Mirabilia Urbis Romae, 1475.

From The Image of Christ, ed. :

EVERYONE in medieval Europe would have been confident that they knew what Christ looked like. Images of his face were everywhere, many of them claiming to be copies or versions of a miraculous ‘true likeness’ of Christ housed in St Peter’s in Rome. This was the ‘Veronica, also known as the vernicle or the sudarium (meaning a cloth for wiping sweat). According to the most familiar version of the story, this was a cloth offered to Christ by Saint Veronica on the road to Calvary so that he could wipe his face. On receiving it back she discovered Christ’s features miraculously imprinted upon it. A play on the word Veronica, which can be read as vera icon (meaning ‘true image’), meant that the saint’s name was also used to describe her cloth.

THE Veronica became the most reproduced image in Christendom and perhaps the most famous relic in Rome. The Italian poet Dante (1265-1321), writing after the Holy Year of Jubilee in 1300 when pilgrims had flocked to Rome to see the Veronica, tells:

... Of one
Who haply from Croatia wends to see
Our Veronica, and while ‘tis shown,
Hangs over it with sated gaze
And all that he has heard revolving, saith
Unto himself in thought:
“And did’st thou look E’en thus,
O Jesus, my true Lord and God
And was this semblance Thine?” [Paradiso, Canto 31]

NEARLY 300 years later Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the French man of letters, could claim that, No other relic has such veneration paid to it. The people throw themselves down before it upon their faces, most of them with tears in their eyes and with lamentations and tears of compassion’.2 This despite the fact that the relic being venerated was probably not the original: the Veronica had apparently been lost during the Sack of Rome by German Lutheran soldiers in 1527, when, according to one contemporary, it ‘was passed from hand to hand in all the taverns of Rome’.

Considering the masses of pilgrims who came to see the image and the innumerable copies of it, it is perhaps surprising that we do not know what the Veronica actually looked like. Its original crystal frame preserved in the Vatican gives its measurements as 40 x 37 centimetres, but we can be certain of little else.

THE earliest accounts of the relic in the eleventh century do not mention an image at all and the ‘copies’ that proliferated from the thirteenth century differ considerably from each other even if they share a family resemblance. They show a long-haired, bearded man whom we still easily recognise as Jesus. But this version of Christ’s face was well established before the Veronica came to be reproduced. In the same way it was the Veronica image that at least partly inspired the ‘eye-witness’ account of the appearance of Christ given in the ‘Letter of Publius Lentulus’, the Roman Governor of Judea, an influential literary forgery dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century.

THE compelling nature of the Veronica did not rest solely on its claim to be a true likeness of Christ, however. Dante’s Croatian and Montaigne’s pilgrims would have been especially anxious to see the Veronica because it brought with it a particular benefit in the shape of a Papal Indulgence: a guaranteed reduction in the time spent in Purgatory, the place or state in which the soul was purified after death so that it could enter Heaven. The Indulgence was not originally associated with the Veronica image itself but with prayers in its honor. In 1216, Pope Innocent Iii had written an office (a collection of hymns, texts and prayers) dedicated to the Veronica and established an Indulgence of forty days (or according to one source, ten days) for those who recited it.

THE Veronica was not the only Indulgenced relic in Rome, but crucially the Indulgence also attached itself to copies of the original, a fact that helps to explain the Veronica’s wide dissemination. In 1245 the English chronicler Matthew Paris wrote that, ‘Many have commended the prayer [to the Veronica] and everything connected to it to the memory and, to arouse more devotion in themselves, have illustrated it as follows, adding on the page a miniature of the face of Christ. Other hymns to the Veronica followed and these too carried Indulgences whose value grew exponentially from Innocent’s forty days to 10,000 days, to 10,000 years, and beyond. Those unable to go to Rome (and this included members of monastic communities who were discouraged from pilgrimage) were instead urged in the words of a German fifteenth-century Carthusian prayer book, to Go to Rome in spirit, [where] the face of Christ is shown as he wiped and pressed it against Veronica’s cloth and large Indulgences and grace are dispensed’. For these spiritual pilgrims, confined to their cloisters, copies of the Veronica brought with them benefits as great as the original.

THE importance and popularity of the Veronica is easily described, but the history of the relic and the development of the legend are exceptionally difficult to reconstruct. The most familiar version of the Veronica story – in which she receives Christ’s likeness on the road to Calvary – was not established until about 1300, when it was first written down in a French devotional text known as the Bible of Roger of Argenteuil. Earlier versions of the story identify Veronica with the woman who was cured of a haemorrhage by Christ (Mat. 9: 20-22), describing her receiving the image of Christs face before his Passion and later using it to cure the Emperor Tiberius of a serious illness. According to an early Greek tradition the woman cured of a haemorrhage was called Berenike and it is from here that Veronica derives her name – the play on the words vera icon apparently no more (or less) than a happy accident.

THE Veronica was the most famous ‘True Image’ of Christ known in medieval Europe, but it was not the only one. Three images, housed from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Paris, Genoa and Rome, each claimed to be the object known as the Mandylion of Edessa, which for centuries held a position in the Eastern Church similar to that which the Veronica came to have in the West.


Manopello, 1680

Shroud of Turin, Face



Dürer, c.1510




Dürer, c. 1510

Sacrivultus, 1764




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