Art and the Shroud of Turin

“Arts Letters”: Reflections on the Body, the Face and the Person of Jesus

Giovanni Bellini's Lament over the Dead Christ, usually on display at the Vatican Museums, is among the works featured at the Turin exhibit.
Giovanni Bellini's Lament over the Dead Christ, usually on display at the Vatican Museums, is among the works featured at the Turin exhibit. (photo: La Venaria Reale, Turin)

Born in New Jersey in 1946, Msgr. Timothy Verdon is an art historian with a Ph.D. from Yale University. For the last 40 years, he has lived in Italy and is a priest in Florence, where he directs the Florentine Diocesan Office of Sacred Art and Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage. He teaches at the Stanford University Study Center in Florence as well as the Facoltà Teologica dell’Italia Centrale.

More than 150 artistic masterpieces — by Correggio, Titian, Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Annibale and Ludovico Carracci, Guercino, Donatello and Rubens, as well as Michelangelo’s magnificent wooden crucifix from Florence — are currently on display in Turin through Aug. 1 at an exhibit organized by Msgr. Verdon to commemorate the solemn public exposition of the holy shroud.

In the following essay, based on these artistic works, he explains how art unveils for us the mystery of Christ’s humanity.

The exhibit Jesus: His Body and Face in Art was organized on the occasion of a solemn public exposition of the holy shroud, the large linen sheet venerated in the cathedral of Turin which preserves the outline of a body and a face that many believe to be Jesus Christ’s. By many, the shroud is held to be the cloth mentioned in the Gospels, in which Jesus’ dead body was wrapped for burial after his deposition from the cross.

Quite apart from the questions this object raises, the mere possibility that such a relic exists is fraught with meaning, at one and the same time attesting the historical dimension of Christian faith and suggesting its mystical horizon. The shroud underlines the conviction that Jesus really lived and died, that is, and invites belief in his resurrection as well, being in effect the sign of his passage to new life, the sheet abandoned at the moment he rose.

Michelangelo’s “Christ on the Cross”, on display at the exhibit, probably crafted in 1492 or 1493, depicts a youthful Christ sculpted by a youthful artist. More details.

The possibility of the existence of such a relic is particularly significant for art, since it confirms the visibility and therefore the “representability” of the man who claimed to be Son of Israel’s invisible God. “There was a time when no image could be made of an incorporeal God with no physical outline,” St. John of Damascus said with reference to the Bible’s prohibition of all representations of the divinity. “But now God has been seen in the flesh and has taken part in mankind’s life,” he continued, “and thus it is licit to create an image of what we have seen of God,” that is of the man Jesus.

Writing under the prohibition of images decreed in A.D. 730 by the iconoclast Byzantine Emperor Leo III, John — born Christian in a Damascus already under Muslim rule — saw a connection between the theological dogma of the Incarnation and the ecclesiastical use of images, especially those depicting Jesus himself.

Art Focuses on Jesus

The exhibit at the Venaria Reale museum in Turin highlights the continuity of these ideas from the Middle Ages to the Modern Era. It focuses on Jesus, the man whose body and face appear on the venerable shroud, suggesting how painters and sculptors of different periods visualized him. In addition to evoking the appearance of this most frequently depicted figure in history and illustrating the stages of his life, the exhibit also suggests the bond which art has seen in him between body, face and personality; in practice, our choice to characterize the exhibit with his personal name, Jesus (as opposed to the messianic title Christ) springs from the strong sense of personhood often found in representations of Jesus’ suffering body and anguished face.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the very concept of person developed in Western culture over the last two millennia is indebted to this iconographic tradition, in which human freedom and dignity depend on the gift of body and are conveyed by pathos in the gaze. Today, in a culture that thinks more and more of the body from a “technical” standpoint, seeking to change its appearance and improve its performance, a bodiliness expressive of inner commitment and spiritual love is particularly fascinating.

 The “Christ Risen” of Pieter Paul Rubens, on display at the exhibit, shows a muscular, solid, triumphant Christ. More details.

Christianity has represented the body according to its own idea of the human being. Unlike the pagan myths that portrayed gods with all the flaws of human beings, Judeo-Christian biblical culture urges man to aspire to God’s perfection, and particularly to his mercy. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” Jesus said (Luke 6:36), and this mercy that should characterize human beings has a peculiar physical component.

Already in the Old Testament, many words attributed to the bodiless God refer to the importance of the body in understanding his laws: “If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down,” the Almighty commands Israel, providing very human grounds for this divine rule. The God of the Bible urges the creditor to return to the debtor’s pledge before sunset because: “that is his only covering; it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in?” (Exodus 22:25-26). An incorporeal God sensitive to the shivering of a poor man’s flesh!

In the same spirit, but outside of any legal logic, Jesus describes how, in the Final Judgment, the Son of Man will reward those who have taken physical care of their neighbors. Speaking in the first person, he says: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you clothed me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

Jesus, the Man

“I was hungry.” For those who believe in him, Jesus, the son of God, became himself the poor man to whom one must return his garment before sunset, the hungry man, the thirsty man, the outcast, the homeless person, the person in need of clothing. The divine “Word” — the perfect expression of God’s mercy — “became flesh” (John 1:14) and took upon himself all the physical and moral sufferings of mankind. Especially in his voluntary passion and death, he became the “icon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) — God’s very image — according to a paradoxical functional principle.

“A farmer, when he sets out to work the soil, has to choose the right tools and suitable clothing for work in the fields,” said St. Macarius, a Greek theologian and bishop in the fourth century, and added: “In the same way, Christ, heavenly King and true husbandman, clothed himself in a body and carried the cross as a tool for the work to be done; he irrigated man’s arid, wild soul, pulled up the thorns and thistles of evil spirits, broke the bad topsoil and cast sin’s chaff in the fire. He tilled the soul with the wood of his cross; he planted there a lovely garden of the Spirit, a garden which brings forth for God its master every sort of sweet and delightful fruit.”

Now the image of God contemplated in Jesus’ suffering body implies a similar process of purification and growth — a process in which the human being discovers and understands himself. A Father of the Church, Peter Chrysologus, suggests how this happens, imagining the crucified Jesus who invites believers to recognize in his sacrificed body the moral sense of their lives: “Behold, behold in me, your body, your limbs, your heart, your blood,” Jesus says. “And if you fear the things that are of God, why not love at least that which is your own? If you flee from the master, why not run to one who is of your own flesh?”

Moved by this notion, Chrysologus exclaims: “O the immense dignity of our priesthood as Christians! Man has become both victim and priest for his own sins. He does not seek outside himself what he should immolate to God, but bears with himself and in himself what he sacrifices.” Then, inviting his readers to imitate Christ, the saint exhorts us: “O man, be both sacrifice and priest! … Make your heart an altar and, with full confidence in God, present your body as sacrificial victim. God desires your faith, not your death; he thirsts for your prayer, not your blood; he is appeased by your free will, not by your destruction.”

These citations help introduce our exhibit, which invites visitors to rediscover the concepts of bodiliness and of personhood developed in images of Jesus through the centuries: the idea of the body as a place of dignity embedded in the human being, of a “priestly” capacity to offer oneself, and of the face as the mirror of a conscious freedom.

The Unsettling Discovery of Christ

The works on display make the visitor like the men and women described in the New Testament, for whom the body and the face of Jesus were places of surprising, at times disturbing, discovery — when, for example, he returned from the desert to his hometown, Nazareth, and in the synagogue read aloud the messianic verses of Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.”

Narrating this event, the evangelist Luke notes that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” because, to Isaiah’s stirring words, Jesus added words of his own, unexpected and certainly incomprehensible to those present. “Today — he said — this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21; cf. Isaiah 61:1-2).

The eyes of all were upon him, fixed on his body and his face, because his statement “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled” compelled them to associate the ancient promises of a future blessed era with this young man sitting in their midst — not with his mind or his teachings, but with himself as a physical presence, with his body and the expression of his face. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they ask immediately, unable to see in Jesus more than what they thought they knew, and thus eliciting his famous comment: “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown” (Luke 4:22.24).

A similar occurrence, but far more dramatic, is narrated in the fourth Gospel. Two days after the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes to feed a huge crowd, Jesus explains to some of the very same people who had come looking for him that the true bread offered by the Father to humanity — the bread that descended from heaven — was himself (John 6:32-35). Once again, his listeners ask: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say: ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42).

But he insists, using language that is unequivocal, even if humanly incomprehensible: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51); and again: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him.” (John 6:53.55-56).

An unknown Florentine master painted this crucifix, on display at the exhibit, in the first quarter of the 14th century. More details.

John the Evangelist describes the listeners’ negative reaction to these words, adding that “after this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). It is not hard to understand why, because, in fact, Jesus was expecting those who heard him to see his body and face as food! Claiming to be the true bread descended from heaven, he added: “For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).

These assertions shed light on many works in the present exhibit, originally intended for altars where the body and the face of Jesus depicted by the artist were seen in close proximity to the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, and, indeed, in some cases make the allusion explicit, openly showing a connection between the host or chalice and Jesus’ physical person. Among the terms traditionally used for the Eucharist, the most common, in fact, are Corpus Christi and Corpus Domini — “the body of Christ” and “the Lord’s body.”

The exhibit in fact encourages visitors to rediscover the special intensity with which the believers of yore — the material commissioners and original beneficiaries of the works on display — looked at the body and face they believed were “true food” and “true drink,” a body and a face that, once interiorized, would transform them through the gift of “eternal life.” This experience, perhaps fully accessible only through faith, can be imagined by nonbelievers as well — indeed must be imagined, representing as it does the normal context of reception of such images: an inescapable component of their message.

Art through Cultures and Centuries

The decision to seek a key to the mystery of the human person in portrayals of Jesus suggested a specific chronological range for the exhibit, and the works on display are in fact mostly from the 14th to the 17th centuries. This is due to the fact that in theology and in literature the concept of the person as a unique individual, with his own subjectivity and affective life, develops in the West just a little earlier, starting in the 12th and 13th centuries. Moreover, beginning in the latter 13th century, European artists set out to represent in the bodies and faces of their figures the complexity of human psychology, to that end reinterpreting aspects of Greco-Roman anatomical and physiognomic naturalism.

Thus, while in earlier periods artists portrayed the body and the face of Jesus as symbols — as in the small Romanesque portrait of Christ on the cross on display — in painted crosses and crucifixes of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, we sense a desire, variously expressed, to capture the psycho-physical dimension of suffering in a direct appeal to the sensitivity of the spectator, who is no longer expected to decode a symbol but simply to empathize with a fellow human being betrayed and unjustly condemned to torture and death.

The exhibit privileges the broad period from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Baroque, that is, the period in which the body and face of the human being become once again primary bearers of meaning. These elements of Western figurative art, perfected by the Greeks five centuries before Christ, had been rejected by earlier Christian culture, which preferred a less ambiguous idiom than pagan naturalism — one in which the body was a sign and the face was transfigured through faith.

This rejection of physicality and personality, which reflected Christianity’s severe condemnation of the amorality and individualism of the pagan world, was among the causes of a loss of interest in the body and the face as subjects in art between the fifth and the 11th centuries, and of artists’ more limited capacity to deal with these themes. Reacceptance of bodiliness and personhood from the 1200s onwards would be a defining conquest of the humanistic renaissance of the following centuries.

Luca Della Robbia’s “Madonna of the Apple”, on display at the exhibit, once belonged to the Medici Grand Dukes. This type of Madonna was very popular in 15th-century Florence. More details.

It was, in fact, the new man-centered spirituality inspired by the Franciscans in the 1200s and 1300s that led to the rediscovery of Greco-Roman art with its unique capacity to describe man’s body and emotions. This was not only a functional step — a solution to the “problem” of expression — but a substantial one, entailing the admission into Christian culture of elements once dismissed as hostile to faith.

Thanks to this new dialogue with ancient pagan civilization, European Christianity would develop a different relationship with history, in which values believed to have paved the way to faith in Jesus would be considered components of a single unified “revelation” entrusted to human beings irrespective of their cultural or religious origins. The core content of this revelation is humanity itself, recognizable in the eloquent beauty of the body and in its vulnerability — and in the pain and the joy written on the human face. This primacy to the human dimension arose from the conviction that God’s own son had become man.

The Exhibit

These ideas are illustrated in the seven conceptual areas comprising the exhibit itinerary: 1. The Body and the Person; 2. God Takes a Body; 3. The Man Jesus; 4. A Body Given for Love; 5. The Resurrected Body; 6. The Mystical Body; 7. The Sacramental Body. In the same spirit, the architecture of the exhibit evokes the original context of use of almost all the works on display, Catholic liturgical space, resituating the paintings, sculptures, gold and silver vessels and church vestments in church-like settings.

The shape of the rooms, the lighting, and the background music accompanying the visit were designed precisely for this purpose, in the pursuit of a scientific rather than religious objective: the rehabilitation as “historical evidence” of the theological and emotional messages that artists and patrons intended to convey. Indeed, some works are positioned above simulated altars to evoke the visual relationship between image and rite; a “Deposition” or a “Pietà” seen in a museum has a different impact, in fact, from the same subject seen above the Eucharistic table. In the latter case, the perception of Christ’s body depicted by the artist is conditioned by the viewer’s faith that, albeit invisible, the body is really present in the consecrated bread and wine.

To see images and explanations of some of the masterpieces of the exhibit, click here.

For information on visiting the exhibit in Turin, click here.