TURIN, Italy (Reuters) - Thousands of pilgrims and tourists flocked to northern Italy at the weekend for a rare chance to see the Shroud of Turin, the mysterious yellowing linen which some Christians believe was Christ’s burial cloth.
The cloth, which bears the inexplicable image -- eerily reversed like a photographic negative -- of a crucified man, went on display Saturday evening for the first time in 10 years.
Measuring 4.4 by 1.2 meters (14.5 by 3.9 feet), it shows the back and front of a bearded man with long hair, his arms crossed on his chest, while the entire cloth is marked by what appears to be rivulets of blood from wounds in the wrists, feet and side.
“Looking at the Shroud you think this man on the cross really did live,” said pilgrim Paolo Moroni, who had made the journey from the south of Italy to see the cloth. “This is a man who has been barbarically slain and reduced to a pitiful condition,” he said.
Skeptics argue the Shroud is a medieval hoax, possibly made to attract the profitable pilgrimage business.
Carbon dating tests by laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Tucson, Arizona in 1988 caused a sensation by dating it from between 1260 and 1390 -- implying it was a fake and could not be Christ’s burial cloth.
But scientists have been at a loss to explain how the image was left on the cloth. Most agree it could not have been painted or printed and some have said the 1988 tests may have been faulty and results corrupted by bacteria encrusted over the centuries.
Then last year an Italian scientist reproduced the full-sized Shroud using materials and techniques he said were available in the Middle Ages -- a feat that in his view proved definitively that the linen is a fake.
The decision to put the Shroud on display comes at a time when the Catholic Church is enmeshed in sex abuse scandals that have prompted calls for an end to priestly celibacy, a cleanout of the church’s hierarchy, and the resignation of Pope Benedict.
Hard-core believers have little doubt over the authenticity of the cloth.
“There’s something indefinable in finding Jesus Christ in front of you,” said one visitor.
After surfacing in the Middle East and France, the Shroud was brought by Italy’s former royal family, the Savoys, to their seat in Turin in 1578.
In 1983 ex-King Umberto II bequeathed it to the late Pope John Paul, Benedict’s predecessor.
The Shroud narrowly escaped destruction in 1997 when a fire ravaged the Guarini Chapel of the Turin cathedral where it is normally kept rolled up in an ornate silver box. The cloth was saved by a fireman who risked his life.
The Catholic Church does not claim the Shroud is authentic nor that it is a matter of faith, but says it should be a powerful reminder of Christ’s passion.
The Shroud was shown only four times in the 20th century. The last time it was put on public display was for the Catholic jubilee year in 2000. Two million visitors are expected to go and see it before the display ends on May 23.
Pope Benedict, who is by tradition the owner of the cloth, is due to visit the Shroud on May 2nd.
Additional reporting by Ella Ide; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore