A typical ‘souvenir’ of an exposition with presiding clergy (1608), one of several made between 1578 and 1750. The Trustees of the British Museum
A typical ‘souvenir’ of an exposition with presiding clergy (1608), one of several made between 1578 and 1750. The Trustees of the British Museum

Charles Freeman (History Today) – NOV 2014 – While the Shroud cannot be, as many still believe, the burial shroud of Christ, nor can it have been expected to have been passed off as that by whoever painted it. It was only when the Savoy family, who acquired the Shroud in 1453, began associating its exposition with their dynasty and exposing it annually to tumultuous crowds in the Piazza Castello in Turin that the idea that the Shroud might be genuine won popular support. The Church, however, firmly resisted accepting the Shroud’s authenticity as a relic. It was only prepared to recognise that it was an object of veneration, a point stressed by a papal congregation of 1670, which allowed an indulgence to be obtained from visiting an exposition on the sole grounds that it gave rise to meditation on the Passion. This remains the position taken by the Catholic Church, one recently reasserted by Pope Francis. (It is worth remembering that it was the Church itself that commissioned the radio-carbon dating of 1988, which came up with a 95 per cent probability that the flax for the linen was cut between 1260 and 1390.)

There were many such objects of veneration in the medieval church. They were not claimed to be actual relics but some had obtained spiritual power through contact with a genuine relic. These were known as brandea. Others had been objects with religious significance that had acquired a reputation for bringing about miracles. So in the convent of Unterlinden in Alsace there was a Marian icon that had been given to the nuns in the early 14th century. It was claimed to be no more than a copy of an original painted by Luke the Evangelist of the Virgin and Child. Even so it soon developed healing powers and visions of Mary and Christ were reported. Pilgrimages began and the local bishop granted indulgences to visitors. It is probable that the Shroud was similar in that it was first venerated not because it was seen as a relic but because it had become associated with miracles or visions, alas unrecorded.

In many ways the iconography of the body of the Turin Shroud is conventional. As far back as 300 ad, in Rome, Christ is portrayed as a traditional philosopher, with long hair, a beard and a moustache. An excellent example of this is the Christ in Majesty, which can be found  in the church of San Pudenziana in Rome and is dated to somewhere between 390 and 420. By the middle of the sixth century the bearded image had spread to the East, most prominently in the Christ as Pantocrator that stares down on the worshipper from the domes of many Byzantine churches. Perhaps more interesting in placing the Shroud are the burial scenes of Christ in which his hands are crossed over his genitals. There is evidence from burials, for instance of the Lombards in northern Italy, that this was a custom for Christian burials (although, in any case, it makes sense for a body fitted into a coffin to have its arms placed in this way). Yet it is also found in the Byzantine world, in the epitaphioi.

An epitaphios was an embroidered cloth displayed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The epitaphios shows Christ, represented conventionally with long hair, beard and moustache, lying on his back with his arms folded over the pelvic area with his bare feet extended. The cloth was borne through the church during the ceremony of the Great Entrance, in which gifts of bread and wine were carried into the church and deposited on the altar; it may have covered the gifts as they were being carried in or when they were on the altar. The ceremony was accompanied by the hymn ‘Noble Joseph’ that honoured Joseph of Arimathea for burying Jesus. In Constantinople the ritual was given added significance in the Church of the Pantocrator, where they claimed to have the stone on which the body of Christ lay while it was being embalmed. 

The laying out of Christ with his hands crossed over the pelvic area also appears in western art at much the same time as the epitaphioi, as, for instance, in an enamel of the laying out from the altar in Klosterneuberg (Austria) of 1181 and in the so-called Pray Codex of c.1192-5 from Hungary. It also appears in sculpture. In the Rhineland in the mid 14th century, for example, the so-called Holy Graves, sculptures of the lamentation of Mary and her companions after the Crucifixion, show Christ lying on a tomb with his hands crossed. So anyone painting Christ as he was laid out in the tomb for burial would have been able to draw on a variety of models known from embroidered cloth (the epitaphioi), painting and sculpture. A painting on linen would have been more vulnerable than any of these. Yet we do have records that these once existed. A crude one was once in the cathedral of St Stephen, Besançon, the capital of Franche-Comté.

Apparently destroyed during the French Revolution, the Shroud of Besançon dated from much earlier than the Shroud of Turin. There is documentary evidence tracing it back to 1206, about 150 years before the Shroud, and it represents the earlier tradition, where the blood of Christ is not emphasised. So we know that images of Christ laid out after his death with his arms crossed over his pelvic area painted on cloth could be found from the 12th century. It is the added blood and the marks of the overall flagellation that fix the Shroud of Turin over a hundred years later, in the 14th century. The Besançon Shroud was, like the Shroud of Turin, an object of veneration in its own right, linked in one source to the revival of a corpse. Yet we are no nearer in discovering why such an image should have been painted on a linen cloth.

It was while I was researching the different ceremonies and the liturgies of Easter Week that I came across that of the Quem Queritis, ‘Whom do you seek?’ The ceremony was a re-enactment of the visit of the Three (sometimes Two) Marys to the tomb on ‘the third day’, as recounted in the Gospel of Mark, and it took place early on Easter Day. The earliest records of this come from the 10th century.  To make a ‘stage’, a space in the church was set aside for the ‘tomb’. In some cases a recess was made in the church wall, the so-called Easter Sepulchre. This could be a model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (as at Aquileia in northern Italy). In other churches the ‘backdrop’ was a temporary stage setting, as in Bamberg (in Franconia) in the 16th century, ‘where a place convenient for representing the sepulchre of Christ ought to be designed as a temple closed in with tapestry or hangings, in which, among other things, a linen cloth should lie, or a fine white sudarium, representing the grave cloth [sindone] in which the dead body of Christ was wrapped, because he rose again, living, from the sepulchre leaving the grave-cloth there.’

The ritual went as follows: When the clergy representing the Three Marys reach the ‘tomb’, they find a man (or ‘angel’) seated, wearing a white robe, by the opened sepulchre. He asks them ‘Quem Queritis?’ ‘Whom do you seek?’ When they reply that they are seeking Christ, he tells them not to be afraid: ‘Christ is not here, He is risen.’

One such account describes the liturgy as it unfolds with clergy playing the part of the angel and the Marys. After the ‘angel’ has replied to the ‘Marys’ that Christ is risen: ‘When this has been sung, he that is seated [e.g. ‘the man in white], as though calling them back, shall say the antiphon Venite et videte locum [‘Come and see the place’] and then rising and lifting up the veil, he shall show them the place void of the Cross and with only the linen in which the Cross has been wrapped. Seeing this the three shall lay down their thuribles … and, taking the linen, shall hold it up before the clergy; and, as though showing that the Lord was risen and was no longer wrapped in it, they shall sing this antiphon:  Surrexit Dominus de sepulchra [‘The Lord is risen from the tomb.’]. They then shall lay the linen on the altar.’

All these accounts state that the cloth is linen. In his authoritative study of early medieval drama Karl Young notes that, while in actual depictions of the grave clothes the sudarium (‘facecloth’) and the linteamina (the wrappings from the body) are usually shown separately, ‘the dramatic ceremonies at the sepulchre followed the Gospel traditions with considerable freedom, using sometimes a single cloth called sindo or linteum, sometimes a cloth called sudarium, sometimes several pieces called linteamina, and again both a sudarium and linteamina.’ The representation of the grave clothes by a single cloth is possible but it must be woven in linen (even in a region where imported raw cotton is as easily available), presumably to accord with the gospel accounts that describe Jesus’ shroud as sindon, ’pure linen’.

One of the most important features of the ceremony was the display of the cloth. In one undated account from Mainz, three seniores (‘elders’) receive the sudarium from within the tomb and then hold it up on high. With a specified antiphon to be chanted at each stage, they then process to the high altar where they stand with the sudarium held up in extenso (‘fully extended’), before it is placed on the altar. The three seniores represent the Three Marys but, as Young points out, other accounts record only two figures receiving the grave-clothes and Young suggests that this is because the ceremony is following Matthew’s account, in which there are only two Marys.

In the 11th century there was a significant addition to the number of characters when John and Peter were introduced. This was a re-creation of that dramatic moment, described in Chapter 20 of John’s gospel, when Mary Magdalene tells Peter and that ‘other disciple that Jesus loved’, usually taken to be John, of the empty tomb and they both run to see it. The grave clothes, the facecloth separate from the rest, are lying there and in this extended version of the play, often now called the Visitatio Sepulchri, it is Peter and John who bring out the cloths and display them to the congregation with the chant: ‘See, O brethren, here are the facecloth and the wrappings and the body is not to be found in the tomb.’

After the display of the clothes and the appropriate chants the cloth or clothes are laid out on the altar as in the earlier ceremonies. A Te Deum is sung and bells ring. Judging from 400 or so accounts of these ceremonies, there must have been many hundreds of these grave-clothes, although with use over many decades they were vulnerable to fire, damp and decay.  The question is whether the Shrouds of BesanÇon and Turin were examples of these.

A French Bible dictionary of 1912 states that there were ‘linen cloths, in which it was the custom to paint the body of Christ in the tomb and spread them afterwards on the altar to serve for the Mass on Easter Sunday’. This is a late reference to images on the linen but it is given some support by a few other texts. For instance, in the Mozarabic Rites that originate in the seventh century and are followed in some parts of Spain to this day, the Easter Preface reads: ‘Peter ran with John to the tomb and saw the recent imprints of the dead and risen man on the linens.’ 

There is an important piece of evidence relating to the Shroud that I have not yet discussed. This is the lead pilgrim badge dated to the 1350s that was found in the River Seine in 1855. It is clearly the Shroud of Turin because the coats of arms are those of Geoffrey de Charny on the left and his wife Jeanne, who was in her own right ‘Lady of Montfort and Savoisy’, a title she had bought as dowry to her marriage.

I have explained how Carlo Borromeo (and/ or Francesco Lamberti) had insisted that the nakedness of the man on the Shroud should be painted over with a loincloth. This badge confirms that the images as they were originally painted were nude. The herringbone weave can be seen and it is clearly two clergy, with clerical stoles, their figures now damaged, who are holding up the cloth. Most fascinating of all, under the Shroud is an empty tomb. Although this remains speculative, this is just how the ceremony of Quem Queritis or the Visitatio Sepulchri is supposed to be conducted, with the grave cloth held out in extenso by, in this case, two clergy in front of the tomb.

There are others who back this solution to the original purpose of the Shroud. In the third volume of the theology section (1790) of the mammoth Encyclopedie Méthodique, which eventually ran to over 200 volumes, the Abbé Bergier contributed the article on Suaire (‘Shroud’). (I am grateful to Antonio Lombatti for this reference.) He describes the Gospel texts and concludes that the linens or shrouds that one sees ‘in several churches’ could not possibly be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.  He goes on to note that in the Easter ceremonies, which he dates back to the 12th and 13th centuries, a linen cloth empreint de la figure de Jesus-Christ enseveli  (empreint, ‘printed’, enseveli, ‘buried’) is displayed to the congregation. He goes on to tell how these cloths are preserved in church treasuries, which is why there are so many of them. He notes specifically those displayed at Cologne, Besançon, Turin and Brioude and argues that despite their lack of authenticity as the original Shroud they should still command veneration. Furthermore, an article by Herbert Thurston, a Jesuit who did much research on the Shroud in the early 20th century and who concluded that it dated from the 14th century, also makes the suggestion that the Shroud was originally an Easter grave-cloth.

Can one get any closer to where the Shroud may have been woven and painted? Ulm and Augsburg, in southern Germany, were important centres where enormous numbers of fustians, cloth in which linen and cotton threads were woven together, were produced each year. With so much cotton in the workshops it is hardly surprising that some fibres might have drifted onto the Shroud while the flax was being spun or woven. This is consistent with the cotton fibres that Raes and the radiocarbon laboratories found in small quantities on their samples. The mendicant orders (the Franciscans and Dominicans), both well represented in this area, appear to be at the forefront of blood stained images and there are many accounts of the Quem Queritis ceremonies from German monasteries. The model for the Christ lying on the tomb with his arms crossed may also have derived from the sculptured Holy Graves first known in the Rhineland, while the use of calcium carbonate in gesso is only known north of the Alps. So there is scope for further research to confirm or rule out the possibility that this was originally a commission for a church or monastery in southern Germany. Later, here or in northern France, the grave-cloth that we now know as the Turin Shroud achieved a status that allowed it to be recognised by the Church as an appropriate subject for veneration.

There will be an exposition of the Shroud in Turin during the spring of 2015, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of St Don Bosco, ‘Father and Teacher of Youth’. Two million pilgrims are expected to visit this most elegant of Italian cities. The Catholic Church continues to offer the Shroud as the focus for meditation on the Passion of Christ and doubtless most of the faithful will be participating in this tradition of more than six centuries of veneration, which probably originated with the miracles associated with the Shroud in the 14th century. However, perhaps now they will be joined by those moved to see what may well be a rare survivor from the most joyous of the medieval liturgies, that commemorating the Resurrection of Christ at Easter. It will be a dramatic development in the fascinating history of this medieval linen cloth.


Charles Freeman is the author of Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe (Yale University Press, 2011). A new edition of his Egypt, Greece and Rome: Civilizations of the Ancient World was published in 2014 by Oxford University Press

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