By Tania Mann
Over 1.7 million pilgrims have already booked their visit to the first public exposition of the Shroud of Turin in 10 years. But is the piece of cloth that so many visitors are flocking to see really the same one that was wrapped around the dead body of the man Jesus Christ? While many have questioned the Shroud’s true origin, one small book by a widely-respected Jewish botanist provides strong evidence of its authenticity.
In only about 100 picture-filled pages, Prof. Avinoam Danin – professor emeritus of the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – tackles the ambitious goal of answering every question he has ever been asked during his 14 years of research on the Shroud. His book Botany of the Shroud: The Story of Floral Images on the Shroud of Turin (Israel 2010: Danin Publishing, pp. 104) clearly outlines the steps which led Danin to reach a set of highly significant conclusions.
As Danin explains, what has occurred on the Turin Shroud is similar to the process of drying flowers between the pages of a book. Hundreds of plant images have remained imprinted on the cloth. These images thus help to determine facts pertaining to where and when the flowers could have originally been strewn across it. Also decipherable are the images of: nine thorns (most of which appear around the head and shoulders); a reed laid alongside the body of the “Man of the Shroud”, as he is called; approximately 2,600 fruits that were spread over the body; and partial images of a rope or cord.
The author’s research on the Shroud began when he was shown enhanced photographs of it in 1995. At first glance, he immediately recognized the images of plants from the Jerusalem area. The list of this prolific writer’s accomplishments in the field of botany – specifically pertaining to plants in the Middle East – is extensive. Suffice it to say that his 44-year-long career has involved discovering plant species never before found in Israel, Sinai and Jordan; and his work has enabled the creation of a data base from which a new phytogeographical map of Israel was drawn.
Danin’s first conclusion from his botanical findings is that, since the plant images appear in the same locations on photographs produced by different photographic techniques and on the linen of the Shroud itself, they must be real and not artefacts created by one photographic method or another. Of the hundreds of flower images, Danin focused his research on those which are most useful as geographic indicators, as well as on those with the most specific blooming times. He concludes that “the area where the assemblage of the three indicator plants could be freshly collected and placed on the Shroud near the man’s body is the area of Jerusalem to Hebron”. As for flowering seasons, he deduces that “March-April is the time of year when the whole assemblage of some 10 of the plants identified on the Shroud is in bloom”.
Regarding the thorns, Danin suspects that they belong to the plants Ziziphus spina-christi and Rhamnus lycioides, “an important historical indicator”. Both of these are considered among the “most ferocious” plants in Israel, and the thorns of the latter were once “used by Arab farmers to make the ‘knife’ of the plough”, he said.
The cord images on the Shroud show that the ropes were made from plant fibres using the same ancient method that has been used for thousands of years in Jerusalem. This cord is believed to be the one with which Christ was tied to the Cross.
For the Jewish botanist, sindonology – the study of the Shroud – has always been an intriguing endeavour from a botanical forensic perspective, but Danin says he is completely detached from any religious significance the Shroud might possess. Recounting a conversation he had in 2000 with the then- Apostolic Nuncio of Jerusalem, Danin writes: “I described to him my excitement upon first seeing on the Shroud itself the plant images that I had seen on photographs. I said that I did not feel any particular emotion towards the object revered by millions…. I was a bit apologetic when I was telling him about it. He told me to keep on with my work, because if I were not a Jewish but a Christian botanist, only a few people would believe me”.
Since then, Danin’s years of work as a sindonologist have led him to conclude that the burial cloth already existed in the 8th century CE, and also that “the high similarity of the face of the Man of the Shroud to an icon of ‘The Pantocrator’ in the St Catherine Monastery, Sinai, takes the Shroud back to 550 CE”.
What the botanist calls “the holographic era” of sindonology began in 2007. This involved his collaboration with Dr Petrus Soons, who was responsible – along with his collaborators in the Dutch Holographic Laboratory in Eindhoven – for the creation of three-dimensional holograms of the Shroud. During this period Danin was able to observe that there is “an almost continuous carpet” of more than 300 flowering heads that were arranged in an orderly fashion on the forehead of the “Man of the Shroud”.
Another discovery resulting from his work with Soons was that it was a helmet – not a crown – of thorns that was used to torture the Man. Soons explained that “when he created life-size holograms and displayed them in Regina Apostolorum in Rome, they had to take a ladder to see the top of the head. This part of the body of the Man of the Shroud had not been seen by anybody before”. There Soons observed many small wounds that had been bleeding, whereas these wounds were not visible on the forehead.
The theological significance of Danin’s conclusions is immense. Each of these scientific observations recall Christ’s suffering: his Passion and Crucifixion as they were recently commemorated in the Catholic Church worldwide. Danin’s research – accompanied by that of other sindonologists – can help to reveal a physical reality that points to a transcendent truth: that of Christ’s death and Resurrection. Studies like his help to identify a tangible connection with those mysteries that stretch far beyond the capacity of the human mind.
In the words of Pope John Paul II: “The Shroud shows us Jesus at the moment of his greatest helplessness and reminds us that in the abasement of that death lies the salvation of the whole world” (Address, Pastoral Visit to Vercelli and Turin, 24 May 1998). Indeed, when Christians speak of the Shroud, they speak of the very cloth that was wrapped around the only human ever to break the chains of death. It is a concrete record of his extraordinarily temporary state of death – the “mystery of Holy Saturday”, as Benedict XVI called it during his Visit on Sunday.
And as his Venerable Predecessor said years ago, “The Shroud thus becomes an invitation to face every experience, including that of suffering and extreme helplessness, with the attitude of those who believe that God’s merciful love overcomes every poverty, every limitation, every temptation to despair”.
© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 05/05/2010