, Church authorities allowed for the Shroud to be carbon dated, and, as they did so, expectation grew amongst sceptics and believers alike. Now, at last, it appeared this object could be definitively dated. The question posed at the end of ‘Silent Witness’ would now be answered. When the result was announced, however, it was yet another surprise. The object venerated in Turin Cathedral was deemed to be from either 13th or 14th Century.
Science had been asked and had answered in a way that seemed to place doubt on any belief other than that of scientific materialism.
It was only decades later that other doubts began to emerge though, and this time they were about that 1988 test. Questions were asked about the process employed, of where on the cloth the samples had been excised from, and, more importantly, the mindset of the scientists behind it. Had they looked for and, therefore, subsequently found what they wanted? Regardless, what was certain, and what had never been fully explained to the masses, was just how fallible such carbon dating was thought to be by many scientists. The populace had been lead to believe that the results of such tests were gospel; they were anything but.
Today, in the hushed dark of a Baroque chapel, withholding its secret still, it awaits those who come to meditate upon its pierced figure, drawing all closer to the mystery woven into the cloth’s very fabric. It is indeed an icon of suffering, but it is also one of love, ultimately speaking as it does of the Passion.
Maybe, we shall never have definitive ‘proof’; perhaps, we aren’t meant to: this linen cloth being more enigmatic than history can ever explain and even more mysterious than science can ever prove.
So, still resonating through the darkness, comes that same voice to demand:
Who is he?
Not Made by Hands: the Miraculous Image of Our Lady of Gaudalupe and the Holy Shroud of Turin by Thomas Sennott (Ignatius Press, 2012). Paperback, 112 pages.