History Channel to feature Shroud of Turin

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NEW YORK - In 1988, a team of scientists who had conducted carbon-dating tests on a portion of the Shroud of Turin - one of the most significant of Christianity's relics since it has been revered for centuries as the burial cloth of Jesus - announced that the shroud dated to no earlier than 1260, marking it as a medieval forgery.

Yet, as "The Real Face of Jesus?" - a timely and intriguing Easter-season special premiering on cable's History Channel Tuesday, March 30, 9-11 p.m. EDT - reveals, many scientific mysteries about this badly damaged 14-foot-long cloth, and the faint image of a tortured corpse imprinted on it, endure. The program follows the painstaking efforts of computer graphics artist Ray Downing and a circle of his associates to extract a 3-D portrait of the man of the shroud - and therefore, perhaps, of Jesus himself - from the blurry, bloodstained original.

The story of their work serves as a springboard to explore the history - both documented and speculative - of this unique piece of fabric, and to examine the many questions about it that exhaustive scientific research has yet to answer.

How is it, for instance, that the wound marks and bloodstains on the head and body of the dead man correspond - in the light of contemporary medical knowledge - so precisely to the details of Jesus' scourging, crowning with thorns and death by crucifixion as described in the Gospels? And how was his figure - which penetrates only to the most superficial level of the shroud's fibers - created, since scientists have established that it is neither a painting, nor an etching nor a photograph?

There is an incidental treatment of early gnostic Christians that dubiously attempts to present their cosmic speculations about unperceived dimensions lurking behind the perceptible world - ideas which the early church fathers resoundingly rejected - as a foreshadowing of today's most advanced theoretical physics. And historical conspiracy theorists will be delighted to discover that the Knights Templar may have played a role in preserving the shroud during one of the more obscure passage of its history.

But on the whole this respectful, indeed reverent, presentation - which traces the relic's possible journey from the empty tomb in Jerusalem to the ancient Kingdom of Edessa to Constantinople to Athens and eventually on to medieval France - raises fascinating issues about what the narrative early on identifies as "the most enigmatic artifact the world has ever known."

The shroud is scheduled to be displayed in public for the first time in a decade between April 10 and May 23 of this year in Turin's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, with Pope Benedict XVI making a pilgrimage there on May 2.

Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010