Cappella della Sindone Reopened

Guarino Guarini’s Chapel of the Holy Shroud, Turin, Restored

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud reopened this weekend after a decades-long restoration campaign. The chapel had first closed in May 1990 when a small piece of marble detached from a cornice and crashed to the floor. Repairs proceeded sporadically over the next several years. In April 1997, the restoration was nearly complete when a devastating fire hit the chapel. The wooden boards on some of the scaffolding caught fire, for reasons never fully determined. The great height of the chapel acted as a chimney to pull the flames upward and fan the fire. Although the marble could not burn, it cracked and changed color because of the intense heat. Splintered fragments of the originally black Frabosa marble fell to the pavement. As later emerged, the structure of the chapel and its dome were largely intact, but the subsequent restoration was fraught with conflicts, setbacks, and a lack of transparency. After multiple missed deadlines, the restoration is complete and the chapel accessible to visitors.

Position of the Cappella della Sindone between the Cathedral of San Giovanni and the Palazzo Reale, Turin

Located between the Cathedral of San Giovanni and the Royal Palace in Turin, access to the chapel was originally provided from both buildings. That meant that members of the Savoy dynasty could enter the chapel directly from the palace, but also that the faithful could enter from the cathedral, as well as view the chapel directly above and behind the high altar of the cathedral. During much of the twentieth century, though, visitors entered from the church side, via the stairways from the two doors flanking the high altar of the cathedral, while the palace doorway was rarely used. With the reopening, the chapel now forms part of the Musei Reali in the Royal Palace, and will be accessed from the palace side, with the cathedral doors closed. The shroud itself is now stored elsewhere.

The portals in the cathedral giving access to the stairways leading to the Shroud Chapel will now remain locked. Source: TripAdvisor

While the successfully completed restoration must be seen as a triumph – reinstating one of the most stupendous spaces in early modern European architecture – the incorporation of the chapel in a museum circuit is symptomatic for our age. Divorced from its relation to the church, devoid of the relic that originally prompted its construction, Guarini’s chapel has become yet another event for cultural tourism.

Beginning Tuesday, 2 October, the chapel may be visited as part of the a general admission ticket to the Musei Reali Torino.


* * *

Further reading:

● The Art Newspaper provides a convenient English summary of the restoration campaign.

● John Beldon Scott’s 2003 book Architecture for the Shroud: Relic and Ritual in Turin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) remains essential reading for the historic background of the Shroud Chapel and the earlier repositories of the relic. See also my review of Scott in Annali di architettura 16 (2004).

● My other posts on the Shroud of Turin.

A Souvenir Shroud of Turin

Replica of the Shroud of Turin, possibly 19th century, Italian, painted cloth, H. 7 3/4″ x W. 21″ (19.7 x 53.3 cm)
Gift of Coudert Brothers, 1888
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 88.3.45

With Easter approaching, the annual sindonology season is upon us. This year’s curiosity comes from the vast, encyclopedic collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York: a miniature replica of the Shroud of Turin. While the original relic is around 4.5 meters long, this small version measures just over a half-meter in length.

According to the museum’s catalogue record, the replica is painted on the cloth and was acquired in 1888. The image of the Shroud – complete with the burn marks from the fire in Chambéry in 1532 – is surrounded with a floral border, an inscription, images of symbols and instruments of the passion at the corners, and two baskets of flowers at either side. The textile probably dates to the nineteenth century, and must have been intended as a devotional souvenir for pious pilgrims to the venerated relic.

The Metropolitan Museum also holds a photographic souvenir of the Shroud of Turin in its collection. The negative image of the face on the textile was taken by Giuseppe Enrie and dates to the 1931 ostension of the Shroud. The museum’s website offers an extremely informative catalogue entry on the photo and its context in Enrie’s career.

The video below gives a glimpse of the souvenirs available for contemporary pilgrims to the relic.

A souvenir stand at a recent ostension of the Shroud

“A relick of high esteem”: An English Visitor in Turin and the Cult of the Shroud

The recent two-month ostension of the Shroud of Turin concluded this past week with the visit of Pope Francis. Now that the relic has been safely returned to its climate-controlled case in the cathedral, the Shroud reverts again to its usual state as an invisible presence in the city.

This inter-ostension condition of the Shroud is that experienced by the vast majority of travelers to Turin since the relic’s arrival there in 1578. Prevented from seeing the Shroud itself, written accounts of it by these visitors instead focus on the outer trappings associated with the cloth – the chapel containing it, images of it, and rituals involving it. This was also the case for those celebrating the New Year 1682 in the Savoy capital.

Stopping in Turin for the New Year 1681-2

Fitzroy Northumberland British Museum

Image: Portrait of George Fitzroy, Earl of Northumberland, as a boy in Roman costume, after Henri Gascar, last quarter of the seventeenth century Source: © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Beinecke Library at Yale University preserves a manuscript journal written by an English traveler in Italy during 1681-2.  The anonymous author was a member of the retinue of George Fitzroy, Earl (later Duke) of Northumberland (1665-1716), an illegitimate son of King Charles II of England.  Traveling in Italy from November 1681 to June 1682, the group stopped at Turin, Milan, Florence, Bologna, Naples, and Rome.  In Padua the diarist then separated from the main company, which proceeded to Venice, while the author continued on to Avignon.

Only one page of the manuscript has been digitized so far, but luckily for enthusiasts of Piedmontese Baroque, it is the page describing the party’s arrival in Turin on New Year’s Eve 1681. After a general description of the city, the journal entry immediately focuses on the ducal palace and Guarino Guarini’s chapel of the Holy Shroud, then nearing completion.

Northumberland Turin 1681 BeineckeImage: Relation of my voiage into Italy with my Lord Northumberland, fol. 6r (Osborn b352)
Source: The James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Wee arrived at Turin on y.e last day of Decembre 1681. This city is well situated where the Doïre [i.e. Dora] a small river joins with the Po, there begins to bee navigable, for you find boats to carry you down to Venice. The buildings of the new city especialy look very stately. The town is furnisht with water by the Doïre they lett into y.e streets every night. Itt is surrounded with strong ramparts sett with young oak trees, that make a pleasant walk. The new pallace in y.e city is well built. You may see in itt a chappel all of black marble, built a purpose for y.e holy Sindon or winding sheet wherein they say our Saviour was wrapt up: a relick of high esteem the Effigie whereof is painted upon most of ye walls in Piemont. Itt is shewn in a publick place upon very extraordnary occasions, and then do resort to Turin a multitude of People, who are all bound to cast themselves upon their knees at y.e sight of itt. In this same pallace is y.e Royal Gallery full of pictures of severall good hands. There are many pieces of Titian as Christ’s whipping out of y.e temple the buyers and sellars. St Peters Denyal of his master &c …”

Here the single digitized page concludes.  Among other things, the journal entry reveals how popular images of the Shroud throughout the Savoy territories helped to prepare visitors for their experience at the reliquary chapel in the capital, heightening their anticipation, and how accounts of previous ostensions played a role in travelers’ experience of the city even when the Shroud was not on display during their stay.

A video (below) prepared by the city of Turin’s cultural portal documents many of these images of the Shroud, “painted upon most of y.e walls in Piemont.” For other examples, see this PDF, “Affreschi Sindone in Piemonte” (source).

Measuring Belief: The Shroud of Turin, Analog and Digital

Balliani SindoneCamillo Balliani, Ragionamenti della Sacra Sindone (Turin: 1610), unpaginated front matter.
Image: Google Books

With the second-ever televised ostension planned for Holy Saturday (this year 30 March), and the introduction of a new “Shroud app,” the custodians of the Shroud of Turin once again are using contemporary technology to promote devotion to the controversial relic. They thus continue a centuries-old tradition already well established when the Shroud first arrived in Turin in 1578.

Relics witness to a holy event or person in the past, serve as aids to devotion, and are themselves occasionally objects of devotion. An implicit proof of authenticity is inherent in a relic’s very existence: the relic vividly evokes historic events with its materiality in the here and now, confirming that the events actually took place even once eyewitnesses are gone. The relic itself provides a kind of “proof” for believers that simultaneously challenges the skeptic to question and critically examine. The Shroud, ostensibly bearing traces of Christ’s own blood, is a particularly important relic that demands the devotion due to God himself.*

SINDONEThe Shroud of Turin
Image: Wikimedia Commons / public domain

The testing and examination of the Shroud has increased in recent decades, with results dividing believers and non-believers into ever more entrenched camps. But the use of quantification to describe the relic is not new. In 1610, for instance, Camillo Balliani published his Ragionamenti della Sacra Sindone, a devotional book on the Shroud, which featured an image of the textile entitled “Ritratto della Sacra Sindone,” the “Portrait of the Holy Shroud” (above). Two points labeled “A” and “B” flank the base of the image, providing a fixed length to assist the faithful in calculating the dimensions of the cloth. The caption below explains:

“The measure of the Holy Shroud, and of the Image of Our Savior which remains on it.
From A to B, that is from one point to another, thirty-six times [this measure] is the length of the Shroud.
From A to B, twelve times [this measure] is the height, or rather width of it.
From A to B, sixteen times [this measure] is the length of the Image of the Lord.
From A to B, four times [this measure] is the width of the shoulders.”

The A to B measurement given directly on the page cleverly sidestepped the confusion of regional unit measures then prevalent in Europe. It also required no advanced numeracy among its readers, since the necessary calculations or mental constructions could be performed geometrically with simple counting of iterations. (What the caption does not calculate is the gigantic size of the three angels displaying the Shroud, each of them easily twice the size of the life-sized image of Christ.)

Passion relicsBalliani’s Shroud image thus belongs to the “metric relics” dating back to the medieval period, a group of artifacts – particularly those of the Passion – for which devotional function was enhanced by indication of the relics’ actual size.** Such metric relics took their first technological leap (from manuscript to print) already during the sixteenth century, just decades before Balliani.

Anonymous German, Twelve Holy Relics,
with measurement scale, drawing, 17th century

Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Devotion to the Shroud and examination of the textile again entered a new technological era in 1898, when the first photographs of the relic were taken by Secondo Pia.  As he was developing the photographic plates, Pia realized the Shroud itself was a negative of the body’s image (Scott, p. 302) The negative of this negative produced a positive image, an even more convincing simulacrum of the dead Christ, and one that was readily disseminated through mass print reproduction. The faithful were fascinated by this discovery, but at the same time it ushered in a technological arms race between believers and skeptics which continues to this day.

Shroud negative Gallica

Shroud of Turin, negative detail of face, 1932
Image: / Bibliothèque nationale de France / Planet News

Despite their transmission via new media technologies, photography and measurement also dominate the most recent devotional aids. The new Shroud app will reportedly allow users to inspect an ultra-high resolution image of the relic on mobile devices, a function already available online on several Shroud-related websites. The Shroud Scope at is perhaps the most elaborate of these tools, since it permits users to measure between any two click points, adjusting for the zoom scale, and it also documents blood stains, burn marks, poker holes, and the sites from which samples have been taken for carbon-14 dating. This clickable measurement function thus continues the manuscript and print tradition of metric relics in a renewed technological leap, this time to digital media.

As a devotional exercise, the action of tracing these images of the textile with the cursor reassures believers that the relic withstands the scrutiny of contemporary technology, while maintaining the substantial historic traditions of earlier ostensions and devotions, albeit in transposed format. The nearly haptic process of virtually inspecting the digitized Shroud millimeter by millimeter recalls the physical manipulations of earlier metric relics, or the spatial and temporal dimensions of other devotions focusing on the Passion, such as Stations of the Cross or Sacri Monti chapels, which unfold as the pilgrim moves through a prescribed sequence of experiences.


Wolf Traut after Albrecht Dürer, [The Hand of God, or an invitation to prayer], woodcut, 1511
The new media of the Renaissance: here, the hand of God appears as a sort of heavenly cursor pointing out scenes from the Passion
Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum

What both sides in the Shroud controversy sometimes seem to forget in the race for technological confirmation and dissemination of their positions is that the message of Easter need not be linked to the authenticity (or not) of this particular textile. Belief cannot be measured in millimeters and pixels, nor dated with carbon-14.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊


*On the particular properties of the Shroud as a relic, see John Beldon Scott, Architecture for the Shroud (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003): 115-117, and passim.

**Among the rich literature on metric relics, their use for devotion and as amulets, two examples available online may be cited here: Adolf D. Jacobi, “Heilige Längenmasse: Eine Untersuchung zur Geschichte der Amulette,” Schweizerisches Archiv für Volkskunde 29 (1929): 1-17, 181-216; and Kathryn M. Rudy, “Kissing Images, Unfurling Rolls, Measuring Wounds, Sewing Badges and Carrying Talismans: Considering Some Harley Manuscripts through the Physical Rituals they Reveal,” Electronic British Library Journal (2011): article 5.