The Shroud of Turin

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The rectangular (14 ft × 4 ft) linen cloth that supposedly wrapped the mortal remains of Jesus Christ after the crucifixion entered history in the 14th century when the widow of a knight who was descended from the Crusaders displayed it for the first time. (Although some tried to link it with an earlier similar icon, Image of Edesa) The Catholic Church denounced it at first, claiming that no such image was mentioned in the Scriptures. After suffering so much abuse in the ensuing centuries (fire and water damage, molten silver spill, shoddy patchwork by nuns, unkind foldings), it finally arrived at its current location in Turin as the property of the House of Savoy in the late 16th century.

In 1898, the city of Turin celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Turin Cathedral. King Umberto I of Italy, who as the Head of the House of Savoy, approved the public display of the shroud for the exhibition, and allowed for it to be photographed by the lawyer, city councillor and amateur photographer Secondo Pia. On May 25th 1898, Pia took the very first photograph of the Shroud in the dark interior of the Cathedral in what was perhaps one of the earliest occasions where an electric light bulb had been used to take a photograph.

Three days later, he returned to take a few more. When he went to develop the plates, Pia almost dropped and broke them in the darkroom from the shock of what appeared on it: the ghastly image of a man and a face that had never before been observed with the naked eye. On June 2, the exhibition ended and the shroud was returned to its casket in the Royal Chapel. Genoa’s Il Cittadino newspaper reported Pia’s photograph on June 13 and it became a national and international sensation.

The next few years witnessed a number of debates about Pia’s photograph, with accusations of Pia doctoring the photographs. Only in 1931 was a professional photographer (Giuseppe Enrie) called in, who verified Pia’s findings; when Enrie’s photograph was first exhibited, Secondo Pia, then in his seventies, was among those present for viewing. Pia reportedly breathed a deep sigh of relief when he saw Enrie’s photograph.

Amidst the scientific and religious debates about the origins of the image, the Shroud was finally given to the Holy See in 1983. The Vatican, which was ever skeptical of the shroud’s authenticity allowed it to be radiocarbon-dated. Three laboratories agreed that the shroud dated from the 13th to 14th centuries, but the controversies surrounding it never died down. Many maintained that the piece that was tested is of a different material from the rest of the shroud, a patch added in medieval times Among many theories as to the origin of the Shroud, the most fanciful one states that Leonardo da Vinci faked it by coating it with ‘light sensitive’ silver sulphate and then projecting an image of a sculpture of his face onto the linen.

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