Shroud of Turin Developments

December 1, 2009

Two developments regarding the Shroud of Turin, with its imprint of an apparently crucified man, are a study in contrasts.

One is the claim by a Vatican archives researcher, Barbara Frale, that she has found evidence helping to authenticate the supposed burial cloth of Jesus. In her book (published in Italian), The Shroud of Jesus Nazarene (2009), Frale claims to have discovered faint words scattered over the cloth in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. She asserts that the Greek words “(J)esu(s) Nazarene” (i.e., “Jesus of Nazareth”) in the head region prove the text was not medieval, even though the earliest certain reference to the “shroud” was a 14th century bishop’s report claiming an artist confessed to having “cunningly painted” the shroud image. Frale insists no medieval artist would have so referred to Jesus without noting his divinity—a rather silly argument given that the cloth is a supposed relic, not an artist’s rendering.

Frale’s work is reminiscent of that of Shroud devotee Alan Whanger. He had even many shroud advocates rolling their eyes over his alleged discovery of just such words, “Jesus” and “Nazareth,” as well as alleged imprints of flowers, crucifixion-associated items such as a large nail, hammer, sponge, spear, scourges, sandals, rope, dice, etc., etc.—all perceived Rorschach style in the shroud’s mottled image and off-image areas. (See my Relics of the Christ 2007, 140–142.) Shroud researcher Gian Marco Rinaldi, speaking of the images on which Frale’s findings were based, stated: “These computer enhancements increase contrast in an unrealistic way to bring out these signs. You can find them all over the shroud, not just near the head, and then with a bit of imagination, you see letters.” (See Ariel David, AP, “Researcher says words on shroud prove it was Jesus’ burial cloth,” Buffalo News , Nov. 21, 2009.)

In contrast to Frale’s dubious discoveries on the controversial linen cloth, which has been carbon-dated to about the time of the forger’s confession (circa 1350s), is the work of Luigi Garlaschelli, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia. Using hypotheses I advanced in my Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1983; 1998), Garlaschelli determined to reproduce the shroud as a full-size replica, with the properties of the original. (For example, the shroud has sparse red-ocher pigment, confined to the tops of the threads.)

He used specially hand-woven linen, laid over a volunteer, with a bas-relief substituted for the face to avoid wrap-around distortions. He used a version of my rubbing technique with the added hypothesis of an acidic pigment that, over time, mostly sloughed off but left behind a ghostly image due to the acid degrading the cellulose. Garlaschelli artificially aged the result, then washed off the pigment. As he notes, the resulting image possessed “all the characteristics of the Shroud of Turin.” He added: “In particular, the image is a pseudo-negative, is fuzzy with half-tones, resides on the topmost fibers of the cloth, has some 3-D embedded properties, and does not fluoresce” (quoted in Massimo Polidoro, “The Shroud of Turin Duplicated,” Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, Jan./Feb. 2010, 18).

Garlaschelli’s work stands in stark contrast to the wishful thinking of the Barbara Frales and Alan Whangers of the world. The latter exemplify what I have called “shroud science” which begins with the desired answer and works backward to the evidence, picking and choosing. Science, on the other hand, lets the evidence lead to an answer. I was on hand when Garlaschelli presented his results at Italy’s largest science fair in Genoa. He dedicated his illustrated lecture to me, too-generously saying I was “the brain” and he “only the hands.” In fact I am humbled to have been mentioned regarding such a wonderful accomplishment. It shows shroud science trumped by real science.