5 minutes with... The earliest painted representation of the Turin Shroud

Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts specialist Eugenio Donadoni explains how while looking through a series of unrecorded illuminations in a 16th-century prayerbook he made one quite startling discovery

‘What first drew me to this manuscript was the fact that it contained previously unrecorded illuminations by the Master of Claude de France,’ explains Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts specialist Eugenio Donadoni.

The Master of Claude de France was ‘a brilliantly accomplished’ anonymous artist named after two manuscripts he painted for the Queen of France, wife of François I. ‘That on its own is a great selling point,’ confirms the specialist.

It was when the manuscript finally came into the office for Donadoni to catalogue, however, that he discovered the stories it revealed were far more compelling and fascinating than he could ever have expected. 

The presence of John the Baptist in this miniature alongside a kneeling patron clad in armour identify the owner as Johannes von Erlach (1474-1539)
The presence of John the Baptist in this miniature alongside a kneeling patron clad in armour identify the owner as Johannes von Erlach (1474-1539)

‘First, I identified the coat of arms on the opening leaf, and consequently the armour-clad man in the portrait kneeling beside his name-saint John the Baptist,’ he recalls. ‘This confirmed that the book belonged to Johann von Erlach (1474-1539), the mayor of the city of Bern, a Swiss ambassador and military commander.’

The prayerbook is a highly bespoke production — Johann von Erlach carefully selected the texts and he may have picked up the Master of Claude de France miniatures during one of his travels to France. These were not always peaceful missions, Donadoni points out, as von Erlach led an army to Dijon in 1513. One of the rubrics later in the manuscript refers to St Bernhard, which suggests that the book passed to Johann’s son, Bernhard von Erlach (1518-1591). 

The von Erlach ‘Shroud’ Prayerbook, in Latin and German. Manuscript on vellum with illuminations by the Master of Claude de France [Tours and Switzerland, c.1520s and c.1540s]. This work was offered in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale at Christie’s London on 13 July 2016 and sold for £116,500

The von Erlach ‘Shroud’ Prayerbook, in Latin and German. Manuscript on vellum with illuminations by the Master of Claude de France [Tours and Switzerland, c.1520s and c.1540s]. This work was offered in the Valuable Books and Manuscripts sale at Christie’s London on 13 July 2016 and sold for £116,500

There is another artist at work in the manuscript — probably Swiss — and this, says Donadoni, is ‘where it gets interesting’. One of the double-page illustrations by this second artist shows three bishops holding what at first glance looks like a long, unfurled banner. 

The double-page depiction of the Turin Shroud in its undamaged state, held by three Bishops, is perhaps the earliest explicit painted representation of the holy relic as we know it today
The double-page depiction of the Turin Shroud in its undamaged state, held by three Bishops, is perhaps the earliest explicit painted representation of the holy relic as we know it today

‘We had, at first, thought that the banner may have originally carried an inscription, now erased, but on closer inspection we noticed extremely faint — almost imperceptible — front-and-back images of a naked, bearded man with shoulder-length hair and hands folded across his groin, and what seemed like droplets of blood and a wound in his side,’ the specialist recounts. ‘This was then clearly a unique depiction of the Shroud of Turin,’ he says, referring to the linen cloth in which Jesus of Nazareth was wrapped and is now kept in the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin.

‘Could von Erlach have been so inspired by seeing the Shroud that he had the holy relic reproduced in his prayerbook?’

The history of the Shroud in the 15th and 16th centuries is well recorded. In 1453 it was bequeathed to the House of Savoy and was stored in Chambéry, the capital of the region. ‘We know that in 1512 Johann von Erlach travelled on a diplomatic mission to meet Charles III, Duke of Savoy, so it is not implausible that on such an occasion he could have been shown the Shroud. Could he have been so inspired by the visit that he had the holy relic reproduced in his prayerbook?

‘Even more fascinating is the manner in which it is depicted,’ continues Donadoni. The Shroud was damaged by a fire in 1532 and somewhat clumsily repaired with patches by the Poor Clare nuns. Giulio Clovio, one of the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, would paint a version of the Shroud in his 1540 Descent from the Cross, and that representation — as with all other surviving representations — clearly shows the damage suffered in the fire.

‘The double-page depiction of the Turin Shroud in this manuscript shows it in its undamaged state,’ Donadoni points out, ‘which means that it is therefore perhaps the earliest painted representation of the holy relic as we know it today!’