Beyond the Linen – The Shroud of Turin

POST BY GClapson

The Shroud of Turin 2010

Today (19 April), the Shroud of Turin will go on display in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, where it will be exhibited for 67 days. Among the many thousands of visitors who will see it will be Pope Francis, when he visits Turin on 21 and 22 June.

The prospect of discovering the ‘relic of all relics’ is bound to be of interest.  The Turin Shroud is an ancient length of linen cloth that is visually captivating and on close inspection tells a fascinating story. Rare in its time, the Shroud has a three-point herringbone weave, whereas most ancient linen burial cloths were of a plain weave.

My personal belief is that the Shroud is authentic, but we will probably never be able to verify this.  The close correlation between the marks on the Shroud and the biblical narrative and the intriguing way the image on the Shroud has been revealed to us through Secondo Pia’s brilliant photography in 1879 helps to convince me that it is indeed the cloth that enwrapped the body of Christ.  From a theological viewpoint however, we need to get beyond the linen and seek the true value of the cloth to aid us in our search for God.  

Seeking to prove authenticity misses an opportunity that this religious artifact affords us.  In his book The Holy Shroud, Antonio Cassanelli says that although the image on the linen does not add anything to the ‘Good News’, it may ‘satisfy our desire to know how Jesus had to suffer for us, and - if we are truly disposed towards it - may lead us to meditation and prayer’ [1] . I believe this is the key role of the Shroud in the 21st century.Pope Benedict with the Shroud of Turin


Astonishingly the first image of a crucified Christ on a cross did not appear until around the tenth century when Christianity became the accepted religion of the western world. But where could we position the Shroud in the religious art genre?  Since we do not know how the image was imprinted onto the Shroud we cannot classify this as art; it is more in the realm of mystery at present. It is also important to state that the Shroud is not to be worshipped for itself – even if authenticated – since that would constitute idolatry.  Neither do I support the view of some popes that the Shroud is a religious icon.

There are many Christians in the world - illiterate and literate - who need visual images to help enrich their faith. Given the correlation with the Gospel narrative, the image of the Shroud can fulfill this need in a special way. Most religious art is inspired by biblical narrative; but we cannot say this of the Shroud since it cannot be attributed to any artist.  If the imprint on the Shroud was made around 2000 years ago, it would have preceded biblical narrative.  Like religious paintings created by artists, the Shroud acts as a devotional religious artifact; but its origin remains a mystery.

How are we then to interpret the Shroud in relation to the Bible and theology in the life of the Church today?   Science has helped to create that link which results in a more realistic interpretation of the Easter event.  The Shroud can act as a metaphorical bridge between the historical nature of the cloth (even if it is only 800 years old) and our world in 2015.  The revelation in the Gospel narrative is closely mirrored in the Shroud.  This link can be helpful for Christians to strengthen their faith or encourage those whose faith is weak to try again. 

As a devotional artifact, the Shroud then takes its unique place among the array of religious books, paintings and statues that help to enrich our understanding of the Gospel narrative of the Passion. The Shroud gives us a new priority of being drawn to the faith, which in turn can help us to adapt or change the way we live and interact with our fellow brothers and sisters.  I believe that this is the theology of the Shroud for the 21st century.

Photo right: Pope Benedict venerates the Shroud of Turin in 2010 © Osservatore Romano

Shroud of Turin - comparison with the Gospel accounts

[1] Antonio Cassanelli, The Holy Shroud, A comparison between the Gospel narrative of the five stages of the Passion (Gracewing, 2002).

This article by Tom Wall was first published in Jesuits and Friends, Issue 90. Tom received his Masters in Christian Theology from Heythrop College, the specialist Theology and Philosophy College of the University of London.

Main photo: People view the Shroud of Turin on display at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, on 26 April 2010 (CNS/Paul Haring)