Today, the Shroud of Turin is a yellowed cloth whose faint images are only slightly more yellowed than the background. As the Shroud ages, the background color darkens and becomes more nearly the same color as the images, so that within the next few years it is very possible that the entire cloth will be the same color and the images will no longer be visible. Even now, with the images still visible, you must stand about ten feet back from the cloth in order to see them. If you get closer, the images tend to disappear.
Fortunately, the images are easier to see in photographs, because the contrast can be enhanced. The human eye has a natural tendency to eliminate those images which are very faint and of low contrast and whose edges are indistinct, as is true of the Shroud images. Video provides an especially useful medium for examining dynamic comparisons of Shroud images with other images or objects, as we have done in overlay comparisons. Unlike the human eye, photographs and video catch what is there and hold it in static form so that none of the image is lost and it can be examined carefully and at length. We have been fortunate to have worked entirely from excellent photographs.
The Shroud was first photographed in 1898 by Secondo Pia after it was on public display. In his darkroom as he watched the progress of the development of his photographic plate, Pia was utterly astonished to see on the emerging negative a finely detailed positive image. This could only mean that the Shroud image itself has the properties of a photographic negative. We are left with the often confusing situation that a photographic negative of the Shroud actually reveals a positive image, and the print made from that photographic negative shows a negative image. For most of us, perhaps the value of this perplexing bit of knowledge is that it is one indicator among many of the uniqueness and mystery of the Shroud.
You will see two kinds of photographic prints of the Shroud. A positive image print will have a dark background with light bloodstains, and will reveal a well-delineated individual. A negative image print will have a light background with dark bloodstains, and will show a rather ghostly figure with indistinct edges. The negative image is what you would see if you could look at the Shroud itself.
When you look at a photograph of the Shroud of Turin, what can you see? To some extent, that depends on which photograph you are looking at—whether it has been enhanced, and if so, how; and whether it is positive or negative. Those who have access only to unenhanced photographs may well not see many of the fainter images. Indeed, in order to see all that is there, it is often necessary to have several types of photographic enhancements. Images are much easier to see on the positive image (photographic negative with dark background). But with either, probably what you will notice first will be the full-length front and back images of a crucified man. These images are certainly the most striking feature of the Shroud, but almost as noticeable are two rows of triangular patches and scorch marks, on each side of the body, and three rows of diamond-shaped water marks, one between the rows of patches and burn marks and one along each side of the Shroud. These patches and marks have nothing to do with the images, but are the result of a fire in 1532 in the chapel at Chambery, France, where the Shroud was being kept. The fire was so hot that it began to melt the silver box in which the Shroud was kept folded. Molten silver dropped on the Shroud and burned a series of holes where the patches now are and left other scorch marks. Multiple irregular stains were cause by water being poured on the box in an effort to put out the fire.
On the frontal image, you can see bloodstains in the hair and on the forehead, on the chest from a puncture wound, at the wrist and on both arms, and on the feet. The eyes are closed in death, the face has been beaten, the right eye is badly swollen, the nose has probably been dislocated, and some of the beard has been plucked out. From the neck to the feet (and also on the dorsal or back image), there are many dumbbell shaped wounds which were inflicted by a type of Roman scourge known as the Flagrum Taxolatum, or terrible scourge. Most Roman scourges were made from some material such as sheep bones on leather thongs, but the terrible scourge was made of small metal dumbbells with barbs so that each strike would not only bruise severely but also tear out little bits of flesh. A beating with this type of scourge was designed to render apparent that the scourging was done by two lictors, Roman soldiers whose job was to whip people. From the fact that there are no scourge marks over the heart area, we know that the lictors were professionals. Had they scourged the man over the heart, he could have been killed on the spot. This tells us that this individual received an exemplary scourging, one intended not to kill but the make an example of him by punishing so severely as to turn him into a pathetic bloody sight.
On the dorsal image, in addition to the many scourge marks, you can see bloodstains in the hair, a pooling of blood at the waist which drained from the spear wound to the chest, and bloodstains on the feet. On the shoulders, especially the right shoulder, you can see the marks of bruising from the heavy weight of the horizontal beam for the cross on which the individual was crucified. Often in art, Jesus is depicted as carrying the entire cross, but that was not done—it would have been far too heavy. Crucifixion victims were made to carry only the horizontal beam from the place of condemnation to the place of crucifixion.
Medical examiners have determined that the Man of the Shroud was about thirty to thirty-five years old, was five feet eleven inches tall, and weighed approximately one hundred seventy pounds. Ethnological studies have found him to be of a physical type found in modern times among Sephardic Jews and noble Arabs. One striking Jewish feature is what appears to be a ponytail from the head to the shoulder blades. This was a common fashion among men of Jesus’ time.