By: Joseph Raspanti
April 11th of this past year marked the 25th anniversary of the fire that nearly destroyed the Royal Chapel in Turin, Italy and threatened the existence of a 14 foot span of linen that bears the bloodstains and front and back image of a crucified man believed to be Jesus. It is commonly referred to as “ The Shroud of Turin”.
On that day in 1997, a reception was held at the Royal Palace honoring Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations. Some believed the fire may have been caused by the many electric chafing dishes used for the reception. Professor Bruno Barberis, who was the acting Director of the International Center for the Study of the Shroud disagreed. “The starting point of the fire was in the Royal Chapel and then transferred to the Royal Palace.” While arson has never been officially ruled out, Professor Barberis believes it is unlikely that the Shroud could have been the target. “It was well known at the time that the Shroud had been moved to the adjacent Cathedral while the Royal Chapel was being restored.” “The arsonists,” he surmised, “would have been extremely uninformed if the Shroud was their target.” He described the night of the fire “ as one of the most tragic events of my life”. “The fire was so bright you could have read a newspaper by it ''.
Smoke from the fire was noticed just before midnight by one of the guards at the adjacent Royal Palace who immediately alerted the fire brigade. An off-duty fireman, Mario Trematore, also saw the smoke from the balcony of his home and went quickly to the scene. Trematore described the fire as “what Hell must be like.” While his colleagues worked to contain the blaze, Mario’s attention was focused on saving the Shroud, which he called “an important symbol for mankind.”
To complicate matters, the Shroud had been sealed inside a bulletproof case that required two separate keys to open. In the absence of both keys and in spite of the danger posed by falling debris, Trematore and his colleagues smashed through the bullet proof case with a sledgehammer and eventually carried the Shroud out to safety.
It was immediately taken to the apartment of the Archbishop of Turin where it was carefully examined for any sign of damage. According to Barberis, “There was none. The Shroud was unharmed.” It was later moved to a secret location for its safety.
This was not the first time in its history that the Shroud had survived a serious brush with fire. In 1532, a strikingly similar incident occurred when a major fire broke out in the Sainte Chapelle in Chambery, France. The Shroud had been locked behind an iron-grilled repository that required two keys to open. With barely minutes to spare and no keyholders in sight, a local blacksmith broke through the Iron grill and removed the Shroud to safety. The heat was so intense that the metal casket containing the Shroud began to melt. Drops of molten metal burned through a corner of the folded cloth leaving behind a series of holes and burn marks that span the entire length of the cloth. Miraculously, the image on the cloth remained untouched.
Author-historian Ian Wilson has traced the Jesus image-imprinted Cloth back to the first century AD, associating it with a widely held tradition that a cloth imprinted with Christ’s likeness was brought from Jerusalem to Edessa, (today Sanliurfa in eastern Turkey), to cure its King Abgar of a chronic disease. It was hidden for nearly half a millennium when the first Christians were persecuted and rediscovered early in the 6th century, still in Edessa. The likeness on the Cloth was immediately adopted as the definitive likeness of Christ that persists to this day.
During the seventh century, Edessa peacefully came under Islamic rule which very likely saved the Cloth from the Iconoclasts who swept through the Eastern Christian world during the 8th and 9th century destroying anything bearing Christ’s or any other human likeness.
In 944, the cloth was taken from Edessa to Constantinople, (now Istanbul), to become part of the Byzantine emperors’ collection of relics of Christ’s Passion. Although it was long thought to have been stolen when Constantinople was sacked by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, a new theory has emerged from Wilson’s research suggesting that a quarter of a century earlier it had been secretly sent back to the Holy Land in the hope that its reputed protective powers might help save Jerusalem from being captured by Salah ad-Din, better known in the west as Saladin.
Jerusalem did fall to Salah ad-Din and as evidence indicates, the order of Knights Templar, who had been nearly annihilated during the fighting, became the Cloth’s temporary guardian protectors.
The Cloth reappeared in France in the 1350s. Its owner, Geoffroi de Charny was himself a crusading knight who bore the same name as the third highest dignitary of the Knights Templar. He was killed carrying the oriflamme of France during the battle of Poitiers. After his death, De Charny’s widow publicly exhibited the Shroud as the true ‘sudarium’ of Christ.
The enigmatic relic was first brought to Turin by Duke Emanuel Philibert of Savoy in 1578. His antecessor Duke Louis I of Savoy acquired it in 1453 from the French noblewoman Margaret de Charny, the granddaughter of Geoffroi de Charny.
In 1694, during the reign of Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, the Royal Chapel was built to permanently house the relic in Turin. The Chapel, designed by the architect/priest Guarino Guarini, connects the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to the Royal Palace and is widely considered to be an architectural wonder. It was finally restored in 2018 at the cost of $35 million dollars.
Some believe the fire in 1997 was intentional and had been timed with the UN reception to protest Italy’s colonial involvement in Africa. Others believe it may have been part of the Mafia’s war with the Italian government. Whatever the cause, it remains a mystery to this day.
The Shroud’s authenticity has long been the subject of debate. It was radiocarbon dated in 1988, but experts believe the fire in 1532 may have skewed the results. Professor Barberis, who teaches Mathematical Physics at the University of Turin, has calculated that the probability that the man of the Shroud could be someone other than Jesus is 1 in 20 billion.
Joseph Raspanti is a filmmaker who resides in New Jersey and is currently working on a film project about the Shroud. For more information you can contact him at email@example.com