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The Shroud of Turin

UNITED KINGDOM | Tuesday, 16 June 2015 | Views [346]

We were only in Milan for the day before we had to catch our train to Turin late in the afternoon. We were meeting our other friend in a few days but rather than stay in Milan, which I was warned was underwhelming and had to agree at least a little, we took the opportunity to go west to the Po’ Valley and see the Shroud of Turin, currently in display in its home town. My flatmate and I are always keen for a spiritual experience and we thought one of the most famous and most controversial catholic relics was a good place to start. A visit to the shroud was free but it had to be booked in advance (though we found out later from a fellow traveller that that wasn’t strictly true, and you could just queue up to see it) and the only slot free on the day we were in Turin was 7:45 am. So it was an early morning. We had planned to make it an early night the night before but we got caught up chatting and hanging out with some fellow travellers at our hostel.

They were an eclectic bunch of guys all in Turin for an environmental conference and another young guy, a brooding and handsome Turk the same age as me, who strummed soft chords on the hostel’s communal guitar in the shadows like a travelling troubadour. We stayed up until 2 am discussing food, art and religion, despite the fact we all had to be up early, the passive aggressive Italian man who lived in the flat opposite the shared courtyard threw water at us to shut up and the boys hadn’t even started the presentations they had to give tomorrow yet. And yet we weren’t tired when we woke up at 6:30 am and left to catch the bus across town from our hostel to the Giardini Real where the shroud was on display. But we didn’t think of the time. All tickets for trams and buses in Italy must be bought beforehand from a Tabbachi, a corner shop, and then validated on the bus or tram. But it was only 7 am, and everyone was only just waking up. The market place on Via Madama Cristina was just coming to life, and fruit sellers were getting ready for the day and a few locals, more prepared than us, were waiting to catch the bus to work. I asked around but they all told us the Tabbachi’s wouldn’t open until 8 and that would be too late. The clock was ticking and the google maps said it would take at least half an hour to walk across town so we decided it was better to start walking.

Turin was quiet and cool and the walk, though hurried, was nice. I’ve heard others describe Turin as boring but I think it’s a sweet little place. It’s surrounded by fertile hills and a cool breeze runs down the streets. It’s quiet and uniform and authentic. Tourism isn’t big here and people get on with life calmly. There are sweet little boutiques and delicious pasticcerias and wide 19th century piazza’s everywhere. We managed to make the walk and get there for exactly 7:45 am. We were pretty proud of ourselves. In the park there were temporary fences and big white tents to regulate the non-existent crowds. We passed the gates and the armed men and began what in all seriousness must have been a mile long walk through white tent after white tent to the other side of the park. If the size of the cordoned area demonstrated how long the queues got later in the day I was glad we got up early. Every ten foot or so a volunteer, dressed in long white robes so they all looked like priests, greeted us with a jolly “buongiorno”.

I must have wished 50 people good morning in the 30-45 minutes it took to trudge through the parade of tents to the Cattedrale San Giovanni Battista on the other side of the park where the shroud was actually housed. We even had to pass airport style security checks with x-ray machines and metal detectors. The walk to the church, tiring and unnecessary as it was for the 25 people eager enough to book at this time of the morning (or book at all) was made bearable by the brief glimpses between tents where you could see the gardens we were actually in. From what I could see a lot of it was overgrown and looked sort of neglected. At one point there were crumbling Romanesque statues, covered in weeds and drowning in a pool of long grass up to their necks. There were also decaying benches and disarrayed gravel paths adding to the neglected aesthetic. I wondered if this was intentional or if the garden was simply left to nature, due to lack of money or lack of interest. Either way it was beautiful in an old and abused kind of way, like an antique, faded with history and life. We finally reached the shroud, or rather the start of the “preparation” to see the shroud. I thought it was odd they felt they needed to psyche us up, we had been teased enough with the mile long walk and to be frank, the hype surrounding the Shroud of Turin, already surpassed the reality of what was basically a bit of cloth scientifically proven to be from a thousand years after Jesus’s death, with the outline of a man painted on it. Maybe the amount of scepticism is the very reason they chose to “prepare” visitors and persuade them it really was the death pall of the Son of god, Jesus Christ, our saviour.

The “preparation” started a few tents back from the church entrance, with some posters of various Turinese saints from effectively the start of time to present day. All the information was Italian and after finally reaching the beginning of the actual exhibit I wasn’t about to stop and hash a quick translation. We passed, quickly, into the final preparation stage. We were herded into a dark tent with a door, draped over with a dramatic crimson curtain on the other side with 3 flat screen TV’s on the wall above it. There were benches all along the sides of the tent, which everyone rushed to, to rest their tired feet. One woman was wearing huge platform heels. She stood through the whole ten minute presentation without the slightest indication of fatigue, which impressed me. The “preparation” consisted of a video of the shroud. Dramatic music played in the background and on the long middle screen the shroud appeared. Then on the smaller TV’s either side, in 4 different languages, the label “The Holy Shroud” was displayed. Over the next five or so minutes the video zoomed in and out on specific areas of the shroud and the labels describe exactly what could be seen. “Thorn wounds”, “evidence of lashing”, “nail wounds” flashed on the screen as each blood stain was pointed out and we were forced to imagine the agony of Roman torture techniques in a morbid kind of glorification. At the end the video slowly and very eerily focused in on the vague outline of the face, the dramatic music reaching a crescendo, and then the whole thing faded to black.

At first I thought that was it and was about to complain very vocally about what a waste of time the whole morning was. But then a mysterious crimson side curtain was pulled open and the doorman ushered us in like we were entering an illegal dog fight or a Speak Easy. From this doorway we entered the church. It was completely dark bar the spotlights that shone on the paintings on the walls like mood lights. We had entered from a door at the front of the church. The altar was completely blocked off by large boards and the mounted cabinet that, slightly illuminated with small lights, held the Shroud of Turin. A ramp took us round in front of it and we were motioned to stand in two rows, one along the railing that stopped us getting too close and the other behind those people. A calming Italian woman’s voice invited us to gaze in wonder at the face, the bloody wounds, the final image of our Lord, Jesus Christ. I tried to gaze, or rather strain as even with my glasses on it was hard to see the faint lines on the worn cloth. But it was even harder to see past the vivid and beautifully symmetrical burns that scorched the cloth from when it was damaged in a fire in 1532. The symmetry and patterning caused by the fire were like their own piece of art and I couldn’t help but focus on them. I was also distracted by the hidden beauty of the church itself. Although obscured in the almost pitch black the whole place called to be looked at, especially the Romantic religious paintings hanging on the walls, with their bright blues and pinks and emotive expressions and gestures. Even more distracting were the two English women, one middle aged, and the other elderly, who were chatting behind me. The younger woman was getting impatient with her friend, maybe her mother, who couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of the shroud. She couldn’t see anything on the shroud that looked vaguely like a man. Her friend tried to point out his feet, then his legs, his torso, you know, next to the burn marks that look like teeth. It’s double sided, so it shows his front and back, look there’s his face, in the middle of it! Can’t you see the face? With the long hair and the beard and the blood from the crown of thorns? Just when our time was up and we were being ushered away her elderly friend cried, “Oh yes, I see” but she probably didn’t.

I don’t even remember if I actually looked at the image on the shroud for more than a few seconds. Looking at the supposed death mask of an executed man freaked me out. I couldn’t hold his hollow glare. The other viewers gazed in wonder and crossed themselves in adoration. The image of their faith held more power to me than the Shroud itself. Don’t mistake me and think I don’t respect the Shroud, it is important as a piece of history if nothing else. But it is something more than that, it is a religious symbol and symbols have great power, power that people give it every time they queue for miles just for a glimpse or greet it with bows and genuflexion. The power is tangible; you can feel it in the air and in the pit of your stomach. Yet with a change of opinion or a little time the spell is broken and the Holy Shroud turns back into a tatty piece of burnt cloth. Divinity is as much manmade as it may be celestial but that does not make it any less powerful, in fact it makes it more so. Whether you believe the Shroud was the actual piece of cloth that the dead body of a murdered man was gently wrapped in by his loving mother and friends as they wept or just a medieval painting representing that moment, it doesn’t make it any less emotive, or any less interesting.

Tags: catholicism, italy, relics, shroud of turin, turin



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