Scholar’s historical perspective encourages new appreciation for Shroud of Turin

A young man with red hair and glasses, wearing a dark grey golf shirt stands in a courtyard. In the background of the photo is the Palazzo Reale, an elaborate building of white stone with a red tile roof. The palazzo is protected by an adorned green metal fence and there are two statues of men on horseback on the left side of the photo.

Dr. Andrew Casper poses in front of the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) in Turin, Italy. The palazzo belonged to the House of Savoy and its Chapel of the Holy Shroud was built in 1688-1694 to house the Shroud of Turin.

Like many others around the world, Dr. Andrew Casper was captivated by the spectacle surrounding the carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin in 1988. “I was only nine or ten years old at the time,” Casper says, “but I remember being fascinated when I saw a big write-up about it in Time magazine and the subsequent results of the tests.”

Today, as an assistant professor of art history at Miami University, Casper remains fascinated by the Shroud. But the question at the heart of that 1988 magazine write-up – “Is the Shroud of Turin real?” – is largely irrelevant as far as he’s concerned.

“That’s a question of faith, of religion,” Casper says. “I have zero interest in confronting those issues. What I’m interested in, as an art historian, is the historical significance of the Shroud in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.”

To explore this significance, Casper has studied devotional manuals, sermons, and other printed texts from the 1500s and 1600s that focus on the Shroud. According to Casper, no one at that time thought of the Shroud as a painting per se. “They didn’t regard it the same way they did Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example,” he says.

But the printed literature does refer to the Shroud metaphorically as a painting made by God, whose brush was Christ’s body and whose pigment was Christ’s blood, and Casper says these ways of discussing the Shroud reveal a very different conception of artifice and authenticity, which today we often perceive as binary opposites.

Contrary to what one might expect in modern times, metaphorical comparisons to art in the 16th and 17th Centuries bolstered, rather than undermined, the Shroud’s authenticity. “There was a reverence at the time for artifice,” Casper says, “and the Shroud was, in a certain way, an artistic relic that for contemporary believers gave evidence of God’s creative powers as artist.”

Supported by a Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, Casper traveled to Turin this past July to do archival research at the Archivio di Stato (State Archives), Biblioteca Reale (Royal Library) and the Biliblioteca Nazionale Universitaria (National University Library). There, among the documents he discovered was personal correspondence between the Archduchess of Tuscany, Maria Maddalena d’Austria, and the Duchess of Mantua, Margherita of Savoy, which provided further evidence of the power of the Shroud as an artistic relic.

In handwritten letters dated in 1624 and 1626, the Archduchess of Tuscany asks the Duchess of Savoy, whose family then owned the Shroud, for painted copies to worship in absentia. She stipulates that the copies must be by an “accomplished artistic hand” and that when they are finished, they must be pressed up against the original before being sent to her. This, according to Casper, demonstrates a dual source of power. “The object of worship draws power not only by coming in contact with Christ’s blood on the original Shroud,” he says, “but also by faithfully reproducing what it looks like.”

Ultimately, Casper plans to put his work in a book that he says will introduce a different way of looking at the Shroud of Turin. “The Shroud is so overwhelmingly wrapped into these questions of authenticity that it has deflected the desire to look at it in a historical framework,” he says.

For most scholars there’s just one question to answer: “Is the Shroud of Turin real?” But by approaching the Shroud from a historical perspective, Andrew Casper has found a whole lot of other questions in need of answer. In the end, he may even show us that “Is it real?” is the least interesting question we could ask.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University

Featured image (left) by Unknown – own work, photographed at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Other image (above) courtesy of Andrew Casper.

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