Monday, August 13, 2012

Visiting The Shroud of Turin

Photo negative of the face of The Shroud of Turin. Photo of image in a pamphlet from The Photographic Display of the Shroud, Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Divine Love, Rome, Italy.
Back in 2010, the famous Shroud of Turin was on display in Turin, Italy. Being a cultural Tour Guide and Tour Accompanier here in Italy, i knew i couldn't miss something like this. So i made preparations with a friend to go from Rome to Turin, in northern Italy, for the display and to study up all the info i could about the Shroud in preparation.

Dr. Joe Nickell's book on the Shroud. He is the
Senior Fellow of the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the
In this post i will talk about the history of the Shroud, what is known, claimed and believed about it, my experience going to see it, and then i will describe the three possibilities of the true nature of the Shroud.

History and Claims

The Shroud of Turin makes it's first appearance in the history books in the 14th Century, in France. "We do know that by about 1357 the shroud was placed on view by the canons of Lirey. Great crowds of pilgrims thronged to exhibitions of the 'relic,' which was shown at full length and advertised as the 'true Burial Sheet of Christ,'" writes Joe Nickell, Ph.D. in his 1998 book Inquest On the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings.

The idea is that after Jesus's, his body was removed from the cross and placed in this shroud, this sheet, and that an image of him remained there on the cloth. This image shows how the Shroud would have been wrapped around Jesus' body:
Photo of image from April 2010 edition of Oggi magazine.
Many Catholics and Christians around the world venerate this Shroud as a holy relic. Both at that time and this one though, even Catholic authorities are of mixed opinion on the authenticity of the Shroud. The Archdioceses of Lirey, France, at that time in the 14th Century obviously endorsed this. (Nickell, p. 11)  French Cardinal cum anti-Pope Clement VII claimed that the image on the Shroud was a "representation" and that it was therefore not a relic, not the burial shroud of Jesus. (Nickell, p. 7) (It would take a whole other blog post to explain what an anti-Pope was, but suffice it to say that in his time and place in 14th century France, he was a Catholic authority locally seen as the one true Pope.)
Modified photo of Shroud of Turin,
from Wikimedia Commons

In more modern times, Pope Benedict XVI spoke very vaguely and craftily about the Shroud in such a way that he did not actually say it is an authentic relic, the true Shroud of Jesus, but that allowed people to believe he had done so anyway. Check this out:
"Dismissing skeptics on Sunday when he visited the Shroud of Turin, Pope Benedict XVI said the burial cloth was none other than the same robe that once 'wrapped the remains' of Jesus Christ."  
That's journalist Nick Squire's subheadline in an article in The Christian Science Monitor on May 3rd, 2010. What the Pope actually said is that the Shroud, "wrapped the remains of a crucified man in full correspondence with what the Gospels tell us of Jesus." (the quote is in both that CSM article, and in translation in the Oggi magazine cited above.) He later cites the Pope also saying the shroud is ""an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side."  This is classic politician speak from the Pope. If it is an icon, it is not a relic. He does say it is an icon, but doesn't bother mentioning that it is therefore not a relic. But, the journalists of the world worked their magic on those quotes just the same.

Much more clear though is Archbishop of Turin, Cardinal Giovanni Saldarini at the previous showing of the Shroud in 1998, who "insisted the shroud was not a relic (that is, not a burial cloth) but an icon (an artistic image)." (Nickell, p. 7, citing New York Times, April 19, 1998)

With the opposite view point is STURP, which is meant to stand for Shroud of Turin Research Project. They have in modern times insisted on a fair-minded, scientific study of the Shroud. "I personally believe it is the Shroud of Christ, and I believe this is supported by the scientific evidence so far," (Nickell, p. 115) said one member of the STURP team. And another: "I believe it through the eyes of faith, and as a scientist I have seen evidence that it could be his [Christ's] Shroud." (Nickell, p. 115) THEN, after making these statements, these supposed scientists were granted to permission to have access to the Shroud for what they were calling scientific study.

Waiting in line to see the Shroud of Turin

My visit

The Shroud of Turin on display in Turin Cathedral, 2010
i took a train from Rome to Turin to see the Shroud on display there in Turin Cathedral. i paid the required 4euros to make a timed-reservation online in order to see the Shroud. Then, i got there an hour ahead of my appointment, as prescribed. When i got there, i found a typical Italian mess. Not only was there a line around the block and down the street, and not only was there nothing to do about the fact that i had a timed-appointment, but nobody ever even checked my appointment or confirmed that i had paid for it at all! Noting that the crowd was in fact mostly Italians, very few foreigners, i began to feel that reservation fee had been a bit of a joke or a foreigners' tax, and that i should have realized the Italianess of it and just showed up without the reservation - the waiting in line to view the Shroud would clearly have been exactly the same.

When we finally arrived in the Cathedral, the place was packed. Waiting in this long line got you the right to go up close to the shroud, within maybe 15feet, and remain there close for a few minutes.Then that group was ushered away and a new group of many dozen was ushered in.

The "Prayer of the Shroud" was being recited every few minutes as we shuffled towards the main attraction.

i was surprised by what i saw: The Shroud of Turin is a white sheet with burn holes on it. There is just the vaguest hint of any image at all! The photos that you see of the face, like the one at the top of this blog, are created by creating a photo negative of the image of the Shroud. Or, like the one of the whole Shroud from Wikimedia Commons, they've simply played with the contrast and color saturation of the photo itself.
The Shroud of Turin
The left hand side in the photo here above shows the front of the man, with the feet on the left and the head in the middle. The other side shows the back. As you can see, this is hardly visible.

My zoomed in photo of the face of The Shroud of Turin.

My photo of the Shroud of Turin with the modifications like the ones often used in the famous images of it.
When my friend and i arrived up close, we and everyone around us took out our cameras. There were signs all over saying no flash AND no photography. But there were digital cameras out all over the place. As we got close, an Italian kid in front of us, camera in hand, asked a lady guard if photos were okay. 
"No," the lady said. 
"Without a flash?" the kid persisted. 
"Non si potrebbe," she said, which is something like "No you shouldn't." 
And then that kid and all the rest of us started taking photos! The kid was just inches away from the guard who had just said no, and nobody bothered anybody about it. Gotta love Italy! And, when in Rome! to speak.

Three possibilities of the truth

So what is the Shroud really? From what i can tell, there are there possibilities:

Possibility 1. It is the authentic Shroud of Jesus, and the image was created by residue of his actual crucifixion, ie., blood stains.

There are three major problems with this theory:
Cutting the Shroud of Turin?
Image from Great Shroud of Turin FAQ

Problem A. It has been Radio 14 carbon dated to be about 700years old. From a peer-reviewed article in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science:
"Very small samples from the Shroud of Turin have been dated by accelerator mass spectrometry in laboratories at Arizona, Oxford and Zurich. As controls, three samples whose ages had been determined independently were also dated. The results provide conclusive evidence that the linen of the Shroud of Turin is mediaeval."
But controversy has been stirred over claims that the Shroud had been mended 700years ago and the scientists had managed to only take samples of the mended parts.

Problem B. The facial image on the Shroud is of normal dimensions. But, when an image is created by putting a cloth-like material over a face (such as when making a death mask), the image comes out distorted, too wide. The two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional object is always distorted, as can be seen in this ancient Greek death mask of a Mycenaean king, sometimes thought to be the famous Agamemnon:

"Golden Mask of Agamemnon," Archeological Museum, Athens, Greece
Ironically, the fact that the Shroud face looks correct and life-like actually indicates that it was not created by being faced over the bloody face of anybody.

Problem C. A STURP scientist looked at the fibers of the colored parts of the Shroud under a fancy microscope to find out what caused the color. What did he find? "He had detected significant amounts of artists' vermillion and rose madder" as well as "ultramarine, azurite, orpiment, and wood charcoal - all known in the Middle Ages and suggestive of the shroud's presence at some time in an artist's studio." (Nickell, p. 124)  In English? He found paint. It is paint, said the scientist commissioned by the Shroud of Turin Research Project to consider such questions. Very simple. That scientist, Walter McCrone, was then ostracized from STURP.

Possibility 2: It is the authentic Shroud of Jesus, but the image was created due to the miraculous power or intention of God.

Glowing Jesus? Image from Pope Alice
You can't argue with what someone believes. But i personally can't buy this one, simply because i think it sells short the power of God. Perhaps he made Jesus' body die with an explosion of light, which almost photographically or with vapor left the image of Jesus on the Shroud, or maybe he just inexplicably put the image there with his divine will or divine hand.

If he wanted to make a permenant image, though, i think it would still be there. It just doesn't make sense that the deity would or could fail to make the image last forever, nor does it make sense to me that he would choose to make such an important image and then let it fade away. Even the ancient Greeks could make images that have lasted 3,000 years, i'm sure God himself could have lasted 2,000 without the image becoming a nearly blank sheet!
Remains of 3,000 year old painting from the ruins of Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece.
Photographed in the Archeological Museum, Athens.
Possibility 3. It is not the Shroud of Jesus or of anyone else, it is a 500-700year old painting.

Nevermind the fact that at least one scientist found under a microscope that it was a painting (some people even say Leonardo da Vinci painted it (Gianella, Oggi magazine, April 2010), though that presents its own whole new set of problems). Here is the story that makes me laugh out loud every time i think about it, that makes me sure it is a painting and not a relic:

At the turn of the 16th century, the owners of the Shroud at that time wanted to know whether it was in fact a miraculous image. To test this, they boiled the Shroud and scrubbed it to see if the image would come off -

AND IT DID! (Nickell, p. 107)

Like i said, you can't argue with what people believe, but for me the question became laughable 400years ago when they washed it and turned this remarkable painting into a nearly-blank white sheet!

The Shroud of Turin, nearly blank today.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

i love the foreigners in Rome, especially in August!

Massage from a Chinese lady, on Ostia beach, Rome
i love the foreigners in Rome. We really make the Roman world go round, especially in August.

i live on Piazza Risorgimento, in downtown Rome, just outside of Vatican City. When i go outside in the morning to the bar right on the corner, the first smile and "Buon giorno," i get is from the Romanian girl that makes my coffee.

If i'm missing an ingredient for breakfast, i go around the next corner to the Bangaldeshi mini-mart where the shop keeper gives me a smile and asks how i am. He is almost always open, even late into the evening. Local holidays mean nothing to him, so he's here all August, on Christmas, Easter, whatever. And it's not just because he's not Christian - right now is the month of Ramadan, a serious holy period for Muslims, during which they do not eat from sunrise to after sunset for the whole month. This does not cause him to take time off work, it does not cause him to be any less consistently friendly than he always is.

If i need something printed out from the internet i go across the street to his brother's internet point. He also keeps his shop open late every day and is on his toes to be helpful. (And there are no internet points in this neighborhood run by Italian people, so all the more reason to be thankful for the Bangladeshis!)

August is famous for being the hottest month of the year, and we are told it's a bad time to visit for that reason. But actually July is the hottest month here. And what do all the Italians do in August? They go on vacation in Italy!;-) And because of this things run by Italians, like restaurants and churches, tend to be closed, sometimes without explanation or warning. i found this to be the fact yesterday at the Pantheon, as i took clients there during hours it should have been open...but it was not. Why? Because they don't tend to hire foreigners as staff there, so it has to close in August, screw all the visitors from around the world that have come to see it!

i walked all over the center yesterday and heard barely any Italian being spoken. This makes the sites much less crowded, and the roads are quieter, and much safer, without the Romans driving on them!

Getting a massage on Ostia beach, Rome
And as the Italian restaurants close up, i find myself increasingly thankful for the kebab shops around the touristy parts of the center, where i can good wholesome, tasty food served to me most hours of the day. My favorite shop here is run by a Kurdish guy from Turkey, always open, always friendly.

But maybe my favorite way that foreigners make experience better here is at Ostia beach, where Rome meets the sea. It reminds me a lot of the Jersey shore. Nice, sandy beach, often with nice waves to ride - and African and Bangladeshi guys bringing around water and beer (!!!) for the same price that the Italians sell them for in the bar. And best of all, Chinese ladies giving good, cheap massages on the beach. Most recently i paid 20euros for a 45minute massage from a Chinese lady called Chen. They tend to not speak much Italian or English, but they sure know what they are doing! Chen even got the many-miles-per-day-of-walking out of my feet, the tension from carrying my work bag out of my lower back, she massaged the inside of my eye sockets and the crown chakra at the top of my head. It was pretty fantastic and made me realize how much i appreciate the foreigners in Rome, especially in August! :-)

First photo by my friend Harry O.B., second pic by an unknown friend of the author - anybody want credit? 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Poem: Absolutely Anything Is Possible

M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands
Back in high school and college i got interested in spoken word poetry. i had actually forgotten this until recently a beautiful, muse-like woman accidentally lead me to remember it. i found some of my old poems, including this one, with which i made my poetry open mic debut, performing this poem on June 4th, 2002 at Mango's on 14th St. NW in Washington, D.C.

"Absolutely Anything Is Possible"
- by PaxRyan

"Absolutely anything is possible,
Even the unlikely things
     that aren't very probable.

You see, the rhythm of this life is altogether rife
    with surprises.
It's a syncopated mess that won't always give
    what's expected. 

Women with gills and pregnant men,
Happy homework - what would happen then?
World peace and angels with aces,
Pigs that fly and money trees that shed.

Yes, absolutely anything is possible,
Even the unlikely things
     that aren't very probable.

Or are some things for sure?
Death and taxes, constant war?

Maybe this will be the time 
     that we're all surprised to find 
     that we're wrong.

Because, absolutely anything is possible,

Even the unlikely things

      that aren't very probable."

(Escher image from Visual Art Encyclopedia.)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Greeks on Greek politics

Syntagma Square graffiti, Athens
Back in June i was working on a traveling tour from Rome to Greece. We were to arrive in Greece just days after their 2012 Parliamentary elections. Leading up to the tour some of my friends and colleagues joked that there might not still be a Greece by the time we get there.

This, of course, is ridiculous. All the Greek politicians could disappear and evaporate, all the world's currencies could spontaneously combust, and Greece would still be Greece, with its islands, its olives, is Orthodox traditions and ancient history, etc. Several Greeks pointed this out to me while i was there. Greekness is not political.

The press was billing this election as a competition between pro-Europe forces in Greece that would choose to conform to austerity and stay within the Eurozone and anti-Europe forces that wanted to see Greece exit from the single-monetary zone and therefore maybe from the European Union.

From this perspective, the pro-Europe forces won.

Now, as was my habit also in Egypt and Rome, i asked several local Greek people what they thought of the situation. One reaction was almost universal: they were all glad to have a government. Before these elections they apparently had no governing coalition, so they all seemed glad to no longer be a ship adrift.

Most of the people i talked to about it had little more to say on the situation though, they seemed resigned to apathy (in fact all of the tour-bus drivers i came across had this attitude.) The tour guides though and tourist accompaniers (quite an entrepreneurial group, generally speaking) all said that the result had been a bad one. "It would be better for everyone if we get out (of the Euro zone)," one guide told me, with an undertone of embarrassed humility that went through the rest of the conversation as well. Another guide agreed but took a more sensible, if radical, point of view:

She claimed that the press had misframed the argument as being between pro-Europe and anti-Europe factions. Instead, she said it was a decision between the status quo corruption that had lead them into the mess, and a newer, outside-the-beltway faction (to put it in American terms) that was pushing for a smaller, less corrupt, less Europe-dependent government.

As austerity packages continue to be pushed upon the Greek people, she seems to me to be right. The government is now telling the people of Greece that their pensions, their prescription medicines, the social programming and safety net must all be removed in order to pay their bills. The problem though is that the people did not spend Greece into debt, their politicians did. The Greeks get a lot of government benefits, they also pay quite high taxes. This should work out fine, if the government intended it to be so.

The politicians and their appointees and families have enjoyed spending and wealth at an unsustainable rate. This spending did not make all Greeks wealthy, but it did do so for a small political class. Now the bill for that class's spending is coming due, and they are forcing the same poorer people to foot the bill for their wealth and spending.
Greek Parliament, Syntagma Square, Athens

In Italy, where there is 1/5 the population of the USA, they have a larger number of publicly funded officials than in the States. The situation is similar in Greece. By employing so many citizens in cushy jobs, the incumbent government creates their own voting bloc. They can then screw the majority for the pleasure of the minority - and that is what i see happening in Greece (and in Italy and the USA for that matter.)

It would be different, the guide said, if the bailout money was coming from European banks. But it is not, she said, it is coming from specifically (obviously self-interested) German banks.

Then she made a fascinating point: Back in 2001, why would Germany, even then among the stronger of the European economies, agree enter into the single monetary Euro zone knowing that such weaker and more poorly managed economies such as Greece and Italy were and in fact would become such terrible and dangerous financial partners? The reason, she suggested, was a hunger for power and the knowledge that in fact Greek (among others) politicians were perfectly happy to, even intending to, spend their country into ruin. When the Greek government eventually could not pay their debt, that was Germany's cue to step in and offer to foot the bill in exchange for just that little thing called sovereignty. "This is the 4th Reich," she said. (Not to mistake this for a Nazi reference necessarily, she made it clear that her point was that they were power hungry - she made not indication that it was the same type or motivation of power hunger from the 1930s-40s.)

And that's what it's coming down to now. Germany is (partially already) calling the shots of how Greece should be governed. i personally don't trust banks to save anything, i agree with that first guide i talked to - it would be best for everyone long term if failing governments did not take bailouts from foreign banks! Whatever the people might have to go through as a result, it will still be better than going through exactly the same thing while also being owned by profit-interested banks, which is what is happening now.

"We are not born with critical thinking," this female tour guide pointed out. And, she's right - as Western world's middle class is proving. We are also beginning to learn the consequences of the fact.

All photos by author.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On rude Italians

When i do traveling tours as an Accompanier around Italy, after a few days invariably the clients begin coming to me to ask very hesitantly if the people in Italy are always so rude or if it is just them.

Sadly i have to inform them that that is how it goes here. Italians have a reputation for being very very friendly - and they are, to family, friends, and people that are giving them money. But visitors to Italy often to not encounter any one under those circumstances. Instead these visitors find themselves going into shops and being completely ignored by the staff that works there. It is not at all an uncommon experience to go into a shop (could be souvenirs, clothes, tobacco shop, whatever) shop around, go to the counter to pay, pay, and then leave while the person working there has been on the telephone the whole time, never even interrupting themselves to deal with the customer.

In America, where most of my clients come from, this would be strikingly weird and out of place and everyone would assume, i think, that if the boss or owner were to notice this behavior the employee would be fired on the spot.

i have repeatedly seen these Americans then assume, "The people here obviously don't like Americans, look how rude they are to us!" (And don't even get them started on Paris!) Then i have to explain, "No no, it's not you and it's not Americans, that's just how things go here."

i had a day recently that exemplified Italian rudeness perfectly:

i was going to visit the Borghese Gallery here in Rome. At the ticket office there was just one family ahead of me in line. When they finished their transactions and had their tickets the Italian girl working at the desk got up and walked away leaving me there by myself. She did not say anything or excuse herself, nothing.

When she eventually came back i gave her my reservation codes and she gave me my tickets. "You enter upstairs, right?" She looked at me and lowered her head in what pretty clearly seemed to be a nod (at this point she has yet to open her mouth to me at any point.) So i go upstairs to the entrance i've always used before and find it is roped off and clearly no longer an entrance. So i go back downstairs to the ticket lady and say, "i though the entrance was upstairs, is it not?"

"In the back on the right," is all she said, and with a voice and contenance that made it very clear i was annoying her.

So i go to the back of that downstairs room, turn right and find the new entrance. When i walked up to the ticket checker there she held up one finger and rotated it in a circle. i'm trying to hand her my ticket and she's spinning her finger, not speaking. i have no idea what the hell she could be doing so i use my words. In Italian, exasperated, i ask her what she is doing. "Your bag," she says, and nothing more.


i literally didn't know what to say. i felt like i'd been transported to a bizzaro world of retarded mutes. Finally she says, "You have to check your bag." i was wearing just my small tour guiding bag that i have carried into museums all over the world without a problem, but whatever.

So i go to check my bag in and find the same experience as at the ticket booth. There are two employees there, a few families in line, and the employees are chatting in Italian while one of them accepts the bags to be checked in and the other one helps him by....chatting and doing nothing else.

Then, the family in front of me is taken care of and both of these cacacazzi turn and walk away continuing their conversation. i'm left standing their by myself while the ferocity of my suppressed rage at the rudeness threatened to boil over.

Annoyingly, since i understand Italian, i know they're just talking about going to the beach this weekend, where to go and who to invite. Which is FINE....but either do the job my ticket price is paying you to do or please go home so that maybe someone else will do the job!!!

When i finally get that taken care of i'm heading to the entrance again and go by the desk where they rent out audio guides. i wanted to hear the house's explanation of their art so i stop to pick up an audio guide. Nearly as taciturn as her colleagues the lady there grabs an audio guide when i ask for one. The cost was  6euros and i handed her my Visa card, figuring that since this is a famous museum at which i had paid for my tickets by credit card, they must accept credit card.

"No card," the girl says, startling me with the sudden burst of speech.

So i reach into my pocket and wallet and find that due to poor planning, i have just 4euros on me. i couldn't believe how this visit was going. "In fact, i cannot take the guide, i do not have 6euros in cash right now," i told her and walked away quickly and angrily.

"Signore," i hear her call after i've already stormed a few steps. "Signore," she is calling to me so i look back and find she is getting an audio guide ready for me. i understand she is giving me the guide even though i don't have the cash. i put my 4euro coins on the counter but she pushes them back at me and says not to worry about it.

So i enjoyed the audio guide that i could not pay for due to the kind charity of an Italian employee.

Yin yang sign from Wikipedia.
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