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Expert dismisses historian’s claim that Turin Shroud was made for medieval ritual

Benedict XVI prays in front of the Shroud of Turin (CNS)

A member of the team that carried out the only major scientific study of the Turin Shroud has dismissed new claims that the shroud was an item in a medieval Easter ritual rather than the burial cloth of Christ.

The claims came in an article in the magazine History Today. Historian and author Charles Freeman argued that the famous linen cloth was probably used in a 14th-century Easter re-enactment of the Resurrection known as the Quem Queritis, “Whom do you seek?” The dating ties in with the 1988 radio-carbon findings, although these have been disputed by believers in the ancient and miraculous origins of the shroud.

Old descriptions and pictures of the shroud show that the image of Christ has not always looked as faint as it does today, Mr Freeman says in the article. “Astonishingly, few researchers appear to have grasped that the shroud looked very different in the 16th and 17th centuries from the object we see today,” he writes.

An engraving by Antonio Tempesta of a ceremonial display of the shroud to pilgrims in 1613 shows the figure of Christ covered in blood and scourge marks.

“My research began with this engraving, as it demonstrated that the original images of the shroud were much more prominent than they are now. The shroud would not have made an impact on such large crowds if they had not been. There are features – the Crown of Thorns, the long hair on Christ’s neck, the space between the elbows and the body, the loincloth – that can no longer be seen today,” Mr Freeman writes.

Fifteenth-century accounts of the shroud describe “the wounds on the side, hands and feet as bloody as if they had been recent”, he says. In 1474 Pope Sixtus IV described the shroud as “coloured with the blood of Christ” and in the 1530s the Clare nuns, who repaired the shroud after it had been damaged by fire, described “the traces of a face all bruised and all tortured by blows, his divine head pierced by big thorns, from which blood rills came out and bled into the forehead and divided in various rills covering the forehead with the most precious purple in the world” – none of which can be seen today.

“This new emphasis on the blood of Christ is a development of the 14th century,” Mr Freeman writes, saying that the shroud reflects this iconography. He also points out that the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) in 1988 “did not have a single expert in the history of relic cults, techniques of ancient weaving or the iconography of medieval painting on its team”.

But Barrie Schwortz, an expert in imaging and the official documenting photographer of STURP, dismisses Mr Freeman’s claims.

He told the Catholic Herald: “I have seen copies of the shroud (commissioned by the Savoy and other royal families) made by artists allowed to view the actual cloth that look very little like the shroud. It is not an easy image to reproduce. I have examined, studied and lectured on the shroud for nearly 38 years yet would have great difficulty in describing the image on the cloth in writing. So variations in early written descriptions or artistic copies doesn’t seem like very convincing evidence against authenticity. And there are many early coins and artworks that appear to have directly and faithfully copied the image on the shroud. Perhaps that is more a testament to the quality of the artists involved and the difficulties one encounters when attempting to duplicate the shroud’s image.”

Mr Schwortz referred to the scientific evidence that is “the basis for my opinion that the shroud cannot be an artwork. STURP’s data provided empirical evidence to that effect, although the sceptics of the world continue to deny it”.

He continued: “Remember that I am Jewish (not Messianic), and it took nearly 17 years after our direct examination of the cloth before the scientific evidence actually convinced me of the shroud’s authenticity. It was the science that did it.”