Debunking the Shroud
Posted by Ethan Clow on October 14, 2009
On Episode 30 of Radio Freethinker, download the podcast here; we talked about the Shroud of Turin and some recent scientific tests that disproved its authenticity.
But before we go any further let’s discuss what the Shroud of Turin is. The shroud is a 14 x 3 foot piece of cloth with the image of a man who appears to have been killed by crucifixion. Supposedly, this is Jesus Christ and supposedly it’s stained with his blood, although the Catholic Church does not officially recognize it as authentic.
The shroud itself was formerly the property of the House of Savoy until they gave it to the Catholic Church in 1983.
Since then the shroud has been subjected to carbon dating and now the recent scientific experiments by Luigi Garlaschelli. You can read about that here.
What Garlaschelli did was prove that with materials available in Medieval Europe, one could leave such an imprint on a piece of cloth.
Now this does not prove the shroud is a fake, it was already proved a fake when it was carbon dated several times in 1980’s. The shroud was estimated to be no older than 1260, which would put it right in the period of time of pilgrimage and charlatans creating holy relics and then making a profit off them.
The only “controversy” was that scientist weren’t sure how the image was transferred to the cloth, which led some to proclaim that it could only be a real miracle. However Garlaschelli proves that it was indeed possible, they placed a sheet over a volunteer and then rubbed it with a pigment containing traces of acid. Then the cloth was artificially aged by heating it in an oven and washing it, this process removed the pigment from the surface but left a fuzzy, half-tone image similar to that on the Shroud. After that you just have add some burn marks or blood stains to get the final product.
It’s important to remember the implications of relics in the middle ages. And when we considered how relics were treated, created, and used, it gives us a better understanding of why and how the Shroud was reproduced.
The term “relics” applies to material remains of saints and also objects they had contact with. They embodied spiritual power and worked miracles.
There was considerable business in relics. If a church or city had holy relics it would draw pilgrimages from across Europe, therefore, roads, bridges, churches and monasteries would be constantly built and rebuilt along the routes the pilgrimages took.
Frequently new relics would be discovered along the pilgrimage routes, they attracted donations, wealth and prestige. Therefore they became a commodity which was traded and bought and stolen.
As popular as relics were in 11th and 12th centuries, relics exploded on the scene in the 13th century. This coincides with the sack and fall of Constantinople and the distribution of its wealth and relics. And of course, the multiplication of relics… which leads us to the Shroud of Turin. With all these relics floating around, being bought and stolen here and there, frequently you would find that one holy relic would appear in more than one place at once. Such a thing happened with the Spear of Destiny in Constantinople and Rome…
But that means that the more recognized your relic is, the more realistic it looks…the more reason people have to believe that yours is the real one. And that means pilgrimages to your city or church. So there was every incentive to make the Shroud of Turin and make it look as real as possible.
Now this doesn’t matter to true believers. To them, the Shroud is genuine and nothing we say will ever change their minds. Here’s a quote by Garlaschelli with regards to people believing him: “If they don’t want to believe carbon dating done by some of the world’s best laboratories they certainly won’t believe me,” Quite true. But as skeptics I think it’s interesting to understand the origins of such myths. Further, if we understand why such relics came to be in the first place it allows us to get a better understanding of the meaning the relic has in current times. By extension, it gives us a historic perspective to the Catholic Church and the middle ages.
Ethan the Freethinking Historian.