ROME (Reuters) - Carbon dating has cast doubt on the authenticity of one of four robes kept by Italian churches as relics of the medieval Saint Francis of Assisi, though another tunic, a belt and a cushion were found to be the right vintage.
Friars from two churches of the Franciscan order founded by the saint asked a laboratory specialising in dating artwork to examine two simple brown tunics said to have been worn by the champion of the poor, as well as a mortuary cushion.
Francis who gave up the life of a playboy and soldier and all his worldly goods to dedicate himself to the poor and preach the way of peace, died in 1226. His hometown, Assisi, attracts millions of Christian pilgrims every year.
Artistic depictions of the saint show him dressed in a brown robe with a rope belt — the habit still worn by his order.
Four Franciscan churches have claimed to house relics. The tests showed that one, in the Basilica of Cortona in Tuscany, did date from his lifetime, as did an embroidered cushion said to have come from his deathbed.
A second robe from Florence’s Basilica of the Holy Cross did not match the dates, though the belt around it did.
“The tunic and cushion from Cortona were found compatible with the period in which Saint Francis lived but the one from Florence wasn’t,” said Pier Andrea Mando of the Nuclear Physics Laboratory in Florence, in a statement released on Wednesday.
The other two robes are kept in churches in Assisi and Arezzo belonging to a different branch of the order and were not included in the tests, which used accelerator mass spectrometry to measure the amount of carbon-14 present in samples of cloth.
Francis, the son of a wealthy merchant, is said to have found his vocation while praying in a ruined wayside chapel. He heard a voice saying: “Go, Francis, and repair my house.”
Pope Benedict visited Assisi in June for the 800th anniversary of St Francis’ conversion.
Carbon dating of St Francis’ robes has none of the controversy surrounding tests in 1988 on the Shroud of Turin, which bears an imprint many Catholics believe to be Jesus and has been venerated for centuries as Christ’s burial cloth.
Findings dating it from at least 1260 AD were bitterly contested by some in the Church.