An Overview of the History of the Shroud of Turin

The history of the Shroud is well-established since its appearance in Lirey, France, around 1355, at a small collegiate church founded by Geoffroy de Charny. But its provenance before that time is more obscure. According to a document written around 1525, most likely by the dean of the collegiate of Lirey, the Shroud was given by Philip VI, king of France, to Geoffroy de Charny. This is plausible because the Mandylion was at the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris, and it is known that there was an image of Christ on it. But Philip VI was most likely unaware of the presence of the image on the cloth, because the canons at the Sainte-Chapelle never mentioned the image on the cloth. Instead the canons focused on the image on the reliquary containing the cloth, not paying attention on the inside of the cloth. The Mandylion had been one of the relics transferred from Constantinople to Paris in 1241 or 1242 under the initiative of Louis IX, but the large majority of the Latins of that time were unaware of the existence of the Mandylion or of a cloth bearing the image of Christ.

In the following overview, the most likely historical route of the Shroud is presented alongside some other hypotheses that have been proposed by several researchers.

Edessa and Constantinople (before 1204 AD)

For several centuries, the Shroud appears to have been kept in the city of Edessa, now known as Şanliurfa in Turkey, near the Syrian boarder. The Shroud would have been the Image of Edessa. This theory was first proposed by Ian Wilson.

It is most likely that only the reliquary containing the Image of Edessa was publicly displayed. We do not have any artistic copies of the Image of Edessa nor do we have any documentary evidence that the Image was publicly shown, although it is most likely that high ranking clerics at Edessa saw the Image.

In 944, under the initiative of the Byzantine Emperor Romanos Lekapenos, the Image of Edessa was transferred to Constantinople, Turkey (known today mostly as Istanbul). After the death of Romanos, the new Emperor Constantine VII established a ceremony in which the Image is involved, but the Image is never shown to the public. While in Constantinople, the Image remains locked up most of the time. The Image is called in various ways during its stay in Constantinople, one of them being “Mandylion”.

The earliest depictions of the Image known to us come from the period of Constantine VII. The image is shown as a face only of Christ on a cloth. But given the few people who directly saw the Mandylion, is it really the extent of the image on the cloth? If it was a face only, why was it not shown to the public? It can also be argued that only the face was depicted by artists because the image was never shown to them.

In 1203, Robert de Clari, a Knight of the Fourth Crusade, reported a public display, in Constantinople, of a shroud similar to the Shroud of Turin, with an image on it which he interpreted as being Jesus-Christ. Was this the Mandylion finally shown to the public? It is possible that the Mandylion was kept in Constantinople for many years after the city was sack by the crusaders in 1204.

Constantinople to Lirey (1204 - 1355)

Several hypotheses for the appearance of the Shroud at Lirey has been proposed. Some of these hypotheses involve the Knights Templar (popularised by Ian Wilson), Othon de la Roche (hypothesis related to the Shroud of Besançon), or the battle at Smyrna. But the most coherent hypothesis appears to be the transfer of the Mandylion from Constantinople to the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris.

Sainte-Chapelle of Paris

The Mandylion very likely reached the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris when Louis IX acquired several relics from the Constantinople emperor Baudoin II in the period 1239 to 1241. In June 1247, the official list of relics given by Baudoin II describes the Mandylion as Sanctam toellam, tabulae insertam, that is, as “a cloth, inserted in a box”. Strangely, no image is mentioned on the cloth, whereas the Mandylion is known to bear an image of Christ, but an image is mentioned at the bottom of the reliquary in the late inventories of the relics of the Sainte-Chapelle. This misunderstanding by the canons of the Sainte-Chapelle can be explained if the cloth was folded, hidding the image on it, and that a face of Christ was painted on the bottom of the reliquary.

The reliquary of the Mandylion was kept in the Sainte-Chapelle until the French Revolution, but the Mandylion itself (the cloth) would have been removed from the reliquary before it appears at Lirey. This disappearance of the Mandylion from the Sainte-Chapelle is possible because the inventories of the relics of the Sainte-Chapelle of that period, and all the following inventories, do not mention a "toile" (cloth) but only a description of the reliquary with an image of the face of Christ in it and often described as a Veronica. Many historians have assumed that the face of Christ at the bottom of the reliquary is the Mandylion, but this is unlikely because the Mandylion is most likely a cloth, not a painted face on a reliquary.

Apparently the kings of France, from Louis IX to Philippe VI de Valois, as well as the canons responsible for the safeguard of the relics, would not have known that an image existed on the "toile". They would have confused the painted face of Christ at the bottom of the reliquary as the main relic. This observation is supported by the inventories of the relics of the Sainte-Chapelle. Meanwhile, the cloth, which would have been folded in the reliquary, remained unidentified by the canons for over a century.

This confusion is possible, because it is well documented that the "toile" was considered a secondary relic among the twenty-two relics received from Baudoin II. More important relics, such as the Crown of Thorns were listed first. Furthermore, the canons never understood the relation between that "toile" and the Mandylion as well as the Latin when they took power in Constantinople. In other words, the Mandylion and its image was unknown by the Latin. In the West, instead, the legend of the Veronica evolved, and indeed, this is the term used by the canons, in the 17th and 18th centuries, to describe the face of Christ they saw at the bottom of the reliquary.

Philippe VI would have given the Mandylion to Geoffroy de Charny, founder of the collegiate church at Lirey, for his services to the King of France, but the King would not have been aware of the presence of the image on the cloth. This gift is confirmed by the clerics of Lirey in a document written around 1525.

Further details about the presence of the Mandylion at the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris can be found here.

Other hypotheses for the Appearance of the Shroud at Lirey

The Knights Templar

The Templars would have owned the Shroud for over a century until the order was disbanded in 1312. This scenario is based on the description of a "Baphomet" (a bearded head), by some Templars, used in the initiation ritual. The "Baphomet" would have been the Shroud. For some unclear reason, the Knights Templar would have given the Shroud to Geoffroy I de Charny. Ian Wilson has proposed this scenario in his 1978 book The Shroud of Turin.

This scenario has several major weaknesses, two of which are: the "Baphomet" was always described as a tridimensional object made of only a head; how would the Shroud have passed from the Templars to Geoffroy de Charny is unknown; it is unknown how the Templars acquired the Shroud.

Moreover, the main reason this hypothesis was proposed is based on the silence of the location of the Mandylion after the sack of Constantinople in 1204. It was speculated by Ian Wilson that the organization that could have kept the Mandylion, that is, the Shroud, under such a secrecy would need to be powerful. The Templars appear to be such an organization. But the Mandylion was most likely still in Constantinople after the sack of 1204 because in 1241 it is almost certain that the Mandylion was transferred to Paris when Louis IX acquired several relics from Baudoin II, the Latin emperor of Constantinople. We would need to assume that what reached Paris was a copy of the Mandylion. But there is no proof of such a copy.

Battle of Smyrna

Geoffroy I de Charny, the first owner of the Shroud in France, would have acquired it as a gift from Humbert II after he participated at the battle of Smyrna (1345-1346) (croisade du Dauphin), then bring it back to Lirey, France.

There are several weaknesses to this scenario, two of which are: the Shroud was never reported to be in Smyrna; it is not clear when Geoffroy I de Charny participated at the battle of Smyrna.

The de la Roche Family

A few hypotheses are based on Othon de la Roche that would have owned the Shroud while in Athens, Greece. This possibility appears very unlikely because it is based on many erroneous statements made in the dissertation, written in 1714, on the Shroud of Besançon in the manuscript 826 of the Archives of the Bibliothèque de Besançon. The ownership of the Shroud by Othon is also based on the presence of a coffer at the castle of Ray-sur-Saône that would have been used to transfer the Shroud from Greece to France and on a letter sent by Theodore Angelos-Komnenos to Pope Innocent III. But despite what many have written, there is no clear family tradition to support the claim that it was used to transfer the Shroud and the letter authenticity, discovered in 1981, is in doubt. We present two of these hypotheses.

The Besançon hypothesis

Othon de la Roche would have transferred the Shroud to Besançon, France, around 1206. This scenario is mostly based on the presence of a shroud in Besançon in the 13th and 14th century used during the theatrical presentations of the Three Maries. Someone would have stolen that shroud during the fire of the Saint-Etienne church in 1349 and brough it to Lirey. No image is known to have been on that Shroud. Daniel Scavone, an historian, has written several articles describing the Besançon hypothesis. See Besançon and Other Hypotheses for the Missing Years: The Shroud from 1200 to 1400.

This hypothesis has many major weaknesses: we have no report of any public exposition of a shroud, with an image, in Besançon before the 16th century; the registry of the clerics of Besançon records the acquisition of a shroud in 1523 without any reference to a previous one (that shroud is very likely a painted copy of the frontal part of the Shroud of Turin, which was owned by the Duke of Savoie in 1523); Marguerite de Charny is brought to court in Besançon in 1447 and no one from Besançon raised the possibility that this Shroud was at Besançon; the Shroud, that was at Lirey, was shown openly by Marguerite de Charny at Hippolyte-sur-Doubs between 1418 and 1452, which is about 60kms from Besançon, but no one ever raised the fact that it were from Besançon.

It is well established that the later shroud in Besançon, that is, from the 16th century to 1792, was a painting.

Jeanne de Vergy

Another proposed scenario does not include Besançon but assumes that the Shroud was passed down from Othon de la Roche to Jeanne de Vergy, the second wife of Geoffroy de Charny. This scenario contradicts many facts: the statement by Marguerite de Charny, the granddaughter of Geoffroy de Charny, who said in court that the Shroud was from his grandfather; the reliquary received by Humbert de Villersexel from the canons of Lirey that had only the coat of arms of Geoffroy de Charny, not of Jeanne de Vergy; the major assumption that Othon de la Roche had received the Shroud; and that Jeanne de Vergy is a descendant of Othon de la Roche.

Lirey, France (1355-1418)

The small Lirey village on Google map.

The Shroud of Turin makes its entry in the Western world in France. We have strong historical records of its existence around 1355 at Lirey, France, a small village about 200 km southeast of Paris. The first appearance of the Shroud is attested by a document written in 1389 by Pierre D'Arcis, bishop of Troyes, about the ostensions of the Shroud at the church of Lirey that occurred for the first time about 34 years before he writes. He describes the image on the Shroud as we know it today. Bishop d'Arcis also claims that the Shroud is fraudulent and is actually a painting.

A medallion reproducing the Shroud was found in 1855 in the Seine river (see A Souvenir From Lirey). The medallion clearly depicts the Turin Shroud and it holds the coat of arms of Geoffroy de Charny and his second spouse, Jeanne de Vergy. This Medallion cannot be precisely dated, although it is claimed that it was probably made before Geoffroy de Charny died in September 1356 at the battle of Poitiers, while defending John II, king of France. But it is possible that the first exposition of the Shroud at Lirey was done after the death of Geoffroy de Charny.

In 1418, the canons of the collegiate of Lirey agreed to temporarily move the Shroud to a more secure location under the protection of Humbert de Villersexel, the second husband of Marguerite de Charny, the granddaughter of Geoffroy de Charny. However, the Shroud never went back to Lirey, although the canons tried to regain possession of the Shroud for almost a century through various means including bringing Marguerite to court, on two occasions, at Dole and Besançon. The Shroud is exposed publicly in various places under her initiative. It is clear that she did not believe that the Shroud should be kept at Lirey solely under the control of its collegiate.

Humbert de Villersexel dies in 1438, leaving Marguerite childless. From then on she is looking for a new and appropriate owner of the Shroud. This owner had to be powerful enough to protect and exposed the Shroud adequately. She does not remary, but travels in various cities exposing the Shroud and apparently trying to negotiate a new home for it.

Chambéry, (1453-1578)

In 1453, Marguerite de Charny ceded the Shroud to the Duke Louis de Savoie and his wife Anne de Lusignan. The Shroud was kept in Chambéry. The mother of Louis de Savoie was Marie de Bourgogne who was a granddaughter of king Jean II de Valois, son of Philippe VI de Valois. If the theory of the Sainte-Chapelle of Paris is true, the Shroud came back in the lineage of Saint Louis through the very king who would have given the Mandylion/Shroud to Geoffroy de Charny, the grandfather of Marguerite de Charny.

During that period, the canons of Lirey are still in conflict with Marguerite and try to regain possession of the Shroud. But they soon realized that the Shroud is no longer owned by Marguerite and negotiates a monetary compensation with Louis de Savoie. Marguerite de Charny dies not long after, in 1460.

In June of 1502, the ducal chapel of Chambéry officially became the Sainte-Chapelle of Chambéry and housed the Shroud. From 1535 to 1561, the Shroud is moved with the Savoy family in various cities. The Shroud definitely leaves Chambéry for Turin in 1578.

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In 1578, Emmanuel-Philibert, the Duke of Savoy, transfers the Shroud to Turin, the new capital of the Savoie family.

In 1983, the last king of Italy, Umberto II, died and the Shroud was bequeathed to the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope. The Shroud is still located in Turin today.