Is it a brilliant medieval forgery? Or the holiest of relics, the burial shroud of Jesus?
The question seemed to have been settled in 1988, when radiocarbon dating tests performed by independent laboratories in Oxford, England; Zurich, Switzerland; and Tucson, Ariz., indicated that the Shroud of Turin was created during the 14th century.
But each day thousands of people line up outside the cathedral in Turin to gaze at the shroud, which is being displayed for the first time since 1978 and only the fourth time this century.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of a photograph of the shroud, taken during an exhibition by amateur photographer Secondo Pia, which revealed a startling image that has still not been adequately explained: When Pia looked at the negative produced on his film, he saw the image from the shroud in detail and clarity.
He discovered that the image of the man on the shroud is actually a photographic negative.
"To try to interpret it as the product of some unknown medieval faker seems rather like trying to argue for the Taj Mahal being a mere geological accident," writes Ian Wilson, author of "The Blood and the Shroud: New Evidence That the World's Most Sacred Relic Is Real."
The shroud itself is a linen sheet measuring about 14.5 feet by 4 feet. There are burn marks, water stains and two triangular patches that were added to it after a fire in 1532. Clearly visible is the image of a long-haired, bearded man with hands folded. There are marks that correspond with the crown of thorns, the lance wound in his side, nail wounds in his hands and feet, and the lashing that Jesus endured in the Gospel accounts of his crucifixion.
The shroud's documented history begins in the 1350s in Lirey, France, when a nobleman, Geoffrey de Charney, deposited it in a church he had founded.
As Wilson notes in his book, "The radiocarbon dates [1260-1390] matched unerringly closely to the time in the 1350s when the shroud had made its European debut in the suspiciously tiny French village of Lirey.
"They seemingly confirmed a memorandum that the French Bishop Pierre d'Arcis had written to his Pope in the year 1389, advising him that according to his [d'Arcis'] predecessor of the 1350s, Bishop Henri of Poitiers, the Shroud had been 'cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it, to wit, that it was a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed,' " Wilson writes.
But Wilson is not a shroud skeptic. His book argues that there may be reasons to doubt the accuracy of the carbon dating. Several shroud researchers have reached the same conclusion and are using the occasion of the exhibition to publish their theories.
Dr. Gilbert R. Lavoie, a Needham, Mass., physician who has studied the shroud since 1961, recently wrote "Unlocking the Secrets of the Shroud," in which he recounts years of detective work using his background as a medical doctor to prove the authenticity of the relic. He found that the blood marks bore the characteristics of blood that had clotted before the shroud was laid on the body.
His most startling discovery had to do with what his examination of the shroud indicated about the position of the body it covered.
"For centuries, it's always been believed that the image of the man in the shroud was a man lying in burial," Lavoie says. "However, in my studies I discovered the shadows and the flow of the hair going down to the shoulders indicates he was not lying in burial, but is suspended in midair.
"This caused us to ask the question, 'Is this the moment between death and life, is this image a reflection of the moment of the resurrection?' "
Wilson points to the research of Dr. Leoncio A. Garza-Valdes, a pediatrician and adjunct professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Garza-Valdes says that fibers of the shroud are covered with a bioplastic coating similar to a varnish, caused by bacteria on the cloth's surface. The coating is clear and had gone undetected.
Garza-Valdes, a collector of pre-Columbian artifacts, says he discovered the existence of such coatings in 1983 after a similar coating led two art connoisseurs to incorrectly date a Mayan jade carving he owned and label it fake.
When Garza-Valdes scraped the coating and analyzed it, he found that it was organic. Garza-Valdes traveled to Turin in 1993 and obtained leftover fibers from the man who snipped samples from the shroud for the 1988 radiocarbon dating. In his lab, he found that about 60 percent of the fibers were coated with the bioplastic.
"If you have an unsuspected contaminant, then you are going to have a wrong reading," he says. "If you ask me about the amount of plastic coating on the [shroud's] fibers, I'd say I can tell you there was enough polymer to skew the age of the textile by 1,300 years, because we have over 60 percent of the fiber that is plastic."
Even more intriguing, Garza-Valdes says he was able to study samples that were taken from what are suspected blood stains on the shroud that would have come from the area where the crown of thorns had been.
"I did several tests for the presence of blood and they were positive," he says. The blood had X and Y chromosomes, he says, indicating it was the blood of a male. Garza-Valdes will publish the results of his research next month in "The DNA of God."
Poppycock, says Walter McCrone, a Chicago microanalyst who studied the shroud's fibers under a microscope in 1979. His conclusion is that the shroud is a painting created about 1355 for a new church in need of a pilgrim-attracting relic.
"I've worked on a lot of paintings. Authenticating paintings is my business," McCrone says. "I know pigments when I see them. What I found then was just plain paint, very simple."
Garza-Valdes has already butted heads with Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini, archbishop of Turin, who ordered all samples of the shroud returned and testing halted after media reports that researchers were trying to establish the DNA of the blood sample with an eye to possible cloning.
Garza-Valdes dismisses such talk: "That is for a Michael Crichton novel, like 'Jurassic Park.' "
Still, the media reports were too much for the cardinal. In a letter in July 1996, Saldarini told Garza-Valdes that since he had not been officially authorized to test the samples of the shroud, his research could not be recognized.
Garza-Valdes is diplomatic, but firm. "The test was not official, but that doesn't mean it's not authentic," he says. "You need to make a difference between a true sample and an official sample."
As to the shroud, Garza-Valdes says he is keeping an open mind: "Until this moment, I have not found any reasons why the shroud of Turin cannot be the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth."
Pub Date: 5/10/98