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Shrouded in Mystery: Little known facts about the Turin Shroud

Despite being denounced as a forgery within 50 years of it first surfacing, the shroud is still considered a religious icon to this day.

The Shroud of Turin shows the image of a man's face, which many people believe to be Jesus Christ (Dianelos Georgoudis, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Shroud of Turin is an infamous relic that has sparked intense debate between the religious and scientific communities for close to 600 years. First appearing in records in the 1350s, the 4.4-metre length of linen is believed to be the death shroud that Jesus Christ was wrapped in following his execution. Featuring the faint sepia image of a man with long hair and a beard, the shroud shows evidence of wounds that coincide with the biblical description of crucifixion.

Despite being denounced as a forgery within 50 years of it first surfacing, the shroud is still considered a religious icon to this day and is the destination for thousands of pilgrims each year. It has undergone various forms of scientific testing in an effort to establish its age and origin. However, inconclusive and contradicting results have failed to provide an adequate answer to this mystery.

Whether an impressive forgery or a living relic of extreme religious importance, the Shroud of Turin has continued to spark imaginations and theories. Here are five interesting and surprising facts about the shroud that you might not know.

It was first discovered in France

In the mid-1350s, a knight presented the shroud to the Dean of the church in the small French town of Lirey. Claiming the shroud as the authentic burial shroud of Jesus Christ, there is no record as to how the knight came across it 1,300 years after the prophet’s crucifixion and resurrection. 

Religious icons were a hugely important aspect of Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages. From the search for the Holy Grail to the Spear of Destiny: icons were incredibly sought after. This led to fraudsters and forgers taking advantage of eager Christians that wanted a chance to witness holy relics for themselves. 

It wasn’t long until the shroud was officially recorded as a forgery. In a 1389 letter to the Pope, the Dean of the Lirey Church confirmed that the shroud’s forger had confessed it was a fake. The Vatican publicly declared that it was not the authentic shroud of Jesus Christ.

Photographic and Forensic evidence

Since the discovery of the shroud, there have been fierce debates as its origin and authenticity. The first photograph was taken in 1899 and enabled the global scientific community to study and analyse for themselves. The photograph’s negative provided a clearer image of the imprint in the fabric and showed detail that was previously hidden to the naked eye. 

Since then, the linen has undergone various forms of forensic and scientific testing to try and accurately date it. In the 1970s, various scientists from across the community came together and formed the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) to gain further understanding of the relic.

In 1978, the group was given special dispensation from the Vatican to have direct access to the shroud. Testing ranged from historical material analysis to testing the pigments - and results indicated that the shroud had originated from the Middle Ages, not the 1st century. Later radiocarbon dating was undertaken in 1988. Three independent sources tested a small sample of the shroud and determined with 95% accuracy that it dated to 1260-1390. 

Expertly forged

Whether a forgery or a work of art, the shroud has baffled many for centuries. Literary works from the period (such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) depict peddlers and fraudsters that would capitalise on the disconnection and isolation of medieval Europe by scamming unsuspecting Christians into paying to see faux relics.

The shroud, however, is of exemplary quality. It wasn’t a cheap forgery created to make a quick coin or two but was so convincing that those who landed upon it truly believed they were seeing the burial shroud of Jesus Christ himself.

It is protected by bulletproof glass 

The shroud has been protected at the Cathedral of Turin in Northern Italy since 1578. To preserve the shroud for centuries to come, it is housed in an airtight case made of bulletproof glass. The case is temperature regulated and suspended in argon and oxygen to prevent any further degeneration.

Live streaming

The shroud has made its way into the 21st century and has been live streamed across the world, being broadcast via the internet several times over the past few years. Most recently it was put on display for those who were unable to make their pilgrimage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schedules for virtual viewings of the shroud enable Christians across the world to see the shroud from the comfort of their own homes.