Face to face with Christ in Late Medieval Rome. The Veil of Veronica in Papal Liturgy and Ceremony

Jörg Bölling



The Veil of Veronica (“sudarium”) was one of the main relics preserved at the grave of Saint Peter, “prince of the apostles”. Whereas the other most important contact relics, pieces of the Holy Cross and the Holy Lance of Longinus, had no image of their own, the Veil in the belief of the faithful showed the face of Jesus Christ and thereby that of God himself. So it was used for the “visio Dei” (Alexa Sand). Hence, people were able to receive indulgences by viewing it. This naturally drew crowds of pilgrims from throughout Europe, especially during the Holy Year.

In the light of its meaning for the Saviour’s Passion the Veil was used during Lent, especially at the end of the so-called “Tenebrae” – when all candles were extinguished and only the Veil of Veronica could be seen and worshipped. As late as the mid-20th century, the German author Gertrud von le Fort describes its presentation in that way in her novel “Das Schweißtuch der Veronika”.

The medieval forms of presentation, however, were considerably more complex. According to rather arcane sources, diaries and treatises of the papal masters of ceremony, the Veil had its special significance also with regard to Saint Peter and the pope. So, for some occasions, it was rather a part of the papal ceremonial than of the Roman liturgy. Sometimes it was even used to keep people in safety when a large crowd needed to be prevented from walking the wrong way. Therefore, the Veil of Veronica in late medieval Rome requires new consideration – with regard to both liturgy and ceremony.

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