LA REPUBBLICA – R2 La Scienza - Thursday, January 31, 2008, pag. 34-35

Shroud, the mystery is reopened: “It is more ancient”



Few words are enough to reopen the most intriguing mystery in the human history: “I am sure I have got strong evidence that the Shroud dates back far before than what established by the last analyses.” David Rolfe says them in his office of Beaconsfield, a suburb of London, among monitors, digital readers, a lot of DVDs, where he is completing the editing of “The Shroud of Turin – the material evidence”, the documentary on which he has been working for years and that the BBC will broadcast on Holy Saturday evening.

It is the second film the multi-prize winner British director devotes to this subject: the first one, “Silent Witness”, released in 1978 and then broadcasted also in Italy, began to shed light on the mysteries of the Shroud, which, assumes Rolfe, could be equivalent to the “Polaroid of the Resurrection.” The new work is even more ambitious, because it broaches the subject which has disconcerted “the believers’ party,” that is, those who do not doubt that the Shroud is the sheet in which Jesus’ body was wrapped after the crucifixion on the Golgotha.

The topic is the test of Carbon 14, a test carried out in 1988 by the laboratories of Oxford, Tucson and Zurich, in order to make out the dating of the Shroud: as a result, it gave an interval of time between 1295 and 1360, and many people thought it was the definitive demonstration that the controversial linen textile is a fake, which had been dated back to the Middle Ages, so long after Christ’s time. Well, Rolfe’s new documentary challenges this thesis, to the point that it has  persuaded Christopher Bronk Ramsey, director of Oxford RadioCarbon Accelerator and successor of the scientist who led the carbon test twenty years ago, to repeat the experiment.

As soon as the rumour has gone about that the test of Carbon 14 will be repeated, the excitement of the bunch of experts all over the world revolving around the Shroud has become uncontrollable.

“The director of Oxford laboratory has admitted that the 1988 result could be wrong,” has let slip Mgr Giuseppe Ghiberti, president of the Diocesan Commission for the Shroud of Turin, practically the custodian of the Shroud on behalf of the Vatican. “There is no reason of being astonished,” has added the high prelate, “that is the confirmation that science is relative, and that further studies can modify what asserted at first.” In Oxford, professor Ramsey flew into a rage: the test has not been  completed yet and he has never declared that the 1988 test gave a ‘wrong’ verdict.

But the susceptibility between religion and science, as regards the Shroud, is mutual, and comprehensible, especially in a scholar like Ramsey, who in 1988 was little more than a boy, but he assisted at the first test of Carbon 14, became a student and a successor of the scientist who carried out it, and now, as in the theory of the eternal return, is taking care again of the puzzle that has obsessed him all his life. Ramsey does not speak with the journalists; but the author of the documentary accepts, along with his assistant, Alessandro Pavone, a young Italian film maker who works in London and who has dealt with Mgr Ghiberti to film the Shroud.

“I cannot anticipate the result of Oxford test, because I don’t know it myself,” Rolfe explains, "nor does Ramsey, as the test is still under way. You will know it on Holy Saturday evening, when the BBC will broadcast the documentary. What I can say, and that seems remarkable to me, is that Ramsey has thought it necessary to repeat the1988 test.”

The scientific progress has convinced him. During some meteorological studies, the film maker tells, new elements on the behaviour of carbon 14 emerged, that Rolfe’s researches for the film have later indicated as a key to reopen the survey.” “I do not assert that in 1988 there was an error,” Rolfe specifies, “but doubts exist on the effects of the linen conservation in given conditions".

It is a dark language, but not for those who know the adventurous history of the Shroud. The documented one begins in 1353, in Lirey, in France, when the knight Geoffroy de Charny declares he owns the sheet that wrapped Jesus’ body.

A hundred years later, a descendant of his, named Marguerite, sells the sacred relic to the dukes of Savoy, who keep it in Chambéry, where in 1532 it survives a fire, and then since 1578, in Turin, where they have transferred their own capital and where since then it has remained, also after that Umberto II, last king of Italy, before dying, has left it to the Pope as an inheritance.

Then there is the not documented history, according which the Shroud would have been hidden by the apostles, kept by the primitive Christian community, brought to Edessa, Mesopotamia (today’s Turkey), in 544, moved from there in 944, when the Muslims occupied Edessa, to Constantinople, which is plundered by the Crusaders in 1204; one of these Crusaders would have stolen and taken it to France, where a century and half later it ends up in Geoffroy’s hands. Finally, there is the legend: the Shroud, the Mandylion (another mysterious Christian relic) and the Holy Graal would actually be the same thing. In short, a novel; in comparison with it,  the “Da Vinci Code” is a little tale for children.

“In the Middle Ages Christian relics had an immense value, so the temptation to counterfeit them for the sake of profit was great,” Rolfe observes. “But up to now nobody has succeeded in understanding how it would have been possible to counterfeit the Shroud. Only one possibilities can be true: either it is authentic, or it is a genius’, a Leonardo da Vinci’s work, so much so that someone is convinced that it was the Gioconda’s painter who made it, even if the dates do not match.” The new test of Carbon 14 could therefore settle or at least to rekindle the issue, backdating the sheet to Christ’s age. And it is possible that the documentary hides another surprise: “When the Shroud was photographed for the first time, it revealed the negative image, much cleaner than the one on the sheet,” Rolfe concludes. “When it was scanned for the first time, it revealed a three-dimensional image. We have filmed it for the first time in high definition.” And what can we see on it? “I am going to edit the images. You will discover it on Holy Saturday.” Amen.