The following text was written in 1935 by Paul Claudel, a French writer, expressing his feelings towards the Holy Shroud of Turin. He refers to the work of M. Gérard Cordonnier, a maritime engineer, member of the Commission for the Holy Shroud.
This text describes well what many do “see” in this image for which no scientific experiment can verify or confirm. Claudel does not enter into a scientific debate, nor does he contest the positions of the skeptics. Nevertheless, he is well aware of it and recalls his own personal experience of his youth which was surrounded by skepticism towards the divinity of Jesus. This text is a must read to better understand the perceptions of this man who has known both skepticism and the mystical experience of the divine presence.
Brangues, par Morestel (Isère) 16 August 1935
I read with the utmost interest the booklet that you had the kind thought to send me: Le Christ dans sa passion révélé par le Saint Suaire de Turin (The Christ in his passion revealed by the Holy Shroud of Turin). I have studied at length the startling images that came with it. I hope that it reaches the public and that it helps France's Christianity to realize the religious significance of the photographic discovery of the Holy Shroud of Turin. It is so important as to compare it to a second resurrection.
I recall to my mind the sinister period, from 1880 to 1910, time of my youth and mature age, period of materialism and of aggressive triumphant skepticism, dominated by Ernest Renan's figure: so much effort then to blur Christ's divinity, to veil this unbearable face, to weaken Christianity and to blur its contour by means of interlaced strips of erudition and doubts! The Gospel put into small pieces created a pile of incoherent and suspect materials where each amateur went searching for elements of a pretentious and temporary construction. Jesus's figure was blurred until it vanished in a fog of historic, mystagogic and novelistic literature. At last, they had succeeded! Jesus-Christ had become a pale outline, a few flowing lines and ready to erase itself. Now, Magdelene could go at the tomb. They had taken away her Lord.
And now that centuries have passed, the obliterated image suddenly reappears under the cloth with a dreadful truthfulness, with the authenticity of not only an indisputable document, but as an actual fact. The interval of nineteen centuries is annihilated in one blow and the past is now the present. In the words of Saint John: What our eyes have seen, what we have considered at leisure, what our hands have manipulated of the Verb of life.
The Shroud is not simply an official document, similar to minutes, or an engrossment duly signed and initialed: this is a transfer, this is an image bearing by itself its own guarantee. More than an image, this is a presence! More than a presence, this is a photograph, something printed and permanent. And more than a photograph, this is a negative, that is a hidden activity (in taking a liberty, I suggest that it is a little like the Holy Scripture itself) and capable under the lens to achieve in positive an evidence! Suddenly, in 1898, after Strauss, after Renan, at the time of Loisy, we are in possession of the photograph of Christ — Just like that! — : the crowning achievement of this fantastic search and exegesis done by this century about to end!
This is Him! This is His face! This face that so many saints and prophets have been consumed by the desire to contemplate, following this lyric of the psalm: My face search thy: Lord, I'll search Your face. He is ours! Already from this life, we are allowed as much as we want to consider the Son of God face to face! Since a photography is not a portrait made by human hands. Between this face and us there has been no human intermediary. This is Him who materially impregnated this sheet, and this is this sheet on its turn which takes possession of our mind.
What a face! We understand these executioners who could not bear it and to overcome it still try today, as they can, to hide it. I will express my mind in saying that what brings this tremendous vision, this is less a vision of crushing majesty than the feeling in us, underneath the sin, of our complete and radical unworthiness, the exterminator consciousness of our nothingness. There is in these closed eyes, in this definitive figure impregnated with eternity, something destructive. Like a sword blow in the heart bringing consciousness. Something so horrible and so beautiful that there is no other means to escape except by worship. This is the time to remember the magnificent verse of Isaia (VI, 10) : Ingredere in petram, et abscondere in fossa humo a facie timoris Domini a gloria Majestatis Ejus.
But the actual lines are not written to register a personal impression. The coldest inquisitor could not know how to dispute that the personality from which this image has been so strangely kept on the Shroud of Turin had in his appearance something extraordinary and gripping. We find right away an affinity between the faces of Beaudelaire and Beethoven and the impression that give us their artistic works. Who could denie that between the resurrected of 1898 and the character for which the four gospels relate the facts, gestures and speeches, there is the same indisputable affinity? This confession goes quite far. The written document fits the graphic document. They match perfectly together. We feel that we have before us an original whose interpretations by art, have a sincere value without a doubt, but how partial and clumsy of second hands' work. The Christ of Vinci, the one from Dürer and Rembrandt goes with some parts of the Gospel, but this one goes with all of them. Better still, it dominates them all.
That is for the subjective affinity. But what to say of the material coincidence and the meticulous and detailed superposition of the document placed in our hands and the quadruple story of the Passion? All outlines are inscribed, indelible: the hands' and feets' wounds, the one on the side up to the heart, the shoulder one; the crown of thorns, which recalls us the interrogation of Pilate: Ergo tu Rex es? and these traces of the flogging, so real that their view today still makes us tremble. Photography gave us this body that the greatest mystics have hardly dare to contemplate, literally tortured from the sole to the top, all wrapped by flogging, all dressed up by wounds, in such a way that not one inch of this sacred flesh escaped the dreadful inquisition of justice, these straps armed with leads and hooks unleashed on it! ... These are not phrases that we decipher line by line: this is the Passion delivered to us in one glance in our face. The hour is even written: this is the evening, it had to be speeded up ; the haste with which this spattered body was rolled up in a sheet, without taking the time to clean it, to obey the prescriptions of the upcoming Sabbath; the time while this covering took place and which is indicated by the progress of the destructive work on the corpse; the clear obligation imposed on Christ's friends to proceed to this extra funeral cleaning which the Sabbath obliged them to postpone; the availability of this rejected carapace after shedding; finally, despite the ingenious explanations from the scholars who studied the Holy Shroud, it is very hard to see in this detailed impression of the body of Christ in negative on an unprepared cloth and uniquely due to some herbs randomly dispersed, a purely natural phenomenon. It has, in the vast experiences of antique burying, no analogue. A virtue came out of Him and left this prodigious mark. It is no less remarkable that from this series of centuries and events, the different fires which attack the Shroud have respected the sacred image and that their traces created around it a kind of framing!
Also what gratitude do we owe to the civil and religious authorities whom finally permitted the meticulous examination of the distinguished relic and to the men of science who studied with such ingenuity and good faith, like Mr. Paul Vignon? The moment has come for the popularizations, and it is as such that I greet with joy the remarkable work that you sent me and for which I hope the largest diffusion.