Published: February 19th, 2006 02:30 AM

TURIN, Italy – On a cold morning when an inversion pushed the fog down into a ground-hugging layer, I sought out the famed Shroud of Turin, the most controversial religious artifact in the world.

I can tell you this: It’s easier to find the farmers market.

In this town, the museum housing Egyptian art is well- promoted, as are shopping venues and galleries.

But there are no street signs: Shroud Ahead. No arrows to follow. No designated bus stops.

And upon reaching the Duomo di San Giovanni Battista (Cathedral of St. John the Baptist), no outward signage proclaims this to be the residence of the lengthy piece of fabric that is purported to have been the burial cloth of Christ.

There are no guards, armed or otherwise.

To come within a few feet of the cloth’s container, one must only open the front door of the chapel, proceed up the aisle along the left wall and look left.

While two men and a woman knelt in prayer in the pews, I was the only person there Friday morning questing for the shroud. It appears that the famed artifact, the authenticity of which has been fiercely debated around the world for centuries, is not a box-office draw in its hometown.

So it is with celebrity; locals get casual about its presence.

Of course, it is not scheduled to be taken out of its container for full public viewing until the year 2025. Still, its presence is extremely understated.

Perhaps this cautious decorum seems curious only when filtered through an American’s skewed perception.

If the shroud were not in Turin, but in, say, Tacoma, by now there would have been a Shroud Dome, a ShroudWorld Fair and Exposition Center, and perhaps a Six Flags over The Holy Shroud Theme Park complete with a Shroud Hilton and a ShroudView Sheraton serviced by the Sea-Tac Shroud Shuttle, for your convenience.

But it has been in Turin since the 1400s, brought here by crusaders and taken into possession by the wealthy ruling House of Savoys. In 1453, Louis of Savoy folded it into squares and put it into a vault in Chambery, France. A fire in 1532 did considerable damage as metal melted from the container and burned through the cloth. The heat also singed its edges. In 1578, it was returned to Turin.

At the cathedral, a full-sized replica of the roughly 14-by-4 foot cloth is displayed near the entry. Toward the main altar is a side chapel where the shroud is kept behind glass. The shroud is not visible – only its cloth-covered rectangular container.

“In this chapel the Holy Shroud lies horizontally in a shrine made of aluminum and glass covered with a large damask cloth,” a small sign reads.

An enlarged replica of the “face” portion of the cloth hangs above the shrine, like a portrait. A spray of thorns is atop the shrine. A small wooden kneeler is positioned in front. A box for offerings is opposite the shrine.

Connection to Christ just implied

The Duomo is of Renaissance design and is large and ornate, but not as spectacular as many in Europe.

A few miles away is the Museo della Sindone (Museum of the Shroud). The museum features a brief informational movie, and in the basement, related artifacts.

It seems that those at the museum are careful to make no specific claims that this is the burial cloth of Christ. But possible explanations of the marks and images are offered.

The tie-dyed effect was caused by the folding of the cloth combined with subsequent damage by the fire and water seepage.

The replicas appear to show the image of a man with a beard, long hair and various wounds.

The film at the museum points to “blood” seepage from the head as if caused by a crown of thorns, with similar stains at the wrists and feet. The facial image is said to show a fractured nose and lacerations and contusions.

A large stain at the thorax is thought to be from a deep wound believed to have been made post-mortem. On the part of the cloth that would have covered the corpse’s back, signs of flogging are said to be visible.

Some evidence points to hoax

The pattern of blood stains adheres to the traditional account of Christ’s crucifixion, but no explanation can be made for the facial and body-outline images that the museum tour suggests were caused by “an unknown source of radiation.”

The museum further reports that tests have uncovered traces of human blood and also pollen from plants known to exist only around Jerusalem. But it also cites scientific studies made in 1988 that carbon-dated the cloth fibers to somewhere between 1260 and 1390, which would signify that the shroud is an elaborate and artful hoax.

Others have contended that the “blood” stains contain paint pigments.

After a morning of inquiry and observation, I got no answers and saw no actual cloth. Perhaps that is the nature of a shroud.

But it was interesting. And if someone comes to Turin, a visit to the shroud’s home and museum seems obligatory.

Even if you have to look hard to find them.

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