A reply to Charles Freeman’s review of The Sign on, entitled ‘Entertaining fantasies’, posted 3 April 2012

(This review was initially posted on on 3 April 2012 under his own name. It was then taken down and reposted under the name Aldo Matteucci, having been edited and retitled ‘Shrouded in speculation’. I reproduce below the full text of the original review.)


On April 3 Mr Charles Freeman posted a review of my new book, The Sign, on and He presents himself as a professional historian able to show the general public, with the help of a few documents, why my ‘speculations’ about the Shroud of Turin are utter nonsense. When I first became aware of his review I decided to ignore it, but since he is continually adding to it and commenting on other people’s reviews, I now feel a response is necessary.

I start with the argument Freeman attempts to ‘take apart’: my brief discussion of the Shroud’s probable history in the east.

My book does not aim to provide a comprehensive history of the Shroud. This should be clear from the structure of the book, and I make the point explicitly on a couple of occasions. I focus instead on authenticating the Shroud, which is a separate issue from its provenance (not all authentic artefacts have fully documented histories, e.g. the Portland Vase). This involves extensive discussion of the material and visual properties of the Shroud, which Freeman says he finds relatively uninteresting. And so he focuses on the peripheral issue of the Shroud’s history, which he clearly feels is his territory.

As a trained art historian, I have expertise in the visual analysis of images, and I have years of experience in the complex task of relating images and artefacts to references in medieval sources. I have three degrees in art history, including a PhD from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and I have conducted art-historical research at the National Gallery in London and at King’s College, Cambridge. Mr Freeman evidently has little respect for such qualifications.

For Freeman, sorting out the complex issues surrounding the cloth relics in medieval Constantinople is a breeze, the sort of scholarship that can be accomplished in an Amazon review. It should be realized that the references cited by Freeman are just a few of many dozens stretching back over centuries that are relevant to the case, along with a whole range of related imagery. That is why I don’t go into the problem in any depth in The Sign – to understand these references properly you need to devote an entire book to them.

I am criticized, first of all, for identifying the burial sheet (singular) of Jesus seen by Robert de Clari in 1204 in the Blachernae church with the burial sheets (plural) of Jesus described by Nicholas Mesarites in 1201 in the Pharos chapel. I am not alone in this. One of the most eminent art historians of our times, Hans Belting, someone Freeman does respect, reached the same conclusion, as I observe in my notes. In The Image and its Public in the Middle Ages (which Freeman appears not to know) Belting has no hesitation in identifying the linen seen by Robert de Clari with the sheets described by Mesarites. Furthermore, writing before the 1988 carbon-dating, he saw fit to connect both with the Shroud of Turin, just as I do. Would Freeman presume to criticize Hans Belting in the manner that he criticizes me? (In one of his many comments on other Amazon reviews Freeman questions whether I know ‘elementary logic’.)

Freeman ignores the positive reasons to connect the two references, explained in my book, and concentrates on the supposed difficulties. He rightly points out that the references concern cloths in different places. If the references were simultaneous or concerned a mural painting, this would indeed be a problem. But linen cloths are portable and can be transferred from one church to another. And the exceptional circumstances of the Fourth Crusade, when the Crusader leaders were effectively in charge of the city, may well have prompted such a move.

What about the singular/plural distinction? Belting quite reasonably suggests that the Blachernae cloth was just one of the cloths mentioned by Mesarites. Or it may have been a matter of perception – the folded Shroud could have appeared to be more than one sheet, depending on how it was housed and displayed (a complicated issue Freeman doesn’t appear to have considered). Either way, the connection can be maintained. And it’s worth pointing out that Freeman’s argument is further undermined by Conrad of Halberstadt’s reference to the shroud in the Pharos Chapel. Freeman quotes Conrad, and says that his ‘sheet’ (singular) is ‘clearly’ the same as Mesarites’s ‘sheets’ (plural). So is the singular/plural distinction not so important after all? Freeman also connects Mesarites’s sheets to the singular ‘shroud’ housed in the Sainte-Chapelle in 1790.

Then there is the issue of the cloth’s quality. The Shroud is made of fine linen; Mesarites says that the relic in his care was made of material that was ‘cheap and easy to find’. Is this an insurmountable contradiction? We are dealing with a description written by a courtier in one of the most splendid capitals of the medieval world. Byzantine courtiers were accustomed to very expensive fabrics, often richly embroidered and made of silk, in comparison with which the plain linen of the Shroud would indeed have seemed ‘cheap’. Such descriptions are relative, not absolute, a point evidently taken into consideration by Hans Belting. 

Regarding Mesarites’s failure to mention the image, Freeman may find my explanation ‘unconvincing’, but that is largely because he disagrees with me about the Mandylion, to which we will come in a moment.

Freeman treats the descriptions of the cloths in the documents he cites as if they were museum labels, each one referring unambiguously to a particular object. Unfortunately, understanding ancient sources is not that straightforward. We can’t be sure that different sources aren’t using the same word for different items, or that different words aren’t being used for the same item. Moreover, the words chosen represent perceptions and memories of sometimes complex artefacts. So there is interpretation their end as well as ours. In short, you have to proceed very cautiously when trying to understand these sources. Anyone who thinks they are not involved in a very difficult process of interpretation is sorely mistaken.  Freeman informs the general public in a ‘comment’ on a positive review of my book by ‘New Lit Fan’ ( that it is not a question of ‘Mr Freeman disagreeing with de Wesselow’. He then says, ‘I have simply brought out a lot of evidence that goes against de Wesselow’s argument.’ He is apparently under the impression that his own ‘long argument’ involves no interpretation whatsoever.

What about my espousal of the theory that the Shroud was one and the same as the Mandylion, the famous face-cloth imprinted with an image of Christ’s face and sent to King Abgar of Edessa? This is based on consideration of a great deal of evidence, including accounts written by eyewitnesses in the 10th century and eastern copies of the relic, which show it as a disembodied face of Christ in the midst of a horizontal rectangle of cloth. Here are just two bits of evidence. The Mandylion image was said by some who saw it to have been formed when Christ wiped his face on a cloth during the Agony in the Garden, when he sweated blood. Icons of Christ never show him sweating blood, but the Shroud-face is surrounded by drips of blood (actually from the crown of thorns). Two early sources also refer to the Mandylion as the tetradiplon – ‘four-doubled’. Fold the Shroud into eight layers (four-doubled) and you end up with just the face on a horizontal rectangle of cloth, precisely matching the eastern copies of the Mandylion. There is plenty more evidence I could go into, some of which I mention in the book, but this is enough to show that there is reason to connect the Shroud and the Mandylion.

It goes without saying that this is an interpretation, and it contradicts the current orthodoxy, but received opinion isn’t always right, and challenging it does not make you a fantasist.

One of the chief characteristics of the Mandylion was that it ‘bred’ copies of itself, which is to say that numerous copies were made, some of which were seen as having come into being miraculously. And this may help explain why, by the beginning of the 13th century, the ‘Mandylion’ and the ‘shroud’ were understood to be two separate relics in the Pharos Chapel. Discovering that the famous face-cloth sent to King Abgar was actually a burial cloth would have presented the relic’s custodians with a problem, and the easiest way to solve the problem was to transfer the story about King Abgar to a copy of the facial image. This may have been deliberate, or it may have happened accidentally. Freeman may doubt this explanation, but that is no more than his opinion. It is a perfectly plausible explanation that enables us to makes sense of far more historical information about the Mandylion than his interpretation does, as I indicate in my book.

Next, I am criticized for saying that we don’t know what happened to the Constantinople sheet(s) after 1204. Freeman says we do. First, he notes, Conrad of Halberstadt mentions the shroud (singular) in the Pharos chapel. That doesn’t help us much, because Conrad, who left Constantinople in 1204, could have seen it there before the sack – and before it was transferred to the Blachernae church. So Freeman relies on the record of a ‘holy shroud’ in the 1790 engraving of the Chasse in the Sainte-Chapelle to prove that, nearly four centuries earlier, the Constantinople burial sheets stayed in the city and were later ‘gifted’ to St Louis by Baldwin II. This is a rather bold conjecture, which Freeman attempts to substantiate in a ‘clarification’ added to his review on April 5th.

In his ‘clarification’, Freeman tries to link the Parisian ‘shroud’ to the well-known ‘gift’ of a holy toella – towel – to St Louis in 1247, which is a bit of a stretch. (Freeman does not cite the Latin word used – quoted by Belting – and translates it as ‘cloth’, which obscures its precise meaning.) This reference, which Freeman has apparently just come across in Belting’s Likeness and Presence, was linked to the Mandylion by Runciman as long ago as 1931. In the opinion of others, including myself, it probably refers to a copy of the Mandylion, which was by then confused with the original, as explained above. Freeman then accuses me, on the basis of his interpretation of the 1247 ‘towel’ as the 1790 ‘shroud’, of listing Belting’s book in my ‘bibliography’ without having used it, even though it is cited on several occasions (and quoted) in my notes.

So, why do I say we don’t know what happened to the Constantinople sheet after 1204? Because this is what Robert de Clari himself tells us: ‘no one, neither Greek nor French, knew what became of this sheet after the city was taken.’ That seems fairly clear to me. Of course, Freeman doesn’t think that this cloth was the same as the Pharos Chapel linen, but we’ve been through all that.

We may not know for sure what happened to the sheet, but we do have a major clue, which Freeman appears to know nothing about. I do not go into this in my book, because the status of the source is complicated, but, basically, it seems that in 1205 the Greek ruler of Epirus, Michael Angelus, a nephew of one of the deposed Byzantine emperors, had a letter sent to Pope Innocent III, complaining about the looting of Constantinople and stating that ‘the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death’ had been spirited away to Athens. He calls this cloth ‘the most sacred’ of all the stolen relics, and it is the only one he specifies. It appears, then, that Michael Angelus was making diplomatic moves to recover this treasure in particular, and, in these circumstances, it would have been prudent for its new ‘owners’ to keep the cloth hidden. Nowhere do I state that the Crusaders were embarrassed by the looting, as Freeman claims. What I argue is that this one relic was exceptionally hot property, that its return was a matter of particular concern for the Greeks (like the Elgin marbles today), and that it was therefore kept in secret. This is quite consistent with the unabashed display of all the other, less important relics looted from Constantinople and taken to the West.

Of course, this evidence that the sacred linen was taken to Athens after the sack of Constantinople goes against Freeman’s theory that it remained in the Byzantine capital, later to be acquired by Louis IX.

The connection with Athens may help explain the eventual re-emergence of the cloth, a century and a half later, in rural France. The Lord of Athens in 1205 was a crusader called Otho de La Roche, who was a direct ancestor of Jeanne de Vergy, the woman who, along with her husband, Geoffrey I de Charny, staged the first exhibition of the Shroud in France in 1355/6. This suggests that the Shroud may have been a secret family heirloom passed down from the man who looted it in 1204. Freeman might like to consider this alternative history of the cloth, before pursuing his own theory about the 1247 towel any further.

So much for Freeman’s attempt to take my argument apart. He simply presents his own positivistic interpretation of a set of very complicated documents (far more than he cites) as fact, without acknowledging the possibility of alternative interpretations that, in the view of others, can actually make much better sense of them.

Now let me turn to his brusque dismissal of the book’s central argument. He states that he is unable ‘to find any relevant evidence’ for the theory that the Shroud inspired the belief in the Resurrection. I find this puzzling. In Part 2 I set out all the historical evidence that any viable theory of the Resurrection must be able to explain, and, then, in Parts 4-7, I show in detail how all this evidence can be explained with the help of the Shroud. Has Freeman paid any attention to my discussion of all this evidence? Of course, I don’t mind if he doesn’t agree with my argument, but to imply that I present no evidence for it does seem a little unfair.

Freeman’s understanding of my argument that the followers of Jesus would have viewed the Shroud as a sign of the Risen Jesus appears to be based on a newspaper article, rather than a careful reading of my book, which may explain why he can’t find any evidence for it. His rejection of the idea depends on the view that Paul and the Twelve came ‘from totally different cultural backgrounds’. Even if we could be sure about this – Freeman is more certain than I am about discerning such facts from the New Testament – it would be irrelevant to the argument I am making: people of all social and educational backgrounds are susceptible to animistic ways of thinking, a point emphasised repeatedly, for instance, by David Freedberg. Freeman has evidently failed to take on board the profound importance of animism in shaping the perception of images in pre-modern societies. It didn’t just affect rustics, as he seems to think. Paul certainly encountered images all over the place ‘in his travels’ (begun, incidentally, after his conversion), but relative familiarity with images is no bar to animism. Many of the images in classical cities existed because the locals viewed them animistically.

Freeman also seems confused about a fundamental point, suggesting that I think the followers of Jesus gave the Shroud to Paul ‘so that he could display it to the 500 of “Corinthians”’. As 1 Corinthians 15 makes clear, and as is plain from my discussion, the appearance to the More-than-500 took place long before the conversion of Paul. How can someone who claims to have read my book make such a basic error?

Freeman’s criticisms, then, just don’t add up. I suggest his review of my book does not represent a careful, considered judgement but a knee-jerk response to the idea that the Shroud might be anything other than a medieval fake. At the end of his review Freeman ‘restates his case’ that the Shroud was produced in medieval times ‘by a method that we still have not worked out.’ In other words, he has no idea what the Shroud is, but he presumes it must be medieval, based on the carbon-dating. Can he point to any other medieval work of art that a century of modern research has failed to explain in any way whatsoever? Can he explain away the plentiful evidence that the Shroud is the burial cloth of a man crucified by the Romans as a would-be king and buried in the manner of a Jew? The conviction that the Shroud is a medieval fake is like a religious belief that can’t be explained rationally and is held in the face of a great deal of evidence to the contrary. It is an article of faith that many hate to have challenged.

Finally, Freeman accuses me of not being a ‘true scholar’ because I ‘insist’ that I have ‘solved the mystery’ without first seeking the support of classicists. Given the widespread prejudice against those who take the Shroud seriously – exemplified by Freeman himself – is it any wonder that I opted for discretion before laying my case out in full? And isn’t it customary to judge someone’s scholarship on the basis of their published work, rather than the circumstances of its writing? Freeman also tries to score a point by noting that I do not include Zanker’s The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus in my ‘bibliography’. My book doesn’t contain a bibliography: it ends with a list of ‘references’ giving bibliographic details for works cited in my notes.  As it happens, I did consult Zanker’s work, along with numerous other works that don’t appear in my list of references, because I had no occasion to refer to them.

Freeman says he doesn’t regard the Shroud as special or particularly interesting, a rather odd statement, given its unique properties. He definitely is interested, though, in the origins of Christianity, about which he has written a book. It would be good to have a more constructive conversation with him about that sometime.

The review originally posted on is reproduced here:

Entertaining fantasies, April 3, 2012

By Charles Freeman (England)

This review is from: The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret of the Resurrection (Hardcover)

I have been struggling with this book since I was sent a copy -presumably because I have written books on both relics (Holy Bones, Holy Dust) and early Christianity ( A New History of early Christianity). I just don’t know where to start with my critique and may add no more to this review other than take apart one tiny section of the author’s speculations, the transfer of the Turin Shroud, alias, in de Wesselow’s argument, the Mandylion from Edessa, from the Chapel of the Pharos in Constantinople to the west in 1204 after the Crusader Sack of Constantinople.
De Wesselow mentions two descriptions of shrouds in Constantinople in the years just before this Crusade (pages 175 and 176), one in the Church of the Virgin Mary at Blachernae on the northwestern corner of the city, another in the Chapel of the Pharos which was within the imperial palace. The one at Blachernae was a sheet ( singular) ‘in which our Lord was laid’, which apparently ‘raised itself up every Friday with the figure of Our Lord on it’. The other in the Pharos Chapel was ‘ the funerary sheets( plural) of Christ ‘they are of cheaper and easy to find material, still smelt of myrrh’ as an account of 1201 puts it. There is no mention of any image on them. De Wesselow unconvincingly tries to explain why there was no image mentioned but argues that the two descriptions refer to the same ‘shroud’, despite the singular and plural distinction, that one is described as having an image and the other has not and the fact that they are in two completely different places. Already on pages 108-9 de Wesselow has argued that the weave of the cloth in the Turin Shroud is of a rare type, – ‘herringbone weave which is exceptionally fine’. (p. 110), so this in itself seems to militate against the Pharos Chapel ‘sheets’ described as of ‘cheap and easy to find ‘material, as being the Turin Shroud. (N.B. It was common for relics created in medieval times to be made of materials far finer than the original could ever have been – was the Turin shroud in this category?)
There is the added problem that not only does de Wesselow want to combine these two apparently different ‘sheets’ as one but he also claims that they are the same as the Mandylion, the ‘face of Christ’ bought to Constantinople in the tenth century from Edessa. Yet the description of the of the Pharos ‘sheets’, above, is by one Nicholas Mesarites in 1201. In the full description of the relics of Constantinople by Holgar Klein, accessible online as ‘Sacred Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople’ (2006), Klein suggests , and I have not been able to check the original Mesarites text further but Klein is an impressive scholar, that in the very same speech about the ‘sheets’ in the Pharos Chapel, Mesarites gives a SEPARATE mention of the Mandylion as ALSO being in the Chapel. So the Mandylion can’t be the same cloth as the Pharos sheets!
Next de Wesselow goes on to suggest that no one knows what happened to the ‘sheets’ in the Pharos after the Sack of Constantinople. In fact we do know. We have a list by the Crusader Conrad of Halberstadt( quoted in Michael Angold’s The Fourth Crusade, 2003, p. 232) which lists them among the relics of the Pharos. Conrad, writing shortly after Mesarites,in 1204-5, tells of ‘the shroud and sudarium ( face cloth)’ in the Pharos so clearly these are the ‘sheets’ mentioned by Nicholas Mesarites. Conrad gives the impression that he took the relics for himself but in fact they passed to the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin I. Baldwin and his immediate successors began to flog them off. The most famous example is the Crown of Thorns, offered as a surety for a loan from the Venetians and then bought by Louis IX of France and housed in his wonderful Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. (One point de Wesselow makes is that ‘his’ (Turin) shroud was hidden when it arrived in the west because people were embarrassed by the looting but hell they were. The Greeks were heretics since the Schism of 1054 (a point I can’t find de Wesselow making) and so taking their relics to good Catholic homes was encouraged and many were displayed openly in churches.)
We know that Louis IX bought other relics from the Pharos and we know which ones they are because we have an engraving of the main Chasse or display chapel of relics in the Sainte-Chapelle before the French Revolution which lists the relics on the altar. And there among the relics is the St.Suaire( a sacred shroud-which must be the ‘sheets’ from the Pharos as we have no record of Louis getting a shroud from anywhere else)! So we have a full account of how the Pharos sheets survived until 1790 soon after which the relics in the Chapelle were looted by the revolutionaries.
So if you have followed this long argument, the shroud in the Pharos is not the Shroud of Turin nor is it the Mandylion and this part of de Wesselow’s argument collapses completely. His argument that the Turin Shroud is the same as the Pharos sheets, which are the same as the Blachernaeshroud , both of which are the Mandylion is implausible in the extreme, The only possible Shroud that could be the Turin Shroud is the one in the Blachernae Chapel – so perhaps he could have developed that further. Many of the relics in the Blachernae Church, including a robe of the Virgin Mary, were placed there by Pulcheria, the sister of the emperor Theodosius, in the first half of the fifth century.
I find De Wesselow’s argument that the Shroud is the Risen Christ even less convincing . In fact I have not been able to find any relevant evidence in its support. To make the argument work both Paul and the Galilee disciples , from totally different cultural backgrounds, would have to ‘mistake’ the Shroud for the Risen Christ. De Wesselow’s argument, expressed in an interview, that images were rare in the ancient world is nonsense. There were certainly Jewish inhibitions with images but classical cities were crammed with images and Paul in his travels would have continually been aware of them. Surely he would not have seen all images an animate and would the disciples, who had their differences with Paul, have shared the precious Shroud with him so that he could display it to the 500 of ‘Corinthians’.
I came across hundreds of relics from the Passion and Crucifixion in my work (fleets of wood from the Cross alone) and did not see anything special about the Turin Shroud- the relics of the blood of Christ collected while he was on the Cross are much more interesting ( I wrote a whole chapter on them in my Holy Bones). My hunch is that if the Turin Shroud is tested for Carbon 14 again the results will be much the same as before, fourteenth century.
This book must be taken with great caution- sadly because , despite all my doubts, it is engagingly written. I just think de Wesselow should have not kept all his speculations secret and shared his arguments with people who have worked in the field of relics before he went public.
Clarification made on 5th April. For all of us working on images of Christ, the Virgin Mary ,etc, the ‘bible’ is Hans Belting’s Likeness and Presence : A History of the Image before the Era of Art (1994). On p. 218, Belting tells us that ‘the image of the Holy Cloth’ from the Pharos was donated (not sold as I suggested above) by the emperor Baldwin to Louis IX in 1247 and was recorded ‘ in all inventories of the Sainte Chapelle until 1792’ -see my point above about the engraving of the Chasse of 1790. Belting says it is unclear whether this is the Mandylion or not but whatever, it fatally ,in my opinion, undermines de Wesselow’s argument that the Turin Shroud came from the Pharos- it clearly did not- that particular shroud went to Paris. There is a mountain of other evidence about the Mandylion in Belting’s superb study which is listed by de Wesselow in his bibliography but which he does not appear to have used ( or he would have noted that the shroud in Constantinople he thinks is the Turin Shroud is documented as going to Paris in 1247). As Belting says , the Mandylion was eclipsed by the veil of Veronica, another image of Christ’s face on a cloth, which was the star relic in Rome in the fourteenth/ fifteenth century ( see Chapter Twenty-One of my Holy Bones for a description). I restate my case that on the balance of probability the Turin Shroud was created , like thousands of other relics relating to the Passion and Crucifixion, in medieval times, probably in the fourteenth century, as the carbon -14 tests suggest, by a method that we still have not worked out. De Wesselow does not seem to have done any original work on the Shroud himself- other than visiting it in Turin- he relies on lots of speculative and often contradictory ‘reports’ -some of which may have some relevance -but his fatal flaw is to insist that he has solved the mystery- this, I would suggest, is not what a true scholar would do without a lot of support from academics who have expertise in images in the classical period , which he does not seem to have. I note that he does not even list in his Bibliography the seminal Paul Zanker’s The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus’. Reader ,just treat this book with caution!!