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Sceptic gives ‘resounding yes’ to truth of Shroud
A conversation with Ian Wilson, world authority on the Shroud of Turin
23 May, 2010 |
“Did Jesus intend the Shroud for the Doubting Thomases of our own era?” asks Ian Wilson, the British-born expert on the Shroud of Turin who now resides in Brisbane.
|NO ‘FORGED RELIC’: The Shroud’s famous negative image ‘seemed far too unerringly like a real photograph to be the work of any conceivable artist-forger’, says former sceptic Ian Wilson.
“As an ex-agnostic, I have a lurking doubter ever on my shoulder saying ‘Can you really believe that this is the actual cloth that wrapped Jesus’ body as he lay in death 2000 years ago?’’
“Yet still my only answer, based not on belief, but on more than four decades of the most far-ranging researches, is a resounding ‘yes’.”
Ian was born in Clapham, south London, in the early stages of World War II.
“Some of my earliest memories are of the Blitz, and the roof being blown off my parents’ upstairs flat,” he recalls.
“My mother was a school secretary; my father had a lowly paid clerical job with a construction company.”
Neither of his parents was religious, and Ian saw his school scripture classes as tokenistic.
“My father had never been baptised, while my mother, to whom I was very close, particularly loathed Roman Catholicism as all ‘fear and superstition’.
“Although my school was nominally Church of England, during scripture classes I was always the number one sceptic. Never even remotely did I anticipate becoming a Roman Catholic.”
He studied Modern History at Magdalen College, Oxford, a degree he hoped would lead to a career in journalism, but it was not to be.
“At Oxford at that time modern history started with the Roman era, and at Magdalen I was lucky enough to have some very distinguished tutors, among them Alan Bennett and AJP Taylor,” he says.
“The very privileged world that I found myself rubbing shoulders with was a huge contrast to my normal home life in post-war south London.
“Even so, I had absolutely no inclination to become an academic: a history degree was simply a passport to a better job.
“What I had envisaged post-graduation was becoming a journalist. However, because the job of a junior reporter was poorly paid I opted first to go into advertising, then in 1969 joined the Bristol Evening Post newspaper group as head of its publicity and promotions department.
“So although for a decade I worked closely with journalists, I never became one.”
Ian did not realise he had already encountered what would later become his life’s work: the Shroud of Turin.
“I first came across the Shroud during the 1950s, when I was in my mid-teens,” he recalls.
“It was the subject of an illustrated article written by World War II hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, VC.
“For the agnostic in me, the Shroud ought to have been just another of Roman Catholicism’s many obviously forged ‘relics’.
“But I also had a very strong interest in art and art history, fancying that I could identify the artist behind any Old Master painting simply from the style.
“And for that side of me the Shroud’s now so famous negative image seemed far too unerringly like a real photograph to be the work of any conceivable artist-forger. My formerly complacent agnosticism therefore suffered its first, and ultimately fatal, blow.”
Ian went on to complete his history degree, with the Shroud still lurking in the back of his mind.
In 1966, having met “a most helpful trio of like-minded people in the UK”, he embarked on a three-month historical research project in the old Reading Room of the British Museum.
“This research – which I found myself enjoying far better than anything in my history degree – led to the key deduction that the Shroud was one and the same as a Christ-imprinted cloth that historians refer to as the ‘Image of Edessa’, lost from Constantinople in 1204.
“Enabling for the first time a tracking of the Shroud’s history all the way back to the first century, this led in 1978 to the publication of the book which launched me as a full-time author.”
The Turin Shroud was an international bestseller in which Ian presented his case for the Shroud’s authenticity.
“The helpful trio I mentioned comprised Dom Maurus Green, a most selfless Benedictine monk; Dr David Willis, a family doctor who had converted to Catholicism largely as a result of his medical studies of the Shroud; also Vera Barclay, similarly a convert.”
Ian was deeply impressed by their easy acceptance of him, despite his openly declared agnosticism. “Throughout years of intensive correspondence, no one ever tried to convert me,” he says.
But it was his marriage to “cradle Catholic” Judith that brought him face to face with the Catholic Church.
“As a dutiful new husband, I accompanied her to the occasional Mass, during which I heard the gospel being read in the clear modern English of the Jerusalem Bible, as distinct from the beautiful but archaic language of the King James version that I had been used to at school.
“For the first time the words of Jesus came alive for me.
“Although there was no one moment that I can call my Damascus Road, I formally became a Roman Catholic in 1972, and have been very lucky, both in Bristol, England, and here in Australia, having parish priests and parish communities with whom I have felt entirely at home.
“Being in day-to-day correspondence with Christians of every denomination I regard the fundamental faith we share as far more important than any sectarian theological differences, particularly with all Christianity currently being under such relentless attack in the secular media.”
Ian and Judith’s journey to Australia began with his research for a book on Shakespeare.
“In the early 1990s I wrote a book, Shakespeare: The Evidence, trying to determine exactly who William Shakespeare was,” he says.
“One surprising finding from my research was that Shakespeare had been a closet Catholic, a key ingredient to why he remains such a mystery.
“When the book was published, I was invited to talk about it at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This led to Judith and I making our first-ever visit to Australia, an experience that simply blew us away.
“We fell in love with the whole Australian scene – the outdoor way of life, the egalitarian attitudes, the sunny climate and, not least, the cuisine, which we regard as one of the world’s best-kept secrets.
“At that time both our sets of parents were already dead, and our only tie was our two sons, who were already in their late 20s.”
The couple’s youngest son Noel has since emigrated to Australia and now resides in Sydney with his family, and Ian says it is “probably only a matter of time” until their elder son Adrian follows.
With the Shroud currently on display, Ian describes his own up-close encounters with the Shroud over almost 20 years.
“I have been lucky enough to view the Shroud in close-up, at length, and mostly without protective glass, on three
separate occasions: in 1973, when it was brought out to be filmed for colour television; in 2000, when Turin’s Cardinal Poletto invited me to be part of a team of specialists whom he gathered to discuss the cloth’s future; and in 2002, following some controversial conservation work on the fabric.
“Because of security concerns, visitors to the current showings are not quite as privileged as I was on those occasions. Even so there is always something very, very special about any proximity to the real thing.”
Ian understands that many people struggle to see the Shroud as authentic, while it is merely irrelevant to others.
“If we are realistic, many people with no religious affiliations comfortably accept the results of the carbon dating carried out in 1988. They happily dismiss the Shroud as just a mediaeval fake.
“Likewise large numbers of practising Christians perceive the Shroud as quite unnecessary to their personal deep faith.”
Thirty years on, he says, the fruits of many more historical and other findings have been encapsulated in his latest book The Shroud: The 2000-Year-Old Mystery Solved, recently published by Bantam Press.
“Assuming the Shroud to be genuine, as I can’t help doing, my problem, and I think that of like-minded others, is the sheer wonder that such an extraordinary object should exist at all.
“Dead bodies do not normally leave imprints of themselves. So why has this extraordinary ‘imprint’ phenomenon happened in the case of the one person in history claimed to have broken the bounds of death – Jesus Christ?
“Also why, against all historical odds, has such an ostensibly frail object survived down to our own scientific age, when so many scientific approaches can be applied to it?
“Just to consider the list of applicable disciplines – photography, forensic medicine, anatomy, chemistry, physics, microbiology, pollen analysis, textile analysis, archaeology, art history, to name but a few – is mind-blowing in itself.”
Ian’s interest in art exists beyond his professional life.
“I have a very long-standing enthusiasm for figurative art – the very touchstone that led to my interest in the Shroud,” he says.
“While at university I was able spare-time to use the Ruskin School of Art, and ever since I have intermittently practised life drawing and painting whenever time has allowed.
“Here in Australia the mysterious Bradshaw figurative art of the Kimberley, thought to date from the Ice Age, has fascinated me nearly as profoundly as the Shroud’s image, and I wrote somewhat controversially on this four years ago.
“With Judith, I also enjoy exploring Australia’s so abundant natural world, and keeping pace with a home menagerie that currently includes one cocker spaniel, two cats, three laying hens, tropical fish, and Judith’s specialty, an ever more prolific colony of lovebirds!”