Home » Editor's Choice » The Shroud of Turin: The Great Gothic Art Fraud — Because If It’s Real the Brain of Jesus Was the Size of a Protohuman’s!

The Shroud of Turin: The Great Gothic Art Fraud — Because If It’s Real the Brain of Jesus Was the Size of a Protohuman’s!

Rarely on public display due to issues of light degradation, the shroud of Turin is again on temporary exhibit. The historical provenance and the radiometric measuring of its age place the creation of the object in the late medieval Gothic period. Although its owner the Catholic Church does not claim that the shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, they have not explicitly denied its authenticity, as Bishop Pierre D’Arcis apparently did when he denounced a fake shroud in 1389 (but the neutrality may be changing judging from the new claim by Benedict that the shroud is a photographic document of the crucifixion of Jesus; www.straitstimes.com/BreakingNews/World/Story?STIStory_522047.html).

The exhibition has inspired another round of claims by certain researchers that it really is the cloth that covered the deceased “Son of God.” Some go all the way to contend that the image cannot be a work of art or even of nature, and must be the miraculous result of the Resurrection. The hypothesis that the shroud is the real deal was promoted in the notoriously biased, two hour History Channel documentary The Real Face of Jesus, which was broadcast shortly before the latest exhibition.

This note is intended to describe why, from an artistic and anatomical perspective, the shroud image is an embarrassingly obvious fraud committed by a Gothic artist following the standard conventions of his time. The artistic errors are so severe that it is impossible for the shroud to record the image of an actual human body—unless it was a very seriously pathological person with a brain the size of a Homo erectus.

As well as researching issues including the evolution of brain size, I am an artist who produces 2-D representational works (as opposed to 3-D or abstract pieces), and as such I understand that aspiringly realistic flat art is always a visual illusion based on a set of visual tricks. For example, some artists sculpt the animals they wish to portray in 3-D, and then light them in a manner intended to accurately determine the pattern of shadows in the hope of making the final color image yet more realistic. I never follow this process because, aside from not wishing to expend the extra time and effort, in the end it does not matter that much inasmuch as the human visual system is very sloppy and happily accommodates visual errors in artwork. So I guesstimate the shadow patterns, and no one has complained. The human visual complex is just not set up to carefully assess these matters because they are not important in the struggle to survive.

In fact, the visual system is so accommodating that the viewer will recognize even a badly executed still life as a representation of some fruit and flowers in a vase. The same is true of a human figure even if the artist makes no attempt to be realistic. For example, no human actually looks like Charlie Brown, but because the mind is so flexible viewers of art are remarkably accepting of even deliberate artistic distortions of the human figure to the degree that the some alterations become common conventions that no one thinks about. Some of these distortions are subtle. Illustrations of attractive women in fashion ads regularly hyper-elongate the neck well beyond the degree present in any actual female, and I will guess that you have viewed countless such fashion ad figures without giving it a thought. Likewise, thoroughbred horses are sometimes given longer than actual necks in painted portraits.

While humans are highly tolerant of artistic deviations from the real-world norm, we are not tolerant when it comes to actual humans. If a living person with the proportions of the cartoon Charlie Brown walked down the street regular folks would react with intense disgust and pity for this grossly deformed human. Even subtle deviations from normal extremes are noticed because most humans are genetically programmed to scrutinize the condition of other humans in order to determine their genetic fitness, health, possibility of being abnormal or a threat, and so forth. Those whose proportions are far enough out of the norm are considered freakish to the degree that they may have commercial value via commercial exhibition. If a woman had a neck as long as in fashion ads she would be considered bizarre. Because we are so attuned to spotting deviations they are often widely noted when present in well-known persons. The unusual proportions of Abraham Lincoln provide a famous example; his body, arms and legs were so long that it has been suggested he suffered from some sort of disorder, such as Marfan’s syndrome.

There is no explicit description of the appearance of Jesus in the Bible, but if the references that exist (Hebrews 2:17, Isaiah 53:2-3) are accurate then there was nothing out of the norm for the Semitic population of the region at that time; (this is in accord with the need of Judas to directly identify Jesus to the authorities). Nor do the accounts suggest that Jesus was seriously intellectually deficient.

The shroud is 4.4 m (14 ft) long (at least before the 2002 restoration). The total height of the shroud figure cannot be directly measured from the front view because the feet are indistinct and their posture uncertain, but it is not possible for the figure to be significantly under 1830 mm (6 ft) because the lower legs would then be overly short relative to the upper legs and to the body as a whole. The rear view shows both the top of the head and the heels, and provides a height a little over 1860 mm (6 ft 1 in). The proportions of the trunks and legs are normal and represent a fit person whose muscles are well, but not excessively, developed, and who lacks excess body fat. Body mass for a person of this height and form should be in the area of 75-80 kg (165-175 lbs). The considerable height of the shroud figure is a significant problem because it is tall even by modern First-World standards, and it is well above the norm for a person living in the Roman-occupied Middle East. If Jesus were of these dimensions he would have towered over most of those around him and would have been easily identified by those searching for the dissident, yet there is no mention of this feature in the testaments.

Although suspiciously tall, the total height and weight of the shroud figure are not abnormal. The dimensions of the head are. It has long been noted that the body is overly long relative to the head. Joe Nickell pointed this out in his 1998 Inquest into the shroud of Turin. The disparity is readily visible once one is aware of the incongruity. It has been less noted, however, that this is primarily because the head is too small in height as well as width—the cranium being quite narrow relative to its height—both in absolute terms, and even more so relative to the body. Deleting some hair atop the head and trimming off the end of the short beard, the height of the head is about 225 mm (8.85 in). The width is only some 130 mm (5.1 in). In normally proportioned adult males the body height is 7-7.5 times greater than the height of the head. The total height of a person with such a short head should be 1575-1688 mm (5.2-5.5 ft)—a short stature even for Gospel times that should have been noted in the Gospel accounts. In the shroud the total/head height ratio is an abnormal 8.3. This exceeds even the remarkably high 7.9-8.0 ratio of Abraham Lincoln (measured from the only full figure photograph taken before he grew a beard). In most adult males the head is in the area of 245 mm (9.6 in) tall and 150 mm (5.9 in) across. These values apply to Lincoln. Judging from frontal photo portraits, his cranium was not unusually narrow. The President had a normally large head despite his high body/head height ratio because, at 1920 mm (6.3 ft), he was so tall.

That the shroud head is too small is visually obvious when it is compared to normally proportioned humans on the same scale. The dimensions of the small and narrow head of the shroud are about nine-tenths the male norm. This may not sound like much, but because of the square-cube law modest differences in dimensions result in big changes in volume, so the capacity of the cranium was at least 30 percent below expectations.

This is where matters become interesting to the point of being absurd. The size of the face measured from eyebrow to chin in the shroud figure is normal. The shortness of the head is due to an abnormally low forehead; this too is visually obvious once it is realized. In normal humans the head from the top to the eyebrows is over a third to over 40 percent of total head height, or 80 to 100 mm (3 to 4 in). In the shroud figure the top of the cranium is about one forth overall head height, around 60 mm (2.5 in). Having done some work in the evolution of brain size, some calculations were warranted. In modern adult male humans the volume of the brain averages 1250 cc with a minimum of 1050 cc (Allen J et al., 2002 Amer. J. Phys. Anthropol 118:341-358). This is why adult male heads are genetically forced to be so large, especially above the face; they have to be in order to accommodate such big brains. Ergo, the volume of the shroud head is too small to contain a large brain, which would have been only 900 cc or so even if the low forehead were not taken into account, and in the area of 800 cc if it were. In either case the volume is below that of male H. sapiens.

Matters are actually worse than this, however. In general, the bigger a person is (excluding excess body fat) the bigger their brain following scaling rules measured and compared by the Encephalization Quotient (EQ). In nonpathological H. sapiens the EQ is in the area of 4.5 to 5.0, thus the shroud figure’s brain should have been 1350 to 1500 cc (towards the high end of the human range). Using the method for calculating EQ in Ruff, E. et al. (Nature 387: 173-176) the EQ for the shroud figure is 2.6; assuming the brain were 800 cc, it is still a pathetic 3; at 900 cc, it rises to only 3.3 even if we optimistically boost brain volume to 1000 cc; and it is still just 3.5 if body weight is also dropped to 70 kg. Achieving a value anywhere close to that of modern man is not possible given the dimensions of the figure on the cloth.

The EQs as well as the forehead height are in the range of archaic species of Homo dating to the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene. (Late Pleistocene H. neanderthalis were as large brained as H. sapiens). Therefore the shroud figure is pathologically hypocephalic. As far as I know a specific medical condition in which the head and brain are so small yet not seriously deformed in shape does not exist. Microcephalics have severely distorted and reduced crania above the face, shallower than even the shroud figure. If the latter were an actual human, and if its brain functioned by the same basic means as in other people, then his brain volume was so low that the intellectual capacity would have been seriously impaired, and obviously so in any surviving accounts.

There are other proportional problems in the shroud image, some obvious and others subtle. Concerning the obvious, one lower arm is much shorter—by about a third—than the other. This remarkably gross distortion cannot be attributed to differing postures and angles of the arms in their repose. You can check this out by trying to mimic the differential with your own arms, being careful to position your hands and arms exactly as in the image, preferably while lying on a hard surface as you imitate a corpse. In a successful attempt to replicate the shroud image using means available at the time of its manufacture, and using an actual human body, the lower arms are, not surprisingly, equal in length. (Read more: “Scientists reproduce ‘fake’ Shroud of Turin to prove cloth is man-made“)

Which brings us to the more subtle yet serious defect. In the front image the hands are used to prudishly cover the genitalia, with the elbows bowed significantly out to the side, and the shoulders spread out to the side in a normal manner. Judging from the rear image the elbows were not in contact with the surface that the alleged corpse was resting on. This arrangement may look natural, but it is not and is an artistic illusion. In order for a person to cover their genitalia in the manner of the shroud figure, the shoulders need to be hunched forward a little, and the arms strongly extended towards the crotch, with the elbows tucked in. This does not match the nonhunched shoulders, and is not possible for a corpse. Again, get down on the floor and try to match the pose of the image. If you try to be a relaxed corpse it is impossible; your elbows will drop to the floor and your hands cannot then reach the groin. Nor would it be feasible to get a body in rigor mortis, which begins to set in three hours after death, to assume the posture seen in the shroud. Only if the dead body were supple and tightly bound to hunch the shoulders and extend the arms would the hands be able to reach so far down. But whether this forced, careful pose could be accomplished by manipulating the appendages while being wrapped is doubtful and is not recorded in the shroud figure.

From what I have been able to determine, crossing the hands of a corpse over the genitalia is very atypical, if it is ever done. This observation is supported by examining images of a number of mummies. Normally proportioned humans do not have arms long enough to achieve this posture. And placing the hands directly atop the sexual organs would be considered perverse in most societies—all the more so if the posture involved skin-to-skin contact. Nor is there a need to use the hands to visually hide the genitalia for prudish purposes inasmuch as the corpse is dressed in some manner. When a corpse is arranged with the body and legs stretched out straight, the arms are usually placed in a relaxed posture along the sides of the body.

It is possible that the proportions of the figure have been altered due to shrinkage or stretching of the cloth. There is not an apparent mechanism for shrinking the cloth, however, since it is unlikely to have been washed with agitation. If the shroud has shrunk significantly then the absolute head size problem is reduced although the brain volume would still be low for a modern human of its size and the excessive total/head height ratio remains, while the total height is even more excessive. It is more plausible for the cloth to have stretched. In that case the total height problem is lessened, but the excessive total/head-height ratio remains, and the head and brain it contains were even more shrunken—heading down to the australopithecine level. Neither shrinkage nor stretching alters the very low EQ value. Alterations in the size of the figure in the cloth since its creation do not solve its problems.

If Jesus had the proportions of the image in the shroud, then he was a severely deformed and pathological person who would have cut a shocking figure as he walked down the streets and paths of the Holy Land. Exceptionally tall for his time and place, his rather narrow head was so shrunken and low browed that it would have indicated a unique form of hypocephaly so serious that it would have impaired his mental function, leaving his intellectual performance similar to that of protohuman. Overly long arms would have hung at his sides, with one exceptionally elongated, the other less so because of an atrophied lower arm. It is hard to see how such bizarre attributes would have not been mentioned in an account of his life, assuming anyone bothered to record it considering the circumstances. Because the proportions of the shroud image are essentially impossible, the figure cannot represent that of an actual person.

Other features of the shroud figure confirm that it is not real. If the cloth were actually draped upon a 3-D human face, then the facial image would be grossly distorted laterally when flattened out—this obvious defect is the initial reason this artist rejected the authenticity of the object upon first viewing it. The top of the head should also have been recorded if the cloth enclosed the head. These problems in translating a 3-D head into a viewer friendly 2-D image are why the 2009 replication noted above utilized a bas-relief mask (which like the Turin image is too small). The hair drops vertically as if the man were standing rather than falling back from the head on the front and back images as expected of a corpse. The indications of wounds in the wrist are not necessarily compatible with a crucified body because nailing the wrist risked killing the victim quickly by cutting a major artery—wrist cutting being a common means of suicide. Instead the palms were probably nailed to the T cross, with the wrists bound to the bar by rope in order to prevent the hands from pulling out of the nails.

The image—despite its remarkable attributes and the considerable skills of its clever creator—is an obvious and seriously flawed artistic fraud. The questions therefore shift to why the errors are present. The small size of the head is easy to explain. A standard convention of Gothic art was too elongate the body relative to the head, there are innumerable examples of the distortion which was commonly applied to images of Jesus. Body elongation is a means of increasing the impressive majesty of the person being represented. In contrast an overly large head looks juvenile. This illusion was used by Leonardo in his classic but not accurate Ideal Man, and is still exploited in comic book super heroes. A low forehead is also a Gothic convention seen in Jesus figures of the time; this facilitates reduction of overall head height without having to shrink the face so much that the distortion is overly obvious. The responsible artist (assuming the fraud was not a team effort) was probably under intense pressure when generating the deception. Either he was taking the risk of committing a major con on his own, or was under inducement or coercion for nefarious purposes of some sort by someone of greater power and influence to produce a sufficiently convincing object. There are indications that the shroud was part of the fake relic trade of the period.

Hindered by the Christian mores of the time against scientific investigation of the human body, Gothic artists lacked the superb anatomical knowledge possessed by many Renaissance artists. So although the artist followed standard Gothic practice of elongating the body relative to the head, and because the overall height of the figure had to be kept within human norms since a taller figure would have been clearly fake, the head ended up too small, representing that of a young teenager with a beard. This was acceptable because of the tendency of humans to not reliably notice such deviations in 2-D images as opposed to an actual person. It is possible that the artist knew the head was not big enough. Perhaps he was playing a little joke and/or seeing what he could get away with vis-à-vis his gullible audience. Or, perhaps the artist was concerned that if he instead made the head the right size, contemporary viewers that were attuned to reduced heads on Gothic renditions of human figures would think there was something wrong with it. Maybe he would have thought the head too big if he made the forehead the right size. He was unaware that the resulting brain volume would be down at the level of the ancestors of H. sapiens, helping to disprove the authenticity of the burial shroud.

In addition, the artist was faced with a serious particular problem. If the figure were intended to represent the deceased Jesus inside the shroud, then it had to be naked. But a picture showing the genitalia of the Son of God just would not do, so something had to be done to seem to cover the groin. The only available means was to use the hands, even though doing so with an actual corpse would be considered highly indelicate and is not practical. If the artist tried to do so in a realistic manner by using himself or a model to observe the arrangement, he would have realized that outright artistic fakery was necessary. It is at least as likely that he made no special attempt at anatomical realism. But notice that the hands do not actually cover the groin, one hand is too far to the side and the one on the shorter arm is too high, yet the genitalia are not visible to offend the pious viewers. At this point the artist was sufficiently sloppy or prankish to not bother to make the lower arms even close to the same length—he may have failed to appreciate these errors, thought they were a joke or a test of gullibility, or did not care. Portraying the hair accurately for a corpse would have looked odd to viewers; that it is unrealistic may have been another little prank.

Whatever the motives and thinking of the talented shroud artist, he accidentally and/or deliberately left glaring clues that the image is a piece of fraudulent art of the Gothic genre produced in a prescientific era. The gross incompatibility of the figure with a real man means that the latter could not have been used in producing the image. The form may have been dry painted on the cloth freehand. If it is some sort of transfer image it was based on another artistic object, perhaps a bas-relief sculpture. The advocates’ argument that the exact method of producing the shroud image must be known before it can be proven to be a fraud is a standard example of paranormal illogic in which modest difficulties with the conventional explanation causes the gullible to conclude that the extraordinary explanation is superior. This line of reasoning misleads some to attribute the Pyramids of Giza to ancient aliens, and it is unknown how the Greco-Roman civilization sustained the industry needed to design and manufacture precision gear machines such as the fantastic Antikythera mechanism. Because it was concocted in secret using little known or lost ancient technologies, it is improbable that the specific method of creating a subtle forgery can be determined centuries later.

Since the cloth is a proven fraud all attempts to show otherwise are at best misguided and gullible, and perhaps fraudulent. They should be abandoned in the same manner as should attempts to show an alien spacecraft crashed at Roswell, NM. It is notable that the History Channel documentary made no mention of the proportional peculiarities of the shroud image. Doing so would have made it much more difficult to sell the idea that the cloth covered Jesus when he rose. Their audience was therefore seriously misled. Documentaries that claim the shroud is real should no longer be produced, and those programs that make the claim need to be withdrawn. The news media must be inherently skeptical of pro-shroud claims. The Catholic Church needs to drop its current stance (whatever that may be) and issue a statement that the shroud is definitely not associated with the historical Jesus, and is an artistic rendition of a postexecution corpse—otherwise the Vatican is abetting the efforts by shroud proponents that in effect propose that Jesus was hypocephalic among other oddities. Future research should be done to further confirm the age of the cloth and to better determine how the images were invented.


Same scale comparison of the shroud figure to a typically proportioned male and Abraham Lincoln (all traced from large scale photographs, scorch marks on shroud are included as landmarks). Total height, head height, and head breadth in mm measured by bars are typical man (1730, 245, 150), shroud figure (1860, 225, 130), Lincoln (1920, 245)—because the typical man is balding less hair was deleted from the height, the hair of Lincoln is also matted down somewhat and he was wearing deep heeled shoes that were deleted from his height (averaged between the two feet). Short horizontal bars on total height bars indicate total/head height ratios, larger arrow for shroud figure indicates total height if its ratio were typical, smaller arrow is total height if the ratio were as high as Lincoln’s. Note that the heads of the typical man and Lincoln are similar in size to one another despite their great divergence in total height, and both of their heads are significantly taller and broader than that of the shroud figure whose forehead is much shallower.


For photos of the shroud, see:

Full length photo of the Shroud of Turin and Full length negatives of the Shroud of Turin at Wikipedia.

all rights reserved