Does the Shroud of Turin show the “real face of Jesus”? That claim is impossible to judge, even though it serves the title of a documentary about the 3-D analysis of the Shroud of Turin premiering tonight on the History Channel. What can be said is that the centuries-old image wasn’t just painted freehand. Computer analysis of the imprint on the shroud suggests that it had to be left behind by someone draped in cloth. “Is this the artifact of a real person or not? Definitely it is,” Ray Downing, the digital illustrator at the center of the show, told me today. Downing worked with specialists on the shroud to come up with a photorealistic representation of the man whose body's imprint appears faintly on a famous 14-foot-long length of linen. For some Christians, the stain serves as the miraculous snapshot of their risen Lord. For most scientists, it is a cleverly done fake from the 13th or 14th century, but nothing more. Back in 1988, carbon-14 dating tests were conducted on a sample from the shroud in an effort to determine whether the cloth was created in Jesus' time. The verdict from three laboratories was that the cloth was produced in medieval times. But the shroud's fans have insisted that the sample was actually taken from a patch, rather than from the original linen. Just this month, a chemist proposed a new series of non-destructive dating tests that would give an estimate for the entire cloth.
From a marketing perspective, the timing of the History Channel show couldn't be better: Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Christian holy days that mark Jesus' death and resurrection, are just a few days away. What's more, the shroud is due to go on display for six weeks at Turin Cathedral, starting April 10. The last time the relic was exhibited, a decade ago, more than 3 million people came to Turin to see it. More than a million reservations have been received already for next month's viewing. Have scientists been wrong about the shroud? Downing noted that historical records referring to the shroud predate the current carbon-14 estimate. “We know the carbon-14 [test] is wrong,” he said. “The question is, how wrong are they? The further back you go, the less likely it is that anybody could have faked it.”