Veronica’s Veil: Putting a Face on the Savior in the Middle Ages

Attended a talk yesterday about one of the most famed relics of the Catholic Church:  Veronica’s Veil, a cloth which bears the miraculous image of the face of Jesus.  As the story goes, when Jesus was carrying the cross, a woman knelt to wipe the sweat from his face with her kerchief (properly, a sudarium), and came away with this image.

a photograph that purports to show Veronica's Veil

Veronica's Veil

This moment is commemorated in the sixth station of the Cross–and recreated in hundreds of paintings and sculptures from the Medieval period.  Legend has it that the woman carried this miraculous cloth to Rome and used to it heal the emperor.  It remained in Rome, eventually getting its own shrine in St. Peter’s Cathedral.  It was a popular pilgrimage destination, the more so after 1207 when Pope Innocent III brought it out on procession and declared an indulgence for anyone who came to see it.  Apparently, this “get-out-of-purgatory” free card even extended to those who saw images of the veil, not the thing itself, which may explain its proliferation in art.

You’ll see it depicted as a cloth with the face of a bearded man, sometimes eyes open, sometimes closed, sometimes in suffering, sometimes not.  I’m not here to comment on the authenticity of relics in general, or this one in particular, although the image above, from a monastery that claimed to have received it from a pilgrim in the 16th century, is likely a medieval or early modern creation.  For those interested in the history of relics and their veneration, I suggest Steven Sora’s Treasures from Heaven which contains all sorts of history and references for this and other famous relics.  The book is a bit too credulous, IMHO, trying a bit too hard to please both sides by offering the known scientific evidence, while still concluding that these things are real.

Personally, as the author of medieval fantasy novels, I’m intrigued by the idea of the manufacture of certain kinds of relics.  The Shroud of Turin, for instance.  Some evidence suggests that it is the imprint of a crucified man–but that it may be medieval in origin.  So some guy may have been deliberately crucified to produce this work.  Who was he?  Who killed him?  Relics may not be for real, but, to the non-religious viewer, that can make them that much more fascinating.  As Tim Powers says, that’s all a fantasy writer needs. . .

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in fantasy, fiction, history, medieval, relics, religion, research and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Veronica’s Veil: Putting a Face on the Savior in the Middle Ages

  1. John Cage says:

    Check out the discovery in 2011 by Vincenzo Giovanni Ruello on his photo discovered in the Vatican St Peters Veronica Veil

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