January 31, 2006


While many people may never have heard of Torino, they have likely heard of its most famous artifact, the shroud.  But as I quickly learned, if you ask anyone here in Torino where the shroud is, they have no idea, because they don’t know what “shroud” means.  They call it La Sacra Sindone, and it sits in a box behind bulletproof glass in the Cappella della Sindone beneath the Duomo of the city’s cathedral, Cattedrale di San Giovanni Battista.

The cathedral sits behind the Palazza Reale, or Royal Palace.  The Palazza is the center point of Piazza Castella, a porticoed square from which you can see the old walls of the city, as well as a tower built by Mussolini to keep watch over the city’s anti-fascist networks.  Built in 1646, the palace was the House of Savoy’s primary home until 1865.  The cathedral, built in 1491 by Meo del Caprino for Cardinal Domenico della Rovere, is the only religious building in Torino from the Renaissance era.  The shroud came to the Duomo in 1587, and Guarino Guarini completed the Capella della Sindone in 1694 as its final resting place.  

On Sunday morning, I took a walk to the cathedral, which is quite beautiful. When facing the building from the outside, you see the Bell Tower of Sant’Andrea on the left and the Duomo on the right.  When you enter, you are greeted with an exhibit of a replica of the shroud, with an explanation as to what it is, why it is there, and when it will next be open for public viewing (likely 2025).  From that point, you proceed to the Capella, where the shroud sits behind bulletproof glass in a box adorned with thorns.  You are not allowed to speak while in the Cappella.   

So what’s inside the box?  The shroud is a centuries-old piece of linen that bears the image of a crucified man.  Many people believe that the image is of Jesus, and that the linen was used to wrap his crucified body after he was removed from the cross.  Others believe, after extensive scientific research, including radiocarbon tests, that the material dates between 1260 and 1390, making its claims counterfeit – a medieval prank that has endured with its faithful over time.  And still others more recently believe that the radiocarbon tests were themselves inaccurate, and that more detailed experiments using electrical fields and corona discharges have determined its authenticity, at least in terms when it was created.

Cardinal Severino Poletto, the custodian of the shroud, makes a sensible choice in how to deal with the controversy – he encourages people to think of it as a focus of their spirituality, rather than as a historical object, making the need to authenticate the linen obsolete.  And he’s probably right:  that which brings doubt also brings faith, so it would be difficult to have one without the other.

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