The Turin Shroud has baffled scholars through the ages but in his new book, The Sign, Thomas de Wesselow reveals a new theory linking the cloth to the Resurrection.
Black and white: The haunting face is now the most familiar image of the Shroud, representing for many the true face of Jesus By Peter Stanford
7:00AM GMT 24 Mar 2012
For centuries the Turin Shroud, regarded by some as the burial cloth of Jesus, by others as the most elaborate hoax in history, has inspired extraordinary and conflicting passions. Popes, princes and paupers have for 700 years been making pilgrimages the length of Europe to stand in its presence while scientists have dedicated their whole working lives to trying to explain rationally how the ghostly image on the cloth, even more striking when seen as a photographic negative, and matching in every last detail the crucifixion narrative, could have been created. And still a final, commonly agreed answer remains elusive, despite carbon-dating in 1988 having pronounced it a forgery.
“That’s what first attracted me,” says Thomas de Wesselow, an engagingly serious 40-year-old Cambridge academic. “I’ve always loved a mystery ever since I was a boy.” And so he became the latest in a long line to abandon everything to try to solve the riddle of the Shroud.
Eight years ago, de Wesselow was a successful art historian, based at King’s College, making a name for himself in scholarly circles by taking a fresh look at centuries-old disputes over the attribution of masterpieces of Renaissance painting. Today, he still lives in the university city – we are sitting in its Fitzwilliam Museum café – but de Wesselow has thrown up his conventional career and any hopes of a professorial chair to join the ranks of what he laughingly calls “shroudies”.
“In academia, the subject of the Shroud is seen as toxic,” he reports, “and no one wants to open the can of worms, but try as I might I just couldn’t resist it as an intellectual puzzle.”
For most “shroudies”, though, it is more than just intellectual. It offers that elusive but faith-validating proof that Jesus died exactly as the gospels say he did. But again it gets complicated, for the Vatican, since 1983 the owner of this hotly disputed icon, disappoints “shroudies” by limiting itself to declaring that the burial cloth is a representation of Jesus’s crucified body, not his actual linen wrap. And it has accepted the carbon-dating tests as conclusive.
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De Wesselow dismisses those tests as “fatally flawed”. So, although he describes himself as agnostic, he now finds himself in the curious position of being more of a believer in the Shroud than the Pope. His historical detective work has convinced him, he insists, that it is exactly what it purports to be — the sheet that was wrapped round Jesus’s battered body when it was cut down from the cross on Calvary.
But that isn’t the half of it. His new book, The Sign, the latest in a long line of tomes about the Shroud, makes an even more astonishing claim in its 450 pages (including over 100 of footnotes). It was, suggests de Wesselow, seeing the Shroud in the days immediately after the crucifixion, rather than any encounter with a flesh and blood, risen Christ, that convinced the apostles that Jesus had come back from the dead.
If true, I point out, he is overturning 2,000 years of Christian history. But he doesn’t even blink over his teacup. He’s either a very cool, calculating chancer, single-mindedly out to make a quick buck with an eye-catching theory that caters for gullible readers of the likes of The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail or Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, or he’s absolutely sincere. “I am an art historian,” he responds calmly, “not a theologian, so I can approach the problem from a new angle.”
It feels like we’ve reached a moment for laying our cards on the table before we start examining the details of his theory. The exact nature of the Resurrection troubles me, as it does many Christians. Was it physical, against all the laws of nature but as the Church claims, or was it “symbolic”, as the Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, famously suggested in 1984?
Jenkins’s use of the phrase “a conjuring trick with bones” may have caused outrage – and was, he said later, a misquotation – but his willingness to question a “literal” resurrection did not put him so far outside the Christian mainstream as is often suggested.
“For my part I come from a standard Church of England background,” says de Wesselow (who was raised in Winchester; his exotic surname results from his Frenchified Russian ancestry). “Church was a familiar, likeable institution but it hasn’t impinged on my life too much.” The first challenge he faces is how to place the Shroud in first-century Jerusalem. The standard historical record of the Shroud – broadly endorsed by carbon-dating – traces its first appearance back to the 1350s in rural France, when a knight called Geoffrey de Charny put it on display in his local church. “But where did he get it from?” de Wesselow asks, perfectly reasonably.
He highlights a connection between the French knight and the Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204. “And we have a description of a cloth, that sounds very like the Shroud, that had been seen before that in Constantinople, described as the burial cloth of Jesus, that then goes missing and is never heard of again.” So, de Wesselow’s theory is that it was taken to France by the Crusaders as looted bounty.
But what were the origins of the cloth in Constantinople? This brings us to the oddly named “Holy Mandylion” (man-dill-e-on), a long lost relic in Eastern Christianity, said to be the imprint of Jesus’s face. “The Mandylion was brought to Constantinople in 944,” says de Wesselow. “That is recorded. It was an object of fascination, said not to be made of paint but of blood, and described as a landscape shape, rather than a portrait.”
The legend of the Mandylion is also given a reworking by de Wesselow. That cloth looted in 1204 was, he proposes, also the Mandylion. Its landscape format, he suggests with the aid of diagrams, was the result of it being the top fold of a bigger cloth – what we know as the Turin Shroud.
It is an intriguing theory, with plenty of circumstantial evidence in those 100 pages of notes, and even mention of possible sightings back in the mid-sixth century, but nothing more precise. At the risk of sounding like an accountant, that leaves us 500 years short of first century Jerusalem.
“Yes,” de Wesselow replies, with just a hint of impatience, “but we are sitting here in the Fitzwilliam Museum and in its display cases are plenty of objects whose exact provenance includes long gaps. That happens very often in art history. A Caravaggio turns up in the 19th century and we have no idea from where, but we can use science and detective work to attribute it to him.”
In the case of the Shroud, that science includes two tests: one for pollen in the fibres that shows the cloth to be more than 1,300 years old, published in a peer-reviewed journal in 2005 “but ignored despite being good science”: and another by a textile expert, during a 2002 restoration, that found parallels between the Shroud’s warp and weave and those of first century Jewish cloths.
What is becoming plain in our discussion is that in making his claims, de Wesselow has done very little first-hand research himself. His contribution has to be to gather up the work of others, re-examine past investigations (he draws heavily on the digging done by British author, Ian Wilson, a key figure before the carbon-dating tests, now living in retirement in Australia), and then tease out new conclusions. He is, essentially, taking existing pieces of a jigsaw and assembling them in a new and startling pattern.
It is not a description he particularly likes when I put it to him, but neither does he substantially contradict it. Instead he admits to a dislike of the popular “personal quest” genre of books that walk and talk their way through whole continents attempting to solve, among other subjects, the mysterious configuration of the pyramids or the fate of Atlantis.
“That always seems to me a very artificial way of going about it,” says de Wesselow, whose research by contrast was largely done at his desk or in libraries, save for one episode he recounts in the book when the connection between the Shroud and Resurrection came to him in a kind of eureka moment in the garden of his Cambridge house.
Having established – at least for the purposes of argument – the Shroud in first century Israel, it is now time to turn to his potentially even more earth-shaking theory, namely that the Resurrection was a kind of optical illusion.
Christianity teaches that Peter, James, Thomas, Mary Magdalene and up to 500 other disciples saw Jesus in the flesh, back from the dead, in the ultimate proof that he was God. De Wesselow rejects this “divine mystery” in favour of something that he believes is much more plausible.
What the apostles were seeing was the image of Jesus on the Shroud, which they then mistook for the real thing. It sounds, I can’t help suggesting, as absurd as a scene from a Monty Python film.
“I quite understand why you say that,” he replies, meeting me half way this time, “but you have to think your way into the mindset of 2,000 years ago. The apostles did see something out of the ordinary, the image on the cloth.
“And at that time – this is something that art historians and anthropologists know about – people were much less used to seeing images. They were rare and regarded as much more special than they are now.
“There was something Animist in their way of looking at images in the first century. Where they saw shadows and reflections, they also saw life. They saw the image on the cloth as the living double of Jesus.
“Back then images had a psychological presence, they were seen as part of a separate plane of existence, as having a life of their own.”
I am struggling. I have this picture in my mind of the apostles, gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem, being inspired to go out on missionary journeys that resulted in a Church that now numbers a third of the planet in its ranks. And they are looking not at the astonishing sight of Jesus himself, back from the dead, but at a cloth. “If you think yourself into the whole experience of the apostles,” de Wesselow persists, “going into the tomb three days after the crucifixion, in the half-light, and seeing that image emerging from the burial cloth…”
But, I interrupt, if his logical approach is to be taken at face value, wouldn’t they also have seen the decomposing body of Jesus, and know that far from coming to life again, he was well and truly dead?
“But that isn’t how they understood resurrection. The earliest source we have on Jesus is Saint Paul [his epistles predate the writing of the gospels] and there in 1 Corinthians 15-50 — the reference is seared on my memory — you have him saying explicitly that resurrection is not about flesh and blood.”
De Wesselow can quote the relevant gospel passages as readily as any Christian preacher. In the book, he takes each and every New Testament reference to the risen Christ – plus a few from the extracanonical texts of the first and second centuries that were excluded from the Authorised Version of the Bible – and rereads them to fit in with his thesis.
After eight years working on it, Thomas de Wesselow could go on and on into infinite detail, far too much to take on board at one sitting. Yet for every answer – or “new way of understanding” as he prefers to put it — another question inevitably arises.
That, of course, has long been the pattern with all attempts to explain the Shroud. So when, for example, carbon-dating located it between the 13th and 14th centuries, scientists then tried – and so far have failed – to show how any medieval forger could have made such an image, with its effect of a photographic negative anticipating the invention of the camera by 500 years.
Perhaps, I venture, the Turin Shroud is destined always to remain a mystery “No,” replies de Wesselow, suddenly fierce and passionate. “I’m an optimist. I think we have to try our best to understand things. I don’t believe in just leaving problems alone.”