Still Shrouded in Mystery

It was sometime in the late 1970s—or was it the early 1980s? The priest in charge marched us to the school’s lecture theatre where we were soon plunged into darkness as a large screen lit up.

This was no Hollywood fare, however, but a film about the Turin Shroud. To this day, I can remember sitting there, mesmerized by what looked and sounded like any well-made television documentary but which seemed to suggest that the relic was more, much more, than merely an object of piety.

The film in question was The Silent Witness (1978). It was the work of David Rolfe who went on to produce three other films on the Shroud. All four have been collected into a box set and are now released by Ignatius Press.

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It was interesting to watch The Silent Witness again, many decades after my first viewing. If anything, I enjoyed the film more. The filmmaking was dated, but in a refreshing way: it compares well with the all too-contrived documentary style that appears on television today. The Silent Witness is a period piece, but not just of television journalism.

That The Silent Witness was even made, let alone that it should have had the impact it did upon release, is curious to say the least. Interest in the Shroud in the English-speaking world grew rapidly on account of the film and Ian Wilson’s 1978 book, The Turin Shroud. The book was a best seller; the film smashed box office records and won a British Academy Award. This sparked even more media interest. By Easter of 1978 the front cover of The Sunday Times Magazine carried a picture of the negative facial image on the Shroud with the enigmatic headline: The Face on the Shroud. By the late 1970s, this ancient relic had ‘arrived’: an object of intense twentieth century media curiosity.

The-Shroud-of-TurinFrom that time, there were the first speculations about the possibility of carbon dating the Shroud. In 1981, an article in The Times reported that “ten tons of machinery” had been delivered to a research facility at Oxford University, observing that this delivery could “rewrite history”—the piece heralded the arrival of the most advanced carbon dating process then available; the article went on to speculate that one of the first artefacts upon which this process could throw light was the Turin Shroud. It was seven years later that this prediction came true. In July 1988, The Times reported how samples taken from the Shroud were handed over to the Oxford laboratory, and that similar samples were also being sent to other laboratories in Zurich and Arizona for testing. The results were to be known by September of that year. Anticipation mounted, as a much hoped for scientific and credible dating of the Shroud was promised. All eyes were now upon the scientists involved and what they would discover.

As we know, that September, sitting in front of a board with the dates “1260-1390” chalked upon it, the Oxford-based scientists transfixed the eyes of the media when they declared the Shroud a ‘fake’. It is worth looking at a picture of those in front of that board. Perhaps it is my imagination but there seems to be an air of satisfaction in those present. Their chalked dates seem to read as a curt dismissal of all that is not “scientific,” a rebuff to simple believers in the authenticity of this proposed relic of the Passion and all it symbolized. Following years of articles enthusiastically investigating the historical and theological possibilities of the mysterious cloth housed in Turin Cathedral, there was now an abrupt media volte-face as a silence descended upon the subject. Nevertheless, on October 13, 1988, a month or so after the test results went public, The Times did again mention the Shroud, this time, however, in a small paragraph with a large headline: Confirmation of a Fake—The announcement that the Holy Shroud of Turin is a medieval fake will be made officially today.

For many, that was where this story ended; the Shroud of Turin was now to be forgotten. A vague air of embarrassment hung over what had been the media’s decade-long interest. There was still, of course, the question of how the cloth had come to bear such a striking image that seemed to have photographic properties, but this, like so much else about the Shroud, was consigned to the explanations of science—or criminology—rather than theology. The image was the act of a clever forger, not the possible portrait of Truth incarnate.

Rolfe’s films on the Shroud are an interesting historical record of how interest in the relic has shifted. The Silent Witness, the first film, is an intriguing mix of history, archaeology, New Testament research, NASA 3-D imaging, alongside the then most up-to-date study of pollens found on the distinctive and intricate weave of the linen. It is a heady mix, wonderfully put together, that leaves the viewer wanting to know more. Throughout the film there is a dramatic voice-over by the actor, Kenneth More; it ends in a crescendo that asks, demands even, “…who is he?” Even now, many years later, that ending still sends a chill down the spine, and for believers, then as now, has a deeper resonance than merely the identity of the figure on the Shroud.

The next film in the Ignatius’ collection is a 2008 BBC production. Shroud of Turin was made for the 20th anniversary of the carbon dating. It is measured, even agnostic, in its approach to the relic. It raises questions not so much about the tests carried out twenty years earlier than about those still remaining mysteries around the Shroud. One of the American scientists, John P. Jackson, who had featured prominently in The Silent Witness, makes a welcome reappearance. He is head of the Shroud of Turin Research Project and an advocate for the Shroud as a genuine artefact from the first century. Try as it may, however, this documentary appears unable to answer the questions still posed by the Shroud and advocates such as Jackson. It is as if those dates on the chalkboard still hang in the background.

It is only in the most recent 2015 film, A Grave Injustice, that the matter of the carbon dating is finally tackled head on. Rolfe, it seems, is no longer able simply to report on the Shroud. Instead, he has now moved to the role of its defender. What he postulates is that the carbon dating tests carried out in 1988 were seriously flawed. In this film, he takes the audience through all the controls that were initially set in place for the tests to proceed in a rigorously scientific way. He then goes on to show how every one of them was disregarded. Furthermore, he demonstrates how knowledge of the Shroud and its fabric has grown significantly in the intervening 30 years. This is especially relevant when considering the samples taken for the tests and the real suspicion that the area they came from was an amended or patched part of the Shroud, and, therefore, almost certainly, dated from the medieval period when the relic was known to be exhibited.

When the final credits on the last film end, one is left in little doubt that something is not quite right. The weight of so much evidence—Biblical, historical, archaeological and, yes, even scientific—appears to have been set aside in the face of a series of tests that took place decades ago and that seem now in terms of methodology, and even in the opinion of some from within the scientific community itself, open to question.

Will we ever know the truth about this strange relic? Maybe, we are not meant to. The Shroud is claimed to be many things—from the burial shroud of Our Lord to a cunning fake made for monetary gain. Whatever it is, it is most certainly mysterious and, I suspect, will remain so.

Nevertheless, that question posed in the final frame of The Silent Witness still resonates as, ultimately, it is about more, much more, than that which is kept in a bomb-proof casket in Turin Cathedral: Who is He?

(Photo credit: Catholic News Agency / l’Osservatore Romano)


  • K. V. Turley

    K.V. Turley is the National Catholic Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

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