B.G. Hilton – Author

In Search Of… S04E07 The Shroud of Turin

We open on a shot of a cross on a hill, presumably swiped from an old biblical movie. We move on to crowds lining up to see the shroud itself. But, surprisingly, we’re also introduced to a ‘young skeptic’ who has a non-miraculous theory on the shroud.

In Search of S04E07 The Shroud of Turin
This is an actual screenshot of this episode, presented without any editing on my part.

There’s some quite interesting footage of the carnival atmosphere outside of Turin cathedral. Nimoy compares people buying religious souveneirs to medaeval pilgrims. Then we look at the shroud itself, looming up out of darkness into closeup. Nimoy’s beautiful narration carries this part, as the shroud itself is visually kind of unimpressive.

We interview the Rev Francis Philas (sp?) an American Catholic theologian. He talks with great enthusiasm about the shroud, and how it looks so much better in person and from a distance than you do from up close. If true, this explains a lot of the rather unimpressive shots I’ve seen of the relic. Francis was part of a team that examined the shroud, subjecting it to ‘many tests’.

We move on to a history of the shroud, illustrated by some interesting medieval paintings. He tries to make a fairly unambiguous line from the Bible about Mary seeing two men in white cloth in Jesus’ tomb into a garbled description of the shroud. We go further into the history of the shroud, see a wonderfully cheesy (and short) re-enactment of the discovery of the shroud after it was supposedly lost and we’re done.

Now Nimoy, in a three piece suit, is standing in a dark room in front of a crucifix and some candles set up to look like an altar. This has the odd and probably unintentional effect of making him seem more Jewish than usual. His narration meanders into somewhat blaming the Crusades on the search for the shroud, but then semi-walks back from that. More reenactments, and then back to the shroud. I learned something I didn’t know — but maybe should have guessed — which is that the shroud is very seldom displayed.

Now we go into a very weird piece of amateur art history. The iconography of Jesus in Western art is made into some sort of weird mystery – why does Jesus (whose appearance is not described in the Gospels) seem so similar across a range of many paintings? I suspect that even asking that question would give a real art historian a headache, but here In Search Of decides that all religious artists were unknowingly following a chain of master to apprentice going back to the shroud, the original physical representation of Jesus.

It’s weird.

Now the best re-enactment ever. A guy with a very 1970s hair-and-stache combo is in Victorian clothing in a cathedral, armed with a huge old timey-camera. This is Secundo Pier, the first person to ever photograph the shroud. And then he’s smoking a cigar in his darkroom, awesome! We’re told that Pier’s photo shows face on the shroud much more clearly. His negative looked like a positive image.

(Kids! If you don’t know what a photographic negative is, ask your parents).

Supposedly, this triggered ‘intensive scientific investigation’, Nimoy says, before he demonstrates how photographic negatives work. I don’t quite follow the significance, but I guess it’s like that In Search Of  thing where if something old timey looks kind of like something modern, then that’s what it really is.

Reverend Francis challenges anyone to show how these marks could have gotten on the cloth, which is interesting because the teaser at the beginning of the show promised someone who will try to do just that. But we don’t go to him, we go to a weird plaster cast which is supposed to be a model of the figure in the shroud.

There’s now a discussion of how traditional religious iconography shows nail wounds in Jesus’ hands, whereas in the shroud the blood seems to be coming from the wrists. There’s an interesting, if gruesome sequence showing a scientist actually nailing the hands and wrists of cadavers to pieces of wood to see if they could support the weight of a human body.

Is it wrong that I’d rather see an episode about that bit?

Anyway, the conclusion was that nails through the hands wouldn’t work to hold an adult to a cross but through the wrist would. So the image in the shroud veers away from traditional but incorrect Christian iconography to show a more likely image of Jesus. You remember Jesus? The guy whose appearance in Christian iconography is derived from this shroud…

I have a headache.

Anyway, Rev Francis explains that the image was probably fixed in the shroud by ‘some type of radiation.’ He’s immediately followed by Joe Nichol, a skeptic investigator who creates an image very similar to the shroud using a piece of wet cloth, a bar relief, some paint and a dauber. Even has the same negative/positive effect when photographed. I don’t know if Nichol is right, but his description of his technique and the thinking that went into it has a clarity that is unusual in this show.

Rev Francis claims that Nichol’s idea is wrong ‘on at least two dozen counts’. If that’s so, it’s unfortunate that he bases his rebuttal on some of some very weak flaws amongst those twenty-four. He argues that unnamed Catholic pilgrims who saw the image felt that forgery was impossible, which is meaningless. More reasonably, he argues that pollen from the region of Judea was found on the cloth, which was not a terrible argument to be made in the 1970s. More recently, it’s been shown that pollen from all around the world can be found on the shroud — which is consistent with it being a destination for pilgrims from around the world. He also argues that the position of the nail wounds in the wrists argues against medieval forgery which is a fair point, but not really conclusive.

There’s a series of still pictures of a team of scientists examining the shroud. Nimoy says that their results would bring controversy, but didn’t say what they were. He goes on to discuss radiocarbon dating. At the time, there had been no carbon dating of the Shroud, because it would require too large a sample of the relic to be destroyed in testing. This part involves an interview with an elderly Italian countess, for some reason. Anyway, the Shroud was later tested using less destructive techniques and found to be medieval, for all the difference that made.

Here’s the thing. I’m not a religious man, but let’s say for the sake of argument that miracles happen and this shroud is a miracle. Science doesn’t really have a way to judge whether a miracle took place. It can examine an object or event and find it anomalous, sure, and some people may – rightly or wrongly to believe that this anomaly has divine origins. But science can’t test supernatural explanations. No scientist can prove that God didn’t put His son’s image on a piece of cloth and then alter the decay of carbon isotopes within the material so that it seems thirteen hundred years younger than it is. No scientist can prove that He did. Science works within our understanding of the laws of nature, and a miracle implies the suspension of those laws. Rev Francis, to his credit, understands this and tries to argue that the shroud might help prove the non-miraculous event of the Crucifixion, rather than the miracle of the Resurrection. 

If it’s any consolation to believers, unhappy that scientists can’t convince everyone that you’re right, bear in mind that scientists also can’t convince everyone that global warming is real or even if the Earth is round. Having a stamp on your pet theory that says ‘science’ isn’t going to be the game-changer that you might believe, so there’s no point complaining that you don’t have it.

Wow, now I’ve gone and depressed myself.


“As of the moment, we have to take the word of the experts in physics and related sciences, who think the best theory from the electronic experimentation would lead to some type of radiation.”

Summing Up

Music: 6/10, Mundane explanation offered: 8/10, Nimoyness: 7/10, Weirdness: 3/10, Interesting subject: 4/10. Overall: 28/50. Pass

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B.G. Hilton - Author