Friday, June 19, 2015

Shrouded in Mystery (I bet that one’s been used before)

This mystery is far from wrapped up!

(Note: see 21 June postscript)

As a bit of light relief I thought I’d make a few comments on this BBC article on the Turin Shroud:

Even if one accepts the 1989 radiocarbon 14 dating which puts the shroud between about 1260 and 1390, the shroud is, as the article says,  “a deeply puzzling object”.

The radiocarbon dating is consistent with the first historical reference to the shroud which the BBC article gives as 1357 in Lirey, France. (Although Wikipedia thinks 1390 is more certain). I’m hardly an authority on medieval art or techniques, but it strikes me that for the shroud to be a work of art of considerable technical expertise we would have to push the artifact well into the Renaissance; it is far too early for that. In any case the article suggests that the material evidence for the shroud being a painting is slim. That leaves us with various mechanical and/or natural means of generating what seems to be a very realistic looking, technically correct even, picture of a crucified man. In this connection the article goes on to consider some possibilities. Viz: Various chemical reactions in the cloth catalyzed by the presence of a real dead body or perhaps it was created by skilled medieval technologists who knew enough to make a crude photo of an effigy or may be even of a crucified dead body. But it turns out there are problems with all these explanations.

If we assume that the cloth is the genuine article and we have no inhibitions about invoking fairly exotic processes in its formation, there is still a question in my mind:  When the image was formed presumably the cloth would have been wrapped tightly round the body of Christ. I suppose one really needs to do some experimentation with real shrouds and know something about first century Jewish funerary practices, but off the top of my head I would have thought that this wrapping would so distort the receiving medium of the cloth that the image would hardly look like two photographic plates taken front and back!* But if one is willing to invoke exotic processes in the formation of the image, no doubt the imagination can soon fix this little query!

And finally an irony: Aficionados of evangelical atheism, of course, won’t countenance even a hint of doubt about the natural or human origins of the shroud image.  But guess who else detests this very Catholic artifact of devotion and is thoroughly committed to the idea that it is a fake?  Take a look at an extract from a letter to the May Premier Christianity magazine in response to an article on the Turin Shroud the month before:

John’s Gospel says that Jesus’ head was covered by a cloth separate from the linen Shroud.  As the Turin Shroud is in one piece it cannot be genuine. It has no place in a true engagement with the risen Christ. The Shroud has been shown by many historical tests to be a 14th century fake, dating from a time awash with similar artifacts. The pieces of “evidence” in the article sidestep those conclusive proofs. The article is a disingenuous attempt at promoting credulous superstition. That leaves with me with real concern that Premier Christianity has put its name at risk.

Now it may well be the shroud is a fake, but I would certainly not want to argue along the lines of this naive piece of fundamentalist prejudice: It doesn’t follow that the presence of a head cloth entails the absence of a full length shroud – one would have to delve into the history of the funerary practices of the time before one could use this head cloth reference as a basis to assert with any level of confidence that “it cannot be genuine”. Moreover, head cloth or no head cloth it would all very much depend on the process of image formation, a process which if it involved the “supernatural” would introduce so many possibilities that we've no knowing what could happen under such circumstances! The BBC article appears not to be aware of those “conclusive proofs” that the letter writer claims exist and in any case is science ever absolutely conclusive? And where are those "similar artifacts" of the period comparable with the Shroud's apparent expertise?

I’m not quite sure what evangelical tradition this fundamentalist is coming from: Fundamentalists who style themselves as “Reformed Christians”, who loathe the Catholic Church and are still fighting the Reformation would certainly not accept that such a “heretical” institution is the custodian of the real shroud of Christ. But a Reformed Christian is unlikely to write to a charismatically flavored magazine like Christianity. So perhaps this person is what I call a reformo-charismatic. But whatever: Notice that as is the wont of fundamentalism we find juxtaposed with the superlatives of high devotion (like “true engagement with the risen Christ”) the utmost spiritually condemning terms; in this case accusations of hypocrisy, dishonesty and the promoting of superstition!  This is why I don’t get on with fundies (and some evangelicals) – even when their conclusions may well be right I still don’t agree with them. This is mainly because they are so arrogantly certain of their opinions and so ready to accuse more liberal Christians of heresy and blasphemy! What’s wrong with a bit of self-skepticism, self-doubt and self-criticism? Everything in the fundamentalist's eyes: To criticize self is to criticize one's opinions and to criticize one's opinions is to criticize the Bible where those opinions are claimed to originate; and that is tantamount to criticizing God himself! Such intellectual vice!

* This query extends to all explanations that posit the formation of the image whilst the body was wrapped; but it is only a query: May be laying the body on one half of the shroud and then gently draping the other half over the body generates the sort of relation between shroud and body we are looking for.

Postscript (21 June)

So what's my opinion of this object: Real or Fake? That could be another false dichotomy as I shall explain. A less loaded question is: Is the shroud from the first century or the late middle ages? Although I have a measure of open mindedness about this puzzling object, on balance I think it originates from the late middle ages. This is because I find the coincidence of the radiocarbon dating with the historical references fairly compelling: If a miraculous first century image formation process somehow had the effect of distorting the radiocarbon dating it seems unlikely that it would contrive such a coincidence.  Alternatively, if the cloth has become contaminated in someway (e.g. with repairs) during its passage through history would this have the likely effect of returning a radiocarbon dating that coincided with the date of its first historical reference?

There is also an internal consistency question that arises if one is prepared to accept that the shroud is a product of exotic paranormal processes. If such processes are available is it just possible that the image could conceivably have been impressed on a late medieval cloth in response to the psyche of the medieval mindset, a mindset that as we know was obsessed with relics? After all, there are claims of paranormal images having been imprinted upon photographic plates, floor tiles and even human bodies. In fact, perhaps even God himself arranged for this to happen in order to give post black death medieval devotion something to hook on! It it is also conceivable within the paranormal paradigm that God inspired skilled medieval workmen to do his bidding! Who knows? Of course, these sorts of hypotheses are unlikely, but if you are prepared to accept the miraculous in the formation of the image, these candidates should be weighed and rejected or selected.

I would love to think the object is the real thing, but as I have said "real or fake" may be inappropriate categories expressing an implicit valued judgement. Perhaps the Catholic church has the right idea in not commenting one way or the other. If the shroud is a 14th century creation (as opposed to a "fake") it still remains a very singular object and a very realistic depiction of the end result of crucified suffering. Whether it be a work of art, a medieval technological feat, or perhaps even a  record of some 14th century paranormal event, it nevertheless is so remarkable in its execution that like any really good piece of art it inspires; and that can't be bad - unless you are an evangelical atheist or an artless fundamentalist Christian!

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