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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Understanding Art; Misunderstanding Premodern Man; A Review of "The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection" by Thomas de Wesselow

There is an oft-repeated falsehood about the Shroud of Turin: Scientists have proven the Shroud of Turin to be a hoax, but Catholics believe in it. This lie serves the powerful, popular and deadly stereotype, a dichotomy between scientists, all of whom are atheistic and rational, and people of faith, all of whom are delusional and stupid.

In fact most Catholics have either never heard of the Shroud of Turin, or don't care much about it. Rather, it is scientists, and it is technology, that have earned the Shroud worldwide headlines and jaws agape in wonder.

Before 1898, the Shroud was just one Catholic relic among many. On May 25, 1898, Secondo Pia took the first photographs of the Shroud. What he saw in his darkroom was so shocking he almost dropped the photographic plate. When he shared his discovery with the world, he was accused of fakery. Before Pia's photograph, the Shroud's image was just a very vague, anthropomorphic smudge on a length of linen. Pia's negative, for the first time, revealed the spooky, detailed realism of the Shroud. It depicts an historically – not artistically – correct Roman crucifixion, including scourging with a Roman flagrum, crowning with thorns, nudity, nailing through heels and wrists, and piercing with a Roman lancea, all in accord with Gospel Passion narratives.

In 1902, agnostic zoologist Yves Delage, inspired by study of Pia's photo, declared the Shroud to be authentic. Around the same time, Canon Ulysse Chevalier, a Catholic cleric, declared the Shroud to be a fake. Again – it's simply not true that champions of the Shroud are all on one side of an imaginary divide between brainy atheists and simpleminded Christians.

In 1978, the STURP research team revealed further uncanny features. It was their findings, the data of scientists, not the beliefs of people of faith, that made the Shroud the compelling puzzle that it is.

One of the challenges of Shroud scholarship is that it is profoundly multidisciplinary. Important contributions to Shroud scholarship have been made by Barrie Schwortz, a photographer, Max Frei, a criminologist, Ray Rogers, a chemist, John Jackson, a physicist, Mechthild Flury Lemberg, a master textile restorer, and Frederick Zugibe, a physician.

Shroud scholars publish in diverse peer-reviewed journals, where their work on this or that aspect of the Shroud is assessed, not by the standards of Shroud partisans or skeptics, nor those of Catholics or atheists, but by the intellectual demands of a given field. Thus, you have peer-reviewed publications on the Shroud appearing in journals like Applied Optics, Thermochimica Acta, and that bestseller, favorite of beach readers everywhere, Radiation Effects and Defects in Solids.

This point cannot be emphasized enough. Scholars outside their own fields have no authority to comment on scholarship. When, on October 13, 1988, Professor Edward Hall stated that "Someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and forged it," he could not have made a bigger public fool of himself. Hall might have been an expert in carbon dating, but his comment reveals his complete ignorance of items of expressive culture. Similarly, skeptic Joe Nickell claims he knows how the Shroud was made. Nickell's PhD is in English, and his work on the Shroud was not peer reviewed.

The Shroud has long needed a humanities scholar. I addressed this need in my 2000 post on Barrie Schwortz's Shroud dot com website. An excerpt: "One might argue, based on carbon dating, that the shroud is a simple forgery, dating from the middle ages. That theory is not best tested exclusively by hard science. Rather, insights from the social sciences and the humanities are necessary in cracking this mystery." That is the gift of de Wesselow's book. As an expert in medieval European art, de Wesselow can address many of the questions I asked in that 2000 Shroud dot com post.

De Wesselow's prose is elegant. It is clear he has done a massive amount of research. His book is beautifully illustrated; the illustrations carefully mesh with the points he is trying to make. The book conveys the intellectual excitement of a scholar doggedly pursuing his quarry. De Wesselow is not a Christian, and his prose struck me as a tad Christophobic. He is especially annoyed with the Catholic Church, eg the Church has a "sustained stranglehold on intellectual endeavor" (5). I wondered if he was merely trying to boost his credentials as an objective scholar by distancing himself from Christianity.

De Wesselow carefully and selectively reviews the astounding research of previous scholars. He brings his own considerable expertise as an historian of medieval European art to the question. He points out detail after detail that sinks the assertion that the Shroud is a medieval hoax. Just one among many – chemist Alan D Adler discovered that there is no image under the blood. No artist would put the blood on first, and then create the image, de Wesselow points out (104). The Shroud, de Wesselow observes, is exactly *inartistic* (138) – thus not a hoax. I found de Wesselow's treatment of the blood on the Shroud to be especially strong, if a bit gruesome reading. In short, de Wesselow believes the Shroud to be the authentic burial cloth of the historical Jesus. He believes the image was formed by a natural process, a Maillard reaction, a theory advanced by chemist Ray Rogers.

Where de Wesselow's book goes wrong is his theory that Jesus' disciples mistook the Shroud as the risen Jesus. De Wesselow quotes from a wide array of sources to argue that pre-modern people fudged the difference between effigies and living human beings. De Wesselow works very hard at this, but he fails. He fails because of the matter of credentials. De Wesselow is an art historian, and his expertise in that area contributes to his understanding of the Shroud. He is not a scholar of the worldview of pre-modern people, and he doesn't understand them.

I've lived in pre-modern villages in Africa and Asia. My neighbors did have interior lives that differed from mine, but they could differentiate between an effigy and a human being. They could span animist, magical thinking and rational thought. In the Himalaya, I became very ill. On my behalf, my Hindu/animist neighbors chanted, offered food to idols, and burned incense. They *also* insisted that I see a doctor and take medicine. My neighbors told me that a local girl had been visited by Vishnu in the form of a snake, and that they were on a pilgrimage to see this wonder. I asked if they truly expected to see a real, three dimensional snake. They kind of shrugged. Not really, they admitted. It's just a pilgrimage. French ethnologist Marcel Griaule had a similar experience with Ogotemmeli, a Dogon wise man in Mali. Griaule realized that Ogotemmeli was telling him a story that could not be literally true – yet Ogotemmeli told it as true. Griaule asked Ogotemmeli point blank what was going on. Ogotemmeli responded that he was speaking of symbolic truth. For "symbolic," Ogotemmeli used the phrase, "word of this lower world." Ogotemmeli believed in both worlds – concrete reality and spiritual reality. He never lacked the ability to differentiate between the two.

CS Lewis noted that the Gospel writers were perfectly capable of differentiating between myth – things believed to be true in some other dimension – and concrete reality. Lewis called the Gospels "reportage."

Indeed, one fatal flaw in de Wesselow's otherwise admirably supported theory: he relies on the Gospels as reportage for part of his theory, and jettisons the Gospels as reportage for the other half of his theory. Yes, the Gospel writers were in touch enough with concrete reality to produce an accurate accounting of a crucifixion, but they were so out of touch with concrete reality that they could not differentiate between a piece of linen and a living man.


  1. Dear Danusha,
    thanks for drawing my attention to your review. I don't have your email address, so i'm responding here.
    I'm glad you appreciate my analysis of the Shroud as a historical artefact. I've had a look at the questions you posted on and they're precisely the questions I asked myself initially. Unfortunately, it is much easier for humanities scholars to duck them than to take them on.
    Regarding your criticisms of my Resurrection theory, just a few brief comments.
    Nowhere in my book do I argue that the disciples (or the Gospel writers) couldn't differentiate between 'a piece of linen and a living man'. I argue that the interpretation of the Shroud revolved around the issue of Jesus's person, a concept that isn't reducible to the physical human being. As I try to explain, the Shroud image could have been seen as a 'sign' of his postmortem existence, and the obvious way to interpret such a 'sign' in first-century Palestine would have been via the language of resurrection. The tendency to confuse - or fuse - persons and their images (not images and 'living men') is universal, as a great deal of art history and anthroplogy shows.
    (My credentials, by the way, do relate to the study of pre-modern peoples' world-views, especially their understanding of images. The mindset of medieval Europeans certainly wasn't modern, and African and Indian villagers are hardly closer to 1st-century Judeans.)
    Lastly, regarding the use of the Gospels as historical evidence, I don't treat any of them as 'reportage', nor is my choice of which passages/details to credit and which not arbitrary, as you imply. In the first place, I use historical criteria to decide which elements are likely to be historical, which not. And I then analyse the more reliable looking data in relation to my hypothesis, which is how all historical theories are developed.
    Thanks for the interest you've taken in my work, and let's hope more humanities/social scientists take up the baton soon. There's certainly a great deal more to be said,

    1. thank you to Thomas de Wesselow for his thoughtful reply to my blog post.

  2. This is interesting. I must read your book, Thomas! I wonder if it is consistent with premodern worldviews to take a sign of postmortem existence and create experiential stories around the person perceived to exist in such a way and also to martyr oneself out of devotion to that person? Would a sign induce such behavior? To what other signs and stories in the premodern world do they compare? It would seem to be the realm of the humanities and social sciences to explore. Like you, I look forward to any in these fields who would take up the baton.