Former Walters director Gary Vikan chronicles ‘the greatest deception in the history of Christianity’ | COMMENTARY

A new book about the Shroud of Turin, by former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan, was published in May.
A new book about the Shroud of Turin, by former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan, was published in May. (Pegasus Books)

Allow me to indulge the irresistible and put two publications side by side: Gary Vikan’s new book about a religious hoax from the 14th Century and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report about the so-called “Russian hoax” of 2016.

Both the book and the report are quests for truth. Both provide extensive facts about their respective subjects. But while Vikan is clear in his conclusion — that the famous Shroud of Turin was not, as long purported, the burial cloth used on the body of the crucified Christ — the Senate’s report reflects disagreement on how to characterize, once and for all, what happened in the last presidential election.


President Donald Trump denies that Russian agents worked with his campaign to help him defeat Hillary Clinton; he repeatedly refers to that suggestion as the “Russian hoax.” In Trump World, facts do not matter.

But Russian interference was no hoax. The Kremlin, in fact, wanted Trump to be elected. The major U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian spies interfered in our election on orders of their president, Vladimir Putin. We have known this since at least January 2017 when the director of national intelligence released a declassified version of a report on Russian meddling.


Now the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee has released its report on the matter, finding that representatives of the Trump campaign had communicated numerous times with Russian agents and had welcomed their help.

Still, Republicans on the intelligence committee refused to describe what happened as a coordinated effort, echoing Trump in the appendix of the report: “There was no collusion.”

Democrats saw it differently, noting extensive contacts between Trump advisers and people with connections to Russian intelligence. “This is what collusion looks like,” Democratic senators said.

So, there you have it — one set of facts, two opposing conclusions. Such is the state of Washington.

Fortunately, “The Holy Shroud: A Brilliant Hoax in the Time of the Black Death” was not written by a committee, though its author, Gary Vikan, acknowledges those who disagree with and even disparage his work.

Vikan was director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for nearly 20 years and its curator of medieval art for a decade before that. By the time he took his first job at the Walters in 1985, Vikan had developed a fascination with the Shroud of Turin, said to be Christ’s burial cloth.

The shroud is impressed with the image of the body of a gaunt, bearded man with long hair. The image suggests wounds, front and back, that correspond with Jesus’s suffering. For millions of Christians, and particularly Catholics, the shroud is among the holiest of relics.

But Vikan calls it “the greatest deception in the history of Christianity,” not a miracle but a mysterious work of art. It does not date from biblical times and the Holy Land, he says, but from the Middle Ages, the time of the deadliest pandemic in recorded history, and a French hamlet called Lirey. The shroud suddenly appeared there, Vikan reports, with no explanation, no back story like those that accompany authentic relics.

The “man of the shroud,” he says, does not conform “to what we can conjecture of the appearance of a crucified Jewish male in Roman Palestine but rather to iconographic conventions of Christ” seen in the art of the Middle Ages. The shroud, Vikan says, appears in the historical record for the first time around 1350.

Not everyone was wowed. Vikan’s research shows that the shroud aroused fierce skepticism from the start. A bishop, for one, believed it a fake, contrived to make money from the faithful for the leader of the church in Lirey.

“I could not think of another major relic that entered the world so thoroughly enmeshed in charges of fake and fraud,” Vikan writes.

Still, the shroud became legend. Over the following centuries, it changed hands and moved around, ending up in the cathedral in Turin, Italy. There was considerable debate among the church hierarchy about what to do about it — how to classify it, when and where to display it — but for those who made the pilgrimage to see the shroud, the controversy didn’t matter. They believed. Many still believe.


Vikan, on the other hand, is an art historian hopelessly fascinated by forgeries. While convinced the shroud was a fake, he still did not understand how the image of the man had been made. Even after the shroud had been subjected to carbon-14 dating, and Vikan’s conclusions about its age confirmed, that question remained.

It was Bob Morton, a petroleum company chemist from Oklahoma, who gave Vikan the most convincing answer. Morton and his daughter, Rebecca, figured out that a combination of tannic acid applied to a human body and iron sulfate applied to linen could create a kind of photographic impression like the man of the shroud.

Vikan offers up amusing stories and commentary with a pithy, sometimes self-effacing sense of humor. And, like a barrister before a jury, he makes a strong argument for settling the big question about the shroud, why it’s important to distinguish fact from fiction, even in matters ecclesiastical.

There’s serious scholarship here. In less than 200 pages before addendum and notes, Vikan offers a rich chronicle of one man’s long drive through time to unravel a mystery. And while it’s always a pleasure to read such a fact-based narrative and arrive at that thing called truth, it’s especially appreciated right now.

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