Thursday, April 11, 2013

Still shrouded in mystery enduring mystery that is the Shroud of Turin was back in the news this Easter. 

In an historic first, and with the permission of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before he stepped aside, the Shroud was the focus of a televised exposition for viewers of Italy’s RAI television on Easter Eve, a timely and tangible reminder of the feast.

That broadcast came on day two of a Rome conference given over entirely to ‘The Shroud and the New Evangelisation’. Hosted by the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum, the conference looked at the shroud as a symbol of faith in the contemporary world – this being the Year of Faith.

Meanwhile, for those with a technological bent, any inability to view Italian television was tempered by news that, on Good Friday, a brand new App dedicated to the Shroud of Turin was launched by the Apple store. 

A multilingual guide to the famed winding sheet, the iPhone and Tablet-enabled programme was made possible by a process in which 1,649 pictures of the shroud were digitised into one picture comprising 12 billion pixels in a 72 Gigabyte file. 

The new App also offers the striking ‘negative’ image of the shroud where the face of the figure previously wrapped in the linen cloth is more readily perceived. 

The digitised project means that, from here on, infrequent expositions of the shroud will not be the only means of viewing the famous linen image.

A feast indeed for those devoted to the shroud, both from the not-mutually exclusive religious and scientific perspectives.

On these approaches to understanding the shroud, Holy Week also marked a new addition to the canon of research projects that have pored over the ghostly image first photographed and revealed to the modern world by photographer Secundo Pia in 1898.

In an announcement coinciding with the publication in Italian of a new book (Il Mistero della Sindone - The Mystery of the Shroud), authors Professor Giulio Fanti and Saverio Gaeta, a journalist, revealed the results of a fresh examination of the shroud and image, which utilised the most up-to-date technology (utilised by a team of scientists at the University of Padua) to find evidence that the linen cloth itself dates to the time of Christ.

Specifically, the Padua team (made up of experts from various Italian universities) employed three individual tests, described as two chemical – using infra-red and Raman spectroscopy – and one mechanical. In all, some 20 samples of cloth and fibres were minutely examined.

The results returned three time-ranges, claimed as 95 per cent accurate by the team: the infa-red test, 300 BC ±400, the Raman spectroscopy 200 BC ±500, and the mechanical test 400 AD ±400. Most intriguing is the average of all three timelines: 33 BC ±250 years. 

In addition to challenging the previous and hotly-debated Carbon 14 tests of 1988 which returned a medieval timeline, the latest test narrows the search for the shroud’s origins to the very time of Christ’s life and death.

In announcing the new findings and book, Fanti and Gaeta point out that their results will now be considered by an independent scientific committee, raising the potential for a fresh round of debate and even controversy as the shroud is once again pulled figuratively to and fro.

To date, over the nearly one hundred years of investigation, various indisputable facts have been given up by the shroud to warrant continued interest by scholars. Individually, these snippets of evidence take sceptics further from the ‘artistic forgery’ claim and other fanciful theories of a Da Vinci Code nature. Regardless of the ultimate ‘truth’ of the shroud, it is not so easy to write it off when presented with the growing list of finds.

For example, the 1973 ‘lifts’ with adhesive tape from the material of no fewer than pollen grains of some 58 plants, some of them confined to the region of The Holy land and modern-day Turkey.

In 1977, American researchers discovered a three-dimensional nature to the bodily image, in a form that still has not been convincingly reproduced via experimentation through modern photography or painting.

In 1978, experiments focused on the presence of blood – not paint or ochre - on the linen revealed for the first time the blood-type as AB. A year later, detailed tests disputed claims that, even using blood, the image was painted onto the shroud fibres; rather, it was introduced to the material by some as yet unexplained method.

In 1988, the Carbon 14 tests on a small number of cloth samples returned the verdict that the shroud dated from the period 1260 to 1390 AD, resulting in claims that Carbon 14 could not be trusted as a method of examination, or, more reasonably, that the samples had been contaminated by the many hands that had over the years of public exposition, gripped the areas of the cloth from where the samples originated.

For its part, the Church itself still has made no definitive ruling on the provenance of the shroud, with the nearest acknowledgment coming from then-Pope Benedict’s carefully nuanced statement of 2010 that the cloth “wrapped the remains of a crucified man in full correspondence with what the Gospels tell us of Jesus”.

The Fanti and Gaeta findings now add to such a ‘correspondence’ with the biblical timeline, and, as a consequence, the claims and counter claims still dogging the shroud at every turn.