An exposition of the Holy Shroud of Turin, the eighth in the past century, is currently being held at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin, and will continue until late June.
Pope Francis will visit the Cathedral to pray before the Holy Shroud, as did his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, during the last exposition in 2000.
Although the history of the relic is shrouded in mystery, the Holy Shroud is believed by many to be the shroud in which Jesus was laid, before being placed in the tomb. The earliest reference to the burial cloths of Jesus is to be found in all four Gospels, although the details of the accounts differ slightly.
All four Gospels record that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin and a secret disciple of Jesus, had obtained permission from Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to remove Jesus’ body from the cross, before the Passover.
Each of them records that Jesus was lain in Joseph’s own tomb, and his body was covered in burial cloths, according to the Jewish custom.
The fact that all four evangelists recorded these details strongly suggest that the burial cloths were retrieved from the tomb, and were secretly held by the earliest Christians as objects of veneration.
Luke’s gospel contains the additional information that on the day of Jesus’ resurrection, the chief apostle, Peter, went to the tomb, and looking in, “saw the burial cloths alone; then he went home amazed at what had happened.”
John’s gospel which was written after the others, contains further information, including very personal details which could only be known to one who witnessed it.
He wrote, “On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. She ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, ‘They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.’
“So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
“When Simon Peter arrived after him he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths, but rolled up in a separate place.
“The the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.”
Despite these references, the history of the shroud from this time until the Middle Ages is uncertain, but with tantalising hints to its existence.
It is well established that it was the object of veneration from 1353AD, when it was put on public display in Lirey, France, by a minor French nobleman, Geoffrey deCharnay.
Interestingly, an earlier person of the same name was a leader of the Knights Templars, a religious order of military crusaders, which had been suppressed in 1307.
Some historians have tried to piece together the earlier fragmentary evidence of the history of the shroud.
Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70AD. The early Christian historian, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote that a now lost work, The Legend of King Abgar, said the Shroud was taken to Edessa (now Urfa, Turkey) for safekeeping. The King was miraculously healed of leprosy after gazing upon a mysterious image and converted to Christianity.
The first church outside the Holy Land was reported to have been built in Edessa in the early second century. Later that century, persecutions would sweep the Roman Empire, and the cloth disappeared.
The Emperor Constantine had legalised the practice of Christianity in the 4th century.
In 525, a severe flood destroyed most of Edessa. During the rebuilding of the walls, a metal box containing the mysterious cloth was rediscovered.
It became known throughout the Byzantine world as “The Image of Edessa” and later was called the “Mandylion”. It was described as “The true likeness of Christ, not made by human hands.”
In 944, the Byzantine Imperial Army invaded Edessa for the express reason of retrieving the cloth from the city which had fallen to Islam. In exchange for gold and 200 prisoners of war, the cloth was delivered to the army without a fight.
It was taken to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and presented to the Emperor.
August 16th of 944, with great ceremony, the cloth was draped over the Emperor's throne and crowned with his crown.
The sermon that night was delivered by Gregory the Archdeacon of Hagia Sophia, then the greatest church in Christendom. In that sermon he points to both the face and side wound of the image declaring it to be that of Christ.
During the Fourth Crusade, the Crusader army attacked Constantinople, and seized the city.
In the chaos that followed, nearly everything of value was stolen. All the silver and gold were taken by the Venetians who had funded the campaign but the French desired the “relics of the saints” and, according to a letter to the pope written in 1205, “Most holy of all, the cloth in which our Lord was wrapped after his death and before the resurrection.”
The Mandylion as it was then known disappeared, most likely in the hands of the French.
For the next 150 years, we know nothing of the history of the Shroud, although there is evidence to suggests it was secretly kept by the Knights Templars for safe keeping, and was venerated by them.
The Templars offered protection for items of great value. They had castles all over France and Europe and specialised in offering safe passage to pilgrims making their way to he Holy Land.
The Templars were suppressed in 1307, and some 46 years later, it was put on display by a man who seems to have been a descendent of a leader of the Templars at Lirey in France.
Was this the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ? We cannot answer this with certainty but only with probability. The pollen trail shows that the cloth was exposed to the air in Jerusalem, in Syria, and in Western Europe. The evidence from iconography also confirms it.
Other evidence indicates its origin in Israel, its manufacture in the Middle East, and its appearance is consistent with other known Jewish burial shrouds and burial practices.
The Holy Shroud of Turin, as it became known, was venerated by Catholics, but was largely unknown until 1898, when the Shroud was photographed for the first time by Secondo Pia. Pia was astonished to discover that the image on the cloth is actually a negative, and that the negatives of the image photographed was actually a positive reproduction of a human body lying in death, after a savage beating and crucifixion.
In other words, the image becomes positive only when the light values are reversed in a photographic negative. This discovery startled the scientific community and stimulated worldwide interest.
In 1950, Dr. Pierre Barbet, a prominent French surgeon, published his landmark book, A Doctor at Calvary, documenting 15 years of medical research on the Shroud image.
He described the physiology and pathology of the man on the Shroud as “anatomically perfect”.
In 1973, Max Frei, a noted Swiss criminologist, was given permission to take dust samples from the Shroud which contained pollen.
He discovered 22 pollen species from plants that are unique to areas around Jerusalem, Edessa and Constantinople, and 7 pollen species from plants common mostly to the Middle East, as well as pollen species from plants in Western Europe. The pollen trail confirmed the historical trail.
The Shroud was subject to detailed scientific examination in 1978 which revealed much further scientific information about the shroud.
At the conclusion of their research, the scientists issued the following statement: "We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The blood stains are composed of haemoglobin and give a positive test for serum albumin."
However, ten years after the earlier examination, inconspicuous samples of the shroud cloth were given the three carbon dating laboratories. Their examination of the samples gave a date of 1260 to 1390, around the time when the shroud was first publicly displayed in France.
Some years later, scientists who analysed fibres from the samples concluded that they had been taken from the edge of the shroud, which had been given a form of invisible weaving.
In 1997, noted Israeli botanist and a professor at Hebrew University, Avinoam Danin confirmed the discovery of flower images on the Shroud. He also verified that several pollen were from plants that grow only around Jerusalem.
The exposition of the Shroud has provided an opportunity for a re-examination of what National Geographic magazine called, “One of the most perplexing enigmas of modern times.”