Our unwavering faith in the Turin Shroud
Despite scientific scepticism, this Easter millions of people will travel to see the Church's most famous relic
The face of Christ or the most remarkable forgery in history? For centuries, experts have argued over the authenticity of the Turin Shroud, revered by many Catholics as the burial sheet in which Jesus was wrapped after his crucifixion.
But now, for the first time in a decade, they will be able to see it with their own eyes when it goes on public display this spring.
A week after Easter, within the ancient walls of Turin Cathedral, the venerated relic will be slipped out of the aluminium casket where it is kept -- a sealed case built by an Italian aerospace company to shut out all light, air and humidity -- and unspooled from its wooden cylinder.
In a fastidious operation overseen by the local cardinal, the fragile herringbone-twill linen will be laid out in a bullet-proof glass case made precisely for its dimensions, stretching 4.37 metres long and 1.10 metres wide. The air in the case will then be sucked out and replaced with argon, an inert gas which will prevent bacteria from devouring its controversial contents.
The case will be hung from the heart of the church to allow spectators to file through and see the portrait of a dead man, which grows fainter every time it is unveiled.
Already, more than one million people have booked their slot to see the world's most famous relic, which will be put on show from April 10 to May 23. A million more are expected to flock to the Italian city during this time, more than double the number who visited when it last went on display in 2000.
Many of them will make the journey out of blind, unswerving faith, others due to idle curiosity. But the majority will go in the knowledge that they are in the presence of a historic conundrum, which has captivated believers for centuries but which science has categorically found could never have come in contact with the body of Jesus Christ.
It's more than two decades since independent researchers caused a sensation around the world when they declared the famous relic to be nothing more than a medieval hoax.
In 1988, postage-stamp size samples of the fabric were carbon-dated by experts in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona. They found that the cloth could only have been made between 1260 and 1390 and could not have been around at the time of Jesus.
It was more likely to be a clever scam to cash in on the booming pilgrimage trade of the Middle Ages, a time when relics were big business. The most intense research into the most intensely studied artefact in human history came to an end. Well, almost.
But to this day, science has still not been able to explain how the image of a bearded, cross-armed man, with his pony-tailed hair, bruised right cheek, and nail wounds on his wrists, feet and side, became embedded on the material in the first place. It is that which keeps many believers clinging to the hope that it the genuine article.
One recent theory suggests that the cloth could represent the first ever attempt at photography by Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.
A television documentary last year claimed the relic actually held the face of da Vinci himself projected by him on to the cloth.
That notion could be verified if a group of historians gain permission to open the artist's tomb in the Loire Valley in France later this year.
In an attempt to solve the puzzle over who the Mona Lisa really was, researchers from Italy's National Committee for Cultural Heritage want to recreate da Vinci's face using his skull to see whether his iconic painting was actually a self-portrait. In the process, they might be able to solve the mystery of the Turin Shroud.
In December, a discovery was made which cast further doubt on the physical link between Jesus and the fabric. The first known pieces of a burial shroud from his time in Jerusalem were found and shown to be an entirely different weave and design to those of the Turin material.
But a month earlier, a Vatican researcher claimed she had found the words "Jesus Nazarene" written on the Turin shroud, faintly imprinted in Greek, Aramaic and Latin.
In her new book, The Shroud of Jesus the Nazarene, Barbara Frail used computer technology to analyse the archaic script, which appears on various parts of the material. She believes it was written by Roman morgue workers to allow the families of the deceased to identify their dead.
More interesting still is a claim made by one of the scientists who carried out the original carbon-dating in 1988, which was issued just before his death. American chemist Ray Rogers was at the forefront of the Shroud of Turin Research Project and once firmly argued that the fabric was a fraud.
But a re-examination of his conscience led him to conclude that his experiments were flawed because the sample material had been contaminated by fire and was too small to give a definitive result. The Vatican, which owns the cloth, has suggested a new round of scientific trials may begin after the public display ends.
These recent developments have delighted so-called "shroudies", die-hard believers across the Catholic world who believe the cloth is genuine and will converge on Turin in their thousands in the coming weeks. In their midst will be Pope Benedict XVI, who is due to visit the relic on May 2.
Until now, the Vatican has avoided expressing an opinion on the shroud's origins, opting instead to describe it as "a powerful symbol of Christ's suffering" and a tool that provokes prayer.
Rome's position on relics remains as it has done for centuries: that they should be venerated but not worshipped or valued for their own divinity.
However, the current Pope's predecessor had his own devotion to the shroud. When asked during an in-flight press conference in 1989 if he believed it to be genuine, John Paul II replied: "I think it is."
Traditionally, the public only gets to see the Turin Shroud every 25 years but the recent success of an exhibition of Padre Pio's remains in Puglia has forced the Church to change its mind and bring forward the next public showing from 2025 to next month.
The recession has also played its part. Catholic officials say they want to do their bit for Italy's sagging tourist trade, claiming they understand "the importance to the economy and employment" of displaying the relic at this time of financial hardship.
At Joe Walsh Tours, one of Ireland's leading pilgrimage specialists, there has been a surge in interest in the shroud since Christmas with two tours scheduled to visit Turin in April.
"There's been a lot of interest in the last couple of months, as people realise the display is approaching," says travel consultant Amanda Devine.
"It's mainly from parish groups. So far, we're taking 100 people out to see it, but I suspect that number may have grown a lot by the time Easter comes."
However much cash it generates, the viewing is expected to trigger a new wave of curiosity about the shroud, which has only been put on display five times in the last century.
New theories and claims about its provenance, in the form of books, documentaries and films, are in the pipeline, as well as a project which has brought the shroud into the digital age. For the first time, it has been photographed in high definition and stitched together in 1,600 shots to allow researchers to analyse it in unprecedented microscopic detail.
But no matter what the findings, devotion to Italy's holiest relic is unlikely to be dampened. The industrial city of Turin is relishing the prospect of a wave of religious tourists and celebrations are already getting underway for their arrival.
Each pilgrim will be given a five-minute free viewing to decide for themselves if the shroud really is a physical link to Jesus Christ or the most elaborate fake of them all.