Locked in a casket in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, lies a 14-by-4 foot piece of cloth that for centuries has presented a challenge to human imagination and beliefs.

The Shroud of Turin has been the source of great controversy over whether the faint image that appears on it is the outline of the body of Jesus Christ.

In 1898, a photograph of the shroud revealed the image to be a perfect negative and the modern, scientific search for the secret of the shroud was on.

Now, something called a VP-8 Image Analyzer may help to lift the shroud of mystery that has surrounded the Shroud of Turin.

Designed and manufactured by LogE/Interpretation Systems Inc., a subsidiary of LogEtronics Inc. of Springfield, Va., the VP-8 uses a television camera to transform a photograph into a three dimensional image based on the levels of brightness or density in the photograph.

The VP-8 system was designed for image analysis in everything from medicine to agriculture. Its use as a potential tool for unraveling the mystery of the shroud first was discovered in 1977 by two Air Force Academy physicists, John Jackson and Erick Jumper.

"Their theory was that the image corresponded to points where the cloth actually touched the body," said Rick Pendergrass, manager of marketing support for Interpretation Systems in Springfield. "The closer it was to the body, the denser the image was."

Using photographs of the shroud and a VS-8 system loaned by LogE/ISI, the team came up with dramatic three-dimensional pictures of the face, hands and body on the shroud. The two performed their research at the School of Scientific Photography at California's Brooks Institute, headed by Vern Miller.

Their work and the use of the system is but a small part of a massive international research effort by the Shroud of Turin Research Project. A battery of chemical, physical and spectroscopic tests was performed on the shroud to determine the age and history of the cloth. A final report on those findings currently is being prepared.

"Our part may add up to only 10 to 15 percent of it," said Pendergrass.

Pendergrass, although not a member of the formal research team, has been doing some research of his own at his Springfield office. Using a computer based, digital version of the VP-8, he is restricting his search to finding out whether or not coins were placed on the eyes and what, if any, information may be contained in the patterns they have left. "If we are able to extract a solid pattern on the coins, they can use that to help date the image," he said.

Determining the date of the shroud has been a major hurdle. The Italian ecclesiastical authorities who control the shroud never have allowed conventional carbon 14 dating to be used since that would destroy too much of the material in the shroud, they allege. "Everything else supports that it's 2,000 years old," Pendergrass said.

Pendergrass explained that the system he is using "mathematically removes the cloth from the image so that the cloth is no longer a factor."

No matter how much scientific evidence is gathered, the image on the shroud never can be established conclusively as that of Jesus Christ, Pendergrass said.

For Pendergrass, the shroud is more of a scientific that a religious puzzle. "It's so theoretical that it's ethereal," he said. "Sometimes it's subtle, and sometimes it really breathtaking when you bring out significant detail. To me it's a challenge. But it wouldn't be a greater or lesser challenge if I were to do similar techniques to analyze satellite pictures or a medical image.

"You can't ignore the fact that there are billions of people in the world whose fundamental beliefs will be influenced one way or the other by this image. . . It would be very gratifying to do my little part."