The Chapel of the Holy Shroud is by far one of the most evocative and beloved destinations for anyone visiting the city of Turin in the far North of Italy. Within this chapel is housed one of the most sacred symbols of Christianity; namely, the Shroud of Turin.
For those unfamiliar, the Holy Shroud is believed to be the burial cloth in which the body of Christ was wrapped following His Crucifixion. The cloth itself contains the negative image of a man bearing a striking resemblance to many common depictions of Christ. The Shroud was first discovered in 1354 by a medieval knight, and has been reserved in the royal chapel of the Savoy family since 1578.
In fact, the entire complex upon which the chapel resides was once owned by the House of Savoy, a family of European nobles who held power in Italy until as recently as 1946, when the vote was cast to abolish the monarchy in favor of a republic.
Today the complex is preserved as an enormous museum, consisting of three distinct parts; namely, The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, the Chapel of Holy Shroud, and the Royal Palace of Turin. Accessing the chapel first requires you to navigate the palace, given that the chapel was once the private property of the Savoy family. A sliver of the chapel can be seen from the Cathedral of John the Baptist however, which has long been used as the episcopal seat of the Archdiocese of Turin, plainly illustrating how closely connected the Church and State were during this period of time.
While the Cathedral of John the Baptist is relatively plain in comparison to the palace, it is frequented by many pilgrims hoping to admire one or more replicas of the Holy Shroud which are displayed at all times of the year. For many people, this is the best they can hope for, since the real Shroud is only displayed at the request of the Pope. The last time this happened was in December of 2020, and it will not happen again until 2025.
Apart from these replicas, the Cathedral also displays a reliquary containing the bones of Saint John the Baptist, and well as the usual assortment of renaissance era paintings and side-altars. Perhaps the most unique of these paintings is one which depicts the Resurrected Christ, an appropriate choice for a Cathedral associated with the Holy Shroud.
Moreover, this particular painting seems to share a common color scheme with its adjacent counterparts. The familiar red and golden hues are nothing new to the baroque and Romanesque styling which features prominently in churches throughout the region.
Continuing our journey through the palace, one is immediately struck by the lavishness with which the Savoy family once lived. Each hallway is a golden tunnel filled with priceless medieval artifacts, and every room feels more luxurious than the last, with its golden décor, sparkling chandeliers, and Romanesque pillars. The majority of these rooms look more like the set of a movie than like any place a single family would actually live. The opulent nature of this palace no doubt contributed to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
If you wind your way through the palace corridors long enough, you will eventually find the entrance to the Savoy’s private chapel, where the Shroud of Turin has been reserved for over 400 years. The architecture in here is unlike anything I’ve seen, and much of it is deliberately symbolic. The main altar is located in the center of the room, with the Holy Shroud directly above inside of a structure which resembles a tomb.
As the eye is drawn upward, the dull grey atmosphere of the tomb is replaced by the distant light of resurrection, characterized here by the Holy Spirit atop the Dome. Notably, the dome’s arches are off-set like a house of cards, which creates a telescopic effect, drawing the eye even further, and centering one’s focus on the light at the very top.
The metaphorical tomb itself is guarded by angels, much like the actual tomb of the risen Christ was guarded, and it is from here that we can see the reverse angle of Saint John’s Cathedral from earlier.
As if the Cathedral, Chapel, and Palace weren’t enough, the remainder of our journey takes us through a multi-story museum containing many magnificent paintings from the medieval and renaissance eras. There was even a small crypt containing many statues and shattered pieces of metal and stone dating back to the time of ancient Rome.
As one room consistently led to another, I thought perhaps I might be trapped in this complex forever. It seemed like an impossibly expansive trove of spiritual and material treasures with no end in sight. Eventually however, I exited through the palace gardens below, and was left to reflect on the many things I had seen that day.
Luxury and austerity; church and state; death and resurrection; they’re all opposed to each other, and yet still connected, like two sides of a coin. And these mysterious connections will never cease to fascinate me.