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The Holy Mandylion: A Déjà-view

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 36.1, January/February 2012

Figure 1. The author poses with the Holy Face of Genoa—one of two said to be the Edessan Image, or Mandylion—an allegedly miraculous self-portrait of Christ. (Author’s photo)Figure 1. The author poses with the Holy Face of Genoa—one of two said to be the Edessan Image, or Mandylion—an allegedly miraculous self-portrait of Christ. (Author’s photo)

It was like déjà-vu. In 2008, in a traveling exhibition called “Vatican Splendors,” I had seen the Holy Mandylion, also known as the Image of Edessa, which was once held to be the miraculous self-portrait of Christ (Nickell 2009). Now, in Genoa the following year, I was seeing another such image and recalling how in the Dark Ages the Image was said to be able to miraculously duplicate itself—one way to explain how there could be so many “originals.”

Pious Legend

The original, according to legend, was produced for King Abgar of Edessa after he sent a messenger, Ananias, with a letter to Jesus requesting a cure for the king’s leprosy. If Jesus was unable to come, Ananias was instructed, he was to bring the holy man’s portrait instead. But as Ananias attempted to paint a picture Jesus himself intervened, washing his face in water and inexplicably imprinting his visage on a towel—hence the name Mandylion, a unique word of Byzantine Greek coinage describing a holy facecloth (Wilson 1979, 272–290; Vatican 2008).

Alas, this legend is unknown before the fourth century; moreover, there are conflicting versions. One attributes the Image to the bloody sweat exuded by Jesus during his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44). A later legend holds that a woman named Veronica, who pitied Jesus as he struggled with his cross on the way to his crucifixion, gave him her veil or kerchief with which to wipe his bloody, sweaty face. In fact, however, this made-up tale obviously derives from the fact that veronica is simply a corruption of vera iconica, medieval Latin for “true image” (Nickell 2007, 71–76). In one revealing fourth-century text of the Edessan legend, the image is not claimed as miraculous but instead merely the work of Hannan (Ananias), who “painted a portrait of Jesus in choice paints” and gave it to the King (qtd. in Wilson 1979, 130).

Astonishingly, many Shroud of Turin devotees, following Ian Wilson (1979, 119–121), believe the “shroud” is the lost original of the Edessan Image! How do they equate the latter’s face-only image with the full-length, front-and-back bodily images of the Turin cloth? They imagine the shroud was folded so that only the face showed—never mind its lack of record for over thirteen centuries, a bishop’s report of the forger’s confession, pigments and paint that make up the image and “blood,” and radiocarbon dating to the time of the forger’s confession: about the middle of the fourteenth century (Nickell 1998; 2007).

Competing Mandylions

According to the authoritative source The Dictionary of Art (Turner 1996), the Edessan Image “entered Christian iconography during the 11th and 12th centuries, first in manuscript picture cycles that were elaborated to accompany narratives of the Edessan legend and then as part of a fixed scheme of images in church decoration.” Three of these “original” Mandylions have received the most attention, each supposedly having been the very one brought to Constantinople in 1204 by crusaders. One, the Parisian Mandylion, was acquired by King Louis IX in the thirteenth century and became lost in 1792, probably destroyed in the French Revolution.

Of the two surviving examples, the Vatican Mandylion has no certain history prior to the sixteenth century. In 1517 the nuns of San Silvestro in Capito were reportedly forbidden to exhibit it so that it would not compete with their church’s “Veronica” (Wilson 1991). The Vatican now concedes (in the official Vatican Splendors exhibit text [Vatican 2008]) that “. . . the Mandylion is no longer enveloped today by any legend of its origin as an image made without the intervention of human hands. . . .” I understand this to be an admission that not only is the Vatican version merely an artist’s rendering but that such is true of all Mandylions.

This brings us to the other surviving image, the Genoese Mandylion. It, too, lacks meaningful provenance. It is allegedly traceable to the tenth century, but its verifiable history dates only from 1362. At that time Byzantine Emperor John V donated it to Genoa’s Doge Leonardo Montaldo after whose death in 1384 it was bequeathed to the Genoese Church of St. Bartholomew of the Armenians. It arrived there in 1388; that is where it remains and where I photographed it (Figure 1), displayed in a gilt-silver enameled frame of the fourteenth-century Palaeologan style.

Interestingly, fragments of ancient Persian and Arabian fabrics were found stuck on the back of the Genoese icon panel. The Arabian fragment is from the sixteenth century, whereas the figural silk Persian one has been attributed to the tenth century on stylistic grounds. However, radiocarbon testing of the wood gave a more reliable date range of 1240–1280 (Wolf 2005).

Similarities

Both the Vatican and the Genoese Mandylions are painted (the Genoese in egg tempera, the Vatican apparently the same) on linen cloth that has been glued to a wood panel (Vatican 2008; Church of St. Bartholomeo degli Armeni 2009; Wilson 1991, 113–114, 137–138). However, both X-rays and tomography (an X-ray technique whereby selected planes are photographed) reveal that the Genoese image-bearing cloth covers an original image painted on wood (Bozzo 1994). Also, the Vatican’s on-cloth image shows alterations (in X-rays and reflectographic and thermographic photographs), especially in the nose, which was originally shorter, “so that the image originally must have had a different physiognomy” (Vatican 2008, 58).

In 1996, the Vatican Museum’s experts concluded (according to Vatican 2008, 58):

The version in the Vatican and the one in Genoa are almost wholly identical in their representation, form, technique, and measurements. Indeed, they must at some point in their history have crossed paths, for the rivet holes that surround the Genoese image coincide with those that attach the Vatican Mandylion to the cut-out sheet of silver that frames the image. . . . So this silver frame, or one like to it must also have originally covered in the Genoa.

See my summary comparison of the two Mandylions (Table 1—based on Vatican 2008; Bozzo 1974; Wolf 2005).

Table 1. Summary comparison of the Vatican and Genoese Mandylions.Table 1. Summary comparison of the Vatican and Genoese Mandylions.

Indeed, the images themselves, as they now appear to the eye, are remarkably alike. Measurement ratios—involving the most critical areas: the eyes, lengthy nose, and mouth—are strikingly similar. Therefore, when photographs of the images are brought to the same scale (based on inter-pupillary distance), those features effectively superimpose, as I determined by using computer-generated transparencies. (These were prepared by CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga using photos taken by art experts [Wilson 1991, plates 13 and 14]. However, the lack of a forensic scale in each prevents reaching a definite conclusion as to whether tracing might have been involved.)

Conclusions

Since the prototypical image for the later Mandylions and “Veronicas” first appeared in Constantinople in the tenth century, many copies have been made. In one known seventeenth-century instance, no fewer than six “exact” facsimiles were carefully made. Such replicas could later be mistaken for or misrepresented as the original, as happened, for example, with one that was specially made and sent to plague-ridden Venice in the 1470s; it later became known as the Holy Face of Alicante in Spain (Wilson 1991, 101–108).

Perhaps this is what occurred in the case of the two existing Mandylions. The Genoese image, with its older provenance and two-stage creation, appears to be the earliest. Its original image was certainly an artist’s copy, since it was painted not on cloth but directly on the wood panel. (One source reports that it has the same dimensions as the missing central panel of a triptych in the St. Catharine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai [Wolf 2005].)

Vatican experts acknowledge the evidence suggesting that their Mandylion is “a later replica of the one now in Genoa; that it was produced in the fourteenth century, when the Genoese version . . . was given its existing Palaeologan frame; and that it was then placed in the silver frame of the older version,” thus explaining the matched rivet holes (Vatican 2008, 57). Their main reservation is that the alterations in the Vatican image’s features (especially the nose) may be inconsistent with a simple, direct copy. However, it would seem that the alterations might be due only to the image having been alternately painted and corrected in the freehand process of copying it. Expert examination, in fact, showed “no signs of overpainting” (Vatican 2008, 57).

In brief, then, the totality of evidence is most consistent with the hypothesis that the Genoan Mandylion is a replica, made no earlier than the thirteenth century, and that the Vatican Mandylion is a fourteenth-century copy of that replica. There is no proof that either was directly copied from the now-lost twentieth-century “original,” and instead there is proof against it. Neither is there any credible evidence that there was an authentic first-century image of Jesus—miraculous or otherwise. The Shroud of Turin is not such an original, having been proven to be the work of a confessed forger in the middle of the fourteenth century. Thus, the shroud image simply followed the traditional likeness and not the other way around.


Acknowledgments

Many people helped with this research project. Massimo Polidoro saw to it that I was invited to Italy’s largest science festival (October 30–November 1, 2009); he and others, including Luigi Garlaschelli, Enrico Scalas, Beatrice Mautino, Stefano Bagnasco, Marta Annunziata, and Andrea Ferrero, showed me many kindnesses and accompanied me to various sites for research. I am also most appreciative of Fabio Lottero of Genoa, who returned to St. Bartholomew’s to obtain for me an English translation of the official brochure. Closer to home, I am grateful to Tim Binga, Lisa Nolan, Henry Huber, Matt Cravatta, Paul E. Loynes, Chris Fix, and Barry Karr for their help with various aspects of my travel and research—in addition to my longsuffering wife, Diana Harris, who accompanied me in 2008 to view the traveling Vatican exhibit.


References

Bozzo, Collette Dufour. 1974. Il ‘Sacro Volto’ di Genova. Rome: Instituto Nazionale d’Archeologia e Storia dell’ Arte; summarized in Wilson 1991, 88, 113–114, 138.

Church of St. Bartholomeo degli Armeni. 2009. The Holy Face (Official brochure, in English).

Nickell, Joe. 1998. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.

———. 2007. Relics of the Christ. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.

———. 2009. The Image of Edessa revealed. Skeptical Briefs 19(2)(June): 9–10, 15.

Turner, Jane, ed. 1996. The Dictionary of Art. 34 vols. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries, 20:251, s.v. Mandylion of Edessa.

Vatican. 2008. Mandylion of Edessa. In Vatican Splendors: From Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Swiss Guard. Vatican City State: Governatorato, 55–58.

Wilson, Ian. 1979. The Shroud of Turin: The Burial Cloth of Jesus Christ? Revised ed. Garden City, New York: Image Books.

———. 1991. Holy Faces, Secret Places: An Amazing Quest for the Face of Jesus. New York: Doubleday.

Wolf, Gerhard. 2005. Das Mandylion von Genua. Available online at www.mpg.de/840449/forschungsSchwerpunkt1.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.