Book Review of "The Turin Shroud: In Whose Image?"

Professor Daniel C. Scavone
University of Southern Indiana
Copyright 1996 All Rights Reserved
Reprinted by permission.

Review of Lynn Picknett & Clive Prince, THE TURIN SHROUD: IN WHOSE IMAGE?, New York, Harper Collins, 1994.

For years opponents of the Shroud's authenticity have been proclaiming that the image was a painting (McCrone) or a rubbing (Joe Nickell). The argument of this book presupposes that the image on the Shroud is not a painting and, in fact, is that of an actual human body: considerable admissions from the sindonoclast camp. It is a position that concedes that no ancient artistic technique is known by which the anatomically correct human figure on the Turin Shroud could have been manufactured. It accepts that the Shroud fits no medieval artistic genre or style. The Shroud's image is very faint, superficial (it is known that the image on the Turin Shroud resides only on the peaks of the fibers) and lacks artists' pigments and brush strokes. (See Isabel Piczek's article [on this website], "Is The Shroud of Turin a Painting?", demolishing the notion of the Shroud as a painting.)

The title of this book asks "In Whose Image?" The authors provide an answer: Leonardo da Vinci was genius enough to have created it. On this point it is difficult to disagree, judging from the work of Leonardo and Vasari's high praise of his genius. Leonardo's notebooks have revealed an incredibly fertile scientific curiosity and creativity. All would agree in a casual way that IF anyone could have invented a rudimentary method of photography in the Renaissance, he is a plausible candidate. They go further: Only Leonardo could have done it. This is probably not true, as other artists are known to have studied anatomy, experimented with sfumato technique, and, as alchemists, worked with vegetal and mineral chemicals. The authors' next conclusion is one that does not follow by the rules of logic or history: Because Leonardo could have done it, therefore he DID do it. He did it, moreover, not by any method of conventional art, but by means of photography, and the Shroud is proof of it.

Shroud "politics" aside, Leonardo as author of the Shroud is a wonderfully exciting, if sensationalist, idea. It draws strength from the science of radiocarbon (C14) dating, which in 1988 proclaimed, with 95% certainty, that the Shroud was produced in the late Middle Ages between 1260 and 1390. Sadly for the premise of this book, Leonardo was not born until 1452 (died 1519). The C14 labs, however, also reinforce the message of confidence in their dates by adding that they are 99.9% certain the Shroud was produced between 1000 and 1500, making it chronologically possible for Leonardo to have made it.

The Leonardo connection loses virtually its entire scientific underpinning, however, when one notices that the labs are thus only about 5% certain of the extended time span and only 2.5% certain the Shroud could be as late as 1500. They are, after all, 95% certain it was made 1260-1390. Since 1988, the only doubts about these late radiocarbon dates for the Shroud are pointing to a much earlier time, and not in the chronological direction needed by Picknett and Prince. Blissful, the authors further believe that the face of the man on the Shroud is a self-photograph of Leonardo, one that closely resembles his well known self-portrait in red chalk with only the salient highlights of his features sketched in. Meanwhile, they suggest that the body on the Shroud is that of a crucified cadaver studied by Leonardo. So, they suppose, history's proto photo is a clever composite. Everyone knows that the face on the Shroud does seem on sight to be disembodied; this is owing to the absence of image where the Shroud was stretched over the collarbone, too distant from the body at that point to leave its marks. Ockham's razor would prefer this mundane explanation over one so patently and tendentiously striving to make itself respectable.

Though all prior measurements of the height of the Shroud man range between 5'10" and 6', the authors determined his height to be 6'8" to 6'10". Based on this, they note that the head, at 1/9 of the body instead of the average 1/8, is actually too small. So after extolling the genius of Leonardo throughout their pages, Picknett writes, ". . . From our calculations the face belongs to a man who was between 5ft 10in and 6ft tall. But if the image as a whole is so brilliant, what artist in his right mind would get the head so wrong? Could he have done so deliberately?"

This question leads the authors to another assertion: Leonardo was a member of a secret society called the Priory of Sion, which esteemed John the Baptist over Jesus. Therefore, the apparent disembodied head visible on the Shroud man was Leonardo's cipher for the decapitated Baptist. Leonardo's use of his own photo, they argue, was owing to his inordinate vanity, the same that prompted him to encode his own face in his famous portrait of Mona Lisa, wife of Francesco de Giocondo. This theory was confirmed by Lillian Schwartz of Bell Laboratories and Dr. Digby Quested of London, who discovered that it matched up perfectly with the major lines of Leonardo's face in the above-mentioned self-portrait at age sixty. Picknett writes "Leonardo was capable of subtly building his own image into that of his masterpieces; if he had done so with the Mona Lisa, why not with the Shroud?" (It should be noted that Dr. Alan Whanger, retired from Duke University, has demonstrated that the Shroud man's face also bears strong likeness, with hundreds of points of congruence, to 6th c. icons and 7th c. coins; this essentially neutralizes the Leonardo-likeness theory.)

The construction of the Leonardo-photography hypothesis has been as thoroughly thought through as possible. It is unfortunate that, as the authors assert, Leonardo found his discovery too "hot" to mention anywhere in writing. It thus lacks any documentation; it rests on no foundation.

Finally, an illustration of the burial of Jesus in the Hungarian Pray manuscript, firmly dated in the early 1190s, depicts him with hands folded exactly as on the Turin Shroud; on the same page a drawing of the Resurrection clearly bears a configuration of four tiny circles which perfectly reproduce four apparent "poker holes" on the Turin Shroud. A drawing of the Shroud from the year 1516 (prior to the well documented fire of 1532 which caused the major burn marks still visible on the Shroud) in Lierre, Belgium also bears this very configuration. This configuration of four marks, undoubtedly inspired by the Shroud in 1190 is alone sufficient to negate the hypothesis of this book. To summarize: First, the authors ask their readers to believe that because Leonardo was genius enough to have made a primitive camera, ergo he did do it. He then created the Shroud. But he could not say he had done it for certain undocumented reasons. Thus the reasons had to be contrived by the authors. Picknett, a spiritualist, produced a correspondant named "Giovanni," who first put her on to her ideas. This does not suffice as academically acceptible documentation.

Second, the argument that history's proto-photo was a life- sized photo(!) on a fourteen-foot cloth(!) that was a composite(!): double corpse with daubed-on blood and, in separate processes, Leonardo's own head front and back, is a priori far-fetched. The premise is more demanding of faith than is the authenticity of the Shroud. I am led to ask why Leonardo has left us his self-portrait in red chalk and not his photo, and why he would use another body when Vasari notes that his own physique was near-perfect, and everybody knows his exorbitant vanity.

Third, looking at the Turin Shroud, they say this absolute genius stupidly daubed a still flowing bloodstain on the hand of a supposed corpse and allowed other anatomical inconsistencies very unlikely for his IQ. Besides, why would this genius think he required a crucified corpse, knowing full well that he was going to supply actual bloodstains afterwords, and that his own body would do.

Fourth, they use the d'Arcy memorandum for all it is worth to them and forget that his memo acknowledges the presence of a strange "painting" in Lirey in 1389! They play down the Seine medallion, physical evidence which describes the head-to-head arrangement of the body already in Lirey 50 years before Leonardo was born. Their theory cannot be taken seriously.

Finally, as a historian I must note the authors' superficial treatment of Shroud history. They say what may be read anywhere; but historical documentation of the Shroud has gone miles beyond where Joe Nickell stopped. I note their ignorance about the details that refute the d'Arcis memo. Among these, in 1389, supposed year of his memo, his Troyes cathedral's roof caved in and it had to be closed; expenses demanded a draw to bring in the pilgrims and their donations; people accused him "of wanting it for himself," as his own memo states. It is not an outrageous notion.

I note also their ignorance about the Byzantine historians' texts that make the lie of Villehardouin's remarks about the imperial treasuries not being looted; about the uniqueness they ascribe to Robert de Clari's evidence: the references are, in fact, numerous; about Ian Wilson's brilliant reconstruction of the mass of evidence indicating the mandylion was full-length (now including the Gregory referendarius document of 944); and about the evidence of the (Hungarian) Pray Manuscript, placing a cloth with Shroud-like burn marks as early as 1192. These data together have revolutionized the study of the history of the Turin Shroud and placed it on an academically reputable plane much higher than was possible even twenty years ago.

The authors do not seem to have known or cared about these data, creating a presumption of carelessness in presenting their other facts. Radiocarbon dating and absolute certainty aside, historical documents really do tend to support; not to say prove the antiquity of the Shroud. The problem these authors have not risen to understanding is that the subtleties in defining the arguments for and against the Shroud, the energy to follow through to real primary sources, and a sense of what is credible in assessing documents (I note their omission of footnoted references for crucial statements!) are beyond most non-historians.

Allow me to notice a more general and more destructive weakness of the entire composite of explanations for the Shroud image: it cannot explained simultaneously as "a paint layer made up of red ochre or vermillion and collagen tempera" (McCrone), a jeweler's rouge powder rubbing (Joe Nickell), a carbon powder rubbing (Emily A. Craig and Randall R. Bresee, "Image Formation and the Shroud of Turin," in Journal of Imaging Science and Technology, Vol. 38, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 1994, 59-67), an aloes and myrrh powder rubbing (Kersten and Gruber, Das Jesu Komplott), AND a photo. Besides, the results obtained by these "finally-the-truth-about-the-Shroud" methods are, one and all quite poor.

When South African scholar Dr. Nicholas Allen, Chair of Fine Arts at the University of Port Elizabeth, published his Shroud-as-photograph theory in 1993 that, consonant with the radiocarbon dating of the Shroud, his hypothetical photo was made before 1356, he overcame some of the palpable weaknesses of the Leonardo theory. Today we know the ingredients and requirements for making a photo. We can read a children's handbook and make rudimentary home-made pictures. Dr. Allen notes that all the ingredients were available in the 14th c., and all one had to do was suspend the corpse for three to four days in sunlight, at the proper focusing distance from the fourteen-foot cloth that has been treated with silver nitrate or silver sulphate, outside a large camera obscura whose aperture contains a double convex quartz crystal lens fifteen centimeters in diameter and seven milimeters thick, then fix the negative image with ammonia or with urine.

Both of the photography theories found it important to insist that the necessary materials were known much earlier and essentially were "in place" for the right genius. This does not explain why those same ingredients were not exploited in the following centuries of great scientific curiosity that followed: the Renaissance could only come up with a hand-made grid or mirror through which an artist might achieve relative size and perspective in his landscape; a master of photography would not have kept his secret to himself in this age of proto-capitalism and profits. No genius of the 16th century Scientific Revolution could get to photography, nor of the 17th and 18th centuries, ages of photographic realism in painting. The Shroud-as-UNIQUE-photograph theories seem to be founded upon the unlikeliest scenarios, throwing back to a single genius what is common knowledge today, the results of centuries of gradual, groping, painstaking approach to the precisely correct combinations of ingredients and materials for the making of photographs.

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