Using the same technology that adds wrinkles to the drawings of Mafia bosses to identify them after decades on the lam, the Italian police have shaved years, and a beard, off an image taken from the Shroud of Turin to create what newspapers here last week hailed as the very visage of a young Jesus.
"Here it is, the real face of the baby Jesus," declared the front page of the newspaper Il Giornale. Italy's largest newspaper, Corriere della Sera, ran a more cautious headline: "Here Is Jesus at Age 12 (According to a Computer)."
In a country awash in creches and sensationalism, exposes and revelations about the birth of Jesus are not exactly rare. Last week, RAI, the government-owned television and radio company, broadcast "Inquiry Into the Birth of Jesus," not to be confused with "Inquiry Into the Baby Jesus," a book selling across Italy.
But few reports have generated as much discussion as the image in Thursday's newspapers.
The angelic face is reminiscent of the prayer cards sold in Vatican souvenir shops and of the New Age portraits displayed at Venice Beach. The image shows a 12-year-old boy with fair, smooth skin, glassy blue eyes, fleshy lips and waves of dirty blond hair streaked with just enough purple and pink to suggest a sprinkling of cosmic dust.
The scientific unit of Rome's police force created the image at the behest of reporters of another investigative report about Jesus to be televised the night after Christmas. For that program, the police took photographs from the Shroud of Turin and subtracted about 20 years of aging.
"It came to us an illumination, maybe it was inspiration, What was his face like?" said Elena Guarnieri, the host of the news special. "If that is the face on the shroud, then this is the face of Jesus as a child."
Millions of Christians believe that the Shroud of Turin, a linen cloth imprinted with the image of a man's face and wounded body, is the burial shroud of Jesus. But after using carbon-14 dating tests in 1988, a group of scientists dated the cloth between 1260 and 1390, and ruled that it was probably a medieval forgery.
Paul Damon, a geoscientist who was a member of the 1988 testing team at the University of Arizona in Tucson, had serious reservations about the methods the police used.
"I think that it's malarkey," he said. "The church never denied the dates," he added, referring to the scientists' findings about the shroud.
The Vatican refused to comment about the face of the 12-year-old Jesus, but Damon expressed bewilderment. "The boy would not be blond," he said.
Guarnieri acknowledged that the fair complexion was a bit fanciful, but said the features counted most. She noted that the image of a wooly beard present on the shroud hid the jaw and cheeks and thus forced the police to reconstruct the lower half of Jesus' face.