Latest “Shroud” Pseudohistory

April 14, 2009

Shrewdly published in advance of Easter, the latest example of Shroud of Turin pseudohistory has come in the form of an article by the Vatican’s Medieval Specialist, Dr. Barbara Frale. She reported in the Vatican newspaper,   L’Osservatore Romano, that she had discovered a document she claims explains the “missing” years of the Shroud—the supposed burial cloth of Jesus—and supposedly vindicates a theory of shroud promoter Ian Wilson. (See   The Times , London, April 6, 2009.)

According to Frale, the document records the testimony of a young Frenchman who, having entered the order of Knights Templar in 1287, confessed he was taken to “a secret place.” There he was shown “a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man” and instructed to kiss its feet three times. (The Knights Templar was rife with secret ceremonies, and it spawned rumors of scandalous excesses. Central to many conspiracy theories and pseudohistories, it was featured in The   Da Vinci Code .)

Frale strains to identify the figured cloth with the Shroud of Turin and attempts to link that to a possible shroud at Constantinople in 1204. (Some forty “true” shrouds appeared in Europe alone. However, the gospel of John states that Jesus’ corpse was wrapped with multiple cloths, including a separate “napkin” over the face.)

Alas, the Turin cloth made its first historical appearance at Lirey, France, in the middle of the fourteenth century as part of a faith-healing scam. At that time (according to a later Bishop’s report to Pope Clement VII), the shroud was proven a fake, “the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it.” The image and “blood” stains are inconsistent with a cloth having wrapped a real body, and they instead resemble French gothic art. The suspiciously still-red “blood” failed forensic tests, and the entire image was proven to have been rendered in red ocher and vermilion tempera paint. Radiocarbon tests conducted by three laboratories in 1988 gave an age span of circa 1260–1390 c.e., consistent with the time of the forger’s confession. (See my   Inquest on the Shroud of Turin , Prometheus Books, 1998, and   Relics of the Christ , Univ. Press of Ky., 2007.)

Pseudoscience and pseudohistory continue to be the methods used by the cloth’s zealous supporters. They call it the Holy Shroud, although it is anything but.