The Holy Shroud of Turin confirms the terrible punishments inflicted on Our Lord Jesus Christ during the Passion with such extraordinary precision that it has even been called the “Fifth Gospel.”
Meditating on the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, especially during Lent, has always been an occasion of great spiritual consolation and progress in the interior life. Living in the twenty-first century, we are unfortunately forced to live in the hustle and bustle of a technological society. We find it increasingly difficult to “disconnect,” meditate peacefully and lift our minds to consider divine things.
On the other hand, our upbringing teaches us to minimize the role of reasoning. We are increasingly immersed in what Pope Paul VI called the “civilization of the image.” Thus, we must see things with our eyes to believe them.
A Message for Our Times
Perhaps Divine Providence was thinking of us when deciding to wait for the twentieth century to begin to reveal the mysteries of the most precious relic of Christianity: the Holy Shroud of Turin.1
This linen sheet wrapped the lifeless body of Jesus in the tomb. All four evangelists narrate the laying of Jesus in the “nearby new tomb that Joseph of Arimathea had excavated in the rock.” The first three say, “after having lowered him [from the Cross], they wrapped him in a sheet.”
After several vicissitudes, this sheet ended up in the treasury of the House of Savoy in the mid-fifteenth century, where it was kept first in Chambéry, France, and then in Turin, Italy. The Vatican acquired it only in 1983, and it is now found in the Turin Cathedral.
The sheet measures 14 feet long by 3.5 feet wide. It is woven in a herringbone pattern and hand-spun according to techniques used in Palestine in the first century. In the median longitudinal part, we can see the evanescent double imprint (front and back) of the life-size corpse. The body depicted is a male in his thirties with a beard, long hair and a robust constitution. He was five feet, nine inches tall, with typically Semitic features. From the imprint, we can deduce that the Man of the Shroud was tortured, scourged, crucified and pierced in his side by a lance.
All this is visible to the naked eye and has been known since ancient times. Christian tradition has always considered this sheet an authentic relic and held that the image of the Man of the Shroud is a portrait of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Proof of this tradition, for example, can be seen in several Byzantine icons depicting Christ as the Man of the Shroud. Numerous documents dating back to very remote times speak of the relic’s veneration.
However, the relic had to wait until 1898 for an extraordinary discovery that would forever mark its destiny.
The Scientific Saga Begins
On May 25 of that year, the Turin lawyer Secondo Pia photographed the Shroud for the first time. He was amazed when he developed the first two plates: the photographs revealed that the Shroud image naturally functions as a negative! Why? It was undoubtedly a mystery.
Thus, the scientific ‘adventure’ of the Shroud began. It was soon subjected to systematic study with leading-edge technologies. The more scientists studied it, the more baffled they became. The more they discovered its mysteries, the more they realized they were only scratching the surface. In 1959, the International Center for Sindonology was founded in Turin. Later in 1977, the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) was established, bringing together mainly American scholars.
This is not the place to report on their research. Our focus is concentrated on only one aspect: the Shroud’s striking confirmation of the Gospel narrative of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The “Fifth Gospel”
After decades of research, scientists can affirm that the Holy Shroud is even more meticulous in relating, albeit silently, the details of the Passion than the Gospels. STURP Prof. John Heller comments: “The research of the last decades does not contain the slightest information at variance with the narration of the Gospels.”2
Consequently, some began to call the Holy Shroud the “Fifth Gospel” or “the Twentieth-century Gospel.”
This “Gospel” is so rich in details that the French surgeon Pierre Barbet, a famous pioneer of medical studies on the Shroud, went as far as to state: “A surgeon studying the Holy Shroud to meditate on the Passion by going through the different stages of Jesus’ martyrdom can follow His sufferings better than relying upon a great preacher or a holy ascetic.”3
The Agony in the Garden
“In his anguish, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground” (Lk 22:44).
Saint Luke, a doctor, is the only evangelist who describes this episode, which he does with clinical precision. Blood sweating, clinically called hematohidrosis, occurs rarely. It is observed in conditions of great physical weakness accompanied by strong moral shock, emotion and fear, which St. Luke calls “anguish.” There is sudden vasodilation of the subcutaneous capillaries, which break under the sweat glands. Blood mixes with the sweat and seeps out of the pores.
Computer analysis of three-dimensional images of the Man of the Shroud’s face, particularly those of Prof. Giovanni Tamburelli in 1978, shows how, in addition to countless abrasions and small clots, His whole skin surface seems as if soaked in blood. Such a state would be a result of hematohidrosis.
The Slap in Annas’ House
“When he had said these things, one of the servants standing by gave Jesus a blow, saying, Is that how you answer the high priest?” (Jn 18:22).
The Man of the Shroud’s face reveals a large hematoma or mass of clotted blood on the right cheek. His nose is swollen, turned to the right and visibly broken.
The Turin sindonologist Prof. Judica Cordiglia believes this wound was inflicted by a short wooden stick about 2 inches in diameter. The blow caused a profuse nosebleed. Indeed, the Man of the Shroud’s mustache is soaked in blood on the right side, as is His beard.
Modern linguists believe that the term used by Saint John, and normally translated as “slap,” can be interpreted as “beating,” which would reflect the data found in the Holy Shroud.
Injuries and Wounds
“And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed and spat on him; and they went down on their knees to do him homage” (Mk 15:18-19).
The Man of the Shroud shows multiple signs of trauma: swelling on the forehead, browbones, cheekbones, cheeks, lips and nose. The latter is deformed due to the rupture of the dorsal cartilage close to the insertion on the nasal bone, which, however, is intact. Two streams of blood come out of His nose. There are bruises on His face almost everywhere, especially on the right side, which is visibly swollen. His eyebrows are torn, with bones having wounded the skin from the inside. The left cheekbone has several incisions.
Therefore, we deal with a man brutally beaten with sticks, punches and slaps.
“Pilate then had Jesus taken away and scourged” (Jn 19:1 )
The Holy Shroud offers us a very complete, precise and horrendous picture of the scourging. We can count more than 120 blows on the Man of the Shroud. They were inflicted by two strong men, one bigger than the other, on both sides of the victim. They were experts, His chest being the only part of the body that shows no signs of flagellation. In fact, strokes by a flagellum in the pericardial region could cause the early death of the convict. There is no shortage of injuries to the buttocks, which means that the Man of the Shroud was scourged naked.
It was a Roman scourging since the Jews could not exceed 39 blows by law.
The Shroud also allows us to identify two different instruments used for this torture. One, the flagrum taxillatum, consisted of three strips, each with two small lead balls, meaning that each blow caused six bruises. The other had metal hooks at the ends. One struck, the other tore.
By studying the imprints, we can even establish Jesus’ position during the scourging: He was bent over a very short column.
The Crowning with Thorns
“And after this, the soldiers twisted some thorns into a crown and put it on his head and dressed him in a purple robe” (Jn 19:2)
The Man of the Shroud’s head shows at least fifty small but deep puncture wounds consistent with applying a “helmet” of thorny branches rather than a “crown,” properly speaking. The most conspicuous bloodstains correspond with the head’s veins and arteries.
Two rivulets of blood can be seen to the right of those looking at the image. One falls down the hair towards the shoulder; the other drops almost perpendicularly on the forehead toward the eyebrow. These protrude from a puncture wound that injured the frontal branch of the superficial temporal artery. In fact, this blood has a distinctly arterial character. Toward the middle of the forehead, we see a brief flow of venous blood in the shape of an inverted 3, resulting from a lesion to the frontal vein.
The wounds produced by the crown, or rather the helmet of thorns, descend from the back to the nape, where we see hemorrhagic occurrences that repeat the same pattern as the frontal ones. The thorns, deeply embedded, injured some branches of the occipital artery and deeper veins of the posterior vertebral plexus.
The head is full of blood vessels and nerve endings. The pain caused by the crown of thorns, especially during the carrying of the Cross, was undoubtedly horrible.
The Way to Calvary
“And carrying his own cross, he went out to the Place of the Skull or, as it is called in Hebrew, Golgotha” (Jn 19:17).
The Man of the Shroud’s shoulders display a large bruise at the level of the left shoulder blade and a wound on the right shoulder that can be attributed to carrying the patibulum, that is, the horizontal beam of the Cross. His shoulders appear raised, a position correlated to the transport of the beam.
The imprints also show that the beam slipped over His shoulders, producing severe abrasions.
The images reveal a significant amount of earthy material on the Man of the Shroud’s soles, revealing that He walked barefoot.
The Three Falls
“Jesus falls for the first time… Jesus falls for the second time… Jesus falls for the third time” (Way of the Cross, Stations III, VII and IX)
Although unreported by any Gospel, Catholic piety has always venerated the three falls of Our Lord on the way to Calvary.
The falls are very evident on the Holy Shroud. His knees, especially the left one, are skinned. There are traces of blood and earthy material on the left knee. The nose also appears flayed and with traces of earthy material, which shows that Our Lord fell with His face on the ground. This is explainable because He could not protect Himself with His hands tied to the gallows.
“When they reached the place called The Skull, there they crucified him and the two criminals, one on his right, the other on his left” (Lk 23:33)
First, Jesus was stripped. His whole body was torn and covered with a mixture of blood, sweat and dust, which had dried, causing His clothes to stick to the skin. We can imagine the excruciating pain that action caused. In modern hospitals, such an operation is sometimes performed under general anesthesia to avoid the patient’s risk of syncope. Many wounds began to bleed again.
Our Lord was laid on the Cross and nailed to it. His torturers mistook the distance of the lateral holes and thus strongly pulled His right arm to fit until His joints were dislocated. This, too, is visible on the Holy Shroud.
Where Were the Nails Driven In?
The anterior imprint of the Man of the Shroud shows a puncture wound, not in the palm of His hand, as iconographic tradition has it, but in His wrist, corresponding to the so-called Destot space. It is an anatomical passage that easily allows the insertion of a nail without breaking any bone.
The classic view of the nails in His palms is, therefore, excluded. First, the palm would not have supported the body weight. Second, because some metacarpal bones would probably have broken, disproving the prophecy, “all his bones will be kept, not one of them will be broken” (Ps 33:21).
The nails injured the median nerve in the hands, causing the thumbs to flex under the palms, which explains their absence on the Shroud imprint.
As for the feet, the right foot left a complete imprint on the Shroud, while the heel and plantar cavity of the left foot can be seen. Therefore, the two feet were crossed; the left was placed in front, and its sole rested on the back of the right foot, which rested directly on the post of the Cross. They were nailed together.
The bloodstains found on the Shroud correspond perfectly to pierced feet resting on the Cross in the manner described above.
Note also that the wounds of the Man of the Shroud’s hands and feet conform to the square shape of the nails used for Roman crucifixions.
“Jesus cried out in a loud voice saying, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ With these words, he breathed his last” (Lk. 23:46).
He hung from the Cross by His arms without support to keep him upright. Contrary to traditional iconography, the Shroud shows no evidence to indicate the use of a footrest on the Cross. Indeed, the footrest was only introduced in Roman crucifixions in the second half of the first century. Thus, Our Lord could no longer breathe normally due to hanging only by His arms.
In such circumstances, spasms, cramps and suffocations begin and worsen until the intake muscles are blocked. Death occurs from a mixture of asphyxia and generalized shock, here also caused by a heart attack and hemopericardium, as we will explain below.
The image of the Shroud shows the chest muscles contracted in a spasmodic way. The diaphragm is raised, and the abdomen has collapsed. These are typical signs of death from respiratory anxiety, asphyxiation and shock.
The bright red color of the bloodstains is due to a high amount of bilirubin, typically found in those who have been severely traumatized just before the blood was shed. The neatness of the Man of the Shroud’s wounds, caused by the rapid drying of the blood, also indicates that He was severely dehydrated.
The Spear of Longinus
“One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance; and immediately there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34).
On the anterior Shroud imprint, we see a large flow of blood on the left, corresponding to a breach of the skin with the characteristics of a puncture and cut wound. The wound’s margins remained wide and are well delineated, like those inflicted upon a corpse. This wound would be attributable to the thrust of the lance by the Roman soldier. It is a deep wound that perforated the chest wall, explaining the abundance of bloodshed. It was inflicted on a corpse because the dried blood showed its cellular part had separated from the serous component.
This evidence supports a very reliable hypothesis on the causa mortis of Our Lord Jesus Christ: a heart attack followed by hemopericardium.
This cause of death can be deduced from a study of the dried blood. It is very dense and shows lumps separated by a halo of serum. This condition is typical of a man who dies due to a large accumulation of blood in the chest area, the so-called hemothorax. Blood accumulation can be explained by the rupture of the heart and the consequent spillage of blood between it and the outer pericardial layer. This blood flow causes excruciating pain, which always corresponds to a cry, after which the individual immediately expires.
Therefore, the lance wound on the crucified man, by then a corpse, would have allowed the shedding of the blood already separated from the serum. A hematological examination reveals that this blood from the right side is “dead” blood, that is, released post mortem, while the blood on the forehead, wrist, nape and feet soles is “alive,” that is, it was shed when the Man of the Shroud was still alive.
On the other hand, penetrating from the right side to the height of the fifth intercostal space, the lance would never have been able to reach the heart, as the Roman pillum did not have a long enough blade.
Death from hemopericardium causes immediate cadaveric rigidity, found precisely in the Man of the Shroud.
The Laying in the Sepulcher
“They took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, following the Jewish burial custom. … Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (Jn. 39:40)
Everything above shows that the Holy Shroud of Turin wrapped the lifeless body of a crucified man. The presence of aloe and myrrh, substances used in Palestine to bury corpses at the time of Christ, has been identified on the fabric.
According to medical studies, to obtain the blood markers seen on the Holy Shroud, the crucified must have been wrapped in the cloth within two and a half hours after death and remained no more than 40 hours since there are no traces of putrefaction.
“On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering, they could not find the body of the Lord Jesus. As they stood there puzzled about this, two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appeared at their side. Terrified, the women bowed their heads to the ground. But the two said to them, ‘Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here; he has risen” (Lk 24:1-6).
In the dorsal imprint of the Holy Shroud, the dorsal and deltoid muscles appear naturally arched and not flattened, as it should have happened with a body lying on its back on a stone slab. On the other hand, the different spots on the back that would naturally touch the surface are not crushed. There is no bodyweight effect, meaning that when making the imprint on the cloth, the Man of the Shroud floated in the air in a state of levitation without touching the stone.
How was the Shroud imprint made? The scientists respond that “the corpse vaporized as it were, emitting a radiation that would have caused the imprint. … the body was very likely in levitation when producing this radiation.”4 In scientific terms, that means the corpse became “mechanically transparent” for the burial sheet.
Let us hear from STURP professor Aaron Upinsky: “One of the greatest mysteries of the Shroud is how the corpse never touched the fabric while detaching itself from it. He flew away without altering the fibers in the slightest, without tearing them, and without modifying the already existing bloodstains. That is impossible for a normal body, subject to the laws of nature. A sore-covered corpse could never be taken off a sheet without altering it and leaving no traces. No science denies this decisive fact. It can be explained solely by the ‘dematerialization’ of the body, which flies off the sheet while no longer subject to the laws of nature. That is precisely what Christians call the ‘Resurrection.’”5
To conclude, let us quote some words of noted Catholic thinker Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira:
“The Holy Shroud is a permanent miracle. By allowing photography to show His Divine Face, Our Lord made a gesture of mercy, especially for our times. The Holy Shroud is such a marvel, such a proof of the existence of Our Lord, His Resurrection, and everything we believe that the Faithful in every Catholic environment should continuously talk about it.”6
- Giulio Fanti and Emanuela Marinelli wrote an excellent book on the matter, Cento prove sulla Sindone [One Hundred Proofs on theShroud], Padova, Edizioni Messaggero, 2000. This book also contains a complete bibliography on the subject.
- John H. Heller, Report on the Shroud of Turin, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
- Pierre Barbet, La Passione di N. S. Gesù Cristo secondo il chirurgo, LICE, Torino, 1951.
- Julio M. Preney, O Santo Sudario de Turim – O Evangelho para o Século XX, Ediçoes Loyola, Sao Paulo, 1992, p. 90-92.
- Arnaud-Aaron Upinsky, interview with Catolicismo, June 1998.
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveria, lecture to Brazilian TFP members and volunteers, Sao Paulo, April 28, 1984.