Every few years there’s an announcement from the scientific community about the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth, either proving or disproving its authenticity. It goes back and forth.
The latest rundown suggests that the Shroud is a fake. The Huffington Post reported on Oct. 19 that Italian researchers found the DNA taken from the cloth isn’t from a person, but from plant life and dates to some time after the Middle Ages.
But as this column noted in 2012, the shroud may not be a fake. To hear the the Vatican Insider tel it, Italian researchers at the National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development found that the marking on the shroud was created by a flash of light as if from an ultraviolet laser – a technology that didn’t exist before the 20th century, suggesting that the inquiry was more theological than scientific.
It should go without saying that scientists aren’t always right. Neither are art experts. In 1978, chemist Walter C. McCrone, a leading expert on art forgeries McCrone performed radiocarbon tests on the shroud and concluded that the burial cloth wasn’t old enough to be the real thing. But other scientists disagreed. Raymond Rogers, Science Fellow of the University of California, Los Alamos National Laboratory, dated the shroud to the 1st century, saying that the material that McCrone carbon dated was not the original fabric, but rather a part of the shroud that had been rewoven after a fire in the Middle Ages.
McCrone may also have been mistaken when it came to dating old paintings. In the early ’90s, he dated two works that surfaced in Sarasota, Florida purported to be by Renaissance master Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. He told me that the chances were “very, very good” that Leonardo had a hand in the painting. But the supposed Leonardo painting didn’t look a bit like his. The composition was out of balance, the faces were out of proportion, the lighting was out of whack and the hand gestures were straight out of Art 101. I wrote at the time how inconceivable it was that an artist known for Vitruvian Man – the male figure with arms and legs outstretched in demonstration of classical grace and balance – would have painted such an ungraceful and unbalanced picture.
There were similar problems with the Raphael attribution. Raphael is known for effortless grace, most often noticeable in his paintings of the Madonna and Child. His painting of St. Catherine in London’s National Gallery is one of rapture between a woman and her god. Goethe noticed it: “The divine genius of Raphael reached a height that no one else will surpass or equal.”
But the face of the Madonna in the so-called Raphael in Sarasota showed a commonplace prettiness, pursed lips sucked into a rosette, and the pale-complexion of a porcelain doll – bloodless and slick. McCrone dated it at 1505, when Raphael was 22 years old.
How can this be? When Raphael was 21, his painting Marriage of the Virgin was considered so lucid and graceful that Pope Julius II summoned him to paint the papal rooms at the Vatican. Especially notable about Raphael’s holy figures – early or late (he died at 37) – is their healthy glow, which sharply contrasts with the pallid look of the painting that McCrone deemed a Raphael.
Moral of this story? Scientists don’t have all the answers about science, and like art scholars, they don’t have them about art, either.