IT MUST have been the most humiliating moment of his life. On 13 October 1988, the ageing Cardinal Archbishop of Turin, Anastasio Alberto Ballestrero, was forced to make the grave announcement that the Shroud of Turin - the mysterious imprint of a crucified man on a linen cloth kept in his own cathedral - could not, after all, be the image of the dead Christ in his tomb.
Three universities, Oxford, Zurich, and Tucson, Arizona, had performed carbon-dating tests on samples of the cloth and had concluded that the Shroud dated from some time between 1260 and 1390. One of the great mystical objects of modern times had been shown up as a fake.
Or had it? Nearly 10 years later, Archbishop Ballestrero - long since retired - has a very different view of those carbon tests. According to his office, they were the result of a "overseas Masonic plot" designed to discredit both the Roman Catholic Church and one of its most revered relics. Nobody, he thunders, should ever have been taken in by the carbon- dating, which was sloppily carried out and is in any case a notoriously unreliable means of testing historical artefacts.
Archbishop Ballestrero is far from alone in his opinion. Ever since that dark day in 1988, the whole Roman Catholic Church has endeavoured to explain away the carbon-dating results and cling to the mystery of the Shroud. Paper after paper has appeared in the considerable corpus of Shroud literature, dismissing Oxford, Zurich and Tucson universities as incompetent or malicious.
Now, the secular world is beginning to adopt the same point of view. Last week, the non-religious Giovanni Agnelli Foundation organised a meeting of academics in Turin to discuss the issue, and the different specialists were remarkably uniform in their verdict. "The carbon-dating test is far from definitive," reported Piero Savarino of Turin University. "There are many well-known cases of relics whose real age differs significantly from the result of a carbon-dating test."
He and others pointed out that woven materials are prone to atmospheric contamination. And nobody should forget that the Shroud has twice been exposed to fire - once in the House of Savoy's palace in Chambery in 1532, when it was scorched and then doused in water, and a second time nine months ago, when the glorious baroque chapel housing the Shoud burned out and the cloth only survived thanks to the heroic intervention of a local fireman.
So the Sindonologists, as the near-fanatical scholars of the Shroud are known after the Italian for shroud,"sindone" - are back to square one. They still don't know how old the cloth is. They still don't know how a three-dimensional photographic image could have been imprinted on to it. They don't even know for sure where the Shroud came from, except that it passed into the hands of the Dukes of Savoy sometime in the mid-15th century.
Their work, nevertheless, remains intense. Computer technology has intensified their reading of the three-dimensional image, including the stigmata that are invisible to the naked eye. In recent years they have claimed to have found traces of first-century pollen, and even the imprint of a first-century coin. Biochemical analysis has revealed real blood - group AB - mingled in with myrrh and aloe.
It is hard to say how reliable this research is. Some of it seems only to deepen the mysteries of the Shroud, while other parts seem suspiciously unscientific (so-called dating experts working only from photographs, for example). The Church appears to encourage a certain degree of obfuscation, no doubt because it is terrified of another 1988-style debacle. The new Cardinal Archbishop, Giovanni Saldarini, says, cautiously, that the Shroud "is not Christ but a sign pointing to Him".
Since last year's fire, it has been kept in a secret location, but is due to go on public display in Turin Cathedral from 18 April to 14 June this year. After that, Cardinal Saldarini says, he would not be against new forensic tests. But this time the priority would be to research the conservation of the Shroud. It is getting yellower with age and some of the details of the image are fading fast. The circus is far from over.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies