On Saturday, the archbishop of Turin, Cesare Nosiglia, responded to calls for spiritual solace in these unprecedented days by announcing plans for an extraordinary showing of the Shroud of Turin on the day before Easter.
This object, the supposed burial cloth of Jesus Christ, is famous for its faint impressions of Christ’s bloodstained body that adhered to it, allegedly by miracle. But it is also well-known for the contentious debates over authenticity that still boil even three decades after a carbon-dating analysis determined that the cloth originated in the medieval period. Much of the shroud’s allure comes from its mystery and secrecy. Since it is only rarely shown to the public, announcements like this one are headlining events.
But as a testament to the realities of the COVID-19 crisis, this exhibition will take place over television and through livestreaming social media venues. (You can watch the English-language version on YouTube. It will begin at 5 p.m. local time, 11 a.m. Eastern in the U.S.) Whether Nosiglia knows it or not, his decision to exhibit the Shroud of Turin virtually in real time during a global pandemic finds neat points of synchronicity with the history of the shroud’s rise to becoming Christianity’s most famous—and notorious—sacred artifact. It also forces us to rethink the limits and capabilities of digital mediation as life is exiled to virtual platforms.
The Shroud of Turin’s modern fame as an object of religious faith derives from a deadly contagion that defined its own era as much as the current one threatens to define ours. In 1578 the cardinal and archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo, wrote to the shroud’s custodian, Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy. Borromeo wanted to venerate the holy sheet as a way to give thanks for surviving the plague that had ravaged northern Italy the previous two years. In order to accommodate the frail cardinal, who insisted on undertaking the journey from Milan on foot, the duke arranged to move the shroud from its resting place in the French Alpine city of Chambéry to the new Savoy capital city of Turin. Borromeo’s pilgrimage to Turin was marked by two public viewings of the cloth to heaving crowds of pilgrims—reportedly, about 40,000 people packed in the city’s main square.
The success of these exhibitions prompted the shroud’s owners to stage them again, repeatedly, over the next century. But when compared with our anticipated period of social isolation, this recurrence reveals conflicting attitudes about public gatherings in the wake of a pandemic.
While we contemplate life without concerts, sporting events, public rallies, and other assemblies as large as cities, in the late 1500s and 1600s, tens of thousands of pilgrims came to Turin almost every year for public exhibitions of the Savoy’s prized sacred relic. Visual and textual accounts of these exhibitions convey the challenge of dealing with the astonishing numbers of pilgrims beyond what the city could handle, occasionally even resulting in deaths. The exhibitions certainly contributed to the spread of disease as well. Yet despite their dangers and discomforts, these events flourished because they were the only opportunities by which most people had any way to view what they believed to be the sole remaining traces of Christ’s body anywhere on the planet.
Fast-forward to 2020 and we arrive at a new age of viewing and experiencing that shapes even how we are able to see the shroud—at least for the time being. The televised live “virtuality” of the Shroud of Turin during a global pandemic makes me wonder what the medium of a digital screen actually does for the experience of witnessing the original. Nosiglia’s announcement of the coronavirus-inspired exhibition notes that “thanks to television and social media, this period of contemplation makes available for everyone all over the world the image [of Christ] on the sacred cloth.” But how is streaming the real-time feed of an inherently inert object any different from a photograph that most people could presumably access via Google any time they wish?
The presumption, apparently, is that the medium of a live broadcast can facilitate access to whatever sacred power one might believe the shroud to possess. In other words, it allows the shroud to be present on screens that each have the capacity to retain, all at the same time, a live digital rendering for the purposes of private devotion.
Yet however modern this digital mediation might be, such an enthusiasm for copies as virtual presentations of the original has accompanied the relic’s rise to prominence from the very moment Borromeo made his pilgrimage to Turin in 1578. From that year and into the 1700s, there was a veritable industry of reproducing the shroud in both printed and painted mediums. This resulted in the wide distribution of large numbers of surrogates by which devotees could adore the bloodstained images of Christ’s body in absentia. The painted images in particular replicated the experience of the original by reproducing it to scale. They were also consecrated by being placed in direct contact with the authentic relic in order to absorb its sacred power—ensuring that the copy perpetually broadcasts the presence of the original.
However, modern suspicions about copies generally demote many of these replicas to dormant roles as museum pieces or forgotten liturgical artifacts stuffed in church closets. They only faintly remind us of the prominence they once enjoyed as the primary means by which most worshippers had access to the Turin original. (While most are in Italy, others can be found throughout Europe; another is at the monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey.) Some are brought out around Easter, where they often give off the air of antique curiosity as much as they spur religious contemplation. But one copy in particular, in the town of Bitonto, near Bari in Italy’s Puglia region, still today performs a role as surrogate for the Shroud of Turin that most others have lost. This full-size replica, carrying the date of 1646 and a textual inscription testifying to it having been “extracted” from the original (presumably alluding to the consecrating act of touch), is one of very few that takes part in an annual sacred ritual. It is paraded through the streets of the city during a solemn Good Friday procession by the Confraternity of Santa Maria del Suffragio.
In recent years, this copy has joined the vitality of the past with the technologies of the present when the processions in Bitonto have been broadcast live on television and social media. This might not seem especially remarkable given the ubiquity of livestreamed events large and small, sacred and profane, authorized and otherwise. But in the present moment, while Italy is gripped by a total lockdown that confines communal activities to our private screens, this year’s televised procession, had it happened, could have taken on added gravity and opportunity. Last year, I was able to witness the Bitonto procession virtually from my office in rural Ohio, my computer screen thus hosting the digital copy of a manual copy of the original shroud. Today I would have no choice but to watch it from home—if not for the fact that this year’s edition has been understandably and thankfully canceled. In its place, devotees can still watch recorded videos online of those that occurred in in the past.
The 2020 exhibition of the Shroud of Turin will not be the first time the relic has been televised. In 1973, authorities decided to air an exhibition by the state media channel Rai instead of staging a public gathering (despite the fact that, for a variety of reasons, none had taken place for 40 years). The rationale, as stated then by Cardinal and Archbishop Michele Pellegrino, was that television, by then widely available in private homes, would allow for a much closer and more detailed view of the relic than what could be possible from the comparatively great distance by which viewers are kept from the cloth during the traditional in-person exhibitions. And so viewers throughout Europe and the Americas instead watched the cloth hanging silently and motionlessly for 15 minutes on their TV screens.
While the virtual exhibition of 1973 reflects the novelty of television for bringing viewers and the shroud into close proximity, that of 2020 is engendered instead by necessity. In a broad sense, the result is the same—the wide dissemination of the cloth and its mysterious images for the benefit of an audience far larger than what can be convened in any one place. But these two events mark drastically different moments in our and the shroud’s shared history. After the 1973 televised exhibition, the staging of public gatherings to see the shroud in person resumed with a frequency not seen in centuries, with official in-person exhibitions that were not broadcast on television taking place in 1978, 1998, 2000, 2010, and 2015. Another had been planned for later this year.
I saw the shroud for the first and only time in person in 2010. But opportunities to see it again might be more fleeting than ever before. Instead of a contagion triggering a wave of public exhibitions, as in 1578, the current one threatens to usher in the dawn of a new virtual reality that favors digital dispersal over real encounters. The Shroud of Turin thus joins our families, friends, co-workers, students, and others in our social and professional networks in occupying the realm of an ambiguous presence that might not any longer be a lesser alternative to our preferred form of social gathering.