There are very few pieces of history that have raised as many questions as the Shroud of Turin, long believed to be the linen cloth with which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Christ’s body after his crucifixion. Some claim the image was burned into the cloth at the moment of Christ’s resurrection. Others claim it is a medieval forgery.

In all its mystery, the shroud is on display through May 23 at its home church, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy.

Exposed for veneration only on special occasions like this year’s exhibition, the shroud has been in Turin since 1578. Prior to coming to Turin, the shroud had been in Lirey, France, since the mid-1300s. In 1453, the shroud was transferred to Chambéry in Savoy where, in 1532, it narrowly escaped being destroyed by a fire.

Shroud Science

In 1898, Pope Leo XIII gave permission to photograph the shroud. Secondo Pia, the photographer, was in for an amazing discovery: The image on the photographic negative appeared as a perfect positive. This caused quite a sensation among believers and skeptics alike and suggested that the relic is either authentic or a forgery of mind-boggling detail.

Three years later, Dr. Paul Vignon presented a research paper before the Académie des Sciences in which he described the shroud’s image as a “vaporigraph” caused by the ammoniacal vapors or emanations radiating from the surface of Christ’s body. He concluded that the shroud was authentic because such processes were beyond the skill or comprehension of a medieval forger.

In 1978, the Shroud of Turin Research (Sturp) scientific team investigated the shroud, spending 120 consecutive hours examining the relic while performing numerous scientific tests. Their work remains the most in-depth series of tests ever performed on the shroud. It concluded that the “shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man” and is “not the product of an artist.” According to their summary, “no pigments, paints, dyes or stains have been found on the fibrils.”

In 2002, textile expert Mechthild Flury-Lemberg, a Lutheran, released her findings that the shroud was woven in a three-to-one herringbone pattern that was common for high-quality cloths in the ancient world, citing examples of burial cloths unearthed at Masada, the Jewish fortress destroyed in A.D. 74.

Science continues to study the cloth, and believers and nonbelievers alike continue to be fascinated by it. Just before Easter this year, the shroud was the focus of a History Channel documentary that showed how a digital-imaging studio reconstructed a 3-D model of Christ’s face using information gathered from the cloth. The documentary included interviews with Sturp team members.

The Vatican and its scholars continue to be open-minded about the shroud’s authenticity. Pope John Paul II specifically said, “The Church has no specific competence to pronounce on these questions. She entrusts to scientists the task of continuing to investigate.”

Turin’s Cardinal Severino Poletto, the shroud’s custodian, encourages believers to appreciate the relic as a religious aid, saying it “is a sign which must help our faith make that journey which leads us to ‘see Christ.’”

Sanctuary of the Shroud

The Tuscan architect Meo del Caprina built the present cathedral between 1491 and 1498 on the spot where three basilica-style churches had previously stood.

Guarino Guarini was hired to build the Santa Sindone (Italian) “Holy Shroud” Chapel to replace the original apse.

A replica of the shroud can be viewed in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud at any time.

The interior’s simple, clean lines reflect its exterior; it’s airy and flooded with light, which is typical of northern Italian churches — a perfect balance that one finds in Romanesque architecture.

The pews had been removed to accommodate the massive crowds, and security was heavy when I visited for the 2000 exhibition.

Most of the light that flooded the chapel came from a complex set of windows in the dome above our heads. Its structure reminded me of Rome’s Oculus but with more complex geometry: There are interlocking bands designed to preserve the integrity of the near sphere. It is certainly smaller in scale but equally as impressive.

I was one of many thousands of other pilgrims hoping for a glimpse of the shroud. The excitement of the crowd around me was palpable. “Where is it?” was whispered in a dozen languages all around me.

I noticed myself trembling as I approached the shroud. I knelt, my eyes fixed upon the sacred relic. If this cloth actually touched Christ’s body at his death, we have an incredible treasure that will serve to inspire us.

The words of Pope John Paul II ring true: “The shroud is thus a truly unique sign that points to Jesus, the true Word of the Father, and invites us to pattern our lives on the life of the One who gave himself for us.”

Angelo Stagnaro writes

from New York City.