The Shroud of Turin, called by some the Holy Shroud, is an ancient piece of linen 14.3 feet long by 3.7 feet wide which bears many images, the most noticeable of which are the front and back images of a crucified man. It has been housed in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, since 1578, and may well be the most intensively studied single object in history. Traditionally, it has been known as the burial shroud of Jesus of Nazareth. It is kept rolled on a wooden cylinder inside and ornately decorated silver box, and in modern times has been unrolled and displayed for public viewing only occasionally. An international team of scientists (Shroud of Turin Research Project, or STURP) was given access to the Shroud in 1978. The scientific testing procedures performed were designed mainly to try to find out how the images were made. Over one thousand different tests and thirty-two thousand photographs by about forty of the world’s top scientists and researchers revealed an abundance of detailed information about the Shroud, but failed to answer the question of what formed the images on the linen. All attempts to duplicate the images have failed. There are other ancient linen burial shrouds in existence, some of which bear smudges, but none of which bear images. Clearly, the Shroud of Turin is a unique object that has yet to yield all its secrets. Where did it come from?
For a detailed and carefully documented study of the history of the Shroud of Turin, we refer you to the book The Shroud of Turin by Ian Wilson. Briefly, the history is as follows. In the year A.D. 30, King Abgar V of Edessa, which is now the city of Urfa in Turkey but then was the capital of Osrhoene, a small state about four hundred miles north of Jerusalem, send a message to the healer in Israel, Jesus of Nazareth. Abgar wanted Jesus to come to Edessa to heal him of some ailment, possibly leprosy, that his own healers had not been able to cure. Jesus reputedly replied in a letter that he himself could not come because he had to complete his work in Israel, but he would send one of his helpers later. Some Eastern Orthodox churches have copies of the reputed letter from Jesus to Abgar. Shortly after this exchange, Jesus was crucified.
Eusebius (A.D. 263-339) reported in his history of the early church that an object, presumably a cloth with an image, was taken to King Abgar by one of Jesus’ disciples in A.D. 30 and that King Abgar was healed. Ian Wilson speculates in his book The Shroud of Turin that this cloth was the shroud of Jesus folded into eight thicknesses and placed in a cloth envelope with a circular opening showing only the face so as to hide the fact that it was a bloody shroud. The envelope with the cloth was then suspended in a frame, and the whole (except the opening) may have been covered by some kind of decorative trellis. There is an icon, dating to the tenth century, in Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai depicting one of the disciples, Thaddeus (probably another name for Judas the Zealot), bringing a cloth bearing the image of a face, traditionally that of Jesus, to King Abgar V. The cloth depicted in this icon was known as the Mandylion, which means “face cloth” or “handkerchief,” and the image it bore was known as one “not made with hands.” In thanksgiving and praise for his restored health, Abgar became a believer in Jesus, declared his city’s allegiance to Jesus, and invited Thaddeus to stay and heal and preach. A community of believers was established.
At that time, almost every city had its own god or goddess, whose statue was placed by the city gate. All travelers entering the city were required to stop there and worship that deity. After Abgar’s healing, he had the statue of the city god of Edessa destroyed. In its place, he had mounted above the main city gate a tile bearing the face image found on the Mandylion and the inscription “Christ the God. He who hopes in thee is never disappointed.” As Edessa was one of the cities on the trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Far East, this image and the story of Christ’s power became widely known.
Edessa remained nominally a Christian city until the death of Abgar in A.D. 55. King Ma’nu VI, a pagan, came to power in A.D. 57 and sought to destroy the image of Christ and began to persecute the Christians. According to the official history compiled by Constantine VII, who became emperor of the Byzantine Empire in 945, the tile and the treasured Mandylion were hidden by the bishop of the region in a niche in the city wall for protection, and their whereabouts was lost. They did not come to light again until sometime soon after a massive flood destroyed about a third of the city of Edessa in 525. It was during repairs on the city wall that the Mandylion was found hidden in the wall above the western gate to the city. It had been so highly venerated that, even after the lapse of so many years, it was immediately recognized. By that time, Edessa was Christian again, and was known as the city of churches. The largest of its some three hundred churches was built for the purpose of housing the Mandylion. It was at this time w\hen the Mandylion image again became widely known and available that most artistic depictions of Jesus Christ rather suddenly began to resemble each other, to be easily recognizable by us today as Jesus of Nazareth.
In the year 944, Romanus I, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire (successor to the Roman Empire), decided that as his last act in office he would bring the Mandylion to Constantinople, the capital of the Empire, and add this well-known treasure to his collection of Christian relics. The people of Edessa, which at that time was in Muslim hands, were unwilling to relinquish their greatest treasure, so Romanus sent an army of twelve thousand to Edessa to obtain the Mandylion. But the people were adamant. In order to secure the Mandylion, the army had to lay siege to Edessa for six months and the Emperor had to make concessions and extravagant promises to Edessa. Finally, the Mandylion was brought in triumph to Constantinople, and there were elaborate celebrations. To commemorate the event, icons were painted and gold coins bearing the image of Jesus were struck.
It is probable, judging by artistic depictions, that sometime about the mid-eleventh century the cloth known as the Mandylion was removed from its cloth envelope covering and was found to be not just a small cloth with the image of a face but an entire shroud bearing full-length front and back images of a crucified man.
The Mandylion/Shroud remained in Constantinople until the year 1204, when soldiers from the Fourth Crusade overran and sacked the city and carried off many of the church’s relics, including their most famous one. From the time until 1357, when the Shroud surfaced in the small village of Lirey, France, its history is less clear. There is some evidence, gathered most notably by Rex Morgan, that it was in the hands of the Knights Templars in both France and England. It may have been transferred to England from the Knights Templars headquarters in Paris in 1307 when the King of France attempted to destroy the Order of the Templars. It is likely that the Shroud was smuggled back into France about the mid-fourteenth century, shortly before it went on public display there.
Just how the Shroud came into the possession of one Geoffrey de Charny, a relatively minor French nobleman, is unknown, but it is certain that this person brought forth the Shroud in the village of Lirey in 1357 for public display, claiming it to be the true burial shroud of Christ. Its history since that time has been well documented. In 1434, its ownership passed from Margaret de Charny to the Savoy family, the ruling house of Italy. A special chapel to house the Shroud was built in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist adjoining the royal palace in Turin, Italy. (This is why it is today known as the Shroud of Turin.) The Shroud was placed there in 1578, and, except for a brief period during World War II when it was moved elsewhere for safety, and again in 1997 after a fire in the chapel requiring structural repairs, has remained there. The Shroud was in the possession of the Savoy family until the death in 1983 of Umberto II, exiled king of Italy, who willed it to the Vatican.