Friday, September 07, 2007

A Saint's robe and nuclear science

Who has the real robe of Saint Francis of Assisi? Well, here is a good example of how science can help resolve issues regrading religious objects.
Four Franciscan churches in central Italy claim that they each hold a habit of St Francis of Assisi, the friar who founded the Franciscan order in the early 1200s. Carbon dating has now substantiated one of those claims, and helped to shore up a story from the church's history many centuries later. In Italy, religious relics are venerated by millions of Catholics who believe that God works miracles through them, or who simply fear them. Every year more than three million visitors come to the major shrine of St Francis, a basilica in Assisi that hosts famous frescoes depicting the saint's life, and one of the habits said to have belonged to the saint. A second robe is held at the Sanctuary of La Verna near Arezzo in Tuscany; a third at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Florence; and a fourth at the Basilica of Cortona near Arezzo.
And nuclear science to the rescue (really we don't get a chance to say this very often):
So the order asked Italian nuclear scientists to check up on the habits. "The request came directly from the Franciscan order," says Pier Andrea Mandò of the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Florence. He and his team took a few tiny samples from the robes and used a standard technique known as accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) to measure the amount of isotope carbon-14 in the cloth. The result, presented this week at the European Conference on Accelerators in Applied Research and Technology in Florence, shows that the robe kept in the Basilica of the Holy Cross is 100 years too young to have belonged to St Francis. But the one held in the Basilica of Cortona dates to between 1155 AD and 1225 AD, roughly contemporary with the saint.
Now this is a nice story. But then I got to this:
Investigations of relics are not unusual in Europe, although they can give rise to much controversy. "Many relics have been recognized as fake, such as the arm of St Anthony of Padua, which turned out to be a stag's penis on examination," says Antonio Lombatti, a researcher of medieval church history at the National History Institute in Parma, Italy.
Huh! Really? Now this is weird and I did not find much info about this claim even on Wikipedia. I guess we should get back to a much more standard controversy:
Particularly hostile debates between scientists and men of faith followed the 1988 radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin — a linen cloth bearing the image of a man that many think is the imprint of Jesus. The research dated it at least from 1260 AD.
See Skeptical Shroud of Turin for more on the controversy.