Post-classical history


As I worked on this essay, I noticed a curious fact. Several experts who had glanced at the title whilst being shown the work, got the immediate impression that it dealt with the Turin Shroud as the true funeral shroud of Jesus Christ.

I therefore feel the need to warn the reader from the very first page that the title says The Templars and the Shroud of Christ because these mediaeval warrior monks did almost certainly keep for some time the Shroud, and contemplated in it the evidence that the Christ (not simply Jesus of Nazareth) had indeed passed through death.

The reader may think this a futile distinction, but it is not, and this book will give ample reasons for this.

The question of whether the Shroud of Turin is genuine or not is still open, and at any rate, beyond the purpose of this book. What my research sought to study is the cult of the Shroud among the Templars, there is no doubt that as far as the Templars were concerned, the cloth came from the Holy Sepulchre and had been used to wrap the body of Christ before he rose from the dead. This reality forces the readers to put themselves, as it were, in the shoes of the Templar Knights, even if they have to pretend to believe something they don’t. If we wish to study a certain world and understand the way it thought, we must make ourselves at one with it and try to see reality as this world saw it. Many passages in this book will, for this reason, refer to the Shroud as to the chief relic of the Passion, for that is how the Templars saw it.

In 1988 the cloth was subjected to a radio-carbon dating test called C14, which gives reliable results, albeit with some margin of uncertainty, the object has been kept in particular conditions and has not suffered contaminations from organic materials. A good example of its accuracy was an untouched Etruscan tome, sealed in the sixth century BC and only reopened by the archaeologist who discovered it. The analyses were entrusted to three laboratories that specialise in this kind of investigations, and the result they reached dated the Shroud to the later middle ages, with an approximation of 130 years (1260-1390 AD).

The issue, however, was not settled at all: while on one side the radio-carbon analyses roused a storm of polemics, since some people claimed that their method did not respect the rules of scientific procedure, on the other, many asserted that radio-carbon simply could not give any reliable results in the matter of the Shroud, an archaeological relic that has suffered a huge number of forms of contamination and whose history is still largely to be discovered. Indeed, even the Nobel Prizewinner Willard Frank Libby, who invented and perfected the C14 archaeological dating test, had earlier declared himself against the experiment.

Under the late Pope John Paul II, who was devoted to the Shroud because it gave him a vivid and realistic sense of Jesus Christ’s sufferings, the then Papal guardian of the Shroud, Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, stated that the cloth was “A venerable icon of the Christ”. Many of the faithful took these words with a tangible sense of disappointment; they had hoped for something different, hoped, in short, that the Pope should officially declare the Shroud to be the most important relic of Jesus in our possession. In those hot-headed days, it even happened that Ballestrero, until then every liberal’s reactionary Catholic bogeyman should be labelled as “an Enlightenment intellectual in purple” (La Repubblica, 14 October 1988), a title that no priest enjoys being stuck with.

In fact, that definition of the Shroud is best understood if we try to understand the theological concept of Icon, which is not simply the same as any holy image. The Cardinal’s words were not at all intended to place the Shroud on the same level as Michelangelo’sPietà, or of any work of art that can represent the Passion credibly and poetically. Christian theology, eastern theology in particular, see Icons as something else and more than images. Icons in a sense live and can give life; they can bestow real benefits on the spirit of the faithful. None of the many who have written about the Shroud noticed this fact, and yet it is not without importance. Calling it “a venerable icon” was a choice born of long, careful study by experts who certainly did not suffer from a shortage of vocabulary. That expression calls up directly the thought of the theologians of the Second Ecumenic Council of Nicaea (787 AD), to whom the prodigious image of Christ is the place where we achieve contact with the Divine; it expresses the will to look at that object in the same manner full of astonishment and wonder in which the ancient Church looked at it. It all turns on a very simple concept: to seriously study the Shroud means in any case to be meditating on the wounds of Jesus Christ. Cardinal Ballestrero’s was a most delicate definition, respectful of the depths of mystery that this object involves, but possibly a bit too erudite to be universally understood. For their part, several Popes have stated their views unhesitatingly: already Pius XI had spoken of it as an image “surely not of human making”, and John Paul II clearly described it as “the most splendid relic of both Passion and Resurrection” (L’Osservatore Romano, 7 September 1936 and 21-22 April 1980).

I myself suspect that there may be something else at issue. If and when the Church ever officially declares the Shroud to be the one true winding-sheet of Jesus, it could become very difficult, maybe even impossible, to continue to make scientific studies of it. It would then be absolutely the holiest relic owned by Christendom, thick with Christ’s own blood, and any manipulation would be seen as disrespectful. While Christendom still wants to examine this enigmatic object, it still has plenty of questions to ask: there is a widespread feeling that it may have plenty to tell about Roman-age Judaism, that is the very context of the life, preaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This, apart from any religious evaluation, is a most interesting field of study. We know very little of that period of Jewish history, because of the devastations carried out by the Roman Emperors Vespasian (70 AD) and Hadrian (132 AD), which involved the destruction of Jerusalem and all its archives and the deportation of the Jewish population away from Syria-Palestine. Some important clues to be found on the Turin sheet promise to have a lot to say about Judaic usages in the age of the Second Temple. One of ancient Hebraism’s greatest historians, Paolo Sacchi, writes: “Whether we believe or not in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, he spoke the language of his time to the men of his time, dealing directly with issues of his time” (Storia del Secondo Tempio, p. 17). If we question it delicately and respectfully, the Shroud will answer.

This book will not tackle any of the complex issues to do with the cloth’s authenticity and religious sig-nificance. Anyone wishing to enlarge their understanding of these areas will find sufficient answers in the books of Monsignor Giuseppe Ghiberti, Sindone, vangeli e vita cristiana and Dalle cose che patì (Eb 5,8). Evangelizzare con la sindone. This essay is only intended as a discussion along historical lines; and there can be no doubt that, to historians, the Shroud of Turin (whatever it may be) is a piece of material evidence of immense interest.

This book is the first part of a study that is completed by a second volume, The Shroud of Jesus of Nazareth, dedicated entirely to the new historical questions that arise from recent discoveries made on the cloth. Some of the main arguments treated there are only hinted at here, and that was inevitable: for the argument enters into issues concerning Jewish and Greco-Roman archaeology from the first century AD, themes far too distant from the story of the Templars to place them all in a single volume.

My research began more than ten years ago, in 1996. Then, in the spring of 1998, a news program from Italy’s state broadcaster, RAI, carried a story that traces of ancient writing had been identified on the linen Shroud. I was then reading for a PhD in history at the University “Ca’ Foscari” of Venice, working on a thesis on the Templars. I had long since noticed that in the original documents of the trial against them, some witnesses described an object exactly similar to the Shroud of Turin. When I heard that an Oxford graduate scholar, Ian Wilson, had found interesting suggestions that the Shroud had been among the Templars at some point, I thought of running a check on the issue and I started looking into the enigmatic Shroud writings, thinking to see whether by any chance they had not been put there by the temple’s warrior monks. The results impressed me; they were so complex and involving that I decided this was going to be a long-term research project, and that I would not tackle the question until I had satisfactory evidence.

Today I think I can conscientiously say that the evidence is there, and maybe much more than I had originally hoped; and that is largely thanks to some scholars whose wonderful kindness has given precious contributions.

I wish to underline that the ideas set out in the book reflect my own opinions and are not the property or responsibility of anyone else. Whatever the value of my results, I don’t think that even ten years of obstinate and passionate investigation could have led anywhere had I not had the advantage of many authoritative suggestions, advice, and sometimes illuminating criticism.

My biggest debt of gratitude is to Professor Franco Cardini, who trusted my research as it was taking its first stumbling steps, and to His Eminence Raffaele Cardinal Farina, Archivist and Librarian of the Catholic Church, who supported it when the delicate time of conclusion had come. From these two great scholars, so different from each other, yet both enamoured of the human figure of Jesus, I have learned very, very much, even on a human level.

Father Marcel Chappin SJ (vice-prefect of the Secret Vatican Archive, of the Pontifical Gregorian University) revised the book’s proofs from top to bottom, enriching it with abundant clarifications and advice.

A special thanks goes to my colleagues Simone Venturini (Secret Vatican Archive) and Marco Buonocore (Apostolic Vatican Library) for the patience with which they have helped me to study Hebrew, ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, and Greco-Roman archaeology and epigraphy, which I had studied in university but had then neglected in order to dedicate myself to the Middle Ages. Emanuela Marinelli (Collegamento pro Sindone) has generously made available her study experience and an enormous library of specialist studies on the Shroud.

I also wish to thank Marcel Alonso (Centre International d’Études sur le Linceul de Turin), Gianfranco Armando (Secret Vatican Archive), Pier Luigi Baima Bollone (University of Turin), Luca Becchetti (Secret Vatican Archive), Luigi Boneschi, Fr. Claudio Bottini OFM, (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem), Thierry Castex (Centre International d’Études sur le Linceul de Turin), Simonetta Cerrini (University of Paris-IV), Paolo Cherubini (University of Palermo), Willy Clarysse (Catholic University of Louvain), Tiziana Cuccagna (Liceo Ginnasio “G.C. Tacito” di Terni), Alain Demurger, (University of Paris-IV), Ivan Di Stefano Manzella (University of Tuscia-Viterbo), Enrico Flaiani (Secret Vatican Archive), Stefano Gasparri (University “Ca’ Foscari” of Venice), Giuseppe Lo Bianco (Secret Vatican Archive), don Franco Manzi (Archiepiscopal Seminary of Milan), monsignor Aldo Martini (Vatican Secret Archive), Remo Martini (University of Siena), Tommaso Miglietta (University of Trento), Giovanna Nicolaj (University “La Sapienza” of Rome), Franco Nugnes (Editor in chief of the magazine “Velocità”), Gherardo Ortalli (University “Ca’ Foscari” of Venice), monsignor Romano Penna (Pontifical Lateran University), don Luca Pieralli (Pontifical Oriental Institute), monsignor Sergio Pagano (Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive), Alessandro Pratesi (Vatican School of Palaeography, Diplomatics and Archival Studies), Delio Proverbio (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana), p. Émile Puech OFP (École Biblique de Jerusalem), monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi (prefect of the Pontifical Commission for Culture), Fr. Vincenzo Ruggieri SJ (Pontifical Oriental Institute), His Eminence Christoph Cardinal (Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna), Renata Segre Berengo (University “Ca’ Foscari” of Venice), Francesco Tommasi (University of Perugia), Paolo Vian (Vatican Apostolic Library), Gian Maria Vian (editor in chief of Osservatore Romano).

To the late and much missed Marino Berengo, Marco Tangheroni and André Marion, who passed away before this text was completed, I send my lasting affection, and I miss you. I wished to consult many other authorities and was unable to do so for various practical reasons; I hope I shall be able to in the future.

My husband Marco Palmerini, who is remarkably well read in the sciences and knows the Shroud well, has given an impressive contribution to the quality of my research, passing it through the sieve of his meticulous criticism. My colleague Nadia Fracassi has also practically lived through the development of this book, and taken an active part. Exchanging views with them on many and various matters has allowed me to clarify my thoughts, and at least at the moral level I regard them as joint authors. Ugo Berti Arnoaldi, my trusted reference for the publishing industry, has given a decisive contribution to improving the quality of my writing from the narrative point of view: I could never give a precise account of the number of times he has read my work over and over again to help me turn my always over-erudite first drafts into a pleasantly readable essay.

I dedicate this book to my friend Claudio Cetorelli, a brilliant young Roman antiquarian. In the summer of 2000, during a seaside holiday, he threw himself into the water and managed to save a drowning man, but his heart could not stand the strain. Those who tried to help him say that his last, feeble expression was a smile.

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