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Shroud Restoration Sparks Debate

September 28, 2002|From Times Wire Services

Restoration work carried out in secret on the Shroud of Turin during the summer has set off heated debate between the custodian of what many consider Christianity's most sacred relic and scientists studying its authenticity.

Cardinal Severino Poletto said at a news conference in Turin that experts had "rejuvenated" the shroud, which is preserved in a bulletproof aluminum and crystal casket in the city's Cathedral of St. John.

"I believe they were well intentioned. I also believe that they made a terrible mistake," William Meacham, a University of Hong Kong archeologist, said at another news conference in Rome.

Many Christians revere the 17-foot-long linen sheet, which bears an outline that resembles a photographic negative of the body and face of a bearded man. Those who believe the shroud is authentic say it is the winding-sheet in which Jesus was wrapped after his crucifixion. Two million people filed past the shroud in 2000 when it was last put on public display.

During 40 days of work completed on July 25, experts removed patches that Clarisse nuns sewed on the cloth after it was damaged in a fire in the French Cathedral of Chambery in 1532. They replaced its backing of holland fabric, also dating to the 16th century, and vacuumed up particles of pollen, burnt cloth and other impurities.

"Nothing has been lost," Cardinal Poletto said, "because everything that was removed--particles and threads--was cataloged and conserved. It will be an object of study."

In addition, he said, when the holland was removed, both sides of the shroud were scanned digitally for the first time, measurements and other observations were painstakingly recorded and photographs were taken at each step of the work.

The Rev. Giuseppe Ghiberti, president of the conservation commission, said experts had been recommending since 1969 that the holland, a stiff cloth sometimes used in book binding, be replaced to help preserve the cloth. The old fabric will be displayed in a museum.

But Meacham, who has studied the shroud since 1981, called the work "radical and invasive" and said it was begun without sufficient consultation. He said the removal of particles will seriously hamper scientific investigation.

"There was no urgent threat to the shroud," he said. "Most conservators would have recommended doing nothing at all, especially avoiding excessive handling, stitching, unstitching and exposure to light."

The Rev. Heinrich Pfeiffer, a Jesuit professor of early Christian art at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, also questioned the need for the work.

"I have never heard that carbonized particles could damage the healthy parts of a fabric after a fire put out centuries ago," Pfeiffer said.

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