The Turin Shroud, attracting enormous visitor numbers at the city's cathedral in a rare exposition currently taking place until May 23rd, is a fascinating and enigmatic piece of artwork. Artwork, since there is no archaeological nor documented evidence of a historical Jesus, any more than there is for Zeus, Isis, Apollo or Odin, discounting the clearly astrotheological and mythological fables contained in the canonical and apocryphal gospels. Shroudman's height is around 7 feet and I, for one, certainly don't recall in the gospel of Luke mention of a bearded colossus shambling around the banks of the Dead Sea, nor of donkeys being helplessly crushed by freakishly large sons of gods. Indeed, there are no references at all to JC's earthly appearance in any of this literature.
The shroud appeared (and for a while disappeared) around the mid-14th century, in one of the most productive eras for the highly lucrative Jesus relic industry. In fact there were dozens of these things kicking about all over Europe, and this particular one was then, perhaps ironically now, given far less credence than the disingenuous documentaries the History Channel, C4, and Discovery keep churning out. You might wonder how that burnt piece of Virgin Mary toast sold on eBay will be revered in centuries to come.
I digress. Having just read the generally excellent Turin Shroud: In Whose Image? by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, and despite their also getting bogged down in historical Jesus nonsense (which, it has to be said, they've built a living writing about), I found two aspects especially intriguing.
Defenders Of The Faith
It's simply extraordinary the lengths to which believers will go to defend the historicity of their faith. There are vast resources applied to discovering where Noah's Ark is, or Solomon's Temple, or the Holy Grail, or Jesus' tomb; hundreds of books, films, and archaeological expeditions of mythical constructs.
They might as well be looking for Thor's hammer. But they're not. And that's because since Christianity played the historical figure card so early in its gestation, allowing great power to be enjoyed by priests over followers of inferior 'less authentic' pagan religions, it implicitly and instinctively knows that the notion of historicity has to be emphasised and protected at all costs. Similarly, compare those lunatic creationists that maintain that Adam and Eve were real people and that the world is but 6,000 years old. Thus, having committed yourself to one big lie, you find yourself forever condemned to reinforcing it with an infinite number of small ones.
As is evident in the book, the Turin Shroud perfectly symbolises this phenomenon. What was dismissed even by the Church as a fake in the Middle Ages, now boasts scores of organisations devoted to 'scientifically' proving it's a bona fide Jesus relic. And ever since 1988 when it was oh-so-predictably carbon-dated to the 14th Century, the theories have become ever more byzantine and unbelievable, ranging from nuclear flashes to international conspiracies.
Since the imprint has the amazing qualities of a photographic negative, the real mystery is how the hell was the shroud created? And by whom?
The book convincingly proposes that today's Turin Shroud is the work of Da Vinci. That it is in fact a composite image of Leonardo's own head superimposed on the body of a man that was genuinely crucified. And that it was done using early photographic experiments using a camera obscura to project and capture images. It was a process that alchemists had, at grave danger from the Church to accusations of heresy, long been interested in and experimenting with. If this is indeed the case, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it was technically and logistically feasible, then Da Vinci's mischievous genius is even more astounding than we previously thought.