Reading the Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin (Giorgio Perottino/Reuters)
How in fact was Jesus Christ laid in his tomb?

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the July 20, 1973, issue of National Review, prior to the first major scientific examination as to whether the Shroud of Turin was indeed the burial cloth of Jesus. It was written by Barbara Sullivan, then a mother of six residing in Carmel, New York, and received major national attention. We are happy to republish Mrs. Sullivan’s article here. For images of the Shroud, please visit

During the Fall of 1973, the enigmatic Holy Shroud of Turin will be displayed publicly for the first time in forty years. More important, for the first time in history, it will then be presented to an international scientific commission for investigation. The authorization for an extensive examination was recently given by Pope Paul VI, the Archbishop of Turin, and the House of Savoy, which owns the mysterious burial garment.

We may soon know more surely whether the remarkable visage on the Shroud is, as many believe, that of Jesus Christ.

Astonishing as the claim may seem, there is strong inferential reason to think that, yes, the Shroud is authentic, and, yes, the face on the cloth shows us exactly what Christ looked like. A bit of history may be useful to most readers.

Spoil of War?

The modern history of the Shroud might be said to have begun on May 8, 1898, when Secondo Pia was permitted to photograph the Shroud for the first time while it was being exhibited at the Cathedral in Turin. Pia was flabbergasted to find that his glass-plate photographic negative was turning out in the developing bath to show, in fact, a photographic positive image. The Shroud itself had somehow been stained in such a way that the body imprint on the cloth was a negative. This feature alone would seem to rule out the claim that the Shroud is an ancient or medieval forgery. What artist, centuries before, would have fabricated details that could only be discerned with the help of a nineteenth-century invention? And the photographic process, subsequently confirmed by the photographs taken by G. Enrie in 1931, brought out a wealth of hitherto concealed details.

The Shroud, when photographed in 1898, had been in Turin over three hundred years, having been brought there from France by Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy in 1578. The House of Savoy obtained it in 1452 when Margaret de Charny presented it to the then Duke of Savoy who relinquished two castles in exchange. It was kept in the Sainte Chapelle of Chambéry, there to be partly burned by the melting silver reliquary in a fire on December 3, 1532. (Today, the scorch marks, water stains, and repair patches are quite obvious.) Margaret’s grandfather, Geoffrey de Charny, had founded a collegiate church at Lirey in 1353 where the “true Burial Sheet of Christ” was exposed for veneration around 1357. But Geoffrey, who died in 1356, had never been very explicit about how he obtained it. (And as Werner Bulst S.J. wrote in 1957: ” . . . the possibility of acquiring the Shroud by unethical methods . . . is not to be lightly rejected. It was a rather usual method of securing relics in the Middle Ages.”)

Some 150 years earlier, the armies of the Fourth Crusade, well diverted from their original goal, seized Constantinople in 1204. After sacking the city without mercy, the fabulous treasures were divided with their financiers. According to a prearranged plan the Venetians would get half of the Crusaders’ conquests. In this foray, Venice obtained not only a section of Constantinople, which included the church of St. Sophia, but more than enough to extend her commercial supremacy. Islam was not the hindrance to the profitable trade in the Near East; the Byzantine Empire was. A chronicler of that Crusade, Robert de Clari, is quoted as slating that in the imperial church, Our Lady Saint Mary of Blachernae, ” . . . where was the shroud in which Our Lord was wrapped which was stretched straight up every Friday, so that one could well see on it the figure of Our Lord; nobody knew, neither Greek nor Frank, what became of this shroud when the town was taken.”

Photographic Details

A figured shroud known in the East in 1204; a figured shroud known in the West by about 1357-a gap which has not yet been bridged. However, 1204-1357 is no definitive period of demarcation, for through and around this hiatus in history stream other trappings of civilization. Intermingled with art forms, varied traditions, customs, and rumor are extant documented references to the burial linens of the Passion. Two of the earlier ones are cited as being the testimony of Arculph, who claims to have kissed the “Lord’s winding sheet” in Jerusalem around 640; and St. Braulio writes, in 631, that the Shroud was then a known relic.

But how was the image on the cloth, the remarkable detail of which showed up only when photographed at the end of the nineteenth century, actually produced centuries ago?

Intrigued by Pia’s photographs, a French scientist named Paul Joseph Vignon developed a hypothesis that has commanded some widespread, though not universal, support. It is known that the normal Jewish burial service in the time of Jesus made use of myrrh and aloes, ground into a kind of paste, which impregnated the burial shroud. Vignon showed that this combination of chemicals produced a substance highly sensitive to urea. The human body exudes urea profusely upon death, and especially when death is accompanied by great suffering. In Vignon’s theory, the exuded urea reacted upon the paste to produce discoloration of the cloth.

Since 1898, scholars have been investigating every detail of the Shroud as shown in numerous photographs. Dark stains, clearly visible, mark the crown of thorns–evidently more a cap-like affair than the more familiar circlet. The spear-thrust shows up as a lentil-shaped wound on the right side.

Interestingly, the Shroud shows that the nails went through the wrists, not the palms, according to another French scientist. Dr. Pierre Barbet, a surgeon who brought his expertise to bear on the Shroud, embodied his conclusions in a chilling study, A Doctor at Calvary, available now in paperback translation. Some of his points:

Experiments with cadavers showed that a body suspended with a nail through the palms will tear loose but that there is a narrow passage through the wrists (the carpal area) that would support body weight. No doubt, the Roman executioners were aware of this from their experience with crucifixion. Again, it was noticed that the hands on the Shroud appear to lack thumbs. Studies showed that when a nail was driven through that particular point in the wrist, the thumbs dropped inward upon the palm.

According to Barbet, the Shroud shows that prior to taking up the Cross, Jesus was subjected to two drastic forms of punishment. First, he was severely beaten with a stick about 1.75 inches in diameter. “Excoriations are to be found everywhere on the face, but especially on the right side.” Barbet found “haematomas beneath the bleeding surfaces.” The nose “is deformed by a fracture of the posterior of the cartilage.” The marks show that the stick was “vigorously handled by an assailant standing on the right of Jesus.”

After that, he was subjected to scourging by two men employing the well-known Roman “flagrum,” a leather whip featuring small balls of metal or bone designed to tear the skin. Barbet finds more than fifty such strokes. “All the wounds have the same shape, like a little halter about three centimeters long. The two circles represent the balls of lead. . . . We may assume that during the scourging he was completely naked, for the halter-like wounds are to be seen all over the pelvic region, which would otherwise have been protected. . . . Finally, there must have been two executioners. It is possible they were not of the same height, for the obliqueness of the blows is not the same on each side.”

Surgeon Barbet is especially vivid when he comes to the effect of those nails driven through the passage in the wrist, and so necessarily damaging the median nerves: “The median nerves are not merely the motor nerves, they are also the great sensory nerves. When they were injured and stretched out on the nails in those extended arms like the strings of a violin on their bridge, they must have caused the most horrible pain. Those who have seen, during the war, something of the wounds of the nervous trunks, know that it is one of the worst tortures imaginable.

The spear-thrust, according to Barbet, was a coup de grace required by law in this form of execution. But by that time Jesus had expired as the result of a tetanic contraction of the muscles that quickly reached the ‘respiratory system. The “condemned man could only escape from asphyxia by straightening himself on the nail through the feet, in order to lessen the dragging of the body on the hands; each time that he wished to breathe more freely or to speak, he had to raise himself on this nail, thus bringing on further suffering.” But such exertions, says Barbet, made the tetanic reaction inevitable, and, he concludes, Jesus died from asphyxia.

Evidence of Authenticity

Some have argued that, yes, indeed, the Shroud appears to depict a man who had been so executed, but, they object, could the portrait be that of some other unfortunate? After all, countless persons of all sorts were executed by crucifixion. The Shroud may well be ancient but why assume that the face is that of Jesus?

This line of argument is quite possibly mistaken. The body represented on the Shroud can have been wrapped in the garment only a few days at most, for normal decomposition would have destroyed the image. In the ancient world, the dead were not ordinarily disturbed, because the decomposing body was considered unclean.

Wherever you turn, the evidence argues for authenticity, often in quite unpredictable ways. It has long been observed, for example, that the physiognomy ‘of Christ in portraits changed sharply around the year 300. But the new way of depicting him contains details which are apparently inexplicable such as a curious rectangular design over the nose, or a random spot of blood. We now see that these new features correspond to details on the Shroud. Perhaps the Shroud was taken from the original tomb to Rome, where during the period of persecution it was kept closely guarded by the Christian community. Only when the Christian church felt reasonably secure could the holy object be made available to pious artists: Hence, the sudden change in the style of depicting Christ in religious art.

What Do We See?

As we have noted, Pierre Barbet and other scholars have studied the Shroud for the light it sheds particularly on the events up to and including Jesus’ death on the Cross. But can we press further? Can we use the Shroud to learn still more about those ancient events? We must be mindful, though, as Father Edward Wuenschel wrote in 1953, “of the sacredness of subject and the peculiar significance of every detail” and exercise “a wholesome restraint from theories that conflict with the imprints and with elementary scientific facts.”

Can the Shroud, then, help us to dispel some of the obscuring mists of time? Perhaps a fundamental difficulty has been in the area of not so much what we have been looking at but, rather, how we have been looking. Perhaps, like the women from Galilee, we must follow after and behold the tomb, “and how his body was laid.”

Yes, they saw how his body was laid. But what do we see?

What we visually perceive we consciously or subconsciously evaluate against that to which we are accustomed and to which we long have been exposed. Our exposure to death positions is a variable depending, for the most part, upon occupation and circumstances. Via our cultural heritage, we are accustomed to burials wherein the deceased are laid out flat. Regardless of any personal religious conviction, we also have been exposed to various artistic renderings of the crucified depicted as a standing-like or essentially elongated figure.

Indeed, we see the dorsal and frontal imprints on the Turin Shroud which give the illusion of an elongated figure. And, normally, we would expect a body to be laid out flat for burial. But is that the case with this particular relic?

Position of the Body

To establish a possible position of the body within the Shroud, the first thought is simply to place a fairly flexible photo-positive print of the overview on a flat surface and then bend the photo gently so that the top half (frontal image) is over the lower half (dorsal image). When we do this, the first thing we observe is that we are now unable to see the images; they are on the “inside.” The top half is now upside down, or in actuality, right-side up. We must then try to appraise each view from the open sides to determine if we can fit them together. However, the body images are sort of wispy; there do not appear to be any clearly defined outlines. The dorsal imprint appears slightly longer than the frontal image, and there do not seem to be any obvious points or landmarks with which we can match the two surfaces.

With the overview again opened out on a flat surface, we very carefully scrutinize the photo. Starting in the center, a section separates the two portions of the head, the face and what appears to be the back of the head. Then there are the shoulder areas but, on the dorsal view, the left shoulder appears slightly higher than the right. The outer edges of the shoulders and the upper arms are obliterated by the scorch/burn marks and repair patches from the Chambéry fire. Both the chest area and the upper back show water stains, of unequal size. Next, on the top half, there are the forearms. No elbows are perceptible on the lower half. We note a band of staining that seems to extend beyond the right forearm, as a slight curve, which seems to include a good-sized “blob.” Puzzling–because if this staining and “blob” beyond the right arm are drippage from that arm, then part of the top half of the cloth probably had been tucked under in some manner, because blood, or any other fluid, does not drip up.

No matter how careful we are, bending an opaque photo, however flexible, still leaves us on the “outside.” But when we take some tracing paper, sketch what we can of this area, and bend the tracing, we are able to simulate a possible fabric tuck-in. This leads us to consider whether other areas had been tucked in and around the body. Might it be possible that in the myriad details there is evidence that would relate to actual body-surface curvatures? Could we even begin to approximate the position of the body that was once within the Shroud of Turin?

The Transparency Factor

Our initial attempts are made with tracings on a 22-inch overview of the photo-positive (a 1:7.5 reproduction). In addition to the advantage of a “transparency” factor, we are able arbitrarily but cautiously to exclude the burn/scorch marks, water stains, and repair patches, collectively referred to as the Chambéry data. These details, in themselves, are quite distracting and because this extensive damage occurred at a known point in time, 1532, it is self-evident that it does not relate to the earlier history of the Shroud. (There are sets of smaller burn marks of unknown cause and date, which were depicted on a painted copy of the Shroud dating from 1516.)

Recalling that the opacity of the photo itself was a hindrance in our attempt to align the back and front images, we make a tracing of the overview, on which we lightly pencil sketch as much of the body as possible, eliminating the Chambéry data. Because of the “transparency” of the tracing paper, we are able to use different colored pens to emphasize pertinent details–the head images, shoulder lines, left wrist wound, and feet. We include some of the obvious crease lines over and just peripheral to the image areas. We must also trace each end of the Shroud visible in the photo, not the ends of the photo itself, and cut out our overview along these lines.

We then overlap the tracing as we had tried to do with the photo, bringing the end of the top half to the end of the lower half. When we do this, two things seem to happen: 1) The tracing bends more in the area of the head, back image, than in the “water-stained” space between the two sections; 2) the tracing of the “isolated” foot imprint at the end of the top half does not seem to “match” with the imprint of the right foot on the lower half. To explain it differently, the imprint of the right foot appears as if it is slanted inward. The foot image from the top half does not appear to line, up in the same direction.

Separate tracings of both the upper and lower sections, with just the feet detail, are made and then placed end to end on a flat surface. What we see is that the foot imprint, top half, seems to line up in a direction quite similar to that of the partial imprint of the left foot, lower half.

And we ask ourselves: Do we see what we see, or are we just imagining the whole thing because this approximate relationship is a contrast to the supposition of other researchers, namely that the imprint, top half, resulted from the fabric having been draped over the toes of the right foot.

But, we are not imagining. Copies of sections of the photo-overview (carefully made for this research only) are used to simulate the same maneuver. By end-to-end matching of these sectional photocopies, the same results can be demonstrated. However, photos, photo-tracings, or photocopies are one-dimensional. We have to account for three dimensions. The frontal and dorsal images give us basically two surfaces; is there evidence for the third–depth? Here, we start to incorporate the wrinkles and creases.

In addition to the various wrinkles and creases around the foot imprint, top half, there are others that traverse this area as curved lines, particularly through the midsection. So we trace as many of these as we can, ink them lightly, and then “pinch” the paper along the traced lines. What happens is that the paper crinkles or buckles in such a manner that the area corresponding to the stained end of the Shroud “shortens” in its center portion and the outer parts seem to be more “tapered.” The whole thing has a gently curved appearance and we seem to have produced part of a sole of a foot and a portion of the sides.

When we overlay this pinched-together formation on the dorsal half, the buckled lower edge from the top half seems to fit or align more closely with the somewhat diagonally curved tracing of the partial imprint of the left foot. Of course, we try the end-to-end matching as we did earlier but this time we match the end of the top half-tracing with the lower half-photo. Again, the top foot imprint tracing orients more to the left foot on the lower half of the photo.

Some Conclusions

However, there are several things we observe as we do this simulated overlap of the top half and possible left foot alignment: 1) We seem to have approximated the envelopment of the left foot but not the right foot; 2) the dimensional matching is rather difficult because the image tracings are still completely on the “inside”; 3) visualization from “outside” is enhanced only where the image-tracings have been inked; 4) the dorsal image appears to lift or curve upward more in the area of the neck and shoulders; 5) the frontal image seems to shorten.

It is imperative that we describe these observations of the empirical image matching as approximations because our tracings are based on a small-scale photo. However, we still have some latitude in which to explore various relationships. Although time- consuming, perhaps tedious, we are able to make additional sectional or working tracings and continue our trial-and-error attempts.

Since we have a possible completion of the left foot and observe that this is positioned somewhat over the area of the right foot, we again have to ac- count for depth. This leads us to consider that the space between the foot imprints on the dorsal half might be an “elevation” rather than a gap between the two feet on a horizontal plane. Our separate tracing of this section gives us a degree of flexibility to try to experiment with this dimensional effect. When we repeat it on the main tracing, overlap and align the left foot imprints, we now have a somewhat closer fit, with the left well across the right. This, however, seems to sort of shift or slightly twist the major portion of the frontal image to the right, the space between the two head sections seems to lift a bit more, and the back image now bends in the area of the shoulders.

Our attempts to develop the possible curves of the right foot are indeed a challenge, and incomplete. Here, we seem to have to find simultaneously the position of the legs, and to account for the stained section along the end of the dorsal half.

We also make an effort to align the head images. The one thing we find here is that these will not “match up” on a midline relationship. We get a partial dimensional projection when we consider that the “unstained” appearing space between the hair and the face might be an outward tuck-folding over the face, and pinch the tracing to show this. We also explore the possibility that the gaps or interruptions in the head image, back portion, might be dart-like patterns. When we “triangulate” these imprints and butt or match the perceptible edges, the result is the beginning of a cap-like configuration. However, the intervening space between the two partially dimensionalized images gets in the way somewhat, and it is difficult, with this small-scale tracing, to fit these two sections together to determine the crown of the head.

Other areas of body relationships are studied, as well as attempts made to accommodate the extra portions of the fabric-tracing beyond the image areas. These, though not yet completed, would require a prolonged description at this time. In presenting an approximate completion of the left foot, we at least demonstrate that out of the myriad of Shroud details, some of the wrinkles and creases relate to actual body-surface curvature. We also find evidence to indicate that: 1) The left foot possibly situates well across the right foot; 2) the frontal image “shortens,” with a twist or shift to the right; 3) there is a marked curvature of the dorsal image that, so far, involves the head, neck, and shoulder areas. However preliminary these data, they do seem to suggest that the image is somewhat hunched and lies to one side.

Factual Basis

All of the possible dimensional projections are tentative and must be either substantiated or ruled out by similar tracings on large-scale photos. At some point in time a fabric pattern could be made, incorporating whatever data have been found to be pertinent. To work with life-size photographs or a photographic print on pliable cloth would be ideal; the latter, though, would still have the distracting detail of the Chambéry damage–and air-brushing is a costly technique.

A refolding of the Shroud itself would seem to be a most logical thing to do. However, without a pattern or plan of possibilities, a direct dimensional study on an object as opaque as the Shroud would be blind, cumbersome, and require an undue amount of manipulation of the fabric. It must also be considered whether or not the existence and location of the repair patches might actually hinder, if not preclude, any attempt to do such a critical direct dimensionalization–and this is assuming total removal of the backing material. The image, however well aligned, would still be on the inside.

We have not gone on a flight of fancy, nor have we overprojected our imagination. We have a basis in fact: photographs of the Shroud of Turin; from these we have started to establish an analogy by which we will be able to envision the burial of the crucified body.

What did the women see when they “beheld the tomb and how his body was laid”? We are just beginning to look over their shoulders.


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