Reports of the shroud's ruinous restoration have sounded a false alarm, says Ian Wilson
Relax — the Turin Shroud is not, after all, in the "shreds" suggested by my article in The Catholic Herald, published earlier this month. That article followed alarmist Italian press reports that Swiss textile conservator Mechthild Flury-Lemberg had secretly removed 30 historic patches and a backing cloth sewn onto the Shroud shortly after fire damage in 1532, and had seriously jeopardised future Shroud research.
Specifically to allay such fears, on 21st September last year Turin's Cardinal Severino Poletto, the Shroud's official custodian on behalf of the Pope, held a press conference to show the Shroud in its new form, and to explain the true facts behind the conser
vation work. For the evening before this conference he invited some thirty international "Shroud-watchers" to attend a special preview, one of this gathering being myself.
Having travelled from Australia at very short notice I was very relieved to find the alarmist allegations almost totally unfounded. The Shroud's "denuding", as the diocesan reports describe it, has definitely not impaired it visually. Indeed the removal of the patches now enhances attention to the all-important image. Previously occluded parts, such as one side of the bloodstain from the wound in the side, have been revealed for the first time. Also any reasoned appraisal of the work that has been carried out can only be one of admiration for its painstaking care and total professionalism.
After a series of moves during the last decade the Shroud's latest home is a side chapel to the left of Turin Cathedral's high altar, beneath what looks to the outside observer like a rather plain, .box-like altar. On the night of 20 September the two halves of this "box" were slid apart to reveal the Shroud laid out fulllength and entirely flat inside an inner container with a fullsize protective plate glass cover. We were admitted into the chapel in groups of twelve, the protective glass cover enabling us to view the Shroud at the closest possible range without compromise to its safety.
Visually the now revealed burn-holes from the 1532 fire are little more obtrusive than the patches that formerly covered them. Conservators Flury-Lemberg and Tomedi, during their painstaking removal of the patches and the backing cloth, became increasingly astonished at the amount of carbon debris that had accumulated beneath the patches. The numerous occasions on which the Shroud was rolled and unrolled for display purposes during the centuries since had caused repeated abrasion of the charred edges to the areas holed in the fire. Because of the dislodged particles of carbon debris being acidic, their. accumulation behind each patch posed a continual "loose cannon" danger to the Shroud.
The alarmist press reports suggested that this debris, and thereby its potential value as historical and scientific evidence, had either been destroyed or at best been gathered carelessly and indiscriminately. But neither was the case. The materials accumulated, behind each patch, also some in the process of abrading, were carefully gathered and recorded, then sealed in canisters individual to each site from which they were removed. The array of these canisters is being kept in Cardinal Poletto's care awaiting proposals for how they may best be examined scientifically, the intention certainly being that every minutest scrap of evidence should be made available to those most competent to study it.
Another of the criticisms was that after removing the old 16th century backing cloth Mechthild Flury-Lemberg had sewed the Shroud on a fresh backing cloth, thereby again denying ready access to its underside. But this was done solely and specifically to facilitate fresh expositions of the Shroud during which, as traditionally, it would need to be presented in a vertical display mode. The replacement cloth chosen, ironically deriving from Holland like that used in 1534, is not new, having originally been purchased decades ago by Flury-Lemberg's father for household purposes, and not in the event used until now. It was specially selected for its not having been treated with dyes, starches, bleaches and other potential contaminants, and its natural colour harmonises well with that of the Shroud. Even the thread used for the thousands of stitches was specially selected as from the finest silk, so that in the event of any excessive strain or stress it would break before cutting into the Shroud's threads.
The removal of the backing cloth enabled the Shroud's underside to be viewed in full for the first time, and every opportunity was taken for conventional photography, scanning and other approaches that have yet to be fully evaluated. Not least of the discoveries was that although the socalled body image mostly does not show through to the Shroud's underside, a notable exception to this is the image of the hair, particularly the two sidelocks framing the face.
A possible explanation for this may be the cloth coming into direct contact with hair oils. natural and artificial, that had coated the hair, these, like the blood, becoming absorbed through to the underside. The blood stains notably register nearly as clearly and completely on the underside as they do on the side of the cloth that (theoretically) would have been in direct contact with the crucified body.
Another of the alarmist concerns raised was that there had been a smoothing out of creases that provide vital evidence for how the Shroud was folded in previous centuries. This allegation similarly proved unfounded. The subdued light in which we viewed the Shroud the night of September 20th was particularly conducive to showing up creases and other irregularities on the Shroud's surface. Reassuringly, these were still readily apparent. And precisely because of the removal of the patches, the continuousness of some of the more ancient crease lines was visible for the first time. The patches had been responsible for creating some of the creases, and with their removal these crease lines had simply and naturally dropped out. But there had been positively no attempt to iron out old creases, as had first been feared.
Another of the criticisms levelled against Flury-Lemberg and' Tomedi's work was that this had been carried out hastily, and without due consultation. But as explained by Turin archdiocesan spokesman Don Giuseppe Ghiberti, a Commission specifically to consider matters of the Shroud's conservation had been formed as early as 1992, during the time of Cardinal Poletto's predecessor, Cardinal Saldarini.
Express permission to remove the patches and hacking cloth was sought from the Shroud's formal owner, Pope John Paul II, via a letter dated 10 November 2000. Cardinal Poletto read out the full text of a letter from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano, dated 3 November 2001, specifically and unequivocally empowering him to get the work done.
As for the much-criticised secrecy in which the work was carried out, this was entirely due to post September 11 concerns for the Shroud's security. Flury-Lemberg and Tomedi's most practical workplace for performing their task was in a very vulnerable temporary sacristy built adjoining the Cathedral in the wake of the Cathedral fire of April 1997. Since the painstaking operation turned out to need 32 days, the fewer people who knew that the Shroud was outside its normal bullet-proof casket during this period, the better, On a personal level, the visit to Turin enabled me to view the Shroud in its new setting for the first time. Because of the table-top display height and the protective glass it was possible to study details as closely as one foot distance, a point of marvel being the fineness and near-invisibility of Mechthild Flury-Lemberg and Irene Tomedi's stitching.
Thanks to my being enabled to study the Shroud again in artificial light some concerns that I had been nurturing that the image might be fading — as first aroused by my previous viewing in March 2000 were satisfactorily allayed.
Sadly, those most vociferous in first condemning FluryLemberg and Tomedi's work, notably Hong-Kong based archaeologist Bill Meacham and Rome lecturer Emanuela Marinelli, have failed to be satisfied by what they saw in Turin, despite their having been allowed exactly the same close-up access as that accorded to me.
Currently they are gathering signatures for a petition to the Pope requesting the forming of a commission on the Shroud, inclusive of representatives of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the
Vatican Museum, and the Pontifical Commission for the Heritage of the Church. Effectively they hope to deprive the Turin archdiocese of much of its present custodial decisionmaking, replacing this by greater control from Rome.
Nof only is this move hugely divisive over so spiritually emotive an object, it is also
entirely unfair towards this particular custodian. This year marks the fourth decade of my attending Shroud gatherings in Turin. Whereas my recollections of Cardinal Poletto's predecessors are that they mostly uttered a few introductory remarks, and then left the rest to their officials, Severino Poletto is clearly deeply and personally interested in the Shroud. Flury Lemberg and Tomedi spoke warmly of his regular informal "drop-in" visits to view their conservation work while this was in progress, and he speaks most authoritatively on the Shroud, from direct observation, and from the heart, rather than from texts prepared for him by aides. From my perspective Flury-Lemberg and Tomedi have put the Shroud in very good shape to withstand another millennium of expositions, the cloth is currently in very capable and caring custodial hands, and any.attempt to remove it from them would be seriously misguided..
Some parts of this article appeared in the December 2002 issue of Shroud Newsletter, the journal of the British Society for the Turin Shroud