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from issue no. 06/07 - 2008

Interview. The historical and iconographic data

The image of the face of Jesus

History and iconography show that a model of the characteristics of the Shroud has been around, especially in the Middle East, from far earlier than the thirteenth century. An interview with Anna Benvenuti

Interview with Anna Benvenuti by Pina Baglioni

The <I>Mandylion with the Imago pietatis</I>, 16th century icon, Kolomenskoe Museum, Moscow

The Mandylion with the Imago pietatis, 16th century icon, Kolomenskoe Museum, Moscow

“As a historian I don’t permit myself to say anything about the question of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud. I don’t take a stance for or against. I pay careful attention to what the chemists, physicists and pathologists have to say on the matter. I keep up with articles in scientific journals. I’m struck, however, by the fact that every time the “believing”, scientists, let’s say, produce any result, that “agnostic” current automatically challenges it. I must say then that twenty years ago, when carbon 14 dating of the Shroud decided that it was a false medieval forgery “packaged” between 1260 and 1390, I had the impression that a certain part, not a small one, of the Catholic world felt relieved of a burden”.
Anna Benvenuti, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Florence, speaks frankly. She has been working for many years on the religious/devotional behavior of the Christian world, the cult of saints and circulation and veneration of relics. She is a member of some thirty scientific bodies and chairs the Italian Society of Historians of the Middle Ages. Ten years ago she wrote Il mistero della Sindone [The Mystery of the Shroud] (in Storia e Dossier, n. 131, October 1998, 64 pp.), throwing a number of doubts on the reliability of the tests carried out by the laboratories of Oxford, Tucson and Zurich. Doubts that are still unresolved today. She also criticizes her colleagues: “The Shroud always inexplicably provokes an anticipatory reaction in intellectuals and many “enlightened” historians. Though knowing nothing, never having studied the subject, for them the thing is a fake. Full stop. The point is different: it’s a matter of going on asking questions against an object freighted with mystery. Because, let’s not forget, what we see in Turin is a photographic negative and no one has ever managed to explain how it was made”.
Because of her attitude many people have made their minds up that Anna Benvenuti belongs in the Catholic sphere. “Whether I’m Catholic or not, is my business. Labels get put on jam jars and not on eyes, otherwise goodbye knowledge. That’s why I was struck by the BBC documentary on the Shroud that went on the air in England on Easter Saturday. While I found it boring and completely devoid of narrative hierarchies that might have helped to understand what was doubtful about earlier investigations, it’s significant that the main broadcaster in such an anti-papist country should reopen, leaving aside real or alleged results, the case of dating. Not only that. Precisely the scientists who then judged the Shroud a fake, are now willing to go back over their steps. That, in itself, is a good thing.”

In something you wrote ten years ago you were very critical about the famous 1988 verdict. On that occasion you complained especially that the scientists had not taken into account the wealth of knowledge produced by historians, by iconologists and art historians on the story of the Shroud. Can you tell us why?
ANNA BENVENUTI: The contribution of the historical disciplines would have at least introduced elements of doubt, of relativization of those apodictic certainties imposed by the scientists. A contribution which instead was finally made much of by the BBC documentary. But what is disconcerting about the facts of 1988 was that the scientists failed in their own area of expertise. It was widely known that the accumulation of carbon-bearing substances was higher on a cloth than what could be found on a body or on a stone. It was enough to look at the case history. There was, for example, the Egyptian mummy kept in the Museum of Manchester for which carbon dating resulted in an enormous chronological gap between the age of the human remains and the bandages wrapping them. Only when the latter had been cleaned of enzymes did the data turn out consistent. That process was neglected during the 1988 investigations. Something that left me amazed because science is only done by comparing the various antecedent testimonies.
The question that emerged then was whether the fragment of the winding sheet analyzed met the requirements for a dating, given that it had gone through a complex historical evolution. The Shroud is an object that has traveled, it has gathered dirt, it has been through fires and been kissed by the faithful who, in turn, have transferred to the sheet other amounts of carbon: these accumulations gathered over time may have distorted the dating. But in 1988 the judgment that it was a medieval fake came down like an axe, without appeal. I was certain that it was an operation orchestrated by circles inimical to the Church. And that made me very angry: I saw bad faith in it. The nub was substantially this: we had first to take account of the correspondence between what I then described, for simplicity’s sake, as a sindonic model, that there had been, that had influenced art and had generated ritual behavior since the 6th century, and the sindonic object itself. In short, it was necessary first of all to take into account that there was an ancient tradition and that this tradition had produced iconographically deducible consequences.
Can you give some concrete examples of the relation between sindonic model and sindonic object?
BENVENUTI: In simple terms: the repeated observation of a sindonic image produced a model that spread.
One need only think of an apparently insignificant iconographic detail: the tilted soppedaneo (the footrest) of the cross. The inclination of the item, in the Byzantine tradition, pointed in the direction of a lame man. A conviction that had evidently spread after the viewing of a sindonic cloth. Whether analogous to that of Turin, or precisely that of Turin, is not given to the historian to know. It is certain that the imprint on the Turin Shroud corresponds to that of a man who has one leg longer than the other. A leg that was pulled to lie over the other and nail the feet during the crucifixion. And the repeated viewing of that image produced the erroneous belief that Jesus was lame.
One can take another example: in the early centuries of Christianity, Jesus was portrayed as the Good Shepherd with the face of a child. Then, at some point, things changed, because the idea began to spread of a miraculous acheropite image produced spontaneously. It means that starting from a certain period, the world of representation adopted certain characteristics because it had observed something that was believed to be the true image of Jesus Christ. And from Jesus the Good Shepherd it passed to the depiction of Jesus with long hair, beard and a typical “curl” on his forehead. Another question: how does this other iconographic element come into being? Once again, chance is a fine thing, it’s the observation of the Shroud that clarifies it for us: the traces found on the Turin cloth are blood of venous origin, as the rivulet shaped like an e (epsilon or reversed 3) visible on the forehead, anatomically justified with respect to the arterial blood, which is also present on the linen. Aspects and knowledge foreign to medieval medical culture. And that’s not all: the Middle Ages did not know the technical aspects of Roman crucifixion. So it’s very strange that the forger of the Shroud was able to reproduce something that he absolutely could not know: for example the use of driving nails not in the palm, as the whole of medieval iconography shows us, but between the bones of the wrist. The insertion of the nail between the bones of the carpus, as well as providing stability to the body that the weaker metacarpus did not guarantee, had the effect of wounding the median nerve, causing the thumbs to bend back. If we observe the hands of the Man of the But even in that hypothetical case, the forger would have had to know and reproduce elements beyond his knowledge: medieval medical knowledge, which up to the threshold of the Renaissance had no contribution from anatomical observation, could not have achieved it. Nor would it have been able to reproduce in the most minute detail the wounds inflicted by a Roman scourge, with the abrasions caused by fragments of bone or metal. Or, it would have been difficult to imagine the horizontal shaft of the cross separated from the vertical, and reproduce on the tortured body of the victim even the marks impressed by a patibulum whose existence was not even guessed at in an age in which the cross was represented with both parts, the vertical and the horizontal, connected and welded together into a single object. It would not have been possible to imagine the outflow of blood on the forearms with two different types of slant, as well represented in the sindonic imprint, confirming a change of position of the victim during the crucifixion. And how to imagine the thickening of blood and serum in the pelvic area, as a result of the “cradle” position taken by the body during removal to the tomb? Or the swellings on the cheeks or on the nose, or that realistic nudity that the Middle Ages would never have accepted in its symbolism, even the most naturalistic? As you can see, not only history, art history and iconology could have opened their eyes to a more realistic chronology of the Shroud, but the history of medicine also.
We must always remember that all the research was launched thanks to the features that emerged for the first time in the photographs of Secondo Pia in 1898. Everything began from there, from that mysterious photographic negative. Starting precisely from the authentic characteristics of crucifixion mentioned so far and that the Middle Ages knew nothing of.
Is there a document of particular importance in relation to everything you’ve been saying?
BENVENUTI: Without doubt the Pray Manuscript, the most important document in the National Library of Budapest, because it is the first written in Hungarian. In it is there is a drawing of a Deposition. Well, the posture of Christ is the same as that of the Man of the Shroud. Also you can see that the hands have four fingers like the Man of the Shroud, because, as I’ve already explained, of the retraction of the thumb. The drawing demonstrates that the artist had seen the Shroud or a copy of it. Because it’s clear that many copies of the Shroud were produced. Of great importance, to begin with, is the fact that the document is dated 1192, that is seventy years before the date given by C14. That’s not all: four L-shaped signs are visible on the drawing. The interesting fact is that those signs are visible on the Turin Shroud, caused either by a fire obviously preceding the famous one of 4 December 1532 in Chambery, or by folding the sindonic cloth in four many, many times.
Did the BBC documentary have anything new to say on the argument about the dating of the Shroud?
BENVENUTI: The space finally granted to historical research and iconography. Through the contribution of important historians, the accent was placed on Robert de Clary, author of one of the most important reports of the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The chronicler wrote that in the church of Saint Mary Blachernae, in Constantinople, every Friday the religious authorities displayed to the faithful “the Shroud in which Our Lord was wrapped”. De Clary writes that the Shroud was “displayed upright so that one could see the figure of Our Lord”.
On this point the BBC documentary told us how some American scholars have managed to reconstruct the equipment used in Constantinople for the display. And also how through very sophisticated tools they have managed to make out the signs made by the various foldings of the cloth at the end of the ceremony. Folds to be explained precisely by the equipment used for displaying the sacred cloth to the faithful. In terms of historicity, we can infer a continuous display of an object that had the characteristics of the Shroud. And this was before its arrival in Europe. And it may be that, at a certain moment, a sindonic object and its copies reached Europe simultaneously. That’s how one might explain the fact that there was a shroud in Paris, and another in Besançon. One of them arrived in Turin. It’s certain that the one in Turin does not have the characteristics of a copy. Because it has been scientifically proven that it is not a painting: a fine old mystery.
The <I>Pray Manuscript</I>, miniature from 1192-1195, National Library of Budapest, Hungary

The Pray Manuscript, miniature from 1192-1195, National Library of Budapest, Hungary

Apart from the fact of the display in Constantinople, what else do we know of the history of the Shroud before its arrival in Savoy?
BENVENUTI: Our Robert de Clary, among other things, writes that “there was no Greek, nor Frank, who knew what happened to this Shroud after the city was conquered”. It should always be remembered regarding Robert de Clary’s report, that it can’t be considered decisive evidence. What he saw displayed in the church of Constantinople may have been a copy. Because, at that time, many copies were made and Byzantine spirituality attributed them value analogous to the original.
Then there is the testimony of a much debated letter of which we have only a late transcript, which says that the despot of Epirus Theodorus Angelus informed Pope Innocent III how the Crusaders had split the large booty from Constantinople: while the Venetians ran off with the treasure in gold, silver and ivory, the Franks took away the relics of saints and especially “the sheet in which Our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after death and before the Resurrection”. According to this letter, the sacred cloth arrived at some point in Athens. A few years later Otto de la Roche, Duke of Athens, donated to St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Besançon, France, a shroud of Christ that shortly afterwards began to be described as “sindon”. In 1349 the Cathedral of St. Stephen was devastated by a fire and it is from that moment that the views of historians begin to diverge: some claim that the relic was lost on that occasion, others that it was replaced by a copy before being transferred to the neighboring Lirey, always in France, by Jeanne de Vergy, the widow of Geoffroy de Charny, who boasted the patronage of the church in that town. For over a century the relic, amid the thousand quarrels that broke out among the ecclesiastical authorities, shared the fate of the lords of Charny. In 1453 it came into the possession of the Savoys and in 1502 Philibert II moved it to Chambery, to a specially built chapel that becomes a place of pilgrimage not only for lowly believers. But again in Chambery, on 4 December, 1532, fire broke out and while the flames destroyed the sacristy of the church, two Franciscans bravely rescued the silver coffer containing the Shroud. The heat caused partial fusion of the metal and the burning of the areas of the linen on which the drops fell, making holes, repaired two years later by the nuns of St. Clare. In 1578 the Shroud was moved from Chambery to Turin through the willingness of Emanuel Philibert of Savoy to satisfy the pious desire of Cardinal Charles Borromeo to pay homage to the relic by a pilgrimage on foot, in thanksgiving for the end of a terrible epidemic of plague. It was precisely the legitimation by the saintly bishop of Milan of the cult of the Shroud that marked the opening of an extraordinary season of devotion. Nor did the fierce criticism of Calvin or, later, Voltaire, diminish the prestige. It had the effect on the contrary of silencing any kind of disbelief in the Shroud within the Catholic world. The scientific phase began in 1898 when, at its public display in the exhibition of Sacred Art Secondo Pia took the famous photographs that started the great debate on the mysterious Turin cloth.
Ten years on from your book, and in the light of the reopening of the case, do you plan to return to the subject?
BENVENUTI: I’m thinking about it. Even though there is too much prejudice and too little truly scientific spirit in regard, that is enquiry based on challenge and comparison of the knowledge produced by the different disciplines. Those who in these years have not lent themselves to pre-emptive denial have been branded as belonging to the Catholic party and the Shroud has been thrown onto the heap of irrational superstitions, generated, according to the forgery adherents, by the dictatorship of faith over reason. The officious disinformation with which the “Shroud case” has been presented in recent years has pinned the forgery in, of all things, the period taken as the cradle of religious mystification. Now, however, thanks to the BBC documentary, a loophole has opened for new research on what remains essentially a mystery. We shall see.

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