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Is This the Face of Jesus? – The Holy Shroud of Turin

Did a mysterious piece of cloth cover Jesus in the tomb?

The year was 1898. Secondo Pia, an Italian master of the new art of photography, had been given permission by King Umberto of Italy to take the first photos of the Holy Shroud of Turin. The Shroud was a famous and cherished relic of Christendom. According to tradition it was the Shroud in which Jesus was wrapped after he was taken down from the cross.

Pia bent over his tray and watched as small silver particles slid off his negative. He would use the negative to make the first print of the Holy Shroud. But something strange – stranger than anyone could imagine – happened. Suddenly, Pia found himself staring at a face – a face which no one had seen in 1900 years. If this was the Shroud of Jesus, Pia realized, he must be staring at the face of Christ.

So began decades of scientific investigation of the Holy Shroud of Turin. The Shroud showed literally a picture of a man, approximately five feet eleven inches tall, and 155 pounds. (The Shroud itself is 14 feet, five inches long by three feet eight inches wide). The man on the shroud had been crucified, whipped, and crowned with thorns. His side had been pierced with a lance. Such torture had not taken place since the days of the Roman Empire – the days of Christ.

In the gospel account of St. Mark we read that when Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea, with the permission of Pilate, had removed the body of Jesus from the cross. Since the sabbath was approaching, the usual Hebrew burial rites could not take place. Instead, a few spices were sprinkled on the body as Jesus was reverently wrapped in a burial cloth and placed in a tomb.

On Easter morning Peter and John went to the tomb only to find the discarded shroud – Jesus was gone. Apparently, they picked up the shroud and brought it back with them to the Cenacle where the rest of his disciples were hiding.

From that point, the exact history of the shroud is clouded in mystery. There are a few references to it in the early centuries after Christ, but nothing definite is again mentioned of it until the 12th century. For this reason alone some have doubted that it is an authentic relic from the time of Christ. In 1204, the shroud was removed from Constantinople and later entrusted to the care of a French knight, Geoffrey de Chiany, who brought it to France in 1353. In 1453 it was taken to Italy where, on Good Friday, in 1503, it was plunged into boiling oil and water in an attempt to remove the deep brown stains that were on it. In 1532, a fire almost destroyed the shroud. It was saved by two laymen and two priests who burst into the burning cathedral, tore open the silver case in which it was kept and raced from the church. Damage was minor, but some molten silver left a series of burn holes on the edges of the shroud. The shroud was brought to Turin, Italy in 1578 and has remained there ever since.

The shroud of Turin had long been the center of popular devotion. But many people discounted it as actually being the shroud of Jesus because it was a well-known historical fact that a good number of such relics from the Middle Ages were fakes. But Pia’s discovery of the face and body imprint of a man long dead brought world-wide attention to the shroud – both from the scientific community and Christians. How did it happen? What caused the imprint to appear on the negative?

Brown stains had long been quite noticeable on the shroud, so much so that an attempt was made to boil them off. But how do these stains give a picture? The stains do not actually produce a picture – but they are what is called a negative. Since a negative is a picture in reverse, things which are light in reality, appear dark on a negative, and things which are dark appear light. So when Pia took the picture of the shroud, only on his negative plate could a positive image be seen.

It has been scientifically proven that the combination of sweat, blood, the dampness of the tomb and the spices sprinkled on the body could definitely leave such an impression. But if this is so, why haven’t other such shrouds been found? First of all if the ordinary burial rites had taken place, the body would have been washed clean and anointed. This was not the case with Jesus as we know from scripture. Although others died on the sabbath, friends and relatives would come and complete the burial rites as soon as sabbath was over. The women were returning to do this on Easter when they discovered the tomb empty. Had the body remained in the burial cloth for more than 35 hours, the image would have been blurred and eventually destroyed as the body corrupted. The man wrapped in this shroud had to have been removed before that time.

Could the shroud be a hoax? One can never be absolutely certain, but evidence points to the contrary. For example, some say it might have been a painting. But there are a number of problems with this theory. First of all, there are no signs of brush strokes. Secondly, how could a painter have been aware of the positive-negative characteristics of the shroud since the art of photography is only a recent discovery?

Further, if someone had wanted to make a hoax, he would have made the image along traditional lines – the circle of thorns around Christ’s head, nails through the hands, and evidence that the figure had carried the entire cross. These are the most common ways Christ and the crucifixion are pictured. However, historical investigation has shown that in the Roman crucifixion there were a number of differences: the crucified only carried the cross bar, not the entire cross. The crown of thorns was more a skull cap than a circle of thorns – the whole head was covered. Also, the nails were driven through the wrists, not the hands. Only recent historical investigation has brought this to light, yet the imprint on the shroud of Turin shows all these things: the skull cap crown, nails through the wrists and evidence that only the crossbar was carried.

Granting that the imprint is really of a person who had been crucified, how can we know it is an image of Jesus? We may never know for sure, but all the tortures described in the gospel accounts are evident in the imprint, including the flogging and the side pierced by the lance.

In 1976, a Swiss scientist announced that pollen found on the Shroud came from Palestine in the time when Christ lived there.

No one is required to believe that the shroud of Turin is the shroud which actually surrounded the body of Christ. The Church to date has made no official pronouncements on its authenticity, though certain popes, including Pope Paul VI, have expressed positive opinions concerning it.

Whatever the case, it is a moving experience staring at the face represented on the shroud. It is the face of a man who suffered incredible tortures, yet, in the final moments of death we find a strength and serenity. Is this the face of Jesus? The tests go on.

(This article has been reprinted from Visions, April 1, 1977 with the permission of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.)

This article has been reprinted from Visions, April 1, 1977 with the permission of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. This article has been reprinted from Visions, April 1, 1977 with the permission of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.

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