More than a million people have reserved places to see the Turin Shroud when it goes on public display this spring for the first time in 10 years.
Revered by many Christians as Jesus Christ’s burial cloth but described by some as a medieval forgery, it has has fascinated pilgrims and scientists alike.
Visitors to Turin cathedral where the shroud is kept in a bulletproof climate-controlled case will get three to five minutes to admire it during the April 10-May 23 showing.
Organisers are hoping for as many as two million over the 44 days, with interest expected to be bolstered by the presence of the Pope on May 2.
Viewing is free by reservation, which can be made online.
Just how long a visitor can view will depend on how packed the cathedral, but there will be a maximum time of five minutes, organisers said.
Traditionally, the public gets a peek at the Shroud every 25 years, but the last showing was arranged after only two years in 2000 for the new millennium - a holy year for the Roman Catholic church.
While they resisted a public display during the Winter Olympics four years ago, church officials “understanding the importance to the economy and employment” in the industrial city allowed the display this year ahead of schedule, said Fiorezo Alfieri, Turin’s cultural czar who heads the Shroud Committee.
“The showing represents a precious occasion for tourists intending to include Turin and Piedmont in their itineraries,” organisers said.
It will also rekindle the scientific debate over the cloth that bears a faded image of a bearded man and what appear to be bloodstains that coincide with Christ’s crucifixion wounds.
A Vatican researcher recently said in a new book that she used computer-enhanced images of the Shroud to decipher faintly written words in Greek, Latin and Aramaic. But sceptics said the historian was reading too much into the markings and they stand by carbon-dating in 1988 that suggested the cloth dated to the 13th or 14th century.
In turn, those results have been challenged by some who suggest that test results may have been skewed by contamination and that a larger sample needs to be analysed.
The Vatican has tiptoed around the issue, making no claim about the authenticity but calling it a powerful symbol of Christ’s suffering.
Monsignor Giuseppe Ghiberti, president of the Turin archdiocese’s commission on the Shroud, called it “an instrument of evangelisation.”
He said the Vatican, which owns the cloth, might consider a new round of scientific tests after the public display ends.
French crusader Robert of Clari mentioned seeing the cloth in 1203 in Constantinople at the imperial palace, but the first actual records trace it only to Lirey in France in 1354.
The shroud was bequeathed to the pope by former King Umberto II of Italy, a member of the House of Savoy, upon his death in 1983.
It will be the first public showing since it underwent a restoration in 2002.