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Subject: Christian mythology, Holy Face of Jesus, Spasskaya Tower, Church of the Acheiropoietos, Icon
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Image of the Saviour Made Without Hands: a traditional Orthodox iconography in the interpretation of Simon Ushakov (1658).

Acheiropoieta (Byzantine Greek: ἀχειροποίητα, "made without hand"; singular acheiropoieton) — also called Icons Made Without Hands (and variants) — are a particular kind of icon which are said to have come into existence miraculously, not created by a human painter. Invariably these are images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. The most notable examples that are credited by tradition among the faithful are, in the Eastern church the Image of Edessa or Mandylion and the Hodegetria (depending on the version of their origin stories followed—in many versions both are painted by human painters of Jesus or Mary while alive), and several Russian icons, and in the West the Shroud of Turin, Veil of Veronica, and Manoppello Image. The term is also used of icons that are only regarded as normal human copies of a miraculously created original archetype.

Although the most famous acheiropoieta today are mostly icons in paint on wood panel, they have been in several other types of technique, such as mosaics, painted tile, and cloth. Ernst Kitzinger distinguished two types: "Either they are images believed to have been made by hands other than those of ordinary mortals or else they are claimed to be mechanical, though miraculous, impressions of the original".[1] The belief in such images becomes prominent only in the 6th century, by the end of which both the Mandylion and the Image of Camuliana were well known. The pilgrim Antoninus of Piacenza was shown a relic of the Veil of Veronica type in Memphis, Egypt in the 570s.[2]


God the Father painting the Virgin of Guadalupe, an unusual Marian image, 18th century.

Such images functioned as powerful relics as well as icons, and their images were naturally seen as especially authoritative as to the true appearance of the subject. Like other icon types believed to be painted from the live subject, such as the Hodegetria (thought to have been painted by Saint Luke), they therefore acted as important references for other images in the tradition. They therefore were copied on an enormous scale, and the belief that such images existed, and authenticated certain facial types, played an important role in the conservatism of iconographic traditions such as the Depiction of Jesus.[3] Beside, and conflated with, the developed legend of the Image of Edessa, was the tale of the Veil of Veronica, whose very name signifies "true icon" or "true image", the fear of a "false image" remaining strong.

Conventional images believed to be authentic

A further and larger group of images, sometimes overlapping with acheiropoieta in popular tradition, were believed in the Early Middle Ages to have been created by conventional means in New Testament times, often by New Testament figures who, like many monks of the later period, were believed to have practiced as artists. The best known of these, and the most commonly credited in the West, was Saint Luke, who was long believed to have had the Virgin Mary sit for her portrait, but in the East a number of other figures were believed by many to have created images, including narrative ones. Saint Peter was said to have "illustrated his own account of the Transfiguration", Luke to have illustrated an entire gospel book, and the late 7th-century Frankish pilgrim Arculf reported seeing in the Holy Land a cloth woven or embroidered by the Virgin herself with figures of Jesus and the apostles. The apostles were also said to have been very active as patrons, commissioning cycles in illuminated manuscripts and fresco in their churches.[4]

Such beliefs clearly projected contemporary practices back to the 1st century, and in their developed form are not found before the lead-up to the Iconoclastic Controversy, but in the 4th century Eusebius of Caesarea, who disapproved of images, accepted that "the features of His apostles Peter and Paul, and indeed of Christ himself, have been preserved in coloured portraits which I have examined".[4] Many famous images, including the Image of Edessa and Hodegetria, were described in versions of their stories as this type of image. The belief that images presumably of the 6th century at the earliest were authentic products of the 1st century distorted any sense of stylistic anachronism, making it easier for further images to be accepted, just as the belief in acheiropoieta, which must have reflected a divine standard of realism and accuracy, distorted early medieval perceptions of what degree of realism was possible in art, accounting for the praise very frequently given to images for their realism, when to modern eyes the surviving corpus has little of this. The standard depictions of both the features of the leading New Testament figures, and the iconography of key narrative scenes, seemed to have their authenticity confirmed by images believed to have been created either by direct witnesses or those able to hear the accounts of witnesses, or alternatively God himself or his angels.[3]

Acheiropoieta of 836

Such icons were seen as powerful arguments against iconoclasm. In a document apparently produced in the circle of the Patriarch of Constantinople, which purports to be the record of a (fictitious) Church council of 836, a list of acheiropoieta and icons miraculously protected is given as evidence for divine approval of icons. The acheiropoieta listed are:

1. the Image of Edessa, described as still at Edessa;
2. the image of the Virgin at Lydda in Israel, which was said to have miraculously appeared imprinted on a column of a church built by the apostles Peter and John;
3. another image of the Virgin, three cubits high, at Lydda in what is now Israel, which was said to have miraculously appeared in another church.

The nine other miracles listed deal with the maintenance rather than creation of icons, which resist or repair the attacks of assorted pagans, Arabs, Persians, scoffers, madmen, iconoclasts and Jews.

This list seems to have had a regional bias, as other then-famous images are not mentioned, such as the Image of Camuliana,[5] later brought to the capital. Another example, and the only one which indisputably still exists, is a mosaic of the young Christ from the sixth century in the church of the Latomos monastery in Thessaloniki (now dedicated to Saint David). This was apparently covered by plaster during the Iconoclastic period, towards the end of which an earthquake caused the plaster to fall down, revealing the image (during the reign of Leo V, 813-20). However, this was only a subsidiary miracle, according to the account we have. This says that the mosaic was being constructed secretly, during the 4th century persecution of Galerius, as an image of the Virgin, when it suddenly was transformed overnight into the present image of Christ.[6]

Notable examples

10th century depiction of the legend of King Abgarus

A number of other images from the Western church are covered at Holy Face of Jesus

Image of Edessa

According to Christian legend, the Image of Edessa, (known to Orthodox Christians as the Mandylion, a Byzantine Greek word not applied in any other context), was a holy relic consisting of a square or rectangle of cloth upon which a miraculous image of the face of Jesus was imprinted — the first icon ("image").

According to the legend, King Abgar of Edessa wrote to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness. Abgar received an answering letter from Jesus, declining the invitation, but promising a future visit by one of his disciples. Along with the letter went a likeness of Jesus. This legend was first recorded in the early fourth century by Eusebius of Caesarea,[7] who said that he had transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the king of Edessa. Instead, the apostle "Thaddaeus" is said to have come to Edessa, bearing the words of Jesus, by the virtues of which the king was miraculously healed.

The first record of the existence of a physical image in the ancient city of Edessa (now Urfa) was in Evagrius Scholasticus, writing about 600, who reports a portrait of Christ, of divine origin (θεότευκτος), which effected the miraculous aid in the defence of Edessa against the Persians in 544.[8] The image was moved to Constantinople in the 10th century. The cloth disappeared from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade [Sack of Constantinople] in 1204, reappearing as a relic in King Louis IX of France's Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It finally disappeared in the French Revolution.[9]

The Georgia is reputed to be the Keramidion, another acheiropoietos recorded from an early period, miraculously imprinted with the face of Christ by contact with the Mandylion. To art historians it is a Georgian icon of the 6th-7th century.

Image of Camuliana

Though it is now little known, having probably been destroyed in the period of [11]

Lateran Palace Image in Rome

Detail of the image now in the Lateran Palace.

This image, also called the Uronica,[12] is kept in what was once the pope’s private chapel, in a room now known as the Sancta Sanctorum ("Holy of Holies") at the top of the Scala Sancta ("Holy Stairs") in a surviving part of the old Lateran Palace in Rome. The legend is that this image was begun by St Luke and finished by angels.

It is thought that the icon was painted in Rome between the 5th and 6th century. Today only slight traces under overpainting remain of the original image of an enthroned Christ with a crossed halo, in the classic pose of the Teacher holding the Scroll of the Law in His left hand while His right is raised in benediction. Many times restored, the face completely changed when Pope Alexander III (1159–1181) had the present one, painted on silk, placed over the original. Innocent III (1189–1216) covered the rest of the holy icon with an embossed silver riza, but other later embellishments completely covered its surface. It has also been cleaned during the recent restoration.

The image in its setting in the, Lateran Palace, Rome.

The doors protecting the icon, also in embossed silver, are of the 15th century. It has a baldachin in metal and gilded wood over it, replacing the one by Caradaossi (1452–1527), lost during the sack of Rome in 1527. The image itself was last inspected by the Jesuit art historian J. Wilpert in 1907.[13]

As early as the reign of Pope Sergius I (687–701) there are records of the image being carried in annual procession at certain feasts, and Stephen II (752–757) carried the image on his shoulders in a procession to counter a threat from the Lombards. By the ninth century its elaborate procession had become a focus of the Feast of the Assumption. In the Middle Ages the Pope and the seven cardinal-bishops would celebrate masses in the small sanctuary where it was housed, and at times would kiss its feet.[14] Although no longer a specific liturgical object, some Romans still venerate this icon, considering it a last hope in disasters and memorable events in the capital, a veneration which can be compared with that for the other ancient icon of the Madonna “Salus Populi Romani” in St. Mary Major, again in Rome. The former icon used to be taken across Rome annually in procession to "meet" the latter on the Feast of the Assumption.

The Veil of Veronica

The Veronica, kept in the Vatican

Veronica's Veil, known in Italian as the Volto Santo or Holy Face (but not to be confused with the carved crucifix Volto Santo of Lucca) is a legendary relic. The legend is of medieval origin, and only a feature of the Western church; its connection with any single surviving physical image is slighter still, though a number of images have been associated with it, several probably always meant to be received as copies. The image in the Vatican has a certain priority, if only because of the prestige of the papacy. The nuns of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome were forbidden to exhibit their rival image in 1517 to avoid competition with the Vatican Veronica; it is also now in the Vatican. Like the Genoa image, it is painted on panel and therefore is likely to have always been intended to be a copy.

The legend says that Veronica (a name meaning "true image") from Jerusalem encountered Jesus along the Via Dolorosa on the way to Calvary. When she paused to wipe the sweat (Latin suda) off his face with her veil, his image was imprinted on the cloth. The event is commemorated by one of the Stations of the Cross. According to legend, Veronica later traveled to Rome to present the cloth to the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Legend has it that it has miraculous properties, being able to quench thirst, restore sight, and sometimes even raise the dead. Recent studies trace the association of the name with the image [15] to the translation of Eastern relics to the West at the time of the Crusades.

The Manoppello Image

Volto santo on byssus cloth

In 1999, German Jesuit Father Heinnrich Pfeiffer, Professor of Art History at the Pontifical Gregorian University,[16] announced at a press conference in Rome that he had found the Veil in a church of the Capuchin monastery, in the small village of Manoppello, Italy, where it had been in the custody of the Capuchin Friars since 1660. The image, known as the Manoppello Image is attested to by Father Donato da Bomba in his “Relatione historica” research tracing back to 1640. Recent studies[17] have revealed noted congruities with the Shroud,[15] see below. In September 2006 Pope Benedict XVI made a private pilgrimage to the shrine, his first as Pope, raising it to the status of a Basilica.

Shroud of Turin

Secondo Pia's negative of his photograph of the Shroud of Turin

The forgery—or even an icon created as such. It is the subject of intense debate among some scientists, believers, historians, and writers regarding where, when, and how the shroud and its images were created.

Virgin of Guadalupe

This full length image of the Virgin is said to have miraculously been created at the unusually late date of 1531 (for the Western church) in Mexico, where it continues to enjoy an enormous reputation.

See also


  1. ^ Kitzinger, 113
  2. ^ Kitzinger, 113-114
  3. ^ a b Grigg, throughout
  4. ^ a b Grigg, 5-6, 5 quoted
  5. ^ The Camuliana Image of Christ in "Art of the Byzantine Empire, 312-1453: Sources and Documents" by Cyril A. Mango, University of Toronto Press, 1986 GoogleBooks access date March 2013
  6. ^ Grigg, 6; Cormac
  7. ^ Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae 1.13.5 and .22.
  8. ^ Evagrius, in Migne, Patrologia Graecalxxxvi, 2, cols. 2748f, noted by Runciman 1931, p. 240, note 5; remarking that "the portrait of Christ has entered the class of αχειροποίητοι icons".
  9. ^ Two documentary inventories: year 1534 (Gerard of St. Quentin de l'Isle, Paris) and year 1740. See Grove Dictionary of Art, Steven Runciman, Some Remarks on the Image of Edessa, Cambridge Historical Journal 1931, and for a list of the group of relics. See also an image of the Gothic reliquary dating from the 13th century, in
  10. ^ Beckwith, 88, although Heinrich Pfeiffer identifies it with the Veil of Veronica and Manoppello Image:Heinrich Pfeiffer, "The concept of “acheiropoietos”,the iconography of the face of Christ and the veil of Manoppello", in di Lazzaro, [1]
  11. ^ Kitzinger, 111-112; Emerick, 356-357. Most fully covered by Von Dobschütz, like most of the images here
  12. ^ B.M. Bolton, "Advertise the Message: Images in Rome at the Turn of the Twelfth Century", in D. Wood (ed) The Church and the Arts (Oxford, 1992) p. 117
  13. ^ Bolton, ibid. p. 120
  14. ^ Bolton, ibid. pp. 126-128
  15. ^ a b The Rediscovered Face - 1 first of four installments of an audiovisual presentation relating the holy image with a number of ancient predecessors, YouTube, access date March 2013.
  16. ^ Il Volto Santo di ManoppelloExcerpt of (The Holy Face of Manoppello), published by Carsa Edizioni in Pescara (page 13) access date March 2013
  17. ^ The Face of ChristSudarium Christi online audio visual featuring texts by sudarium expert Sr. Blandina Paschalis Schlömer et al.
  18. ^ Damon, P. E.; D. J. Donahue, B. H. Gore, A. L. Hatheway, A. J. T. Jull, T. W. Linick, P. J. Sercel, L. J. Toolin, C. R. Bronk, E. T. Hall, R. E. M. Hedges, R. Housley, I. A. Law, C. Perry, G. Bonani, S. Trumbore, W. Woelfli, J. C. Ambers, S. G. E. Bowman, M. N. Leese, M. S. Tite (February 1989). "Radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin". Nature 337 (6208): 611–615.  


External links

  • International Workshop on the Scientific Approach to the Acheiropoietos Images
  • Translation of the Image "Made-Without-Hands" of our Lord Jesus Christ Orthodox synaxarion
  • Icon "Made Without Hands" from Lydda
  • The Face of ChristSudarium Christi online audio visual featuring texts by sudarium expert Sr. Blandina Paschalis Schlömer et al.
  • The Rediscovered Face - 1 first of four installments of an audiovisual presentation relating a number of ancient predecessors, YouTube, access date March 2013.
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