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Behind ‘The Mystery Man’ and the Shroud of Turin

Behind ‘The Mystery Man’ and the Shroud of Turin

All over the world men use their garages to store things their wives know they will never use again: weights, mountain bikes, model train sets. But only one man can claim to have kept a physiologically and anatomically correct, life-sized model of a tortured and crucified 33-year-old man in his garage.

For eight years.

That “Mystery Man,” as the Spanish art expert Álvaro Blanco called him, has now found a new home — he’s at the heart of an exhibition on the Turin Shroud, which opened Oct. 13 at Salamanca Cathedral in northwestern Spain.

The Shroud, which is said to have wrapped the body of Jesus Christ, is by far the world’s most widely studied relic. And it continues to be the object of scientific debate. For years, Blanco immersed himself in that discussion as he organized exhibitions about the Shroud and kept up with the latest developments. Finally, though, he realized he was taking the wrong approach.

“I was treating the Shroud as a scientific object when I should be looking at it as a work of art,” he told The Pillar at the inauguration of the exhibition, which he is curating. “There comes a time when you just have to accept that the most wonderful things in the world cannot be fully explained.”

“The Mystery Man” exhibition consists of several rooms offering visitors a thorough introduction to the Shroud’s historical, archaeological, and scientific context, and how the markings on the cloth correspond to the Christian narratives of Jesus’ Passion and death.

Scientific studies conducted over the years are also shown, with their sometimes conflicting conclusions. Throughout, there is one consistent theme: “Almost all the objections raised against the Shroud’s authenticity have, upon further study, only strengthened the case of it being the original burial cloth of Jesus Christ,” said Blanco.

The formation of the Shroud’s image is the greatest mystery of all. One theory is that it was caused by a burst of radiation, a feat that would be impossible for artists to mimic now, let alone centuries ago.

“The only way to make this shroud would be to do all of this to a man, to subject him to this horror, to scourge him, to crucify him, crown him with thorns, then pierce his side when he was dead and wrap him in a shroud,” Blanco observed.

“This would give us an exact replica of the blood flows, but the problem is explaining how you remove the shroud without disturbing the blood and, the most transcendental of all, how the image was formed.”

Álvaro Blanco, the curator of ‘The Mystery Man’ exhibition at Salamanca Cathedral, Spain. Credit: Filipe d’Avillez.

Specimen A

Blanco was cautious when asked if the Shroud is authentic, though he clearly believes it is. What matters most, he said, is that every major image of Jesus Christ produced for more than 1,500 years has been either directly or indirectly inspired by this one. The parallels between representations of Christ from the 4th century onward and the Shroud — including in ancient icons and coins from Christian Rome — cannot be explained any other way.

The exhibition documents the likely journey of the Shroud, from its first appearance in Edessa, under King Abgar, to its journey to Constantinople, where it disappeared during the city’s sack by Crusaders. It reappeared later, in the hands of the noble Charny family, before being given to the royal House of Savoy, which donated it to Turin Cathedral.

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Over the centuries, champions of the Shroud argue, many artists would have had access to the cloth and based their depictions of Jesus on it. Even when the Shroud disappeared from circulation for some centuries, these images of Jesus were copied and adapted by other artists.

Visitors are then ushered into a room featuring an immersive five-minute image-mapping experience, during which 500 pictures of Christ, from different ages, cultures, and styles, flash across the four walls.

The point, according to Blanco, is to show that “the Shroud is the prototype for almost all the representations of Jesus that we have today.”

“However,” he said, “every one of those images has come to us through the filter of the sensitivities of the artists, and of their time. I wanted to see what the real, unfiltered image of Christ was like, and I believe that we have achieved this.”

Credit: The Mystery Man Exhibition.

Drawing nearer to Christ

Blanco gathered a team of experts, including in special effects and forensics, to help create the three-dimensional “Mystery Man” image.

“I chose people whose work I had seen and whose technique I trusted. Especially people who worked for the industry, rather than as artists, because as soon as you have an artist, they are going to leave their own style,” he told journalists as he stood before his still-veiled creation.

“It was very easy to work with them. There was no artistic ego involved. Anything that needed to be corrected was done so swiftly, with no problem. Despite this, the end result is a work of art.”

The skin of the “Mystery Man” is made of silicone and the hair is human. The body weighs around 165 pounds, and the height and proportions are those indicated by the Shroud. The skin tone is Caucasian, but not very light.

The project was funded with revenue from other exhibits. Initial studies took around six years, and the creation of the mold and the body took four to five months. Once the work was completed, Blanco waited for the right circumstances (including the right partners) to go public. It took eight years for him and the organization ArtiSplendore to find each other — hence the need to store the “Mystery Man” in a garage.

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After Blanco’s address to journalists, the media were ushered out of the room to a press conference with the local Bishop José Luis Retana Gonzalo, the mayor of Salamanca, representatives of ArtiSplendore, and others.

After this, a group of six people, including the bishop, returned to the room to witness the unveiling of the body, while journalists followed a live-stream video of the event from the conference room.

Credit: The Mystery Man Exhibition

The initial impact was underwhelming. As projected on the screen, this representation of Jesus seemed little more than a naked and slightly more realistic version of the countless images of the Dead Christ that exist in churches in many parts of the world.

The press was then allowed back into the exhibition room to photograph and film the piece, but at a distance of about six feet. The effect this time was slightly more impressive. Yes, it looked realistic, but the position of the body — although scientifically accurate — made it seem more like a statue than a real human.

‘The Mystery Man’ exhibition at Salamanca Cathedral, Spain. Credit: Filipe d’Avillez

Finally, journalists were invited back in and told that they could now approach the piece to examine it in more detail, though they were instructed not to touch. And that made all the difference. This is how visitors to the exhibit will be able to see the body: in groups of no more than 20 at a time.

Before the unveiling, Blanco had stressed that “all art has to be seen from a perspective, but hyperrealism has to be experienced up close.”

“When you walk in here the impact is strange, but as you get closer, as you see the pores, the hairs, that is when it becomes completely real,” he said.

“We use natural lighting so that you can see all the details of the skin. I have never seen anybody be left indifferent when looking at it. A Christian will see Christ, and a non-believer also sees Christ, because this is the pictorial original of Jesus of Nazareth.”

How right he was: This might be the closest we’ve ever been to actually seeing Jesus when he gave up his life for mankind.

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Credit: The Mystery Man Exhibit

Where’s the love?

Salamanca’s Bishop Retana seemed quite moved during the unveiling.

“It is very emotional,” he said slowly. “Here we stand face to face with the cornerstone of our faith, which is the person of Jesus Christ, who we follow, who died and was raised for us.”

For Christians, Jesus’ suffering has to be seen through the lens of God’s love. Is there a danger that the exhibit only spotlights the pain? Not according to the bishop.

“God was made man and suffered for us,” he said. “Now we can see the signs of that suffering. I believe it will increase, rather than diminish the mystery of God’s love for us.”

He added: “It helps us understand the degree of God’s love, because it explicitly shows us the degree of God’s suffering. It is an example for us, because we have received life so as to give ourselves to others. Following this example unto death is something we only do when we are in love.”

“What I experience here is the love of God for all of us. I believe others will feel the same, because this is not like the artistic representations we have seen before. The hyper-realism really brings it to life in our eyes. I invite everybody to come and see it for themselves.”

The image is of course disturbing. It is, after all, an ultra-realistic representation of a man who was brutally tortured and murdered. It is not meant to be aesthetically pleasing. Parents of young children should be aware that no effort is made to hide the graphic nature of the wounds, or the anatomy, and a warning outside the room says that it might not be suitable for more sensitive visitors.

A pilgrim exhibit

Although this is a cultural exhibit, it is Christian, and should be displayed in an appropriate setting. After viewing the “Mystery Man” and then touring Salamanca Cathedral, one sees other images of Christ in a new light.

ArtiSplendore, at whose invitation this reporter traveled to Salamanca, will  keep the exhibit in the cathedral until March 2023. It hopes to arrange for it to go to the Portuguese capital Lisbon to coincide with World Youth Day 2023.

Over the next few years, Blanco wants to see his hyperreal rendering of Christ’s body shown all over the world, including in Rome in the 2025 Jubilee Year.

The United States is also on the cards. Talks are underway for showings in some cities, but there is nothing concrete in terms of dates or locations.

“This is a pilgrim exhibition,” said ArtiSplendore CEO Francisco Moya, stressing that the choice of adjective is not accidental: “not a traveling exhibition, but a pilgrim exhibition.”

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