The Veil of Veronica: From Concealment to Revelation

 by Mary-Catharine Carroll*

Department of Theology, Saint Paul University Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

The Veil of Veronica (called the Veronica) belongs to the tradition of miraculous images on cloth that claim to be made from the imprint of Christ’s face. Called Volto santo, or Holy Face, they include the Holy Face of Manoppello, the Holy Face of Vienna, the Holy Face of Alicante, Holy Face of Jaén, the Holy Face of San Silvestro and the Roman Veronica. These images are described as “not made by human hands” (Gr. Acheiropoieta).

An early example is found in the legend of Abgar, King of Edessa. In the story, the King will not be seen in public because his face has been disfigured by leprosy. Hearing about Jesus’ miracles, Abgar writes to him requesting help. Jesus replies that he cannot visit, but instead will send a disciple to Edessa. The disciple cures Abgar in Jesus’ name, Abgar is baptized and Jesus’ letter is used as a talisman to protect the city. By the 4th century, however, the letter is replaced by a cloth imprinted with Jesus’ image – known as the Image of Edessa or Mandylion, the cloth produced many miracles over the centuries. The image was allegedly discovered in 525 C.E. when a cloth bearing the facial features of a man was discovered hidden in the wall above one of the city gates.

Another miraculous image tradition is of St. Luke’s painting an icon of the Virgin and child. The story says that St. Luke painted the image on a tabletop that Jesus had made in his earthly father’s workshop. While Mary sat for the icon, she told St. Luke about the life of her Son, which he later recorded in his Gospel. The legend first appeared in the 8th century, in a work called On the Veneration of Holy Images by Andrew of Crete who was writing during a time of the controversy over the Byzantine tradition of icon veneration. The early 8th to the mid-9th century featured several periods of iconoclasm that required a defense of sacred art, including icons of Christ. While iconoclasts opposed the use of religious images and sought to ban their production, iconophiles worked to maintain the practice, believing that images were important teaching tools that honoured God and enhanced worship.

Iconoclasts argued that the second Commandment prohibited icon veneration:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down  to  them  or  worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).

While iconoclasm is sometimes understood in light of the Jewish, and later Islamic, prohibition against holy images, disagreements often occurred in areas of conflicting interpretations of Christ’s nature and person (in other words, the Incarnation).

The First Council of Nicaea (325) condemned the teachings of Arius and its variations, which asserted that the Son (Christ) was a creature, brought forth by the free choice of the Father. Athanasius of Alexandria defended the orthodox view that Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father. The Nicene Creed, which emphasizes Jesus as “consubstantional with the Father … Begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” rejected Arianism and established clear teaching on Christ’s divinity. The Council further anathematized those who implied “there once was when he was not,” or “before he was begotten he was not,” or that he came to be from things that were not, or from another substance, or that the Son of God is subject to change or alteration.

Then, the Council of Ephesus (431), addressed Bishop Nestorius who distinguished between Jesus’ divine and human natures. Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, responded that Jesus was one person with two natures, one human, one divine. The Council agreed and insisted that he was truly one person, one being.

One century later, the Council of Chalcedon (451) confronted the Monophysite heresy, which held that Christ’s human nature had been absorbed by his divine nature. Chalcedon declared that Christ was one person, or hypostasis, “known in two natures [divine and human] without division or separation, confusion or change.” In the late 7th century, the second Council of Constantinople (680 – 681) condemned Monothelitism, which accepted that Christ had a divine and a human nature, but taught that he had a divine will, but no human will.

In 726, Emperor Leo III (717-741) proclaimed that the use of statues, pictures and icons in worship was idolatry and ordered the removal of Christ’s image from the imperial palace in Constantinople. Then, in February 754, the Council of Hieria ordered their removal from churches and persecuted those who supported them:

After we had carefully examined their decrees under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation–namely, the Incarnation of Christ.

[The painter] makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently, it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus, he is guilty of a double blasphemy–the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and the man.

In Three Treatises on the Divine Images, John of Damascus (676 – 749), wrote: “I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh” (III, 6). At the same time, it was idolatrous to make an image of the invisible God, whom, John asserted is “incorporeal and formless, invisible and uncircumscribable” (II, 5). And, neither did he make “a likeness of God, nor of anything else as God” nor did he “worship the creation instead of the Creator” (II, 9). John argued that icons of Christ are similar to but are not exact reproductions of the original.

John also clarified the difference between worship and veneration – while worship is reserved exclusively for God, other persons, places and objects may be venerated, including the Virgin Mary and the saints; and humans (because they are in the image of God). John insisted that iconophiles depicted and venerated the image of the incarnate God but worshipped the prototype. He also quoted Basil the Great’s famous assessment that “the honor offered to the image mounts up to the archetype” (III, 41).

Christ, the Incarnation, redeemed humanity and creation (matter) – both of which were made by God. Therefore, matter can lead the faithful to the “immaterial God” (II, 22). John explained “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter,” and “I will not cease from honouring that matter which works for my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God” (I, 16). Clearly, John’s theology of the icon was based on the Incarnation, the revelation of the image of God in the human form of Jesus Christ.

And, in 787, the second Council of Nicaea concurred that because Christ was revealed in the flesh, sacred images were part of the unwritten tradition going back to apostolic times. And, anathema was declared on anyone who would not confess that Christ could be represented in his humanity.

In the Latin West, the acheiropoieta motif was associated with a woman whose name, some believe, is a combination of the Latin word, vera (true) and the Greek word, ikona (image). There are several versions of the Veronica story, the most familiar being the meeting between Jesus and Veronica on the road to Calvary. In it, Veronica wipes Jesus’ face with her veil and then his image miraculously appears on the cloth. Veronica goes on to use the cloth to heal disease.

While this familiar version dates to the late medieval period, there is an earlier tradition of Jesus and a woman that is related to an image of Christ. In Church History, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (263 – 339 CE), wrote about a woman in that city who commissioned a bronze statue of herself and one of Jesus:

“For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman … They say that this statue is an image of Jesus … Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honour indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.”

In the apocryphal Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus), from the 4th century, a woman named Berenice testifies for Jesus during his trial, and although there is no reference to a miraculous cloth, when Jesus enters the praetorium to be tried by Pontius Pilate, the tops of the standards bearing the image of the Emperor bend down and adore him. In the early medieval Curing of Tiberius, the facially disfigured Emperor is healed by Veronica’s miraculous cloth; and, in the Vengeance of the Saviour, dated to the early 8th century, Veronica’s cloth cures King Titus’ facial cancer and the Emperor’s leprosy. The Golden Legend, from the late 13th century, has Veronica walking to an artist’s workshop to commission a portrait of her beloved friend, Jesus. On her way there, she meets Jesus who takes her cloth, presses it to his face and imprints his image on it. And, like the other stories, the cloth goes on to cure various illnesses.

So far, none of the stories locate the Jesus and Veronica meeting on the via Dolorosa.

But, in several late medieval French narratives, including Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie and the Bible en François, the Veronica story is transposed onto the via Dolorosa.

So far, I’ve been talking about literary versions of the Veronica story. Somewhere between the 8th (Pope John VII reportedly had a reliquary made for the Veronica in 705) and the 10th century, a cloth that tradition linked to Christ’s Passion was venerated at Old St. Peter’s Basilica. Called a sudarium (or sweat cloth), it was allegedly stained with Jesus’ sweat and blood, but was not considered a likeness of his face. Eventually, however, the cloth began to be revered as a portrait of the Saviour and became an important relic of the Passion.

Near the end of the 12th century, the Archdeacon, Gerald of Wales, wrote that the cloth at St. Peter’s was “a true icon … a true image.” In Otia Imperialia, composed between 1214 and 1218, the canon lawyer, Gervase of Tilbury, called the Veronica “a true physical picture of the Lord,” but added that it was covered by a veil. Later, in 1245, the Chronica majora (1245) of the Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris, included a popular reproduction of the Veronica and mentioned that Pope Innocent III, who was particularly devoted to the Veronica, had written the prayer, Salve sancta facies (Hail Holy Face) that, when recited in front of the Veronica (or a replica), would reduce a person’s time in Purgatory. The introduction of prayers attests to the cloth’s representation in word and image, and its ontology as legend and object.

The Veronica was the first holy image to be associated with an indulgence. In the 14th century, Pope John XXII promised a 1,000-day indulgence for praying Hail Holy Face in front of the Veronica, or a replica.

Innocent III is credited with making the Veronica the pre-eminent Christian relic in late medieval times (13th to the 15th century). The Holy Office of the Veronica, attributed to him, opens with Psalm 66.2: “May God have mercy on us and bless us: may he cause the light of his countenance to shine upon us,” and quotes Psalm 4.7: “The light of thy countenance O Lord is signed upon us.” Then, he added his own prayer: “O God, who didst will to leave to us, who are sealed with the light of Thy countenance, Thine image as a memorial of Thee, impressed on a handkerchief at the insistence of Veronica.” Art historian Jeffrey Hamburger states that implicit references to the imago Dei (image of God), highlight the Veronica’s doctrinal significance.

In “Veronica Images and the Office of the Holy Face,” Nigel Morgan sees the emphasis on the Veronica image, as suggesting the person who is sealed by the light of God’s face. Just as the Veronica preserves the imprint of God’s face, human beings bear an impressed sign of the creator. The impressed sign is the imago Dei, the unique seal that God placed on humans to identify their special place in creation. Art historian Joseph Leo Koerner suggests the Veronica “resembles the original divine signature on the face of man, as being made in the image and likeness of God,” while Hamburger suggests Jesus’ pressing his face on the cloth to form the miraculous image is similar to human flesh’s malleability, into which the imago Dei was imprinted and to which it will be restored at the end of time.

The imago Dei appears in the first book of the Bible: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-28).

In the New Testament, the primary word for “image,” eikōn, is used within the context of humanity’s relation to the image of Christ or God. It is linked to salvation via the doctrine of the Incarnation. In fact, the objective of the imago Dei was to facilitate the Incarnation – God made humanity in his image because he planned to enter into history to redeem humanity from sin and death. The imago Dei allowed Jesus’ human nature to accommodate Christ’s divine nature, thereby resulting in his being both God and fully human in a single person.

In Against Heresies, Bishop Irenaeus (140 – 202) states that the Incarnation accomplished what humanity could not – returning the salvation “lost in Adam” and restoring the imago Dei, while Bishop Athanasius (296-373) says the Incarnation accomplished “the dissolution of death and the resurrection of life,” and allowed humans, who were made in God’s image, to “have knowledge of him and his Word” (1 – 3). Because human beings had fallen into idolatry, Christ, the Word of God and image of the Father, assumed human flesh to conquer sin and death and restore God’s image.

Earlier, we discussed iconoclasm and Incarnation. While there was iconoclasm in the West, specifically during the Carolingian period (between 790 and 840), more substantial were the debates about the Eucharist. For example, as early as 110 CE, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch warned about people who did not believe the Eucharist was Christ’s body. Around forty years after the second council of Nicaea, a major eucharistic controversy erupted. The Benedictine Abbot, Radbertus, asserted that following the consecration, the Eucharistic bread and wine were literally transformed into Christ’s flesh and blood – but the monk, Ratramnus, argued that the consecrated elements were not Christ’s actual body and blood, but were more symbolic. Then, in the 11th century, the Archdeacon, Berengar of Tours, claimed that Christ’s presence in the bread and wine was figurative and that the words of consecration should be interpreted metaphorically. The Eucharistic controversies mirrored the heterodox ideas about Christ’s nature and person and challenged Incarnational theology.

In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Veronica’s promoter, Innocent III, described the bread and wine as “transubstantiated” into Christ’s body and blood. The Lateran Council could trace the belief to early documents that described the relationship between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes himself as “the bread of life” and “the bread of God, which comes down from heaven and gives eternal life.” Later, in the same Gospel, he introduces the second Eucharistic element – his blood: “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Starr Hoffman’s study of vernicles notes that in the 11th century, the laity received the Host only on specific days of the liturgical year, and within time, the chalice was withheld. These changes resulted in the faithful’s separation from the Incarnate Christ in the Host – to compensate, Veronicas were placed throughout the sanctuary and displayed on rood screens, which eventually resulted in their incorporation into the Eucharistic liturgy.

Just as Christ is the invisible God in the flesh, the Veronica is the visual equivalent to the invisible presence of Christ in the Eucharist. By standing for Christ’s body, the Veronicas that accompanied the Eucharist gave the faithful the opportunity to connect with God’s physical presence in the consecrated Host. And, in turn, both the Veronica and the Eucharist evoked reflections on the Incarnation and the redemptive meaning of human suffering.

How specifically do the Eucharist and the Veronica symbolize the Incarnation? Both have undergone a profound transformation – the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ and the cloth into the True Image – the vera ikona. And, like the Incarnate Christ, the Eucharist provides spiritual nourishment, while the Veronica heals physical ills. Both indicate Christ’s continued presence in the world, and both can be replicated without losing potency — they have the same spiritual authority as the original. And, while the Eucharist is a sacramental extension of the Incarnation, the Veronica is its visual proof. And, just as Christ’s human and divine natures were united in the Incarnation, his two natures are united in the Eucharist and in the Veronica.

The 12th century saw a “growing emotive element in Christianity.” Called affective piety, it encouraged Christians to read texts or look at violent religious images as a way to stimulate reflection on Jesus’ suffering during the Passion. Koerner notes that in the later Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries), the movement was supported by “visual triggers [like the Veronica] to remind Christians of what God had suffered for them.” The faithful’s response to viewing the Veronica was to make the sign of the cross, “so that the Incarnation of God in the suffering Christ [was] met by the imitatio of his Passion in Christian piety.” The combination of the saint’s association with the Passion and the simultaneous increase in affective piety resulted in the Veronica cult’s extraordinary popularity during this period.

Beginning in the 14th century, the Veronica was included in the Arma Christi, the instruments of the Passion. The cult that developed around the Arma Christi meditated on Christ’s suffering humanity, so it made sense to include the Veronica, because of it had touched Christ’s face and preserved the True Image during the Passion. At times, the Arma Christi was included in the Man of Sorrows type of devotional art that was based on the Suffering Servant described by Isaiah: “He was despised and rejected by men / a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces / he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” In this image, Jesus, almost naked and surrounded by the Arma Christi, displays his wounds. On its own, the face of the Man of Sorrows became an object of veneration, which was accompanied by the previously mentioned prayer to the Veronica.

Another image, the Mass of St. Gregory, depicts the interrelationship of the Veronica, the Eucharist and the Incarnation. Like the Veronica story, that of St. Gregory (c. 540–604) and the Eucharist encompasses both word and image. In a version from the 7th century, St. Gregory is saying Mass when the Host suddenly turns into a bleeding finger. In the 14th century, however, text and image were standardized: the piteous Christ, accompanied by the Veronica, miraculously appears in place of the Host on the altar. This image directly connects Christ and the Veronica with the transformation of the Eucharistic elements into Christ’s body and blood and facilitates an understanding of the Veronica in terms of the Real Presence of Christ and the Eucharist as the centerpiece of the Mass.

The meeting between Jesus and Veronica has no scriptural foundation. But, from early days, it was associated with the story in the Synoptic gospels about the unnamed woman with the chronic blood flow, later referred to as the Haemorrhoissa (“bleeding woman”) who was cured after touching the hem of Jesus’ garment. For example, Chapter 18 of Eusebius’ Church History, is titled The Statue Erected by the Woman with an Issue of Blood, in Acts of Pilate, Berenike testifies that Jesus healed her of a 12-year flow of blood. Likewise, the Curing of Tiberius features the keeper of the cloth, Veronica, whom Jesus cured of a blood disorder. And, in the Vengeance of the Saviour the king is told about “Veronica, who suffered twelve years from an issue of blood.”

The meeting on the road to Calvary has similarities with the Synoptic accounts of the healed woman, which may explain why early writers connected the two. For example, both accounts include an unaccompanied woman approaching Jesus; an immediate miracle that arises from touching cloth; a foreshadowing of future miracles; and, elements of discipleship. Finally, both texts are part of a larger, coherent narrative, which is the story of faith and salvation.

As I mentioned, the meeting between Jesus and Veronica is honoured in the Sixth Station of the Cross. Following Jesus’ death, Christians who lived in Jerusalem began visiting the sites associated with the Passion, including the supposed location of Veronica’s house. But, for pilgrims from other countries who wanted to walk in Jesus’ steps, the journey to Jerusalem could be expensive and dangerous. So, to meet the need, the Stations of the Cross were developed – first in 5th c. Bologna, at the Church of San Stefano and later augmented by returning Crusaders who built tableaux of the holy sites.

Even though Veronica’s inclusion in the Stations has no explicit scriptural foundation, possibly the truths about humanity’s being created in God’s image and the revelation of the invisible God in Christ, were so compelling that early writers, and later, artists, connected Veronica with the Haemorrhissa of the Synoptic Gospels and later inserted the story into the visual narrative of Christ’s Passion.

In The Art of God Incarnate, Aidan Nichols says that St. Paul communicates Christ’s universal significance via a theology of the image. Nichols writes that “for St. Paul, the man, Jesus, fulfilled the spoilt promise of Adam and renewed the image of God in the human.” St. Paul calls Christ “the image of the invisible God / the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15. 2), and Corinthians 4:6 speaks of “the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.”

A veil is a piece of material worn to cover the face or head – so the notion of concealment is built into the meaning. But, rather than conceal, the veil of Veronica displays the miraculous image and reveals the Face of God in Christ, the Incarnation. Morgan calls it “the sudarium, the medium through which we encounter God on earth.”

Veronica did not ask for the miraculous image. Not only does this tell us about Veronica’s selflessness, but it also tells us that God, not man, discloses himself as he chooses. There is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love – it is gift, freely given in recognition of our being created in his image.

But, what of Veronica herself? In the narratives, she is neither wealthy nor famous. Her story begins with a nameless woman defined by illness – the Haemorrhissa – who becomes Veronica the image bearer – she is each of us, created in God’s image, and exhorted to reveal the Face of God by lives of faith, grace and courage.

I will end this discussion with St. Paul’s words that, I believe, encapsulate Veronica’s essence: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). The Veronica shows us the Face of God, the True Image, and facilitates the restoration of the imago Dei. In those early stories, Abgar, Tiberius and Titus suffered from facial disfigurement; but they were cured and transformed by looking upon the face of Christ – the perfect image of God and man.

*In 2000, Mary Catharine Carroll, MA (English Literature), MA (Theology), began studying part-time at Saint Paul University. She enjoyed it so much, she never left. After retiring as a technical writer with the federal government in 2016, she enrolled full-time in the PhD program in Theology. Her general interest is in aesthetics, specifically the transmission of theology via art and literature.