A skilled weaver crafted the Shroud of Turin, spinning bleached linen and then looming the thread in a herringbone twill pattern. The shroud measures 14.25 feet long and 3.58 feet wide. Sometime after it was woven, but before it appeared in northeastern France in the 14th century, a 3.5-inch-wide linen strip of matching weave was sewn onto the left edge of the cloth.

Faint images appear on the cloth—images of the front and back of an unclothed man, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with long hair and a beard. If the images were produced by a body, that body would have been placed, lying on its back, on the bottom half of the cloth; then the cloth would have been stretched over the top of the body.

The man whose images appear on the cloth seems to have suffered numerous wounds, some of them leaving what look like bloodstains on the cloth. There is a large wound in his left side and another in his right wrist; there are shoulder abrasions, puncture marks in the head and scores of small straight wounds covering the body from the neck down.

But even more striking than the clear signs of a tortuous death is the great detail in the image of the man’s face. Lips, eyelids, nostrils are all astonishingly clear, and the composite visage arrestingly lifelike and undistorted. The hands, too, appear clearly, while other areas, like the chest and toes, are poorly defined, and some areas, like the genitals, are invisible.

This haunting image has for centuries drawn people to venerate the cloth. In 1357, the shroud made its first reliably recorded public appearance, in Lirey, France, but its existence as a far older relic has been argued. British journalist Ian Wilson asserts that the shroud is the same cloth as the mandylion, or face cloth, of Edessa (modern Urfa, in Turkey), which allegedly displayed the facial image of Jesus. First reported in the sixth century, the mandylion was brought to Constantinople in the tenth century. A knight-historian of the Fourth Crusade relates that in a Constantinople church in the early 13th century he viewed a shroud, “which stood up straight every Friday, so that the figure of Our Lord could be plainly seen there.”

With the Crusades came an increase in the long-standing practice of selling Christian religious relics. By the 14th century in Europe, this trade had reached a fever pitch. When the owners of the shroud displayed the cloth in France in 1357, they widely promoted the event, as a pilgrim’s medallion from the exhibit now on display at the Musée de Cluny in Paris attests. On the medallion appear the coats of arms of the owners, Geoffrey de Charny and his wife Jeanne de Vergy, as well as the first known depiction of the double-image shroud.

In a statement on the 1357 display, a local bishop denounced the shroud as a fraud. The bishop said that the shroud was “cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who had painted it.”

But the shroud continued to be exhibited, both outdoors and in, always drawing large crowds. The Roman Catholic authorities, however, were not as enthusiastic as the general public. When the shroud was displayed in 1389, a successor of the bishop who had denounced it in 1357 wrote a letter of protest to the pope. A former lawyer, the bishop wrote a stinging attack on the canons of the church of Lirey; he argued that the church leaders had:

“falsely and deceitfully, being consumed with the passion of avarice and not from any motive of devotion but only of gain, procured for their church a certain cloth cunningly painted, upon which by clever sleight of hand was depicted the twofold image of one man, that is to say the back and front, they falsely declaring and pretending that this was the actual Shroud in which our Saviour Jesus Christ was enfolded in the tomb.”

Although the pope was not sufficiently swayed by the bishop to withdraw the shroud from public display, he did enact some restrictions on each future appearance: Pomp and ceremony were not allowed, and a priest would announce to all “in a loud and intelligible voice, without any trickery, that the aforesaid form or representation is not the true burial cloth of Our Lord Jesus Christ but only a kind of painting or picture made as a form or representation of the burial cloth.”

In 1453 de Charny’s granddaughter Marguerite gave the shroud to the Duke of Savoy. The duke built a special church for the shroud at the family castle in Chambery, where it lay folded in a silver reliquary chest. A near tragedy befell the cloth in 1532 when the church caught on fire. But the shroud was saved; a counselor to the duke and two priests risked their lives to rescue the burning chest. They drowned the flames with water, but when the chest had cooled enough to be opened, they discovered that molten silver had dropped on the cloth, burning through all the folds.

Since 1532, the most prominent marks on the shroud have been the results of the fire water stains, scorch lines along the folds, and linen patches that a group of nuns spent two years sewing onto the cloth.

The duke moved the capital of Savoy from Chambery in southeastern France to Turin in northwest Italy. In 1578 he transported the shroud there, and except for a pause during World War II, it has remained safely in Turin since.

Pilgrims, including the archbishop of Milan, were still drawn to the shroud. But the papal office continued an official reserve, never affirming the cloth’s authenticity. In 1670, a papal congregation granted an indulgence to Turin pilgrims who prayed before the shroud, but “not for venerating the cloth as the true shroud of Christ but rather for meditating on the Passion [of Jesus].”

Perhaps because of the conservative attitude of the Roman Catholic authorities, public displays dwindled only seven in the 19th century, once in 1931 and for six weeks in 1978. This most recent exposition, commemorating the shroud’s arrival in Turin 400 years before, drew an astonishing number of people. More than three million believers, skeptics and the simply curious crowded into the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of St. John. They had been enticed by findings, widely reported in news media around the world, of European scientists who had inspected the shroud in 1969 and 1973. These scientists had, in turn, become intrigued by the shroud because of predecessors’ discoveries.

In 1898, photographer Secondo Pia captured the image of the shroud on glass-plate negatives and made an astounding discovery—the image on the plate was a positive, not a negative. This meant that the image on the cloth was a negative. How could a negative image have been produced hundreds of years before the invention of photography? Suddenly scientists became attracted to the shroud’s mysteries and began experiments. Experts in zoology, botany, even a surgeon, studied the photographs and conducted tests.

One expert, Swiss criminologist and botanist Max Frei, claims he found pollen spores on the shroud that come from desert plants native to the Dead Sea area and other parts of ancient Palestine—evidence, says Frei, of the shroud’s authenticity.

By the 1978 exposition, some 30 American scientists physicists, chemists, computer specialists, biophysicists, spectroscopists and experts in photomicroscopy—had organized the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) to travel to Turin and study the shroud round the clock for five days after the public exposition ended. The work of this American group has resulted in several books and numerous articles, but an official report has not appeared.

Meanwhile, the shroud again lies folded and wrapped in red silk, unconfirmed as a true relic, but revered by millions.