In An Artful Relic: The Shroud of Turin in Baroque Italy, Andrew R. Casper describes the Shroud as having a “mystique.” It also has a history beyond the scriptural references to it in Hebrews, Galatians, and the four Gospels. The Shroud was never recognized as belonging to the acheiropoieta, a singular category of Christian images that includes the Veil of Veronica, the Mandylion of Edessa, and the icons of the Theotokos painted by Luke. It was nonetheless identified as significant in the 14th century, when it was displayed by a French knight as an object of religious devotion, or as (in Casper’s language) an “artful relic”—“a divine painting attributed to God as the great artist” (10). The drama surrounding the Shroud was heightened when on December 4, 1532, the roughly fourteen-foot linen sheet was only damaged in a fire that devastated the Sainte-Chapelle of the House of Savoy in Chambéry. The fact that the Shroud was only singed by the fire was characterized as miraculous.
Within a century, the Shroud became singular among Passion relics because of the religious devotion of Carlo Cardinal Borromeo (1538-1584), who organized the third (and final) session of the Council of Trent (1560-1563), which included the writing and promulgation of the decrees on Purgatory, Invocation of Saints, Veneration of Relics, and Images. By May 1564, he was installed as Archbishop of Milan, overseeing a rigorous reform and renewal of Roman Catholicism. Borromeo had a special devotion to the Shroud and most especially its imprint of Christ’s Holy Blood. Following his intercessory prayers for the end of the 1576 famine wrought by crop failure and the plague in Milan, he made a pilgrimage to Chambéry to venerate the Shroud. The Duke of Savoy, cognizant of the contemporary political situation, used Borromeo’s advanced age as an excuse to transfer himself, his family, and the Shroud to Turin, which was halfway between Milan and Chambéry.
The public display of the Shroud in Turin in 1578 enhanced its fame, and it became recognized as the leading relic of a triumphant Counter Reformation Church. By 1694, it was installed in a specially built chapel for its protection and veneration. As they say, “the rest is history.” Most of the significant Christian art produced in the High Renaissance and Baroque periods was commissioned for ecclesial settings, but the Shroud, as a major Passion Relic, was in a category of its own. Its popularity among believers inspired the mass reproductions of the Shroud and limited visual displays. These expanded the influence and importance of the Shroud throughout the Christian world. This is what Casper’s book explores: “how it was understood as a sacred image in the era of its rapidly expanding public cult” (6).
Casper begins with a detailed history of the Shroud’s connection with Carlo Cardinal Borromeo as it travels from the Sainte-Chapelle at Chambéry to Turin for its initial public display and adoration by a grateful Cardinal of Milan. The story of the Shroud as an early modern sacred image helped legitimize Christian imagery, as Gabriele Paleotti and other post-Tridentine theologians advocated for. The Shroud, made even more famous by mass-produced replicas of it, became not simply “an artful relic,” but the preeminent visual index (or code) that could promote or provide the possibility of Christian redemption. The author is clear that his interest lies in understanding how this sacred image became the basis for and subject of a “rapidly expanding public cult.” The authenticity of the Shroud as the actual linen wrapping of the crucified body of Jesus, which would make it among the most significant relics of the Passion, is left to scientists, theologians, and believers to determine.
In chapter 1, titled “Relic, Image, and Devotion,” Casper examines certain critical material issues related to the Shroud, particularly the visible presence of traces of Christ’s body on the linen. He provides a thorough analysis not only of the imprint on the Shroud, but also its connections to authenticated blood relics, documented visions of Christ’s Passion, representations of sacred violence, and the Eucharist.
In chapter 2, “Made Not Begotten: The Shroud as Divine Artifice,” Casper offers his readers on a thorough review of 16th and 17thcentury texts, which were fundamental to the development of the cult of the Shroud. Further, he carefully traces how the creation of the Shroud, and its continued material presence, is an analogy for artistic creation, emphasizing especially the role and place of blood stains/staining.
Chapter 3 bears the intriguing title of “The Art of Resurrection,” and Casper here discusses the role of visual imagery in reinforcing belief in, and clarifying the meaning of, the Resurrection. His intriguing analysis of Caravaggio’s painting The Entombment of Christ (1602-1603), which was commissioned for and installed over the altar in the Vittrice Chapel of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Chiesa Nuova), highlights how significant the Shroud had become as a Christian image.
Both chapter 4, “Reproducing the Shroud,” and chapter 5, “The Roman Shroud of Turin: Relic, Icon, Copy,” describe how reproductions of the Shroud in prints and engravings provide visual commentaries on art, as well as detail the significant role copies played in mediating a viewer’s (or believer’s) experience of an actual devotional object. Discussing an early 17th-century copy of the Shroud in the Church of the Santissimo Sudario in Rome, Casper highlights how the work earned sanctity simply by being touched by the original Shroud.
Casper has expanded art history by his detailed analysis of the multi-levelled milieu that produced and promoted the devotional cult of the Shroud of Turin, thereby integrating visual culture with material culture, popular culture, and theology. An Artful Relic casts a discerning light on the place of images in religious studies, Casper provides scholars interested in religion and art with a roadmap for specialized studies of the history and meaning of images such as the Shroud of Turin.”
Diane Apostolos-Cappadona is professor emerita of religious art and cultural history and Haub Director in the Catholic Studies Program, Georgetown University.
Date Of Review:
January 14, 2023
Andrew R. Casper is Associate Professor of Art History at Miami University. He is the author of Art and the Religious Image in El Greco’s Italy, also published by Penn State University Press.
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