Sometime in the late 1500s an unnamed artist set out to paint a replica of the Shroud of Turin for King Philip II of Spain. Neither the king nor the artist apparently harbored the skepticism that many today reserve for this controversial relic and its supposedly miraculous bloodstained images of Christ’s corpse. More remarkably, they evidently trusted that a mere painter could summon whatever supernatural force was necessary to replicate the original so closely as to render the copy its functional surrogate.
An account that circulated in numerous early 17th century texts reveals how the unnamed painter surrounded himself with the trappings of religious mysticism. Notably, he worked on this copy not in his studio, but in a chapel, where the original Shroud was laid out among lamps and candles befitting its status as a sacred object. Further, the painter worked while kneeling in adoration, with his head uncovered, and surrounded by priests who performed prayers and solemn sacred rituals in order to christen his acts of earthly painting as pious supplications to God. These measures assured that the painter received God’s approval, which in turn enabled him to bring a suitably faithful and effective copy into fruition. The measure of the artist’s success is that upon the copy’s completion Philip II added it to his collection of relics. Remarkably, the king later informed his daughter that praying before this copy cured him of an illness.
Though this is one of very few contemporary sources of which I am aware that describes the process by which an artist crafted a copy of the Shroud of Turin, dozens of others were made in the late 1500s through the 1600s. All of them simulated devotions to the singularly unique relic whose features, and even spiritual power, they emulate. Hardly any of them are attributed to a known artist. None reside anywhere near the canon of art history. But by considering how even one of them was said to have been made, we come to terms with how acts of painting were believed capable of drawing from mysterious forces unavailable through talent or industry alone.
Indeed, by that time the history of art had already embraced pious painters whose artistic activities were in union with sincere expressions of religious devotion. The publication of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists in 1568 reports that Fra Angelico, the 15th-century Dominican friar-cum-Renaissance painter, “would never take up his brushes without a prayer. Whenever he painted a Crucifixion the tears would stream down his face; and it is no wonder that the faces and attitudes of his figures express the depth and sincerity of his Christian piety.” It would be foolish to regard either the account of the anonymous Shroud copyist or Vasari’s characterization of one of its more famous forebears as factual reportage. But the fact that they were written down and then circulated suggests that audiences in the late 1500s onwards might have regarded these artistic products more similarly than we do today. Both affirm the divinity of painting, and therefore the sacredness of the stuff painters make. Fra Angelico and the anonymous Shroud copyist both had to reach beyond their capabilities, humbly submitting to a higher power to attain the approval necessary to work their brushes. What they then achieved was the direct transfer of pious attitudes, and even, in the latter, the mystical power to heal a king’s illness.
I believe these accounts of the copy of the Shroud of Turin made for the king of Spain and Fra Angelico’s prayerful painting practice bear witness to the limitations, not achievements, of human artistry. The former especially stands out of alignment with certain truisms of the history of art that still perpetuate in undergraduate classrooms and beyond. The Renaissance initiated, or so we were told, a modern understanding of artistry as a virtuoso performance of heightened manual and intellectual mastery. Those artists funneled streams of knowledge gathered from natural observation, formal training and education, and artistic experience, and with precocious daring shaped objects that singularly reflect their unbound creative agency that makes anything possible. Consequently, the things thus made testify to the authorial agency that made their creators famous. The copy of the Shroud, on the other hand, is defined not by virtuosic mastery, but instead by mystery. Its maker harnessed powerful, unseen forces without which he and his work remained artistically and spiritually impotent. It is the product of an anonymous painter, apparently unconcerned with the cultivation of tangible signs of artistic accomplishment, and his deference to the divine agency that holds dominion over his efforts to replicate a sacred object. In other words, he could only pray that his brushes do what he wanted them to do.