TURIN, Italy – The Roman Catholic Church is weathering another sex scandal, but it is impossible to tell here, where the faint image of a bearded man on a yellowing linen sheet provides the moment, if brief, for pilgrims to declare and reaffirm their faith. For some, it does not matter if the Shroud of Turin is authentic. It is the shared spiritual experience that counts most.
Ten years after the shroud last went on display, nearly 2 million people have made reservations for a timed glimpse of the religious object (five minutes on weekdays, three on weekends, depending on the bookings, though the labyrinthine line can take well over an hour).
For most of them, the bearded man is Jesus Christ and the 4.3 meter by 1.09 meter linen cloth encased in a bulletproof frame is his burial shroud. It is one of the most venerated – and contentious – relics of Christendom.
The image is so faint that a recorded announcement assists rapt onlookers to decipher it.
“There is the face, the wounds to the ribs, the wrists, the feet,” a woman’s voice drones in the dark stillness of the Turin Cathedral, before inviting the faithful to prayer, and to move on to make room for the next group of pilgrims.
Even as Catholics are increasingly calling on church leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, to fully explain past dealings with paedophile priests, for many, faith remains strong in that which is inexplicable.
Not that a legion of scientists, theologians and improvised sindonologists – as researchers of the shroud are known – have not attempted to give substance to their beliefs about the origins of the cloth.
Many of these musings, which can be roughly divided into two camps – those who hold it as the burial shroud of Jesus and those who say it is a medieval forgery – attract lively debate through a host of websites.
It is arguably the most tested relic in history, but results have tended to inflame discussions rather than quell them.
Shroud sceptics call on a shopping list of evidence, including traces of paint pigments and carbon-14 dating tests carried out in 1988 that led three independent laboratories to date the cloth between 1260 and 1390, to cast doubt on its sacred origins.
Believers have attacked these findings as fiercely as defence lawyers in a murder trial, narrowing in on procedural flaws and missteps in the shroud’s chain of custody. They point to ghostly traces on the cloth of coins or writings or pollens that could date it to the time of Christ. And they counter that no one has been able to explain how the image was created. Modern attempts to craft a similar likeness have not been successful, they say.
Jhas been carrying out experiments on the shroud since 1978, when he was part of team that spent five days in Turin collecting scientific information on the cloth. “It’s only when you get into the shroud that you realize how difficult it is to explain it,” he said.
The Vatican has not ruled out further tests, said the Rev. Giuseppe Ghiberti, a shroud expert in the Turin diocese, but none is scheduled.
The Vatican has not officially endorsed the shroud as a relic of Jesus, but neither has it discouraged popular devotion.
The shroud has been in Turin since 1578, brought by the Savoy family, which would later become Italy’s monarchy. The last king, Umberto II, who was exiled in 1946, bequeathed it to Pope John Paul II at his death in 1983.
Documented descriptions of the linen cloth date to the mid-14th century, when it belonged to a French knight, Geoffroy de Charny, who exhibited it in a church in Lirey, France. In 1453 it passed to the Savoy family, who moved it to Chambery, France, where it was badly damaged in a 1532 fire. It still bears water and scorch marks that have raised comparisons to an oversized Rorschach test.
Interest in the shroud ballooned after Secondo Pia, an Italian amateur photographer, developed photographs of the linen in 1898 and found that the photographic negative showed a much more clearly defined image of a man’s body.
It was last restored in 2002, when the patches sewn in by nuns to repair the damage caused by the 1532 fired were removed. The white lining that supports the frail linen cloth was also replaced.
It is rarely on display, though this is the third time in 12 years.
“Religious tourism has grown significantly,” especially from the former Eastern-bloc countries, Ghiberti explained, adding that interest in the shroud was growing despite a groundswell in the West toward a more secular society. “Perhaps secularization does not respond to what man feels most deeply,” he said. “There is a very strong need to see it.”
Shroud sceptics call on a shopping list of evidence, including traces of paint pigments and carbon-14 dating tests carried out in 1988 that led three independent laboratories to date the cloth between 1260 and 1390,