The Turin Shroud has puzzled scholars through the ages but in his new book, The Sign, Thomas de Wesselow reveals a new theory linking the cloth to the Renaissance. For centuries the Turin Shroud, regarded by some as the burial cloth of Jesus, by others as the most elaborate hoax in history, has inspired extraordinary and differing passions.
Popes, princes and paupers have for 700 years been making pilgrimages the length of Europe to stand in its presence while scientists have dedicated their whole working lives to trying to explain rationally how the ghostly image on the cloth, even more striking when seen as a photographic negative, and matching in every last detail the crucifixion narrative, could have been created. And still a final, commonly agreed answer remains elusive, despite carbon-dating in 1988 having pronounced it a forgery.
“That’s what first attracted me,” says Thomas de Wesselow, an engagingly serious 40-year-old Cambridge academic. “I’ve always loved a mystery ever since I was a boy.” And so he became the latest in a long line to discard everything to try to solve the riddle of the Shroud.
Eight years ago, de Wesselow was a successful art historian, based at King’s College, making a name for himself in scholarly circles by taking a fresh look at centuries-old disputes over the attribution of masterpieces of Renaissance painting. Today, he still lives in the university city – we are sitting in its Fitzwilliam Museum café – but de Wesselow has thrown up his conventional career and any hopes of a professorial chair to join the ranks of what he laughingly calls “shroudies”.
“In academia, the subject of the Shroud is seen as toxic,” he reports, “and no one wants to open the can of worms, but try as I might I just couldn’t resist it as an logical puzzle.” For most “shroudies”, though, it is more than just intellectual. It offers that elusive but faith-validating proof that Jesus died exactly as the gospels say he did. But again it gets complicated, for the Vatican, since 1983 the owner of this hotly disputed icon, disappoints “shroudies” by limiting itself to declaring that the burial cloth is a representation of Jesus’s crucified body, not his actual linen wrap. And it has accepted the carbon-dating tests as conclusive.