The Shroud of Turin is a 14-foot linen cloth bearing an image of a crucified man that has become a popular Catholic icon. For some, it is the authentic burial shroud of Jesus Christ. For others, it is a religious icon reflecting the story of the Christ, not necessarily the original shroud.
More than 600 years after it first appeared in historical records, the Shroud of Turin remains an important religious symbol for Christians around the world.
1. The shroud first surfaced in medieval France.
The earliest historical records of the Shroud of Turin place it in Lirey, France during the 1350s. A French knight named Geoffroi de Charny allegedly presented it to the dean of the church in Lirey as Jesus’ authentic burial shroud. There’s no record of how de Charny got his hands on the shroud, nor where it was during the 1300 intervening years since Christ’s burial outside Jerusalem.
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2. The pope soon declared it was not an actual historic relic.
After the church of Lirey put the shroud on display, the church began to draw a lot of pilgrims, and also a lot of money. However, many prominent members of the church remained skeptical of its authenticity.
Around 1389, Pierre d’Arcis—the bishop of Troyes, France—sent a report to Pope Clement VII claiming an artist had confessed to forging the shroud. Furthermore, d’Arcis claimed the dean of the Lirey church knew it was a fake and had used it to raise money anyway. In response, the pope declared the shroud wasn’t the true burial cloth of Christ. Still, he said the Lirey church could continue to display it if it acknowledged the cloth was a man-made religious “icon,” not a historic “relic.” Today, Pope Francis still describes it as an “icon.”
3. De Charny’s granddaughter was excommunicated for selling it to Italian royals.
In 1418, when the Hundred Years’ War threatened to spill over into Lirey, Geoffroi de Charny’s granddaughter Margaret de Charny and her husband offered to store the cloth in their castle. Her husband wrote a receipt for the exchange acknowledging that the cloth was not Jesus’ authentic burial shroud, and promising to return the shroud when it was safe. However, she later refused to return it, and instead took it on tour, advertising it as Jesus’ real burial shroud.
In 1453, Margaret de Charny sold the shroud in exchange for two castles to the royal house of Savoy, which ruled over parts of modern-day France, Italy and Switzerland (the house later ascended to the Italian throne). As punishment for selling the shroud, she received excommunication.
4. Before the shroud moved to Turin, it was almost lost in a fire.
In 1502, the house of Savoy placed the shroud in the Sainte-Chapelle in Chambéry, which is now part of France. In 1532, a fire broke out in the chapel. It melted part of the silver in the container protecting the shroud, and this silver fell onto part of the shroud, burning through it. The burn marks and the water stains from where the fire was extinguished are still visible today.
In 1578, the house of Savoy moved the shroud to the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in Turin, which later became part of Italy. It has remained there ever since, with the exception of World War II, when Italy relocated it for safekeeping.
5. There have been many scientific studies about its authenticity.
Despite the fact that Pope Clement VII declared the shroud a fake over 600 years ago, there has been no end to the debate about the shroud’s authenticity. Starting in the 20th century, people on both sides of the debate began to bolster their arguments with scientific studies.
In the 1970s, the Shroud of Turin Research Project said the markings on the cloth were consistent with a crucified body and that the stains were real human blood. In 1988, one group of scientists said their analysis showed the shroud originated between 1260 and 1390, while another said their analysis showed it originated between 300 B.C. and A.D. 400. In 2018, researchers used forensic techniques to argue the blood stains on the shroud couldn’t have come from Christ.
6. The shroud is protected by bulletproof glass.
Security is tight for the frail Shroud of Turin. It is rarely shown to the public, and is guarded by security cameras and bulletproof glass. The latter security measure actually proved to be a bit of a roadblock in 1997, when a fire broke out in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Firefighters had to hammer through four layers of bulletproof glass to save the shroud.
7. The shroud entered the digital age.
In April 2020, Turin Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia announced that in light of the devastation from COVID-19, people around the world would be able to view the Shroud of Turin online for Easter. On the Thursday before the holiday in 2020, Italy reported 143,626 known cases of COVID-19 and 18,279 deaths from the virus. Archbishop Nosiglia said he was motivated to provide a livestream of the shroud, which was last publicly displayed in 2015, by thousands of people who requested to view it during the global COVID-19 crisis.