Interactive Shroud of Turin Exhibit Comes to the Museum of the Bible

The major exhibition on the world’s most studied, analyzed and controversial cloth kicks off Feb. 26.

The exhibition, curated by Brian Hyland, runs through the end of July.
The exhibition, curated by Brian Hyland, runs through the end of July. (photo: Courtesy of Brian Hyland)

WASHINGTON — The Museum of the Bible is presenting a high-tech, interactive exhibition about the Shroud of Turin. 

It’s called “Mystery and Faith: The Shroud of Turin and runs Feb. 26 through July 31. 

Brian Hyland is the museum’s associate curator of medieval manuscripts. He holds a master’s degree in ancient history from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Maryland, College Park. As well as completing additional studies at Cornell University and the Institut für Papyrologie, Ruprecht Karls Universität, in Heidelberg, Germany, he has also taught Greek and Roman history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, medieval history at the University of Maryland’s European extension division, and Latin at Binghamton University.

Hyland, a Catholic, spoke via email to the Register just ahead of the exhibition’s opening. 

 

What is “Mystery and Faith: The Shroud of Turin”? 

Using interactive experiences and artifacts, “Mystery and Faith” explores the history and impact of this iconic cloth. Since the first known exhibitions of the shroud in the mid-14th century, millions of people have traveled to see it — several million in this century alone. The exhibition also examines how the modern fame of the shroud is a product of technology.

I have come to know that people have passionate opinions about the Shroud of Turin. Many firmly believe that it wrapped the body of Jesus and is an authentic relic of the Resurrection and point to the results of the 1978 STURP tests for proof. Many others contend that the shroud is a medieval artifact and cite the 1988 radiocarbon dating as proof. 

To thread a path between the sides, I looked for inspiration and found it in the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. St. John Paul famously called the Shroud of Turin a “mirror of the Gospel.” Benedict called it an “icon of Holy Saturday” and suggested it is best viewed through the eyes of faith. This is the lens that brought the exhibition into focus.

The shroud does not travel from Italy, so a linen facsimile of the shroud hangs near the center of the exhibition. Lino Val Gandino near Bergamo, Italy, produced the facsimile by raising the flax plants traditionally, without modern chemicals, then spinning the thread in a way that imitates thinner ancient or medieval threads. The weave of the fabric replicates the herringbone pattern of the shroud. A laser-printed image of the shroud completes the facsimile. When guests come to Museum of the Bible to view it, they will have much more time to study the image of a beaten, scourged, crucified and pierced man. The image represents the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Especially during Lent, this should be a profound and powerful experience. 

 

How is the exhibition arranged?

We have arranged the exhibition in five sections. 

The first introduces the guest to the Shroud of Turin. We did not assume that all guests would be knowledgeable about the shroud, and so defined key terms and created a framework through which we explore faith and the shroud — pilgrimages as faith in motion. 

The second section focuses on the concept of the shroud as a mirror of the Gospel. The facsimile is paired with a touch table crafted by 3DPhotoWorks. Blind or vision-impaired guests will be able to feel a 3-D image of the shroud, allowing them to “see” it through the sense of touch. The table contains sensors of two types. When a person touches one near a wound, it activates a sound recording of a passage from the Gospels relating to this wound. Some sensors have multiple passages. The other sensors relate to marks on the shroud caused by fire and water over the centuries. One indicates the location of the radiocarbon-dating sample.

The third section tells the known history of the shroud grouped by its three sets of owners, the de Charny family, the House of Savoy, and the popes. Since the known history begins in the 14th century, if the shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus, where was it for centuries? We look at the hypothetical journey from first-century Judea to 14th-century France that some scholars have put together. 

In the fourth section we examine the scientific studies of the shroud, beginning with the first photographs taken in 1898 by Secondo Pia. Technology has shaped the way in which we look at the shroud and has revealed its unusual properties, beginning with Pia’s discovery that the image on the shroud acts like a photographic negative, and so his negatives resembled positive images.

Finally, the exhibition closes with a space where guests can write down their thoughts about the shroud and hang them on a pegboard for others to see. We felt that there is so much information in the exhibition that people might want to process their thoughts about it.

 

Is there anything new to say about the shroud?

Think about the theater or cinema. A revival of a well-known play or a remake of a classic movie retells a beloved story. The plot stays the same, but the way in which it is told may offer fresh insights that highlight different aspects of the story. 

Mystery and Faith uses interactive technologies to enhance the guests’ experience and to explain certain concepts in ways that are easily understood. By pairing the facsimile with the touch table, we have enabled guests to experience the shroud in a vastly different way than what they would have in Turin. People will have time to linger and absorb the full impact of Jesus’ suffering. When people read the Gospel narratives of the Passion after visiting the exhibition, perhaps they will have a deeper appreciation of those words.

Three different interactives clarify aspects about the image on the shroud: 

“Aligning the Shroud” explains that the image on the shroud was formed on its inner side, the side that contacted the body. The body was placed on one half of the shroud, and then the cloth was folded over it, covering the front. This contact on the inside creates a mirror image when the shroud is displayed — thus, the wound in the right side of the body appears on the left side of the shroud. 

“Developing the Shroud” grew out of the realization that most people today only take digital photos. The whole process of developing images from negatives is rapidly becoming a lost art. When Secondo Pia took the first images in 1898, people accused him of faking the images. He wrote that people said this because they didn’t understand how photography worked. A century and a quarter later, we’re back in the same boat. 

We have created a selfie station that explains to visitors how photographic negatives and positives work. Then the visitor is prompted to take a picture, which turns it into a GIF that cycles between a positive, sepia-toned image and a negative, mirror image. The device allows people to email the GIF to themselves, and we hope they will put the gifs onto social media with the hashtag #mysteryandfaith. 

A third interactive device allows people to see how the VP8 Image Analyzer created 3-D images of the Shroud of Turin. As a guest decreases or increases the gain on a tablet, the images of the face and torso rise out of a flat surface or sink into it.

Given the importance of the 1988 radiocarbon dating for the story of the shroud, we thought it was important to explain the theory behind radiocarbon dating in a way that a lay audience would understand. After consulting with two of my former students who are now archaeologists, I used the sources they sent to write a script for an animated video. It explains how radiocarbon dating works and points out how it sometimes can produce an incorrect date.

Museum of the Bible Shroud of Turin exhibit
The exhibit includes a nod to St. John Paul II and a photograph of the 19th-century stained-glass window at the Collegiale Church of Notre-Dame de St. Hippolyte-sur-Doubs, France. Humbert de Villersexel, the Comte de la Roche, holds the shroud. | Courtesy of Brian Hyland; Photograph by Dorian Rollin; Museum of the Bible. © Museum of the Bible, 2022


 

Why is this exhibition happening now? 

Honestly, it couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Throughout its history, the Shroud of Turin has been a source of comfort to people in times of plague and war. Among the earliest sources that mention the shroud is the memorandum written by the bishop of Troyes to the antipope Clement VII late in 1389. Bishop d’Arcis mentions that it was first displayed 35 years earlier in Lirey, or about the time that the first wave of the Black Death was receding. 

In 1576, a plague broke out in Milan, and the archbishop, St. Charles Borromeo, made a vow that if God saved the city from the plague, he would walk to see the Shroud in Chambéry, France. When the plague ended two years later, Borromeo kept his vow. 

Emanuel Philibert, the duke of Savoy, moved the shroud across the Alps to Turin to spare the saintly archbishop the hardship of crossing the mountains on foot. Turin became the shroud’s home.

Work on the exhibition started in the fall of 2019, not long before reports of a new disease began to surface in China. As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, one of the first places outside of China to be impacted was northern Italy, in Borromeo’s former Archdiocese of Milan. Lombardy and Piedmont quickly became hotspots for the virus. As it spread to the United States, it impacted the timeline of this exhibition, pushing it back an entire year.

The archbishop of Turin, Cesare Nosiglia, responded to the pandemic by presiding over a livestreamed prayer service in the presence of the shroud on Holy Saturday, April 11, 2020. This virtual ostension of the shroud accompanied interviews with COVID survivors, nurses, doctors, teachers and youth leaders so that people the world over could see the impact of the disease, pray for deliverance from it, and give thanks for people’s survival. The archbishop repeated the service on the following Holy Saturday, April 3, 2021.

Our exhibit opens after the tidal wave of new cases caused by the Omicron variant begins to recede. Ash Wednesday is four days after the exhibition opens. It is a perfect time for people to use this “mirror of the Gospel” to reflect on God’s love and mercy throughout Lent.

 

Some may say that the shroud should have no place in a museum about the Bible. How do you respond? 

At Museum of the Bible, we have separate floors dedicated to the history, stories and impact of the Bible. This exhibition aligns with our mission to tell the stories of the Bible and examine its impact on society. The way in which the image of the shroud mirrors the Gospel narrative has led some people familiar with the Shroud to nickname it “the fifth Gospel.” It tells in a visual way the story of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In looking at how the shroud has always attracted large numbers of pilgrims, we decided to call a pilgrimage “faith in motion.” This expresses the impact of the Bible. The pilgrims did not travel to see a random piece of linen; they traveled because they believed in what the Gospels said.

 

What aspect of the exhibition intrigued you most?

In researching the shroud, I was fascinated by the people who encountered it. Most of the millions who have seen it since the 14th century remain anonymous, but from very early on, pilgrims purchased badges to show that they had seen the shroud. One of these badges was found in the River Seine in the 19th century during the construction of a bridge; it now rests in the Cluny Museum in Paris. In 2009, near Machy, France, someone discovered a mold for the mass production of a similar badge; together they hint at the shroud’s importance as a pilgrimage destination in the late 14th century. 

Of course, many famous people have seen the shroud, too. St. Charles Borromeo and St. Francis de Sales touched the shroud; St. John Bosco brought his “street kids” to see it on display. King Francis I of France gave thanks for a military victory in front of the shroud. Margaret of Austria, the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and aunt of his successor, Charles V, had seen it when she was married to the duke of Savoy and had a copy of it in her palace at Mechelen. King Victor Emmanuel II married his first wife in the presence of the shroud. 

 

What do you hope it will achieve? When Pope St. John Paul II spoke in 1998, he asked whether people could look at the image of the tortured and crucified Jesus and not link it to the various forms of brutality that still plague our world. He added that when we see this evidence of human cruelty, we also see an image of God’s love in Jesus’ sacrifice. This message remains the same whether the shroud is an authentic relic of the Resurrection or a medieval artifact.


Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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