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Shroud of Turin Not Christ's Burial Sheet, Scientists Tell Church

October 14, 1988|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | Times Staff Writer

TURIN, Italy — Scientists have determined that a mysterious strip of linen called the Shroud of Turin and venerated for centuries as the burial sheet of Jesus Christ was in fact woven in the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Turin said Thursday.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Anastasio Ballestrero, who as keeper of the shroud authorized laboratory research to date it, announced the results without dismay and added, "The church reaffirms its respect and veneration for this venerable icon of Christ.

"The calibrated calendar age range assigned to the shroud cloth, with a 95% confidence level, is from 1260 to 1390 AD," Ballestrero told a news conference.

In short, it could not have been Christ's, or, as some Christians have believed, evidence of his Resurrection.

But even with the age no longer at issue, enough mystery surrounds what has been called "the most sacred object in Christendom" to assure a lingering debate among religionists who had felt that previous studies pointed toward its authenticity. A team of U.S. scientists who performed church-approved tests on the Holy Shroud in 1978 concluded that no materials were applied directly to the cloth to create the straw-colored image that many have said was that of Christ, but the team also said it could not determine how the image got there.

However, one member of that U.S. team, Walter McCrone, announced in 1979 that his test of the shroud threads at the point where "blood stains" appear showed particles of iron oxide, which he said indicated a red ochre paint was used there. McCrone, whose research institute conducts work authenticating art objects, said Thursday in Chicago that he and the other team members "parted company" when they discounted his findings.

Ballestrero told journalists that the shroud has miraculous properties, and some Roman Catholics are now expected to regard it as a work of divine inspiration 1,300 years after the fact.

The strip of cloth, which measures 15.5 feet by 3.5 feet, bears the image of a bearded man with the same sort of wounds as those the Bible says were inflicted on Christ at his Crucifixion. The shroud lies rolled like a scroll in a triple-locked silver casket at the downtown cathedral of Turin.

3 Million Pilgrims

When last publicly displayed a decade ago, the shroud attracted more than 3 million pilgrims in 43 days. Since then, church officials said, devotion to the shroud has increased, particularly in Eastern Europe. Thursday's disclosure, they said, is not likely to dampen this reverence.

"Valid or not, the results of the test in no way solve the mystery of Christ's image on that cloth," Father Peter Rinaldi said after hearing Ballestrero's announcement. Rinaldi, a Redemptorist priest, is vice president of the New York-based Holy Shroud Guild.

Ballestrero said, "The problems of the origin of the image and its conservation are still left mostly unsolved and will need further research and further study."

He said his responsibility for preserving the shroud underlay his decision to allow its dating. In an investigation overseen by the British Museum, bits were cut from the cloth last April and sent to laboratories at the University of Arizona, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Oxford University.

The laboratories used tandem accelerator mass spectrometers to measure the radioactive decay of carbon-14 in the flax from which the shroud was woven. The carbon isotope acts as a natural clock in calculating the age of once-living things.

"The church believes in the image and not in the history," Ballestrero said. He portrayed the cloth as an icon, "a revelation of the face and the body of Christ."

Anticipating the results, which had leaked from British and American sources over the past few weeks, shroud loyalists immediately challenged their accuracy. But Prof. Luigi Gonella, scientific adviser to Ballestrero, told journalists he is convinced that the tests are reliable.

Gonella, a teacher at the Turin Institute of Technology, went on to say: "Some people will say it is a relic or it's nothing. That's foolish. There is something here we cannot explain. The technology of the image is out of context for the Middle Ages. Now we must establish what else there is of that period with similar technology."

Whatever scientists eventually conclude, the church itself has never pronounced the shroud a genuine relic of Christ, and most Protestant church leaders have been skeptical of its authenticity.

The shroud is first known to have surfaced in 1354, at Lirey, France, as the property of an obscure knight named Geoffrey de Charny.

The time was also a golden age for false relics. Indeed, at the time two French bishops promptly denounced it as the fabrication of a local artist. But neither they nor anyone else since has been able to account for the image, which the 1978 team of American scientists said is anatomically correct. They found that the image was the result of chemical changes in the linen after contact with a body, Gonella said.

The image on the shroud indicated the depicted man was punished in all the ways mentioned in the four Gospels.

From France to Turin

The shroud went from France to the House of Savoy in Turin in 1578. Pope John Paul II, who in the past had termed the shroud "a unique and mysterious object," visited Turin last month. At one point, Ballestrero said Thursday, the visiting Pope turned to him and asked, "Do you suppose it actually could be a relic?"

At the end of last month, Ballestrero said, the test results reached Turin, and they went by courier the following day to the Vatican. The Pope read them and sent back firm instructions.

"He said, 'Publish them,' " Ballestrero told reporters Thursday.

Times religion writer John Dart, in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.

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