What do the images on the Shroud of Turin look like?


The Shroud of Turin contains two life-size negative images, front and back, of an apparently crucified man. The images are head-to-head suggesting that a man was laid out on the cloth with his feet at one end and that the cloth was brought over the top of his head and draped across his front.

No one has demonstrated, in a scientifically plausible way, how the images were formed. The leading hypothesis is that the image was formed chemically and naturally, perhaps from a chemical reaction of amine vapors coming from the body and a residue of natural carbohydrate substance on the cloth. Such a substance has been detected and is expected from washing the cloth in natural soap after weaving and before the cloth was used. This leading hypothesis is commonly called the diffusion hypothesis.

The images are unique. There is nothing like them in the world of art.


It is difficult to imagine that a faker of relics would and even could paint a negative image of a human face. Our minds are attuned to the way we see reality; a world where black is black and white is white. It is relatively easy, with talent and training, to paint a picture of what we see in the world. An artist, if he is imaginative like Picasso, can alter that perception in stylistic ways. But the one thing he cannot easily do is to perfectly reverse black and white and all the darker and lighter shades of grey while painting a face.


But imagine, just for a moment, that he could. How would he know he had done it correctly without technology to test his results? A more profound question is: why? In an age as undemanding as the medieval, when any sliver of wood could pass as a piece of the true cross and any bramble as part of the crown of thorns, why bother?
Photographic film, invented less than 200 years ago, creates good negative images. And because that is so, it was finally discovered that the shroud image was a negative when it was first photographed in 1898 by Secondo Pia. The negative that emerged from the camera was a positive picture.

Because the image is negative, some have speculated that the images are life-sized, medieval photographs. They are not. How do we know the images are not a photographic negative?

This is what the Shroud looks like (with a bit of contrast enhancement so you can see the images):

Full length picture of the Shroud of Turin

When photographed, the photographic negative is a positive image that looks like this in black and white:

Full positve image seen on negative of shroud

How do we know the images are not a photographic negative?

Since the picture is a negative image, some have speculated that the Shroud of Turin might be a life-sized medieval photograph. At first glance this seems reasonable. But common sense should prevail. How likely was it that photography was invented in the Middle Ages, used once to make a single fourteen-foot long fraud, never exploited for fame and fortune, never mentioned, never even used again until it was “reinvented” in an age of science.

But science also shows us that it cannot be a photograph. The image contains height-field data (3D) and a photograph does not. There is no evidence of any photosensitive material, neither silver nor the resulting products of other photosensitive compounds. Image analysis shows that the image is not produced by light as a photograph would be.

What do we mean when we say the images are 3D encoded?

It is a bit misleading and confusing. What we probably should be saying is the images are actually height-fields that also happen to have a pictorial quality to them. So what in the world do we mean by that?

Imagine a papier-mâché model of a moon crater sitting before you on a table. Now imagine that you want to express everything about the shape of crater as a series of numbers. We can express the shape of any terrain as a long series of three numbers. The numbers are the measurement from left to right, the measurement from front to back, and the height of the crater at that point. In other words, pick any spot on the crater: measure how far that is from the left, how far it is from the front, and how high that spot is. We call these three value x, y and z, respectively.

Crater example used to demonstrate 3D aspects of the Shroud  of Turin image

Smoke ring height-field for a crater.Computer scientists devised any easy way to represent these value. On a flat surface, measure from the left, measure from the bottom and then put a single dot at that spot. Make the dot white for the highest spots on the crater and black for the lowest spots. For heights in between, use varying shades of gray. This is called a height-field. Height fields are used extensively for mapping terrains of everything from planets and moons to imaginary scenes in video games. The image that looks like a smoke ring is a height-field for the crater shown above.

With computer graphics software it is a fairly simple thing to plot the image into a three-dimensional terrain representation (as seen in the top picture). What are the results of plotting a height-field?

Similarly the images on the Shroud of Turin can be plotted into a three-dimensional terrain representation. But, and this is important to understand, paintings and photographs of the human form including the face, cannot be so plotted. There is probably no more important test of any attempt to recreate the images on the Shroud, either to test a hypothesis or to attempt to show how a forger might have created the image, then to see if the image is a height-field. If it won’t plot correctly, it is not at all like the image on the Shroud.

What is meant by the statement: the image is superficial?

In the simplest sense, it means that the images are on the surface only. The thread or yarn of the Shroud’s fabric consists of a varying number of flax fibers spun together. The number of fibers ranges from about 70 to 120. Because the fibers are spun any particular fiber, which may be as long as two feet in length, will at times along its length be in the middle of the thread and near the outside. The images reside on sections of fibers that are at the surface or within one or two fibers deep from the surface. In other words the images are superficial to a depth of only one to three fibers.

But more than that, the image on the fibers is extraordinarily thin, about the thickness of the outer wall of a soap bubble floating in the air.

This completely rules out the use of any liquid colorant such as paint, dye or stain. Any liquid colorant would soak into the thread. Only a very thick paint would remain on the surface and this would be nearly impossible to apply while maintaining the thin quality of the images. But we really don’t need to be concerned with this because there is ample evidence that the images are not painted. Further more:

  • the body is anatomically precise
  • the wounds are medically correct as only a modern pathologist would understand them
  • the images are unexpected from a medieval point of view

How tall is the image of the man on the Shroud of Turin?

The man on the Shroud of Turin

It is hard to know. Estimates generally range from 5’8″ to 6’1″.

A formal study “Computerized anthropometric analysis of the Man of the Turin Shroud,” a series of tibio-femoral indices calculations by Giulio Fanti, Emanuela Marinelli and Alessandro  Cagnazzo, to date, is the most comprehensive statistical analysis. It puts the height of the man (presumably Jesus) at between 5’8″ and 5’9”.

A study by Isabel Piczek, a mural artist with significant expertise in human anatomy determined that the body was close to 6′ tall. She wrote:

I have approached the question of height from the design point of view – an image which describes a 3D object and vice-versa, including the problem of foreshortening. I have also analyzed body type, muscle structure and proportion. I determined the height to be 5’11½” to 6’1″, give or take 1″ for linen stretch and shrinking, both of which are possible. Because of the body type, even with shrinkage, the man cannot be under 5’11½”. I lean more towards 6’0″. Whether Jews in Jesus’s time were smaller or larger is not relevant here. Jews were not small to start with, judging by the finds in the 1st century cemetery excavated near the wall of the Temple in the sixties

One reason is that we don’t know how flat the body is on the cloth, assuming the image is representative of the man’s height.  If the image is anatomically correct, as it seems to be, we can be certain that the knees are bent and the head tilted forward as though resting on a pillow.

Overlooked, often, is the certainty that cloth’s size has been altered by stretching. It has been held aloft, nailed up for display, rolled up and folded. It has been exposed to sunshine and dampness. It was seared in a fire that was doused with water. During a restoration effort in 2002 it was stretched with weights and steamed to remove wrinkles. By some estimates the length of the cloth was increased by eight centimeters during the restoration.

Explore posts in the same categories: The Shroud of Turin

One Comment on “What do the images on the Shroud of Turin look like?”

  1. jane Says:

    what are the long straight lines on each side of Jesus? I have read about the Shroud in the National Geographic Magazine. I truly believe this to be the Shroud that covered Jesus when he was buried! This really blows me away–to think I can see the face of Jesus!!!
    where is the Holy Grail, and the Ark of the Covenant?
    has Noa’s Ark ever truly been found?

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