October 22, 2017

Icon or Image?

Icon or Image? 

Tourism in Turin has clearly been high on the agenda this week.  The city has been  geared up for millions of visitors as the Turin Shroud goes on public display. Viewers will be restricted to three or four minutes before the bullet-proof, climate-controlled case containing the Shroud, but with free admission, over a million reservations were made long before the event. Obviously scarcity value has increased its appeal; it was on public display only five times last century.

The Turin Shroud is undoubtedly the most historic, most analysed and most controversial piece of linen in the world. The 14 feet long cloth appears to disclose the front and back of a long-haired, bearded man with bodily injuries consistent with crucifixion, and a gash in the side. And even though the first reliable documented evidence of its existence came as late as the mid-14th century in Europe, people have long  believed it to be the burial cloth of Jesus. The haunting face, produced by a  photographic ‘negative’ in 1898 has become in folklore an actual representation of Christ. Some go even further and argue that for such an image to be left by a dead man, something utterly inexplicable must have occurred – something consistent with dematerialism or Resurrection.

Over the last decade the science and the arguments have swung backwards and forward. In 1998, carbon-dating research done in three independent centres concluded that the shroud was mediaeval. In 1999 a botanist in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem said pollen grains found on the shroud could only have come from the Holy Land. In 2005 a retired chemist put the Shroud  at between 1300 and 3000 years old, challenging the carbon-dating result because it included fire-damage repair patches sewn on in the thirteenth century. This was later disputed. Earlier this year, researchers suggested that new dating techniques could more conclusively verify the age of the Shroud than ever before. Whether they will get the opportunity to find out is uncertain. For the next month at least, the Shroud is not for scientific analysis but for everyone’s gaze.

The question is does it matter? Atheists and cynics think not. They amuse themselves by deriding the relic and questioning every motive of those involved, whether the protectionism of the Catholic church, the bias of researchers, the naivety of superstition, or the commercialism of Turin. But for scientists, historians and ordinary believers, history always matters. How we interpret what the past leaves behind as its physical remains is crucially important. It does make a difference whether the Shroud was wrapped round the body of Christ, or is simply a mediaeval artefact, constructed for unknown reasons.  The Church might be right that ‘displaying the Shroud helps the faithful meditate, pray and contemplate on the mystery and extraordinary suffering of Christ’ but its real meaning is bound up with the truth of its history.

Yet, its significance should never be overplayed. Every believer knows there is very much more to Christianity than we could ever find by analysing a relic and dating its origin. Faith in Christ is not based on the authenticity of a Shroud but on the power of the Gospel and the teaching of the Apostles. If we want to reflect on the abiding image of Christ, we would not be looking at a gravecloth, however authentic, but at the biblical account of his life, death and resurrection. For the witness of the Gospels is what draws us to recognize Christ as ‘the  image of the invisible God.’

It is interesting to see how this image reaches beyond the grave. Even Einstein, scientist and often agnostic, was held enthralled not by investigating myth or relic, but by the Christ in the Scriptures. ‘No one’, he said, ‘can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.’ Whatever we see in the Turin Shroud, we can say ‘Amen’ to that.

Published in Church of England Newspaper

April 2010