While writing an introduction for an edition of John Calvin’s 1543 Treatise on Relics (Nickell 2009), I became intrigued by a little mystery the Protestant reformer unwittingly left behind.
In his treatise, Calvin (1509—1564) disparaged the proliferating alleged shrouds of Christ, mentioning a few by location, including one at Nice, another at Aix-la-Chapelle, and still another at Besançon (Calvin 1543, 237). Yet he does not (for reasons that will become clear) list that most famous of shrouds, the Shroud of Turin. Nevertheless, he does seem to refer to it when he mentions Jesus’ shroud having borne “the full-length likeness of a human body on it” (Calvin 1543, 239). Except for later copies, the Shroud of Turin is apparently unique in bearing the image of a supposed crucifixion victim.1
However, that “shroud” did not have Turin added to its name until the cloth was taken to that city—in a shrewd political move by its then-owner, Duke Emmanuel Philibert of Savory—in 1578, long after Calvin’s death. It therefore seemed likely that that cloth was one of the others mentioned by Calvin.
We now know the shroud Calvin referred to as being at Besançon was merely one of the copies of the relic now at Turin (Wilson 1979, 300). The cloth at Aix-la-Chapelle was apparently the same one that was later kept at St. Cornelius Abbey in Compiègne, where it was venerated for nine centuries until (as with the shroud at Besançon) it was destroyed during the French Revolution (Conway 1915; Nickell 1998, 53). Yet another, the Cadouin shroud,2 survived the French Revolution only to be proved in 1935 to be an eleventh-century Moslem cloth (Nickell 1998, 53). A couple of other shrouds referenced by Calvin are quite obscure, which doubtless would not be the case had either borne an image of Jesus’ body.
Finally, there was the shroud at Nice. My research revealed that, in fact, the cloth now known as the Shroud of Turin was kept in Nice from 1537 until 1549 (Wilson 1979, 219, 263). This was the very time that Calvin was writing his treatise, published in 1543. Therefore, when he wrote of a shroud at Nice, he was clearly referring to the image-bearing one that is today the subject of such controversy.
If there is any doubt of this, it is dispelled by Calvin himself in his French text (see Higman 1970, 65) where (omitted by his English translator [Krasinski 1870, 237]) he states that the shroud at Nice was “transporté là de Chambery.” Indeed, the famous shroud was transported to Nice (via Turin, Milan, and Vercelli) from its home at Chambéry (then-capitol of the duchy of Savoy) for
protection during the war (Wilson 1979, 262—263; Nickell 1998, 26).
That shroud (now the Shroud of Turin) had first appeared in about 1355 at a small church in Lirey, France. According to a bishop’s report written in 1389 to the Avignon pope, Clement VII, an artist admitted he had “cunningly painted” the image of the crucified Christ on the cloth. Stylistic and iconographic elements corroborate a medieval artistic origin. So do modern carbon-14 tests, which yielded a date range of circa 1260—1390 ad, consistent with the time of the reported forger’s confession. Famed microanalyst Walter C. McCrone had previously determined that the image had been rendered by an artist using red ocher and vermilion tempera paint (Nickell 1998; 2007).
Calvin was not privy to the historical and scientific evidence we now have. Nonetheless, his arguments against the authenticity of the infamous shroud then at Nice are sound. He asks,
How is it possible that those sacred historians, who carefully related all the miracles that took place at Christ’s death, should have omitted to mention one so remarkable as the likeness of the body of our Lord remaining on its wrapping sheet? This fact undoubtedly deserved to be recorded. St. John, in his Gospel, relates even how St. Peter, having entered the sepulchre, saw the linen clothes lying on one side, and the napkin that was about his head on the other; but he does not say that there was a miraculous impression of our Lord’s figure upon these clothes, and it is not to be imagined that he would have omitted to mention such a work of God if there had been any thing of this kind. (1543, 238)
As to that image, Calvin notes that the appearance on a single cloth of such a “full-length likeness of a human body” gives its own evidence of falsehood. He observes:
Now, St. John’s Gospel, chapter nineteen, says that Christ was buried according to the manner of the Jews; and what was their custom? This may be known by their present custom on such occasions, as well as from their books, which describe the ancient ceremony of interment, which was to wrap the body in a sheet, to the shoulders, and to cover the head with a separate cloth. This is precisely how the evangelist described it, saying, that St. Peter saw on one side the clothes with which the body had been wrapped, and on the other the napkin from about his head.
In brief, concludes Calvin, “either St. John is a liar,” or anyone who promotes such a shroud is “convicted of falsehood and deceit” (Calvin 1543, 239).
Imaged shroud or not, Calvin has this to say about the various Holy Shrouds:
Now, I ask whether those persons were not bereft of their senses who could take long pilgrimages, at much expense and fatigue, in order to see sheets, of the reality of which there were no reasons to believe, but many to doubt; for whoever admitted the reality of one of these sudaries [shrouds3] shown in so many places, must have considered the rest as wicked impostures set up to deceive the public by the pretence that they were each the real sheet in which Christ’s body had been wrapped. But it is not only that the exhibitors of this one and the same relic give each other mutually the lie, they are (what is far more important) positively contradicted by the Gospel. (1543, 237)
His reference to shrouds at “so many places” is not an overstatement, since there were once some forty-three of them in Europe alone, according to Thomas Humber in The Sacred Shroud (1978, 78).
Calvin’s criticisms of the Shroud of Turin are still relevant today, as are his views on other Christian relics. For example, he observes that the alleged blood of Jesus “is exhibited in more than a hundred places.”
Now, I appeal to the judgment of every one whether it is not an evident lie to maintain that the blood of Jesus Christ was found, after a lapse of seven or eight hundred years, to be distributed over the whole world, especially as the ancient church makes no mention of it? (Calvin 1543, 226—227)
In 2006, I visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium, and held in my hands a reliquary of the venerated substance. Stored in what has been determined to be a medieval Byzantine perfume bottle, it is suspiciously red—unlike genuine old blood, which blackens with age (Nickell 2007, 169).
Calvin also ridiculed the countless fragments and splinters that are alleged to be from Jesus’ cross. He suggested that “if we were to collect all these pieces of the true cross exhibited in various parts, they would form a whole ship’s cargo” (Calvin 1543, 233). He goes on to criticize the rival Holy Grails, Holy Lances, and other pious frauds (many of which were later destroyed during religious wars and, especially, the French Revolution [Krasinski 1870, 281 f.n.]).
He is particularly incensed about the vials of the Virgin Mary’s milk, observing that “there is not perhaps a town, a convent, or nunnery, where it is not shown in large or small quantities. Indeed, had the Virgin been a wet-nurse her whole life, or a dairy, she could not have produced more than is shown as hers in various parts.” He concludes, “How they obtained all this milk they do not say, and it is superfluous here to remark that there is no foundation in the Gospels for these foolish and blasphemous extravagances” (1543, 249).
Calvin sums up by asking: “Where may we find one real relic of which we may feel certain that it is such as is represented?” (1543, 280). That is, of course, a rhetorical question. l
- Evidence shows that a possible exception—a cloth at Constantinople predating the Turin Shroud—was a face cloth rather than a shroud (see Nickell 1998, 53—54).
- This shroud was omitted from Calvin’s list by the English translator (Krasinski 1854, 237).
- “Sudary”—from the Latin sudarium—was used by Calvin’s English translator. But that term refers to a facecloth (the “napkin” in John 20:7), not a “suaire” (Calvin’s French) or “shroud.”
- Calvin, John. 1543. Treatise on Relics, trans. by Count Valerian Krasinski, 1854; 2nd ed. Edinburgh: John Stone, Hunter, and Company, 1870; reprinted with an introduction by Joe Nickell, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2009.
- Conway, Sir W. Martin. 1915. The Treasures of Saint Denis. Available online at http://vreoll.fa.pitt.
edu/medart/texts/Saint-Denis/Conway2.html; accessed December 12, 2007.
- Higman, Francis M., ed. 1970. Jean Calvin: Three French Treatises. London: Athlone Press.
- Humber, Thomas. 1978. The Sacred Shroud. New York: Pocket Books.
- Krasinski, Count Valerian. 1870. Translation (with introduction and notes) of Calvin’s A Treatise on Relics (1543), 2nd ed. (first ed. publ. 1854). Edinburgh: John Stone, Hunter and Company.
- Nickell, Joe. 1998. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- —. 2007. Relics of the Christ. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky.
- —. 2009. Introduction in Treatise on Relics by John Calvin. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- Wilson, Ian. 1979. The Shroud of Turin, rev. ed. Garden City, New York: Image Books.
- Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow and author of numerous books, including Relics of the Christ. His Web site is available at http://www.joenickell.com.