Beth Williamson considers a bold attempt to prove the authenticity of one of Christianity’s best-known relics
The Shroud of Turin has attracted controversy and argument since its first appearance in western Europe in the mid-14th century. Some have responded to the faint, full-length images of a man on the linen cloth by believing that the cloth is the burial shroud of Christ, and that the images are a miraculous sign of the flesh-and-blood resurrection of Christ. Others have condemned it as a fake.
In the first part of this book Thomas de Wesselow evaluates previous scholarship and debate on the question of its authenticity or otherwise (including the 1988 carbon dating tests suggesting the Shroud was a medieval creation, which he argues were deeply flawed). Part of the author’s approach in the book is to compare the Shroud images with medieval depictions of the crucified Christ. De Wesselow concludes that it is impossible – because of the way that the Shroud images look – that the Shroud could have been faked in the medieval period. This, together with his assessment of the other evidence, in his view points to the conclusion that “the only coherent way to understand it [the Shroud] is as the burial cloth of Jesus”.
This might have been the end of the book. But de Wesselow goes on, in 160 further pages, to discuss the significance of the Shroud, and it is this part of the book that will be the most controversial. The central argument of the book is that when they saw the images on the Shroud, Jesus’s followers understood them to be evidence of Christ’s continuing presence, albeit in a different form from that represented by his physical body. According to de Wesselow, then, the resurrection was not an event in which a man actually rose from the dead, in flesh and blood, but a process by which Christ’s followers were convinced that he had been re-clothed in a spiritual body.
De Wesselow suggests that the various appearances of Christ after his death, reported in various texts – biblical and others – were actually events in which Christ’s followers were shown the Shroud. The parts of the narratives which appear not to chime with such an interpretation (Christ speaking, or eating, for example) are explained as fictional interpolations into a basic tradition that derived from eyewitness accounts of the finding of the Shroud in the tomb, and the viewing of the Shroud by Christ’s followers. According to this argument, the actual body of Christ was of no real consequence, and it was the Shroud, and its images, that was the spark that lit the fire of Christianity – as de Wesselow puts it: “the alpha and omega of all Christian history”.
The most novel aspect of this book is the approach brought to the material by an art historian, someone trained in assessing images, and the power that they can have. De Wesselow’s knowledge of the ways images have been understood as having crucial relationships with what they portray allows him to present a fascinating account of the Shroud as an image. Perhaps his intervention will encourage other art historians to engage with the images on the Shroud, and with his claims about the impossibility of the Shroud having been faked during the Middle Ages.
The narrative weaved here may convince some readers that “the Shroud provides a viable solution to the age-old puzzle of the resurrection”. Others will remain unconvinced. But what this book does is offer a different view of the Shroud, one in which its nature as an image is taken seriously, and in which images are considered as playing a central role in a hugely significant set of historical and cultural events. This is, to this reviewer, the most interesting aspect of the book, whether or not the central claims convince.
Dr Beth Williamson, Department of History of Art, University of Bristol