The Shroud's Stillness; Housing a Relic

Joining the Orderly Lines in Turin

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 20, 2010 ( Last week I became one of the 1.5 million pilgrims (and counting!) who’ve visited the Shroud of Turin during its extraordinary display, which began April 10 and ends Sunday.

The pilgrimage was led by Steve Ray, Catholic apologist extraordinaire, and counted over 150 people. An ambitious undertaking, but then the Shroud is no ordinary object. In my one day in Turin, I saw thousands upon thousands of people taking time from work, school and even lunch (in Italy, no meager sacrifice) to meditate for a few minutes on Christ’s suffering.
The iron gray skies over Turin, the lost luggage and hair-raising trip due to the Icelandic ash cloud, couldn’t dampen the spirits of Steve’s pilgrims who, less than 24 hours after getting off the plane, got in the formidable line to pray before the Shroud. Unlike in the (much shorter) lines for the Vatican Museums or designer boutique sales, there was no cutting, hostility or impatience. People talked, prayed, sang and socialized and the time flew by. The only other time I have ever seen such order among people was in the line to view the body of Pope John Paul II after his death in 2005.
Adding to the joyous spirit of the pilgrimage were the dozens of signs lining the streets from our hotel to the Shroud exhibit warmly welcoming Benedict XVI, who had made his pilgrimage to the Shroud on May 2. The festive climate continued to the front door of the cathedral where the yellow and white floral homage to the Successor of St. Peter brightened the rainy day.
During the wait, we talked about the remarkable pilgrimage of the Shroud from Jerusalem to Turin via at least three other centers, meditated on the near-miraculous preservation of the ancient linen cloth despite fire, travel, handling and time and hashed through the results of the scientific tests, but none of these “facts” seemed to matter when standing before the Shroud.
Captivated by the faint russet imprint of the body of the flagellated, crucified, mocked and stabbed man, everyone falls silent. The contrast between the violence done to the body and the peaceful pose and the serene expression seem like a silent rebuke to “forgive those who trespass against us.”
But most striking against the “negative” imprint of the body are the “positive” crimson marks of blood on the wrists, feet, side and laced throughout the head and body. Bright against the dull colors of the Shroud, those wounds struck me as love letters, testifying to Christ’s passionate, vibrant and enduring love for man.
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Claims to fame

When people hear of Turin these days (Torino, in Italian), they think of last year’s winter Olympics. But Turin is a city of Italian innovation. The first unified urban plan of Italy was implemented here in the 1630s by the King of Savoy, and FIAT, one of Italy’s first automobile plants was founded at the turn of the 20th century. The locals — Torinesi — even were the first to figure out how to solidify chocolate, so we could eat it instead of just drinking it. (Thank you.) Turin was the first capital of a Unified Italy from 1861 to 1865 and it ultimately produced the first king of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, who ousted Pope Pius IX and took over his residence in the Quirinal palace. It was however, the last king of Italy, Umberto II, who gave the Shroud of Turin, Savoy family property, to Pope John Paul II in 1982.
Turin has produced more than automobiles and chocolate. This city, a fascinating study in faith, industry, piety and progress, has also seen and produced some of the most important saints of the modern era. St. John Bosco, (1815-1888) who in the midst of the industrial revolution, found innovative ways to care for, teach and form orphans, child laborers and other young victims of the new era of industry, is entombed in the splendid shrine of Our Lady Help of Christians.
Another spiritual giant from Turin, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, (1901-1925) is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his beatification this year. This son of a newspaper owner and senator grew up in the political nerve center of Torino. His personal charity and humility serves as an example to Catholic youth in politics.
Alongside the great saints, however, powerful secular forces have long gathered around the city of the Shroud. On one hand, Turin fondly remembers the celebrated pilgrimage of St. Charles Borromeo to venerate the Shroud after the plague of Milan. Only a few years earlier, Nostradamus, the renowned Parisian astrologer, captivated the Savoy court in Turin with his dire predictions of death and disaster.
The Mole Antonelliana, a 167-meter tower containing the Italian Museum of Cinema, now dominates the city skyline, but not many years ago it was the spiraling dome of the chapel of the Holy Shroud by Guarino Guarini, built from 1667-1690, that held this honor.
Guarino Guarini, a Theatine priest from Modena, studied in Rome, particularly focusing on the churches of Borromini such as San Carlino alle Quattro Fontane. Fr. Guarini was called to Turin for a complicated task: the Shroud needed a new chapel to accommodate the many pilgrims and to showcase the importance of the relic in the era of the Catholic Restoration. The Shroud, as Christianity’s most celebrated relic, was appropriately to be kept in the Cathedral of Turin, but as the personal property of the kings of Savoy, it seemed destined for a royal chapel.
Father Guarini built a chapel extending from the apse of the cathedral, but at the same time communicating with the royal palace next door (nestled between Church and state, as it were). In his startling design, Guarini attempted to capture all the wonder and meaning of the Shroud in his architecture. The chapel started with a circular plan, the typical design of a victory temple in Rome and the same shape as the Holy Sepulcher, the site of the Resurrection. The Theatine priest then inserted three more circles into the floor plan in the form of an equilateral triangle simultaneously evoking the Holy Trinity in the space. The resulting swoop and curve of the chapel took visitors by surprise, but in the center, where the relic stood, there was stillness.
Guarini’s dome, however, was his great innovation in Baroque architecture. By abandoning the hemispherical domes like those of the Pantheon and St. Peter’s, he lifted his dome towards the heavens, angling the curve upwards, puncturing the masonry with lace-like windows, and increasing the light as eye rises upward. As opposed to the defined space of Roman domes, Guarini drew the pilgrim toward the infinite, peeking upward toward the light of heaven. The Triune God came among men in Christ, who died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Like the Creed in brick and stone, Guarini’s chapel articulates the central Mysteries of the Christian faith.
Sadly, the fire of April 1997 seriously damaged the chapel, so the Shroud is on display over the main altar while the chapel remains under restoration. But one hopes that by the next exposition of the Shroud, pilgrims will be able to enjoy the extraordinary space designed for it.
Turin’s most famous monument, the Mole Antonelliana, was begun as a synagogue in 1863, but soon grew too large and too expensive for Turin’s Jewish community. After disputes and disappointments, it was traded to the city of Turin in exchange for another plot of land in 1876. The citizens of Turin, proud of what promised to be the tallest building in Italy, plied architect Antonio Antonelli with funds and assistance, until he completed this modern-day Tower of Babel in 1888, the same year he died at the age of 90.
The Mole Antonelliana was originally crowned with a winged figure on its spire. Many took it to be an angel, but the statue was really drawn from the iconography of pagan Rome and represented a winged “genius,» the deity present at the divinization of men.
The figure was swept away by a storm in the mid-20th century but was replaced by a five-pointed star, the symbol of the freemasons, at the apex of the spire.
The skyscrapers and lofty monuments of Turin tout industrial success stories and political victories, but tucked among them, the ancient, humble relic of the Shroud proclaims the greatest triumph of them all, that over sin and death.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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