loader image

Semiotics and Semiology of the Shroud

Home » Specific Entries » Semiotics and Semiology of the Shroud

Zbigniew Treppa
University of Gdansk, Poland

The Shroud of Turin, perhaps identical to the burial cloth described by the Evangelists (→The Shroud of Jesus in the New Testament), has a very rich message in the form of signs. This is why semiotic and semiological analyses of it are carried out alongside historical, physical, chemical or medical studies. The sign is the Shroud itself in the marks visible on it and in the image of the body, which—like any image—is subject to structural analyses. As a sign structure of a visual and material nature, the image from the Shroud is a carrier of information that is subject to decoding, e.g. within the framework of a semiotic analysis of the image, using syntactics, semantics and pragmatics as tools (Charles W. Morris). Syntactics examines the relations between the elements of an image in a particular set of signs, assuming that an image is not merely a type of text but has its own substantive ground that this text presents, a substantive medium of contextual meanings transmitted through it, and has subtexts related to its genesis (Porębski 1986). In the case of the Shroud, it is significant that the structure of the image is not entangled in a cultural context, in any convention of depiction, i.e. in an aesthetic convention (Andrzej P. Bator correspondence), which makes it possible to draw far-reaching conclusions concerning, for example, its origin. Semantics, which consists in learning the meaning that comprises a set of signs containing information, examines the image in relation to the signified object (in the case of the image from the Shroud, it is the real figure of Jesus Christ). This level is the basis for the recipient’s understanding of the message because it is only the meaning that makes the collection of elements in the image into information. How a sign becomes recognised and understood, how far the read information and its understood meaning influence the behaviour of the viewer or what behaviour is encouraged, is the domain of image pragmatics, which studies the relationship between visual language and its users.

Referring to Ferdinand de Saussure’s classic model of semiological analysis, it can be said that the Shroud as a sign structure lends itself to analysis at the level of both the physical representation of the sign (French: signifiant—‘significant’) and the concepts associated with the sign (French: signifié—‘signified’). What is considered significant in the case of the Shroud as a sign is the image of the dead body of Jesus Christ with a structure similar to the recording of a photographic negative, traces of blood which are the result of actions which led to his death and indirectly to the appearance of the image of the body (including traces of other types, such as pollen, aragonite, etc.), and the absence of traces which should have occurred as a consequence of the injuries to the body, e.g. traces of its decomposition), as well as the Shroud itself as an artefact, i.e. a fabric of a specific type, weave, origin, etc. What, on the other hand, can be described as signified in the case of the Shroud as a sign is the verbal interpretation of the results of the analytical observation and study of the Shroud (the image of the body, the traces of blood, the matter and the history of the object) in connection with the biblical texts (New and Old Testament). The latter are crucial for decoding the meanings of the Shroud understood as a sign. Linking the image (in the case of the Shroud: the literal image and various traces of a visual nature) with the word makes it possible to treat it as a text. For the image, unless it is to remain for the viewer merely a source of aesthetic or expressive sensations or inquiries into its material structure, becomes comprehensible (rationally explained) through the language of words.

The language of the image is translated into the language of the word in semiological and semiotic analyses. To generalise, while in the case of texts constructed from concepts semiotics studies sets of signs of the word language, in the case of iconic texts semiotics is concerned with sets of signs of the visual language. The shroud is thus the object of semiotic study in terms of its sign structure, forming a certain kind of text. Viewed from the perspective of the image understood as a text, the image is also studied within the framework of information theory. The latter is very useful for the study of the Shroud as a sign, especially in terms of the use of apobetic analysis, whose task is to determine the purpose of the information given (Gitt 2009), and to a lesser extent in terms of statistical parameter studies (Claude E. Shannon). Reading information involves reaching into a set of signs within a given system, assembling sign by sign into units of information. It assumes that the sender creating the information from strings of characters must have knowledge of the language and the signs or symbols. Understanding the information, on the other hand, is the reverse process. The character set used must be known to the receiver. These two processes (the creation and comprehension of information) constitute the basic pattern of all processes between sender and receiver (Gitt 2009). If one assumes that the Shroud as an object, including the image of the body and the traces of blood that appear on it (along with the aforementioned other traces or lack thereof), is a reflection of a message according to the sender–receiver model, analogous to the transmission of literary texts (in this case biblical texts), then the field of research on the Shroud as a message deliberately given to be read in order to influence the behaviour of the receiver opens up.

Reading the content resulting from the sign structure of the Shroud is possible thanks to references to theology, without which it would be a completely unexplained mystery (Kaucha 2012). According to Krzysztof Kaucha, among many theological disciplines, the Shroud as a sign receives the fullest explanation from the perspective of fundamental theology. Citing Marian Rusecki, this theologian states that a sign is a reality consisting of a visible and an invisible element:

The visible guides to the latter, which constitutes the content and meaning of the whole sign, the meaning of which depends on the interpretative perspective. In a religious sign, i.e. one that is read in the light of Revelation, the supernatural content is contained in the whole sign and expressed in it thanks to the “surplus of meaning.” The Shroud of Turin can certainly be considered in the category of a sign thanks to its unquestionable authenticity, which can be regarded as the empirical element of the sign, and its “surplus of meaning” already inherent in the empirical element.

(Kaucha 2012)

Considered from the perspective of fundamental theology, the shroud is seen as a sign whose meaning flows from divine revelation and salvation history (Kaucha 2012). According to K. Kaucha, various manifestations of a sign can be read in the Shroud: Jesus’ Passover (foreshadowing the eschatological Passover, the transition from this world to another) and the existence of a supernatural dimension of reality (Kaucha 2012). As a sign of Revelation, the Shroud remains connected to other revelatory, messianic signs. Krzysztof Kaucha points out that the Shroud as a sign also provokes the question of the uniqueness of Christianity among other religions by refuting the hypothesis of Jesus’ apparent death and substitution, as well as the theft of the body from the tomb. According to this theologian, the Shroud is also a sign of the credibility of the Gospels, especially the Gospel accounts of the Passion, and of the credibility of the Church and the credibility of the tradition that has conveyed that the Man from the Shroud is Jesus (Kaucha 2012).

Viewed from the perspective of the complexity of the study of the Shroud as a sign and the intentionality of the message it conveys, it is important to take into account the multidimensionality of the references to biblical texts that are central to understanding the essential features of this object. Two ways of viewing these references emerge: general and specific.

On the first of these levels, it is important to take into account the fact that the face of Jesus Christ is reflected on the Shroud in accordance with all the implications arising from the act of the Incarnation. This issue also falls within the scope of the theology of the Divine Face. After the death of Jesus, the human dimension of this Face was immortalised in the Shroud material and is the bearer of this signThe theological content that follows indicates that God, visually inaccessible before the Incarnation, became visually accessible to humans after this act. The Incarnation means above all that the invisible God enters the space of the visible so that we, attached to the material, can recognise him (Ratzinger 2002). This theological truth is shown by the Shroud in connection with the message contained in the texts of the New Testament, especially the verse from the Gospel of St John: Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). What one comes to know from the New Testament testimonies (e.g. 1 John 1:1; 1 Tim 3:16), i.e. the word, and from what is seen on the Shroud, i.e. the image, are together a coherent testimony to the manifestation of God in the flesh. Insofar as the New Testament writings can be said to speak of the fact of the Incarnation of the Word, the image of Jesus from the Shroud simultaneously speaks of the fact of the Incarnation of the Word and makes visible the image of the Incarnate Word. The manifested God, visible in a real way in his image revealed on the Shroud, constitutes for the viewer a sign of the actual, real incarnation of the Word. It also becomes a witness to the climactic event of Revelation, for it is fixed in the concrete of the matter and not merely in inspired texts or tradition (Kaucha 2012).

Analysing various aspects of the theology of the Incarnation and referring to the statements of Pope John Paul II concerning the Shroud as a sign, K. Kaucha sees this artefact as a sign of Jesus’ kenosis, consisting in the Son of God’s assumption of all humanity including the powerlessness of death (Kaucha 2012). On the other hand, referring to the conclusions of Stanisław Judycki, he draws attention to the fact that in the perspective of philosophical theology, the pope’s kenotic interpretation of the act of the Incarnation is perceived as a sign not of weakness but of God’s omnipotence, due to the fact that God convinces of his omnipotence and divinity when he is able to enter the weakest areas of his creation (Kaucha 2012).

Thanks to the fact that the Shroud provides a great deal of detailed factual information, above all about the sacrifice of Christ, it is possible to see in it, for example, the sign of God’s New Covenant with man, established in Christ’s death, which is the seal of the New Covenant, and at the same time to see in it the sign of the atoning sacrifice (Heb 9:11–28), which follows from the fact that it is not possible to establish a covenant without sacrifice (Vanhoye 2009). This becomes particularly meaningful in connection with the biblical texts treating of Christ’s passion. We are talking about both the accounts of the evangelists (especially St John, who was an eyewitness to many of acts) and the interpretations of this event contained in other New Testament writings. In both cases, it is evident that the sacrifice was made, which is confirmed throughout by the image of the body and the traces of blood on the Shroud, and it can therefore be concluded that the Shroud is also a sign of a sacrifice made and fulfilled.

Of the information that can be deciphered from medical analyses (e.g. concerning the form of blood clots, incomprehensible to natural science, indicating that they were not detached from the body while the body lost contact with the cloth, and concerning the absence of traces of decomposition of the body), some speak in favour of seeing in the Shroud a sign of the Resurrection, which becomes particularly significant in meaning in the context of the New Testament texts that speak of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The sign of the Resurrection in this case would be the “empty” Shroud, i.e. the Shroud “stripped” of its body, which would be equivalent to the Gospel sign of burial cloths (John 20:5–9) and empty tomb (cf. Matt 28:6; Mark 16:5–7; Luke 24:3–6).

Looking in turn from the perspective of the content ordered according to theological meanings, it is necessary to consider the connections of the Shroud not only with the texts of the New Testament, but also with the Old. Since the image of the tormented body reproduced on the Shroud clearly refers to the announcements of the Messiah’s sufferings found in the books of the Old Covenant, one can see a sign of fulfilled Messianic promises in the representation of the cloth. The confrontation of the injuries visible on the body of the man from the Shroud with specific descriptions found in the Old Testament texts points to specific examples, e.g.: They have pierced my hands and my feet (Ps 22:17); I gave my back to those who beat me (from the Third Song of the Servant of Yahweh, Isa 50:6); they [will] look on him whom they have thrust through (Zech 12:10). It is noteworthy that this last passage was quoted by St John the Evangelist at the end of his narrative of the pierced side of Jesus (John 19:37), which was to become a sign testifying that Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled precisely by the Saviour’s piercing (Heer 1986).

Fr Joseph Heer’s commentary on John’s testimony can at the same time serve as an explanation of the image from the Shroud: the image of the pierced Saviour represents something more than a mere historical event. It places before the eyes of believers not only the crucified Lord, but also the Risen Lord (Heer 1986). Fr. Heer writes about the category of the sign, which also has its continuation in the contemporary version: in the sign of the “Pierced One” of St Faustina’s apparitions, which has obtained its representation in the image revealed to her (→The Shroud and the Image from the Apparitions of Saint Faustina). John the Evangelist also referred to another Old Testament prophecy in the verse preceding the quotation of the aforementioned words from the Book of Zechariah: For this happened so that the scripture passage might be fulfilled: “Not a bone of it will be broken.” (John 19:36), which refers to Christ’s sacrifice (Exod 12:46), which is also reflected in the image from the Shroud.

The above examples indicate that the meanings that can be read from the image from the Shroud did not emerge with the emergence of the New Testament texts. They were already contained in the image, as a result of its sign-like nature. Without the help of the New Testament texts, however, it would not have been possible to read a great deal of information from the sign structure of the Shroud, such as that the representation on the Shroud is an image of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice for all men. The above interpretative perspectives on the Shroud as a sign do not exhaust other possible paths of reading which allow us to consider the essential features of this object by applying, for example, thematic interpretative keys, such as: the Shroud as a witness to the Passion of Christ, the Shroud as the Sign of Jonah, the Shroud as a sign of the fulfilled Sacrifice of Christ, etc. When studying the Shroud as a sign, however, reference to biblical sources is absolutely essential.

The Shroud as a sign of a visual nature speaks not only of the aspects of meaning mentioned above, but also of the need to take the realm of the visible seriously in the experience of faith. It also shows that there is a special place in God’s salvific pedagogy for visual signs, which have been given specific missions. Treating the Shroud as a sign and a message can have practical applications, e.g. in apologetics, pastoral and catechetical actions, homiletics, etc. The Shroud is also a sign for science, a sign of its inadequacy when it comes into contact with the supernatural, becoming for non-believers a sign of the factuality, the reality of the resurrection (Kaucha 2012).


Bator A.P., email correspondence with the author, 16 XI 2017.

Florenski P., Ikonostas i inne szkice, przeł. i przypisami opatrzył Z. Podgórzec, Białystok 1997.

Gitt W., Na początku była informacja, tłum. H. Kluzik, Ostróda 2009.

Heer J., The Soteriological Significance of the Johannine Image of the Pierced Savior, [in:] Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ: New Approaches to Devotion to Christ, ed. L. Scheffczyk, transl. by G. Harrison, San Francisco–Milwaukee 1986.

Kaucha K., Czy grób naprawdę był pusty? Całun Turyński w teologii fundamentalnej, “Roczniki Teologii Fundamentalnej i Religiologii” 2012, No. 4(59), pp. 21–49.

Michalenko S., La sacra sindone e l’immagine della divina misericordia secondo la beata Faustina Kowalska, [in:] Il volto dei volti Cristo, Roma 1999.

Morris Ch.W., Foundations of the Theory of Signs, [in:] International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, Vol. I/2, The University of Chicago Press. Chicago 1938.

Porębski M., Sztuka a informacja, Kraków–Wrocław 1986.

Ratzinger J., Duch liturgii, przeł. E. Pieciul, Poznań 2002.

Schneider T., Znaki bliskości Boga. Zarys sakramentologii, przeł. J. Tyrawa, Wrocław 1995.

Schönborn Ch., Ikona Chrystusa, przeł. W. Szymona, Poznań 2001.

Treppa Z., Obraz jako medium wtajemniczające w misterium. Na przykładzie obrazów nie-ręką-ludzką-wykonanych i pochodzących z wizji mistycznych, Gdańsk 2017.

Vanhoye A., Kapłaństwo Chrystusa, [in:] A. Vanhoye, F. Manzi, U. Vanni, Kapłaństwo Nowego Przymierza, Pelplin 2007.

Vanhoye A., Jezus Chrystus nasz arcykapłan. Rekolekcje wygłoszone w Watykanie 10-16 lutego 2008 roku, przeł. K. Stopa, Pelplin 2009.

Source of Images

1. and 2. Sindonology.org, Shroud Scope, http://www.sindonology.org/shroudScope/shroudScope.shtml (copyright: Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Turin; educational use)

Zbigniew Treppa

Full professor at the Institute of Media, Journalism and Visual Communication, University of Gdańsk, Head of the Department of Image Anthropology, Associate of the Polish Syndonological Centre in Krakow, Member of the Syndonological Section of the Polish Theological Society. In his research work he undertakes issues of visual theology, using the tools of image semiotics, he analyses artefacts of religious cult and structural properties of non-human-hand-made images (Greek: acheiropoietos). He has recently published The Phenomenon of the Image of Incarnate Mercy (Gdansk 2021).

error: Content is protected !!