Whatever else the Shroud of Turin might be, it is certainly a fascinating artifact of puzzling origin and composition. The fourteen-foot linen cloth is believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, and some think that it constitutes proof of his resurrection. Others doubt that it is first-century in origin and consider it a fake, although the honest ones admit that it must be an exceedingly clever and oddly ambiguous one.

Countless scientific tests have been conducted on the shroud in recent years, and these surely have caused no one to change their mind. The History Channel, which has shown several programs on the shroud in recent years, tries an interesting and inevitable new tack on a program premiering Tuesday, March 30, at 8-10 p.m. EDT/PDT. The Real Face of Jesus? documents the use of 3D computer graphics to create “a living, moving 3D image of the man many believe to be Jesus Christ,” as the History Channel press release characterizes it.

[Note on sourcing: I have not been able to find the History Channel’s press release on the organization’s website, though many other sites are reprinting it (here, for example). I have no reason to doubt that the release has been quoted accurately, but I haven’t been able to confirm it.]

The History Channel press release emphasizes that the idea of the effort is not to solve any religious mysteries but simply to see what the person behind the shroud actually looked like:

The starting point of this journey is an ancient 14-foot linen cloth known as the Shroud of Turin, believed by millions to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Imprinted on the fabric is a faint, ghostly image of a crucified man. The question of whether this man is or is not Jesus has been debated for centuries. But when 3D computer graphics artist Ray Downing decided to use today’s most sophisticated electronic tools and software to recreate the face of Jesus, the Shroud of Turin is the first place he turned.

While there have been many documentaries about the shroud, most have centered on the shroud’s authenticity. HISTORY’s THE REAL FACE OF JESUS? presents something very different: an attempt to reveal the image embedded in the fibers of the fabric, to turn the faint, unfocused, two-dimensional image into a living, moving, 3D creation – if they are successful, this may be the most accurate depiction ever made of the man many believe to be Jesus Christ.

HISTORY worked with CG artist Ray Downing of Studio Macbeth to attempt this reconstruction.

The History Channel characterizes the shroud as having 3D imagery ‘encoded’ into it:

As the starting point for a 3D model of Jesus, the Shroud provides an amazing advantage: the image of the man is mysteriously encoded with three-dimensional information. An astonishing discovery was made in 1976, and a property no other painting or artwork has — “The presence of 3D information encoded in a 2D image is quite unexpected, as well as unique,” says Downing. “It is as if there is an instruction set inside a picture for building a sculpture.” But can today’s technology and man’s skill in using it build this sculpture, resurrecting the man in the shroud for all to see?

The encoding of 3D information onto an ancient piece of cloth has fascinated believers and skeptics alike, not least among them John Jackson, a professor of Physics at the University of Colorado. In 1978, Jackson led a team of American scientists which was given exclusive access to the cloth for five days of intensive scientific examination. Jackson has continued his analysis of that data until the present time. In late 2009, Downing and HISTORY traveled to Jackson’s Turin Shroud Center in Colorado to learn more about the science of the cloth from the man who has studied it first-hand. But despite decades of intense scientific investigation, the mechanism underlying the mysterious encoding of this three dimensional data within the Shroud remains elusive. Against the background of Shroud history and information, HISTORY’s team is seen grappling with the faint Shroud image to wrestle out the hidden face within.

By this ‘encoding’ they are apparently referring to the fact that the shroud was originally wrapped around the face, which would indeed provide information enabling a plausible 3D image to be extracted through the use of sophisticated computer software:

Coaxing the image from the cloth proves to be no easy task. After months of work, a breakthrough: Downing focuses on the fact that the cloth would have been wrapped around the face of the man buried beneath. (The Mona Lisa would look quite different if DaVinci’s canvas had been wrapped around his model’s head.) In THE REAL FACE OF JESUS? Downing is able to account for that distortion in the image and remove it, leaving an accurate, undistorted, never-before-seen, moving 3D portrait of the image presented on the Shroud of Turin.

And although it does not appear that the program draws any conclusions about the nature of the person behind the shroud, it seems that the documentary does allow the image recreator to consider some thoughts about the meaning of the shroud and its history:

[F]or Downing, there are two stories here. “There is the story of the Shroud which, artistically and scientifically, is the story of a transition from two dimensional to three dimensional. But there is as well the story of the man in the Shroud, and a record of His transformation from death to life”, Downing observes, “The two stories are intertwined, they seem to be one and the same”.