Pope Benedict XVI has described the Shroud of Turin as an icon "written with the blood" of a crucified man.
During a visit to the Shroud in the northern Italian city of Turin, Benedict didn't raise the scientific questions that surround the linen and whether it might be a medieval forgery.
Instead, he delivered a powerful meditation on the faith that holds that the Shroud is indeed Christ's burial cloth.
The 14-foot-long, 3.5-foot-wide cloth has gone on public display for the first time since the 2000 Millennium celebrations and a subsequent 2002 restoration. Kept in a bulletproof, climate-controlled case in Turin's cathedral, it has attracted nearly two million reservations from pilgrims and tourists eager to spend three to five minutes viewing it.
The Shroud bears the figure of a crucified man, complete with blood seeping from his hands and feet, and believers say Christ's image was recorded on the linen's fibres at the time of his resurrection.
Benedict focused in his meditation on the message that the blood stains conveyed, saying the Shroud was "an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified and injured on his right side".
The Vatican to date had tiptoed around the issue of just what the Shroud of Turin is, calling it a powerful symbol of Christ's suffering while making no claim to its authenticity.
Benedict's meditation - delivered after he prayed as if in a trance before the shroud - appeared to imply that in the end it doesn't matter what science says about its authenticity.
A Vatican researcher said late last year that faint writing on the linen, which she studied through computer-enhanced images, proves the cloth was used to wrap Jesus' body after his crucifixion. But experts stand by carbon-dating of scraps of the cloth that determine the linen was made in the 13th or 14th century in a kind of medieval forgery.
Benedict's visit to the holy relic marked a period of respite from the clerical sex abuse scandal that has dogged the Vatican in recent weeks. In the past week, he has met with several bishops to discuss resignations from inside their ranks over sex abuse by priests of children and the bishops' failure to report it to civil authorities - and more meetings are planned.