The Literary Warp and Artistic Weft of Veronica’s Cloth

Herbert L. Kessler

(Baltimore & Brno)

A painting in the Louvre attributed to Jacquemart de Hesdin seems entirely natural in its inclusion of St. Veronica; stationed at the far left of the Way to Calvary, Veronica presents the portrait imprinted directly onto the cloth she used to wipe Christ’s face. So essential that even Mel Gibson’s allegedly literal recreation of the Passion includes the episode the motif was, in fact, unusual before Jacquemart’s pictured narrative. The painting’s principal visual model, Simone Martini’s panel also in the Louvre, includes the Jerusalem gate, the soldier seen from the back, the little boy, Mary and John, but no identifiable St. Veronica and no miraculous face. Indeed, the saint herself is relatively new in art. The earliest portraits of Veronica holding the Veronica are the fresco in Santa Maria de Hoè discussed by Stefano Candiani in this volume, a statue from 1313-15 in Écouis (southeast of Rouen), an a marginal figure in the Book of Hours of Yolanda of Flanders, dated 1353-58, which portray a young woman proffering the cloth which she displays in front of her. Independent depictions of the impressed face may to older, depending on when such pilgrim badges date, as one in the Musée Cluny where it is titled: “signet sanctu sodario”. A handful of narrative depictions introduce Veronica and the cloth, most notably a Biblia pauperum from the very end of the thirteenth century in the British Library (Kings MS. 5, fol. 16r). The development of artistic representations is, then, the reverse of the story Jacquemart depicted; instead of St. Veronica receiving the image bearing cloth from Christ on the way to Golgotha and the Veronica’s then becoming a venerated image, the sudarium Christi in St. Peter’s engendered the saint who, in turn, around 1400 came to be inserted into the Passion story.

This will not surprise those familiar with the textual history of the Veronica and St. Veronica, introduced in Ernst von Dobschütz’s Christusbilder and analyzed recently by Alvin Ford, Rémi Gounelle, Jean-Marie Sansterre, and others. The thirteenth-century development corresponds roughly to the elaboration of the story in such late-thirteenth-century works as the Bible en français of Roger d’Argenteuil and Vengeance de Nostre-Seigneur. The anti-Semitic contexts in the Book of Hours of Yolanda of Flanders and Jacquemart’s painting derive from the same sources. Although, in the former, Veronica might be intended as the counterpart of St. Denis in the upper right holding his head in his hands, she has nothing to do with the main depiction of the Visitation;  instead, her presence is connected to the bas-de-page that pictures Christ, led by Roman soldiers to the High Priest Caiaphas who, spurred on by his co-religionists, condemns Jesus.  In Jacquemart’s painting, a coherent narrative subsumes and elaborates the themes. Wearing a miter, the Jewish high priest counts the payment on his fingers to a co-conspirator whose collar is inscribed in gold Hebrew letters; and, following the Joseph d’Arimathie specifically, the Jews are portrayed gazing at Judah’s suicide while a devil absconds with the traitor’s moneybag.

  In these first pictures of Veronica with the Veronica, then, image is undoubtedly interwoven with texts. But which is the warp and which the weft? As Gounelle especially has demonstrated, the written legends are anything but stable. To cite the most important deviations, the face of Christ is a painting in the earliest accounts, and Veronica is not associated with Passion. Might, then, the actual relic in St. Peter’s have served as the warp for later written versions? A “sudarium quod Veronica vocatur” is attested in St. Peter’s from the ninth century; the later amplification to “sudarium vero, cum quo Christus faciem suam extersit, quod ab aliis Veronicae dicitur” like the original perhaps implying that the officially sanctioned relic was associated with Veronica only in popular belief. In any case, there is no evidence that it bore an image; indeed, as late as 1143, Peter Mallius, a canon of the basilica, referred to the “Oratorium Sanctae Genetricis Virginis Mariae quod vocatur Veronica, ubi sine dubio est Sudarium Christi,” but did not mention a face. The cloth may thus have resembled the (eighth-century?) sudarium in Oviedo which, in fact, corresponds very well to the description by Joseph Wilpert, the last scholar allowed to examine the Roman relic, who saw on the “square piece of light colored material, somewhat faded through age, two faint rust-brown stains, connected one to the other.” Of course, what Wilpert examined was not the ancient relic that French soldiers allegedly had carried off during the Sack of Rome in 1527, but rather the modern Veronica in a precious frame displayed every year on the fifth Sunday of Lent.

Beginning in the late twelfth century, the original came to be described as having an image. According to Roger Hoveden, Celestine III showed Philippe Auguste “a piece of linen cloth on which Jesus Christ pressed his face and, in that imprint, until this day, the face appears as clearly as if it were there; and it is called Veronica because the woman whose cloth it was was so named.” In fact, Pope Celestine (1191-98), who had a ciborium constructed for the relic, may have promoted the assimilation of the painted portrait that Veronica is reported in early legends to have brought to Rome to cure Tiberius’ leprosy with the sudarium venerated in St. Peter’s. Celestine’s successor, Innocent III, surely advanced the cult of the miraculously impressed face. Gervase of Tilbury in 1210-14 and Giraldus Cambrensis in 1216 accepted the legend, the latter providing the false etymology “Veronica quasi veram iconiam, id est, imaginem veram;” and it entered the Estoire de Saint Graal. Innocent IV cemented the relationship of saint, cloth, and image in the Ave facies praeclara; and, by the second half of the thirteenth century, the merger became fixed. Thus, the promoter of the Feast of Corpus Christi, Juliana of Cornillon, who died in 1258, tempered the sorrow evoked through her meditation on Christ’s suffering by opening a Veronica and “fixing her eyes on the image of the Savior.” On the early fourteenth-century Sta. Chiara altarpiece in Trieste, the face on the cloth offers the same solace by providing an island of contemplation between the scene of Christ Carrying the Cross and the Crucifixion, that is, in within the temporal sequence that Veronica where Veronica and her veil were later inserted.

How might an aniconic sudarium actually have been transformed into a face?   In much the same way the stained cloth Joseph Wilpert saw is today, namely, by the superimposing of a metal plate with a cut-out silhouette onto it; the tightly capped hair, three-pointed hair and beard, and dark shading are characteristics of Veronicas from Jaen to Prague to Vienna made in the same way. The squid-like dark form appears in the depiction of Pope Sixtus IV displaying the Veronica during the 1475 Jubilee in Ludovico Lazzerelli’s Fasti Christianae religionis at Yale, instance, and in Benedetto da Maiano’s mosaic above Giotto’s tomb in the Florence Duomo. More important, the flat shadowy form is reproduced on Ugo da Carpi’s painting for Celestine’s ciborium (made, perhaps, for the 1525 Jubilee year) in which, flanked by Rome’s two apostles, St. Veronica displays it on her cloth.

Representing the relic in St. Peter’s, these have little to do with the gentle face with long ringlets and pointed beard enclosed within a gold halo on the cloth of the Trieste altarpiece, for instance; but they do resemble closely another miraculously made image of Christ’s face, namely, the Mandylion transferred by Jesus himself onto a handkerchief (mandil) and sent to Edessa to cure King Abgar. The Mandylion legend was well known in the West from at least the eighth century when Theodulf of Orleans devoted a chapter to it in the Libri carolini; and Gervase of Tilbury begins his discussion of “Images of the Lord” with it. Two Mandylions survive in Italy, one in Genoa and the other from San Silvestro in Rome (now in the Vatican). The latter, like the Veronica, was hardly ever seen; but twenty years ago those participating in the symposium that Gerhard Wolf and I organized on Christ’s Holy Face were afforded the exceptional privilege of studying it in the Vatican conservation laboratory. (The faces impressed in this photo, include Wolf’s and mine, and those of Averil Cameron, Han Drijvers, Colette Dufour, Jean-Claude Schmitt, Jeffrey Hamburger, Hans Belting, and Christoph Egger’s.) A gilt plate frames the face, as also the Genoa icon which, technical analysis reveals, began as a painted panel which was later covered with a cloth.

The oldest written sources about the Veronica engage aspects of the Abgar legend; and the two faces made directly from Christ’s are often confused with one another.   Indeed, well into the thirteenth century, the one was substituted for the other, as in the well-known case of the Sainte Face in Laon, a painted panel identified as a Mandylion by the Cyrillic titulus: “The Lord’s image on a handkerchief.” Jacques Pantaleon sent this painted Mandylion to his sister cloistered in Montreuil-les-Dames in 1249 who had asked for a “sanctam Veronicam seu veram ipsius imaginem et similitudinem.” Likely related to the one Juliana of Cornillon looked at for consolation a few years later, the Laon Mandylion-Veronica is one of many witnesses to the Veronica’s and St. Veronica’s special veneration in France (as witnessed by the Hours of Yolanda of Flanders and Jacquemart’s painting).

In texts, too, the Mandylion many virtues with the Veronica: both originated in the Holy Land and both were taken abroad to effect cures; and their very interchangeability made the point that, as true likenesses impressed from Christ’s face, they were more or less identical with one another. Thus, writing a short time after the St. Peter’s sudarium was reconfigured as a kind of Mandylion, Gervase of Tilbury not only described both the Mandylion and Veronica but also claimed that the Lucca Volto Santo originated from an impressed linen cloth,   and the Sancta Sanctorum icon, too, “imprinted in a miraculous way on a panel . . . not unlike the Veronica in St. Peter’s basilica, or the portrait which inside the oratory of St. Lawrence, or the Image of Lucca.” A short time before that, Innocent III had had the seventh-century Sancta Sanctorum painting of the enthroned Emmanuel framed so that the head was outlined in precious metal, just as the Mandylions and Veronica are, and as later versions codify. And Sansterre’s careful reading of Jacques Pantaleon’s letter to his sister also indicates that the “veram ipsius imaginem et similitudenem” refers, not to the Veronica in Rome but rather to Christ’s face depicted, as it were, in the Mandylion he sent her.   In other words, just as modern scholars do who deduce Christ’s portrait by folding, flipping, and photo-shopping the Shroud of Turin, Manopello face, and other “true” faces, medieval authors and image-makers reduced all variants to a single vera icona.

As I have argued elsewhere for the Mandylion, the Veronica’s dark face was a negative form that required physical expression in full paintings or reliefs, in the manner of seals, coin dies, molds for making badges (the titulus of the Musée Cluny token  emphasizes that it is a “signet”) and—significantly Eucharistic Host stamps. Gervase of Tilbury captured the idea when he described Nicodemus’ making a copy of the image impressed in the cloth and, then, treating the cloth as, itself, a relic by “enclosing it inside the new work together with a flask of the Lord’s blood, one of the nails” etc.; and artists working in modern reproductive media—woodblock printing, engraving, etching, and ultimately photography—also declared their character as “images-not-made-by-hand” by copying the Holy Face, as Jeffrey Hamburger, Aden Kumler, Alexander Nagel, and others have shown; and Benedetto da Maiano encapsulated artistic revolution itself on Giotto’s tomb by making an effigy of the artist painting the Veronica. Inscribing the Veronica “fata senza penello,” Ugo da Carpi embedded the idea in his altarpiece. Nicole Blackwood has pointed out in a brilliant new article that, in addition to the “instrumenti capricciosi” Vasari refers to, the print maker formed the shadowy figure from a woodblock and then, in a play on “acheiropoietos,” worked the paint with his own fingers. A comparison of Ugo da Carpi’s rendering with Parmigianino’s drawing for it provides the clue as to how we might understand fully realized versions that coexisted with the dark outlined face: the one is the relic, the other presentification. Indeed, Parmigianino captures the transition from one state to another by showing the left side in shadow and the right in full light.

As Hamburger has observed, the darkness conveys Christ’s suffering in the way a line from Innocent IV’s prayer does: “anxietate denigrata, sacro sanguine rigate;” the fully realized portrait thus also offered an image of the face the blessed will see at the end of time. Jacques Pantaleon hinted at the idea when he wrote to his sister that the blessed face was dark because God “worked in the field of this world for our salvation and his visage was darkened by the fire of his tribulations,” but the face in the icon conveys something of the eternal glory that awaits in the future. And the magnificent St. Veronica in Frankfurt, painted ca. 1430 by the Master of Flémalle, captures the effect of the shadowy relic in the process of becoming an image. Even in this tour-de-force of the new art of oil painting, however, the warp of literature is apparent. The elaborate wimple is surely an allusion in the Vengeance de Nostre-Seigneur to Veronica’s “guimple tornee;” and the elderly face and the neat folds of her veil surely derive from the same account, which is set forty years after Christ’s death and which reports that when Veronica and Clement prayed together for the restoration of Vespasian’s health “she unfolded the cloth and had him adore it.” Just as Juliana of Cornillon is described, first, opening the (physical) Veronica and then looking at Christ in the eyes (“aperuisset Veronicam suam; Christi Virgo fixit occulos ad imaginem Salvatoris”), the Master of Flémalle reinforced the conceit of the dark relic becoming a visible face by painting the grid of creases, a dynamic that was amplified when the wing was folded back to reveal the central subject. As in the Hours of Yolanda of Flanders and all the other Veronicas, text and image are interwoven.

Even more so in complex narratives, of course, such as Jacquemart’s Christ Bearing the Cross painted a generation earlier. Lacing the weft of a text onto this warp of art passed down through Simone Martini’s composition, Veronica’s proffering Christ’s eternal visage in the Louvre picture not only provides an island of contemplation within the tumultuous narrative (as Juliana of Cornillon’s did) but also elicited the Vengeance de Nostre-Seigneur which has St. Veronica cite the daughters of Jerusalem (shown praying above the two patrons) and then quote a passage from the Gospel of Mark: “Everyone who has left everything for the name of Christ will receive a hundredfold and will possess eternal life.” This renunciation of mundane wealth counterbalances the devil’s absconding with Judah’s money bag and motivates the praying donors. At the same time, it exemplifies Veronica’s stated commitment (in the passage immediately preceding this one in the Vengeance) to “worship him and serve him as long as I live because my redeemer himself lives, and on the last day, I shall see God, my savior.” The picture’s function and hence its very making depends on these distinct stands, both visual and literary.

Like the other Veronicas, Jacquemart’s deploys the available literary warp and artistic weft; but his and the others were woven on separate and distinct looms.

The European Fortune of the Roman Veronica ​in the Middle Ages