The Turin Shroud: From Cathedral To White Cube?

The Turin Shroud, one of Christianity’s most celebrated and hotly-debated relics, is back on display to the public for the first time in half a decade.
More than one million people have already booked their tickets to see the piece of linen that devotees believe to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

Many devoted individuals have already made reservations to see the cloth, that they believe to have been used to wrap Jesus’ body, imprinted with the image of a man who appears to have been crucified. But the shroud has been dated to the end of the 13th century, lending support to those who say it is a medieval forgery. But could it be considered to be more than just a forgery?

Regardless of its less-than-certain provenance it has retained its spiritual allure for many, partly due to the fact that researchers have been unable to establish exactly how the image was created. The Church does not officially maintain that Christ’s body was actually wrapped in the shroud or that any miracles were involved in the creation of the image now on display.

The last time the controversial textile was put on display was in 2010, when over 2.5 million people poured into the cathedral to see it. The first definite knowledge of the shroud has been traced an event in 1355, when it was put on show in the tiny French village of Lirey, in Champagne. Its owners were the local knight, Geoffrey de Charney, and his wife, Jeanne de Vergy.

But at the time of the 1355 exhibition, Henry de Poitiers, bishop of Troyes, conducted an inquiry into the cloth, and concluded that it was a ‘fraud’ which 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’ – according to the spectator.

Geoffrey’s granddaughter, Margaret, finally passed the shroud to the ducal house of Savoy in 1453, taking it to their capital at Chambéry in the Alps. All was quiet for almost 80 years, until the night of 4 December 1532, when a fire broke out in the chapel where the shroud was kept behind the high altar in a silver casket housed in a niche sealed with a metal grille. The keyholder could not be found, so a blacksmith and two friars broke open the grille, but part of the casket had already liquefied, and drops of molten silver had fallen onto the shroud, burning holes straight through it. The subsequent repairs can still be seen, after a team of Poor Clare nuns patched the damaged cloth.

Nevertheless a true and detailed history of the shroud still remains unclear, lost in the mists of time. But it is quite possible that during the 13th century there lived an unknown artist of such ability, creating a particular mechanism of image formation, that we still do not know exactly how the shroud’s image was made. Henry de Poitiers, bishop of Troyes may have in fact been correct.

Perhaps it is time to consider another perspective; that the shroud is not only one of the greatest forgeries in history, but simultaneously an important work of art? The object in fact possesses a duality in that it can be considered a forgery and a masterpiece at the same time? Perhaps it is time that the Turin Shroud be considered as one of the greatest works of art from the medieval period? That in reality – merely a change of context is required to make sense of the work – from cathedral space to white cube?

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2015 all rights reserved


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