You may already be familiar with the basic story: our protagonist, totally lacking any relevant background, relies instead on a potent charisma and attracts widespread adulation. Growing numbers of followers ignore the experts’ dubious analyses; their reaction often seems rooted more in faith than in fact. Eventually, realizing that the situation is easily exploitable, even the old guard begins to back this enigmatic new arrival. After all, there’s real money to be made here, and awkward compromises can be tolerated in the name of a larger agenda.
Consequently, even as our subject’s fraudulence becomes increasingly apparent, a dogged coalition digs in by rejecting inconvenient data, delighting in whataboutism, and employing abstruse wordings. For all intents and purposes, it’s now a full-fledged cult—one that seems uninterested in appeals to reason or precedent. Exasperated critics still marshal arguments and cite evidence, but even they admit that their efforts may be in vain. And so the future of our protagonist remains unclear and continues to be debated.
Reading The Holy Shroud: A Brilliant Hoax in the Time of the Black Death, a new book by Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum, in the wake of the 2020 presidential election is an unnerving but instructive experience. To be clear, Vikan’s book, whose central narrative I’ve summarized above, is in no way about Trump. Rather, it’s a lively and mostly persuasive argument that the so-called Shroud of Turin is not the funerary cloth in which Jesus was buried, as is sometimes held—but was instead likely fabricated by an artist in France in the 1350s, and then slowly embraced by Catholic officials alert to the potential profits that could result from its popularity.
Simultaneously a summary and extension of Vikan’s decades-long participation in the ongoing debate about the history and nature of the shroud, it is a readable and reasonable text, even if it overreaches at a few points. But while it features thoughtful iconographic, textual, and chemical analyses, a real part of the story’s interest lies in its central acknowledgment of the gaping chasm between scientific inquiry and religious faith. As Vikan himself admits in the book’s final pages, even the most rigorous fact-based argument may not convince true believers or partisan officials. And that, in our political moment, is both a familiar and a deeply haunting realization.