“I am an art historian,” he responds calmly, “not a theologian, so I can approach the problem from a new angle.” It feels like we’ve reached a moment for laying our cards on the table before we start examining the details of his theory.
The exact nature of the Resurrection troubles me, as it does many Christians.
For centuries the Turin Shroud, regarded by some as the burial cloth of Jesus, by others as the most elaborate hoax in history, has inspired extraordinary and conflicting passions.
Popes, princes and paupers have for 700 years been making pilgrimages the length of Europe to stand in its presence while scientists have dedicated their whole working lives to trying to explain rationally how the ghostly image on the cloth, even more striking when seen as a photographic negative, and matching in every last detail the crucifixion narrative, could have been created.
“I’ve always loved a mystery ever since I was a boy.” And so he became the latest in a long line to abandon everything to try to solve the riddle of the Shroud.
Eight years ago, de Wesselow was a successful art historian, based at King’s College, making a name for himself in scholarly circles by taking a fresh look at centuries-old disputes over the attribution of masterpieces of Renaissance painting.
The standard historical record of the Shroud – broadly endorsed by carbon-dating – traces its first appearance back to the 1350s in rural France, when a knight called Geoffrey de Charny put it on display in his local church. “And we have a description of a cloth, that sounds very like the Shroud, that had been seen before that in Constantinople, described as the burial cloth of Jesus, that then goes missing and is never heard of again.” So, de Wesselow’s theory is that it was taken to France by the Crusaders as looted bounty.
But what were the origins of the cloth in Constantinople?
For most “shroudies”, though, it is more than just intellectual.
And still a final, commonly agreed answer remains elusive, despite carbon-dating in 1988 having pronounced it a forgery.
“That’s what first attracted me,” says Thomas de Wesselow, an engagingly serious 40-year-old Cambridge academic.
It offers that elusive but faith-validating proof that Jesus died exactly as the gospels say he did.
But again it gets complicated, for the Vatican, since 1983 the owner of this hotly disputed icon, disappoints “shroudies” by limiting itself to declaring that the burial cloth is a representation of Jesus’s crucified body, not his actual linen wrap.
And it has accepted the carbon-dating tests as conclusive.