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From the Wall Street Journal (Books Review)
APRIL 11, 2009 Faith, Proof and Relics
This week's disclosure on the missing history of the Shroud of Turin sheds new light on a much studied object.
Peter Manseau on the enduring appeal of holy objects.Article

It really isn't much to look at. Just a stretch of tattered fabric 14 feet long and a little under 4 feet wide, it is yellowed by time, scarred by fire, stained like a tablecloth not worth keeping. Only on closer inspection does there seem to be an image between the burn holes and creases: a man, naked, prepared for the grave.

The Shroud of Turin underscores an essential aspect of religion. Believers suspend their rational processes and undertake an act of faith. Yet the power of holy relics is that they offer the tantalizing possibility of concrete proof of that belief, setting up a battle between reason and devotion.

Like any good true-crime story, the mystery of the Shroud starts with a body. To know who he is, and why he matters, we need to ask how he got there. A partial answer came earlier this week, when a report from Rome shined new light on the Shroud, Christianity's most hotly contested relic. With the announced discovery of a document explaining the 150 years in which the supposed burial cloth of Jesus disappears from the historical record, Vatican researchers have attempted to provide a missing link that could bolster claims of the Shroud's authenticity. Inevitably, the light of this renewed interest will shine just as brightly on longstanding doubts.

The Shroud is one of the relics related to the events Christians commemorate this weekend, including the Spear of Destiny (said to be the Roman soldier's lance that pierced Jesus's side), the Crown of Thorns, a handful of Holy Nails and a Holy Sponge (from which Jesus drank gall before he died). No matter who is right about where they came from, the most interesting question still remains: Why should these physical objects hold such enduring spiritual fascination?

In the case of the Shroud, the Catholic Church itself provides some indication why. Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, former archbishop of Turin, has said, "The Shroud is not Christ, but a reminder of him." It may perhaps be a reminder of more than that. It is the very physicality of these relics that makes them important to believers; this same factor may make them meaningful to nonbelievers as well. Showing as it does that universal, unavoidable image -- a man, naked, prepared for the grave -- the Shroud serves as a reminder that the stories of religion are first of all stories of human lives.

To wade into the murky waters surrounding the Shroud and its history is immediately to contend with conspiracy theories both grand and mundane. The newly discovered document puts the Shroud briefly in the hands of a controversial band of crusading knights, which means it is no doubt coming soon to a Dan Brown knock-off near you. The church meanwhile has even more immediate reasons for revving up interest: The Vatican's announcement comes on the eve of next year's public exhibition of the Shroud in Turin, the first in a decade.

The document accounts for the period of the Shroud's disappearance between 1204 and 1353. According to the text, uncovered by Vatican researcher Barbara Frale, the Shroud was safeguarded by the Knights Templar, a military order that was popular and well supported within the church, even if they were occasionally accused of idolatry and sodomy.

Dr. Frale's document may explain such allegations. She writes of a young French Templar, Arnaut Sabbatier, who joined the order in 1297 after undertaking a ritual in which he was instructed to kiss "a long linen cloth on which was impressed the figure of a man." This cloth, Dr. Frale says, was no idol. It was the Shroud, and it was the Templars who brought it from Constantinople to French Diocese of Troyes, where it would soon be "discovered" before being moved to Turin.

Is the Shroud real? And does it matter if it is or not? Join the discussion at Journal Community.Apparently ignored by Dr. Frale and others who have seized on the story is a slight complication. According to the most recent research, at the time when the Templar initiate claims to have seen it, the Shroud now housed in Turin probably didn't exist.

In 1988, groups of scientists from three countries were allowed to perform radiocarbon dating on fibers from the Shroud. Undertaking separate studies using accelerator mass spectrometry in the laboratories of the University of Arizona, the University of Zurich and Oxford, these studies found, with 95% certainty, that the fabrication date of the linen of the Shroud was sometime between 1260 and 1390. Twelve hundred years too young, the Shroud is most likely a medieval creation.

This is not to say the puzzle has been solved. Even if it was created by an artist or charlatan several hundred years ago, as of yet there has been no explanation how such an ingenious rendering could have been created with the technologies of the day.

But maybe so much focus on explanation misses the point. Belief -- any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force -- requires a partial abandonment of the rational. This does not mean that faith is irrational, only that it involves a recognition that there are some things that can be explained only through acknowledgment that proof is not always the highest good.

Faith fashions itself as a challenge to our assumptions, our expectations -- and relics are an embodiment of that challenge. As the early Christian author Tertullian said in defense of his belief that Jesus rose from the dead, "it is certain because it is impossible."

The full image of a man believed to be Jesus can be seen on the Shroud, with his hands crossed at the torso.
As much as it is a tradition passed down through the generations, an inherited vocabulary for describing the inexplicable, belief is also an act of the will. Despite scientific investigations, the beliefs that make phenomena like the Shroud relevant are not something required by the rules of logic. There is no rational need to write a poem or to paint a picture, and there is no rational need to believe, which is to search for something meaningful in the enigmatic markings that define our lives.

Yet the tension remains: the will to believe, the need for proof. Perhaps this is what the Shroud is really about: our divine aspirations bound up with our mortal concerns.

The earliest reference to an object believed by the faithful to be this very cloth -- now kept hidden from public view in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in the northern Italian city of Turin -- can be found in the Gospels. After the crucifixion, the Gospel of John says, "they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen is the burial custom of the Jews." Two days later, according the Gospel of Luke, when the followers of Jesus went back to visit his grave, they found the tomb empty but for those same linens.

After the Gospel accounts, the shroud of Christ is not mentioned in early Christian writings until the fourth century, when St. Nino, niece of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, writes of asking her teacher what became of the cloth the apostles found in the tomb. Not to worry, she is told, St. Peter took it for safekeeping.

Though St. Nino couldn't find it, another holy woman of her era apparently did, at least according to legend. St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, went to Jerusalem and gathered up as many relics as she could transport back to Constantinople. Most famously, she happened upon a cave containing three crosses, one of which she was certain must have been the wood to which Jesus was nailed during the crucifixion. Lacking the kinds of technologies that would later be applied to the Shroud, St. Helena relied on a scientific method of another kind. She had a sick companion lay down on each of the crosses one after another, and asked the ill woman each time how she felt. When the companion seemed on the mend, St. Helena knew she had the "True Cross."

Similar tales can be told of the acquisition of other relics, which disappeared from Jerusalem between the fourth and ninth centuries. Such relics were prized in both the Eastern and Western branches of Christendom because the moments each became an object of religious significance were recorded so clearly in scripture. As the church expanded far beyond its Mediterranean origins, relics served as a kind of portable sanctity -- if you couldn't go to the Holy Land, the Holy Land could come to you.

Most of these objects have their roots in legend, but they also intersect with history. For many relics, that point is clearly identifiable as the Crusades. The "liberation" of religious artifacts from Jerusalem was a primary motivating factor for the epoch-shaping battles that to some extent still define the world today. In a sense, they started with the passions of St. Helena. Whether the passion for relics attributed to her is historically accurate or existed mostly in pious memory is difficult to say, but it is clear that within her lifetime the relics associated with Jesus, his burial clothes among them, began to be described as treasures not of Jerusalem but Constantinople.

By the end of 12th century, when Jerusalem was all but emptied of relics, Western Christians looking on their Eastern Christian counterparts could not have helped but be jealous of the impressive collection Constantinople had amassed. So it was that in 1204, the city named for Constantine, the first Christian Emperor, became the victim of an intra-Christian crusade, and the Shroud associated with St. Helena vanished.

Like most relics, the Shroud of Jesus was so popular during the Middle Ages that it was hard to keep track of how many there were. Some relics multiplied by being chipped apart, as happened to the True Cross. By the time of the Reformation -- more than 1,000 years after St. Helena kicked off the relic-hunting craze -- there were so many pieces of the cross of Christ in existence that John Calvin quipped, "If all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they could build a ship."

Spear of Destiny: Also known as the Holy Lance, it is said to be the Roman soldier's lance that pierced Jesus' side at his crucifixion. Several relics have claimed to be all or part of the genuine object, including this one now located in Vienna.
Other relics multiplied even more curiously, a fact to which John the Baptist would surely attest, if only we knew which of his three heads to ask.

In other words, the fact that there were multiple Holy Shrouds does not necessarily mean that they all are phony. It only means that like every other relic of the time, it was part of a religious economy in which portable pieces of sanctity had become currency as valuable as it was easy to counterfeit.

What sets the Shroud apart is that few relics have been as tied to questions of authenticity in the way it has been. Officially, the Vatican has made no statement on its origins, which is odd since relics usually come attached to documents attesting to their provenance and the date of their recognition as related to a particular saint.

It seems the popularity of the Shroud has allowed it to sidestep that system, which perhaps is why concerns over its genuineness may be as old as the cloth itself.

Not long after its first appearance in 1353, the Shroud was denounced in a letter to the pope explaining that the local bishop had studied the linen and the image it held. "Eventually, after diligent inquiry and examination," the letter states, "he discovered how the said cloth had been cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed."

From the beginning, the possibility that the Shroud had been borne of the techniques of talented medieval artisans was not ignored, even by the church. For this reason, it has been examined and inspected many times in its history. Having survived minor fires and threat of flood, it has also been preserved and repaired. Raising questions of what it means to be made by human versus divine hands when all things are considered the handiwork of the creator, it has served as a centuries-old test case into the complexities of how faith and doubt intersect with technology and art.

It's the logic of history, then, that the Shroud became famous in the modern world only with the application of a more recent meeting of art and technology. The blurry, bearded visage most recognized as the face of Jesus shown on the Shroud of Turin is not the actual image, but rather a photo negative of what appears on the cloth.

In 1898, amateur photographer Secondo Pia was permitted to photograph the Shroud for the first time. Allowed access during a public exhibition, his intention was to manufacture prayer cards for the pilgrims who would continue to flock to Turin after the exhibition had closed. Mr. Pia was so surprised by the images he captured, he nearly dropped his photographic plate in the developing room. He had not been expecting to see a man's face staring so clearly back at him.

Mr. Pia's stark photonegative images of the Shroud spread around the world. At the dawn of a new century, they suggested that science might be used to support and understand faith rather than undermine it. This seemed true for a time. Scientific papers were published using recent experiments in the anatomical sciences as evidence of the Shroud's authenticity. Simultaneously, the new images of the Shroud were used to re-imagine religious events. The crucifixion, to begin with, could once again be seen in all its torment now that the first-century version of an autopsy report was available.

The love affair between science and the Shroud proved short-lived, however. For the last 30 years, unprecedented studies of religious objects have been directed toward the prize of Turin. Technologies unimaginable to Secondo Pia have been used to date the cloth, scan its image and even examine traces of oils and pollen that may have been left by the hands of the faithful through the centuries.

And yet the mystery of the man remains. Divine or not, he is drawn on our collective imagination. Whether the image was made through the first-century equivalent of photography or the 14th-century equivalent of Photoshop is of lesser importance than the fact that it is a testament to the individual struggle with death and its meaning. No matter our level of belief or unbelief, it is an image that insists we not look away.

Peter Manseau is the author most recently of "Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead" and the editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture.

Joined: Nov 2001
Posts: 6,578
Joined: Nov 2001
Posts: 6,578
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