Flowers and Pollens - Council for Study of the Shroud of Turin

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Image 1: Drawing of Pistacia lentiscua (courtesy Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities).
Image 2: Image of Pistacia lentiscua on the Shroud.
Chrysanthemum coronarium.
Larger image of Pistacia lentiscua.
There are images of hundreds of flowers banked closely together on both sides of the head on the Shroud, and some on the chest and abdomen. Many of them touch each other, or overlap, or are piled together. On most photographs of the Shroud, it is very difficult to see the flower images. Most such photographs have been processed to show the body images well, and this tends to wash out the details in other areas. High quality life-size photographs can be optimized to maximize the detail in the off-body areas. Some of the plant images on the Shroud are of flowers only. Some also include buds, stems, leaves, and fruits. Some are rather indistinct, some are reasonably clear. They had been picked long enough to have been wilted, at least to some extent, by the time their images were formed on the cloth.

Dr. Max Frei, a Swiss criminalist and botanist, must be credited here for collecting pollen on the Shroud during examinations in 1973 and 1978 using sticky tape. From the debris on those tapes, he was able to identify fifty-eight kinds of pollen. Dr. Frei died before he could publish his book on the topic; however, we had access to his uncompleted manuscript and the list of the fifty-eight plants.

While there are images of hundreds of flowers on the Shroud, many are vague or incomplete. We feel we have identified, tentatively but with reasonable certainty, twenty-eight plants whose images are sufficiently clear and complete to make a good comparison with drawings in the botany literature. Of these twenty-eight plants, twenty-three are flowers, three are small bushes, and two are thorns. All twenty-eight grow in Israel. Twenty grow in Jerusalem itself, and the other eight grow potentially within the close vicinity of Jerusalem, either in the Judean Desert or in the Dead Sea area or in both. All twenty-eight would have been available in Jerusalem markets in a fresh state. Many would have been growing along the roadside or in nearby fields, available for the picking. A rather unique situation exists in that within Jerusalem and the surrounding twelve miles, four geographic areas exist with their differing specific climates and flora. Nowhere else are so many different types of species found so close together. Of these twenty-eight plants, Frei, working from the sticky tape slides, had previously identified the pollens of twenty-five of the same or similar plants. Twenty-seven of these twenty-eight bloom in March and April, which corresponds to the time of Passover and the Crucifixion. There are at least seven small bouquets in addition to the various bunched flowers.

Some species of plants have wide geographic distribution. Using botanical references, we determined the ranges of the twenty-eight plants, noting whether they are found in central Europe, including France (botanical Zone I) or in the Mediterranean, including Italy (botanical Zone IV). Only three are found in central Europe. Nine are definitely found in Italy. Five more are found mostly in the eastern Mediterranean, which includes Israel, but might extend into Italy. Half are found only in the Middle East or other similar areas and never in Europe. Some skeptics have suggested that maybe the pollens were blown across the Mediterranean and deposited on the Shroud while it was on display in France or Italy. That is hardly likely, as many of these pollens are heavy pollens with prickly surfaces designed to be carried by insects, not by wind.

Further, there is evidence in addition to appearance that the images of the flowers were indeed made by corona discharge. It is known that flowers tend to discharge their pollen when electrically stimulated, as would occur with corona discharge. Carefully examining one of the Frei slides, researcher Paul Maloney discovered a cluster of many pollens from the same plant. These pollens were identified by palynologist Dr. A. Orville Dahl as Cistus creticus. (Palynologists study live and fossil pollens, spores, and similar plant structures.) Years earlier, Frei had identified pollens from this same plant on his sticky tape slides. At the time he took the sticky tape samples, he was unaware of the images of flowers on the Shroud, but it so happened that the tape Maloney was observing had been taken over the center of the same Cistus creticus flower that we had already identified.

Avinoam Danin, Professor of Botany at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the world authority on the plants of Israel agreed with confidence with twenty-two of the twenty-eight plant identifications. Of the remaining six identifications, he said that three are probably correct and the other three are possibly correct, but he could not identify them with certainty because the images are too fragmentary. Moreover, he discovered a large number of additional flower images that we had not found.

Danin was able to state that twenty-seven of the twenty-eight plants whose images are on the Shroud grow within five areas measuring five by five kilometers (three by three miles) immediately around Jerusalem and between Jerusalem and Jericho. The twenty-eighth plant is found at the south end of the Dead Sea. One of the plants, Zygophyllum dumosum, grows only in Israel, Jordan, and Sinai, with its northernmost boundary in the world being at the sea level sign on the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho. The image of this plant on the Shroud, according to Danin, shows both a winter leaf and the remnants of the stalk from the preceding year, proof that the plant was plucked in the spring. For Danin as a botanist, the presence of the image of this one plant is sufficient to establish Jerusalem as the place of origin of the Shroud of Turin.

The length of time between the picking of the flowers and the forming of the images can be reasonably determined by the degree of wilting and the corona discharge appearance of the images. The more fragile flowers show rather marked wilting within the first twenty-four hours. The more durable ones undergo considerable shrinking within a few days after picking. Both the general gross appearance of the wilted flowers and the appearance of the corona discharge images strongly suggest that most of the flowers whose images are on the Shroud would be between twenty-four and thirty-six hours old after picking. This finding corresponds well with the accepted physiologic and anatomic data from the Shroud which is that the images of the body were made between twenty-four and forty hours after death. Twenty-four hours is the time required for the observed blood clot separation. Forty hours is the time decomposition, which is not seen, would have begun to be grossly apparent.

Flower images (and other images) on the Shroud are so very faint now. Were they likely more apparent early on? We feel the answer is definitely yes. The images on the Shroud have the appearance of a light scorch. The Shroud is linen, and linen yellows as it ages, but it does not continue to darken indefinitely. The yellowing darkens only so far and no further. Therefore as the Shroud ages, the background darkens but the images do not, and as the background darkens it becomes more nearly the same color as the images, in effect swallowing them up. It is not clear when the images of the flowers became so indistinct as to be essentially unperceived or ignored by onlookers. We speculate that this process of the darkening of the Shroud was greatly accelerated during the 1532 fire when the Shroud was subjected to intense heat.

In any event, flowers congruent with those whose images are on the Shroud were portrayed in numerous works of art from the third through the tenth centuries having high points of congruence with the Shroud face image. The congruence of the flowers is based more on their being in the right places than on close resemblance to the varieties identified on the Shroud. In many of the depictions, the flowers are stylized, and on the coins they are too small to have the shapes of different varieties.

One of the earliest portraits of Christ from the third century in the Roman catacombs shows small flowers around the head patterned very much like the flower-banked face image in the Mandylion/Shroud. The same is true of a catacomb portrait of Christ from the fourth century which shows a number of flowers in the nimbus or halo. In the halo of the Pantocrator icon of 550 at Saint Catherine’s Monastery there are many dozens of images of flowers which are highly congruent in placement with those on the Shroud. Even more striking is the very accurate placement of the flower images on the 692-695 gold solidus coins of Justinian II. These flower images on the coins are so tiny they would easily fit on the head of a pin. Flowers were accurately portrayed on the gold coins of Constantine VII in 945 after the Mandylion had been brought in great ceremony to the Chapel of the Emperor in Constantinople. And there are many other portraits of Jesus which contain highly accurately placed depictions of flowers.

Some have wondered if perhaps the flowers may have been placed on the Shroud during its exhibitions for the public, and maybe that’s where flower images and pollen came from. Indeed, flowers likely would have been placed there during showings or liturgical use. If so, certainly some of the pollen did come from those flowers. On his sticky tape samples from the Shroud, Frei found pollens which are characteristic of the areas around Edessa and Constantinople, places where the Shroud was located for hundreds of years. But this could not account for the presence of flowers in the hundreds of artistic productions dating from as early as the third century. And it is not possible that large numbers of plants from Israel and other Middle East areas were brought to France and Italy in a fresh state for exhibitions there.

Why were these flowers banked around the body at the time of burial? Was this a custom of the Jews at that time? Probably not, although it is difficult to know for certain. We generally think of burial spices as being in the form of ointments or unguents, something crushed or distilled from plants. But some of these plants, that is, intact whole plants, may have been used as burial spices. So some of them were likely there for that purpose, and probably also as deodorants or as a mask for odors which would have been present by the time friends came back to complete what had been a hasty burial. Jesus had been greatly revered and deeply loved, and his friends and followers were shattered by his death. It seems not unreasonable that they would have picked flowers and placed them in the tomb for the same reasons we use flowers today at the time of death—as an expression of love and for whatever solace their beauty can give.

There are images of plants and flowers on the Shroud that were placed with the body for quite another reason, and which bear witness to the identity of the Man of the Shroud. These are the plants that were used in the mocking prior to the Crucifixion, the ones that make up the crown of thorns. They would have been bloody and in touch with the body at the time of death. On the anatomic right shoulder image there is the image of one end of a structure that goes up, around, down, and back again. Making up this structure are at least six stems with thorn and flower clusters of a very thorny plant called Gundelia tournefortii. This plant has a very limited geographic distribution, but is found in Jerusalem and the Dead Sea area. There is also a round flower and thorn cluster of another thorn species in the center of the structure, and there may be the image of yet a third kind of thorn.

There are two other flower species whose images are immediately above and below the images of the crown of thorns. These flowers, of the Hyoscyamus genus, may have been attached to the crown of thorns, mocking, not as King but as High Priest. On certain ceremonial occasions, it was customary for the Jewish High Priest to wear a floral crown with Hyoscyamus flowers, as recorded in the first century by the historian Josephus.

History records only one person who wore a crown of thorns—Jesus of Nazareth.

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