Wednesday, March 28, 2012


An Ancient Painting of Veronica Wiping the Face of Jesus

Hello My Friend and Welcome.

As our Lenten-Easter Study draws to a close, we turn to three relics of Jesus’ passion and death. Some folks have problems with the concept of relics. Even if you happen to be one of those people, I encourage you to read along anyway. You may find your view of relics changing. 

Have you ever known someone who possessed a picture of…say their great-great grandfather? Bringing out a box, they carefully remove an old tintype. Then, with care and extreme pride, they offer it to you, saying, “This is a photo of my great, great grandfather.” You stare down at the aged photo of a young man with a mustache. Standing erect, in pinstripe suit and starched collar, he looks rather solemn. Standing beside him is an equally somber woman in a long dress holding an infant. “It was taken the day he enlisted to fight in the Civil War,” you’re told. So what, it’s only a photograph, right? But to them it’s much more. It’s a memory, a link to their history…a way to know someone who died many years before they were born. 

Like all civilizations, we revere our past and its heroes. These people represent our highest ideals and greatest achievements. We write books about them, build monuments to them, turn their homes into museums, and treasure even the small everyday items they used. It’s not unusual to hear some speak of them with deep admiration, even reverence. Why should we expect the Early Christians to have been any different? They held the saints and martyrs in high esteem, but they do not worship them. The same applies to relics. They are not worshipped, but they are certainly venerated by many people. 

At one time or another, most of us have heard the story of Veronica and her veil. According to the legend, Veronica was a pious woman from Jerusalem who encountered Christ on his way to Calvary. Deeply moved by his suffering and seeing His face covered with sweat and blood, she wiped it with her veil. She later found his portrait imprinted on the cloth.

The Image on the Veil
 Her veil still exists today. It is a relic of our Lord’s passion. The nearly transparent cloth measures about 6.5 by 9.5 inches and bears the dark red features of a bearded man with long hair and open eyes. It is the face of a young man who has suffered greatly. He looks tired and the marks of blows are clear…bruises on his forehead, clotted blood on his nose, one pupil slightly dilated. Yet, in spite of the evident signs of suffering and pain, the look is of a serene man enduring his suffering with patience.  

It’s a story that’s been told and retold. Zefferelli included it in his movie, Jesus of Nazareth, and I included it in my book, Witness. Yet the scene appears nowhere in the Bible. In fact, it comes from an apocryphal book called The Acts of Pilate. Critics say this is proof the story of Veronica’s Veil is nothing but pious fiction, legends developed over the ages. They also claim her name, Veronica, is a combination of the words true vera (Latin) and image eikon (Greek).  

Let’s put the name thing to rest first. The idea of a manufactured name can be traced back to the Otia Imperialia of Gervase of Tilbury in Essex, England (d. 1211) Gervase’s work was translated and distributed throughout Europe. The idea took hold and has been passed down ever since. Like the mistaken belief that Christmas was placed on December 25th to coincide with the pagan celebration of the solstice (HERE) or that Easter began as the feast of the goddess Eostre, (HERE) these myths are easily refuted with a few facts.

We all know that names move from one culture to another, changing and adapting as they go. Sometimes they’re easily recognized, as in the case of Edward and Eduardo. Other times, the connection is not so obvious. For instance, in Russian John becomes Ivan, in Scottish Ian, and in German Yohan. The same sort of thing existed in Biblical times. People frequently had two names, one Greek and one Aramaic. The apostle Simon was called Cephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek…both mean building stone or rock. The Greek form of Berenice is Berenike which, interestingly enough, in Latin becomes…Veronica.  

Veronica’s Veil has a tradition and documented history far exceeding the Shroud of Turin. For hundreds of years it was enshrined in St. Peter’s Basilica. Then when the part of the Basilica containing the relic was scheduled for remodeling, it disappeared. It eventually resurfaced in a Capuchin church in the town of Manoppello, in Italy's Abruzzi region. Farmers and fishermen there have revered this veil for centuries as The Holy Face (Il Volto Santo). Before the veil came to the Vatican, it was in Constantinople, and before that it was in the Middle East. A Syrian text from Kamulia in Cappadocia from the Sixth Century tells us that the image was on a material “drawn out of the water” and “not painted by human hand.”  

Pope Benedict XVI Examing Veronica's Veil
When this image first arrived in Rome, curious pilgrims were drawn to it like metal to a magnet. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims who went to Jerusalem often decorated themselves with branches of palm trees on their return. Even today, a sign of the pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela is a shell. Likewise, pilgrims to Rome stitched miniature images of Christ onto their capes on their way home: little pictures of the “Sancta Veronica Ierosolymitana” — the holy Veronica of Jerusalem.  

The veil itself is transparent, much like a silk stocking. The image is less a painting and more like a large photographic slide. The delicate cloth is a golden, honey color, which is how Gertrud of Helfta described the face of Christ in the 13th century. Held up to the light, the veil becomes transparent and shows the countenance in three-dimensional, almost holographic clarity on both sides.  

Given its consistency, the veil would seem to be made of nylon — a fabric invented by DuPont in 1935. What is it then…cotton, wool, linen? All are much too thick to allow this immaterial transparency, even silk does not permit it.  

So what is the veil made of?  Byssus. And what, you ask, is that? The word byssus originated with Biblical Hebrew būts or butz בוץ meaning “a fiber or fabric distinguished by its fineness.” The word is used to describe the fine white linen used for the priestly vestments and carpets in the Holy of Holies. 

Translated into Latin, it became byssus and referred to fine sea silk. A deep golden bronze color, the cloth is spun from tufts of the long, tough filaments that certain bi-valve mollusks, principally the pinna noblilis or pen shell, use to attach themselves to rocks. It was the most expensive fabric of the ancient world and has been found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs. The Greek historian, Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 500 BC, described it as “a gauzelike cloth of a golden hue…made from the fine threads of many mollusks. It is finer than a hair…”

Fine Threads of Byssus
 Chiara Vigo, who lives on a small island off the coast of Sardinia, is one of the world’s last weavers of byssus. She examined the cloth of Veronica’s veil and confirmed that it is indeed spun from byssus. All proportions of the image conform to life-size measurements of the human face and there is no trace of color or paint anywhere on the cloth. Sister Blandina Paschalis Schlomer, a German Trappist nun, pharmacist and icon painter, made painstaking comparisons of the image on the Manoppello cloth and the face of the man depicted on the Shroud of Turin. Every detail of both faces is congruent. They are the same size, the same shape, with the same wounds…in other words, the same man. 

So there we have the facts regarding Veronica’s Veil. None of this convinces some skeptics. Nothing ever will. In the final analysis it’s more about faith than science anyway, isn’t it? 

The next time we’ll examine the Sudarium, or cloth that covered the Lord’s face and head. 

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings 

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