Monday, February 18, 2013

The Mysterious Man of the Shroud (Landau Entertainment, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I stayed up with our friend Garry Hobbs and watched a DVD he’d brought over called The Mysterious Man of the Shroud, a gloriously tacky TV documentary about the Shroud of Turin. I would have no problem living my life completely unaware of the existence of the Shroud of Turin, but in case you’ve been fortunate enough actually to pull that off, it’s the piece of twill-woven cloth which first publicly appeared in 14th Century France after it was supposedly brought back from Jerusalem by Crusaders searching for relics of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was purchased from the family whose crusader ancestor supposedly brought it back from there by the Royal House of Savoy, which eventually fled France and relocated to Italy, which is how it ended up at Turin, and the Vatican, which now has nominal ownership of the Shroud, has never said yea-or-nay to the claim that it’s the actual burial shroud of Jesus Christ but allows it to be exhibited and used as an object of public veneration. The only person listed on the page for the program is Hector Elizondo, who appeared on-screen as narrator and host, but the program — written and directed by Terry Landau for his own company, Landau Entertainment — was very much in the typical mold of History Channel documentaries on so-called “supernatural” or “paranormal” phenomena, lots of talking-head interviews with experts (I was amused at how the scientists and historians from Israel, the self-proclaimed “Jewish state,” were considerably more skeptical about the claims made for the Shroud as being the actual burial cloth of Jesus which became imprinted with his image when he essentially burned through it as he was resurrecting himself), bizarre re-enactments (focused less on when the Shroud was supposedly made and used and more on when it was first photographed, in the 1890’s and then not again until the 1930’s by a French researcher who thought he could capture more detail as camera equipment had improved) and an overall air that to this highly skeptical observer comes off as kind of a breathless silliness — “Could it be that … ?” “Is the Shroud possibly … ?” “Can it have happened that … ?”

The most blatant bit of ballyhoo both in the movie itself and in the promotional material on the DVD box cover was the “three-dimensional image” of the man who might or might not have been buried in the Shroud that might or might not have contained the body of a person who might or might not have been Jesus Christ, basically a tall, rather plump guy with a lot of stab marks all over his person (alas, his crotch and butt cheeks were carefully concealed — tough luck for all those perverted Gay men out there who might have been wondering about the cock size of the Son of God) with long dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard — since one of the show’s more believable arguments was that, authentic or not, the Shroud has set the template for most artistic depictions of Jesus. The Mysterious Man of the Shroud showed scientists who claimed to have lifted blood from the Shroud’s surface and tested it to confirm that it was human DNA (which gave me the idea for a science-fiction tale, sort of The Passion of the Christ meets Jurassic Park, in which a mad scientist who’s also a committed Christian uses DNA extracted from the Shroud to try to clone Christ and thereby bring about the Second Coming), though when the blood was deposited on the Shroud’s surface remained a mystery. It also showed the outcome of radiocarbon-14 dating tests (which meant having to take a few pieces of the Shroud and essentially turn them into charcoal) which established that the cloth was not from 2,000 years ago but from the 14th century, when the Christian world was being flooded with relics looted from the Holy Land by Crusaders, and there was a thriving business in manufacturing fake relics, not so much to sell them as to build up certain regions and ruling families as holders of actual objects involved in the Christian founding history. There was a joke once that if all the “splinters of the True Cross” that circulated in the Middle Ages had been authentic, Jesus would have had to have been crucified on an entire forest containing at least 60 different species of trees.

The show did offer some insight into the mechanics of how crucifixion worked — thanks largely to the discovery of the skeleton of an actual crucifixion victim (the show hinted that crucifixion was a considerably rarer form of execution than some historians have maintained, reserved for the “worst of the worst” criminals whom the authorities wanted publicly shamed) with the obligatory stake through both legs — and it argued that while most crucifixion victims were attached to the cross with rope bindings around their wrists, people the authorities especially wanted to humiliate and torture were nailed to the cross through their wrists (not their palms, even though that’s become the norm in artistic depictions of crucifixion, because nails through the palms would not have supported the weight of a human body), in addition to a single nail at the base of the cross through the victim’s feet — the point of all this being that the crucifixion victim could inhale but if he needed to exhale, he would have to bend his body into a shape that would cause even more excruciating pain. (The ancients were decidedly not nice people. Crucifixion, like the hemlock poisoning Socrates was killed with, was deliberately designed to make capital punishment as drawn-out and excruciatingly painful as they could.) Frankly, the most credible explanation for the Shroud of Turin in this program was the one that it’s a “dust painting,” a form of art that involves sprinkling dust on a piece of paper, then putting cloth over the paper, transferring some of the colored (pigmented) dust to the cloth, then heating the cloth so the image “sets” and becomes permanently fixed. It was almost certainly a fake, created in the 14th century at a time when the demand for relics of early Christianity was at its peak (despite the attempts by believers to claim that the radiocarbon dating was wrong because the original Shroud’s carbon atoms supposedly got mixed with the secretions of other things, ranging from bacteria to humans, that could have contaminated the samples and got the measurements mixed up), a fake that arguably succeeded beyond its creators’ wildest imaginations, to the point where we’re still arguing about it (and watching TV shows about it) to this day.