A Brief Pre-History of the Shroud of Turin

1. Together with the 1988 medieval radiocarbon date (1256 – 1390), the most common objections to the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin is that it has no history prior to its appearance in 14th century France in the village of Lirey, but this isn’t quite true.

2. Evagrius Scholasticus, wrote around 593 AD of the miraculous defence of Edessa against the Persians in 544 provided by a “divinely-wrought” likeness of Jesus (which according to legend was received by the 1st century King Agbar of Edessa after petitioned Jesus for healing by letter):

In this state of utter perplexity, they bring the divinely-wrought image, which the hands of men did not form, but Christ our God sent to Abgarus on his his desiring to see him… 

3. In the 11th century, John Skylitzes wrote in his Synopsis of Histories, that when Edessa was besieged in 944, the image was exchanged for a group of Muslim prisoners, and transported from Edessa to Constantinople where it was received with fanfare:

The city of Edessa was besieged by Roman forces, and when the people were oppressed by the privations of the siege they sent a delegation to the emperor asking for the siege to be lifted and promising to hand over the sacred mandylion of Christ as a ransom. The siege was lifted, and the likeness of our God was brought to our capitol where the emperor had it ceremonially received by the parakoimomenos Theophanes with impressive and fitting pomp.

In a depiction of the exchange attached to Skylitzes’ account, the image is associated with a shroud-like garment:

4. In 1204, Constantinople was sacked by the crusaders, and one of the crusaders involved in this event -Robert de Clari- records having seen an image of Jesus on a cloth. The image of  Edessa was generally described as a head only, but together with the depiction in Skylitzes’ account, de Clari’s description suggests that this was the result of the Shroud having been folded in such a way as to exclude the rest of the body:

There was another of the churches which they called My Lady St. Mary of Blachernae, where was kept the sydoine [shroud cloth] in which Our Lord had been wrapped, which stood up straight every Friday so that the figure of Our Lord could be plainly seen there. And no one, either Greek or French, ever knew what became of this sydoine after the city was taken.

This idea that the image involved the whole body is supported by various sources, one of which is the 12th century monk Orderic Vitalis who writes in his Historia Ecclesiastica:

Abgar reigned as Toparch of Edessa. To him the Lord Jesus sent (…) a most precious linen, where with he dried the sweat from his face, and upon the features of the saviour appear, miraculously reproduced. It showeth to those who behold it the image and he proportions of the body of the Lord.

5. The Knights Templar -an order of soldier-monks founded in 1119 by Hugues de Payens- were intimately involved in all of the crusades, including the 4th crusade and the sack of Constantinople, and one of the five original accusations made against the order when it was dissolved on a pretext in 1307 was the worshipping of an idol of a man with a beard. The description of an initiation undergone in 1287 provided by a French Templar named Arnaut Sabatier suggests both that the Knights Templar had taken possession of the image of Edessa and that the image involved the whole body:

I was shown a long piece of linen on which was impressed the figure of a man and told to worship it, kissing the feet three times.

It is true that these confessions of the Knights Templar were often coerced, but there is no reason why any confession should make specific mention of an image of a man on a long linen cloth as opposed to some image of a man on some surface.

6. During the second world war, some wooden panels on which there was a painting of a Shroud-like face, were discovered in the outhouse of a English cottage in the village of Templecombe, a name which derives from Combe Templariorum after the Knights Templar who established Templecomb Preceptory in 1185. The figure below shows from left to right the face on the Shroud, a typical Byzantine icon clearly based on the Shroud, two medieval copies of the “Image of Edessa’, and the Templecombe head.

Paul Vignon observed that very many portraits and icons of Jesus produced since the 6th century -when the Image of Edessa first came to public notice- share some subset of characteristics found on the face on the Shroud.

The Templecombe head is no exception to this rule.

7. Finally, the Shroud makes its first “official” appearance in France between 1353 to 1357 in the possession of a French Knight, Geoffrey de Charny, the nephew of another Geoffrey de Charny, a Templar executed in 1307…