26 March 2014

Art for Lent (22): ‘The Icon not made
by Hands’ or ‘Image of Edessa’

A copy of ‘The Icon not made by Hands’ or the ‘Mandylion’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

I have a number of icons both at home and in my study. One of the icons at home, in a quiet corner of my bedroom, is this Romanian copy of what is known in the Orthodox tradition as ‘The Icon not made by Hands’ or the Mandylion.

According to Orthodox tradition, the ‘Image of Edessa’ – as it is also known – was a square or rectangle of cloth imprinted with a miraculous image of the face of the living Christ, which would make it the first icon. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is often known as the Mandylion.

According to legend, King Abgar of Edessa (present-day Urfa in south-east Turkey, near the border of northern Syria) wrote to Christ, asking him to come to cure him of leprosy. King Abgar received a reply from Christ, declining the invitation. However, he says that when he has completed his earthly mission and has ascended, one of his disciples will visit the king and heal Abgar.

Later, it is said, the Apostle Thaddaeus or Jude came to Edessa, bearing the words of Christ, and by these words the king was miraculously healed.

Later legends say that when the successors of King Abgar reverted to paganism, the Bishop of Edessa placed the image inside a wall, and set a lamp before the image, sealing them behind the wall. The image was uncovered later on the night of a Persian attack, and saved the city from the Persians.

This legend was first recorded in the early 4th century by Eusebius of Caesarea in his History of the Church (1.13.5-1.13.22). Eusebius says he transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the King of Edessa. However, he does not mention any image.

In the year 384, Egeria, a pilgrim from either Gaul or Spain, was given a personal tour by the Bishop of Edessa, who told her of many miracles that saved Edessa from the Persians. He gave her embellished transcripts of the correspondence between Christ and King Abgarus. She spent three days visiting every corner of Edessa and the surrounding area. However, her account makes no reference to any image or icon in Edessa.

The first reference to an image of Christ is found in a Syriac text, the Doctrine of Addai, ca 400. Addai is the Disciple Thaddeus, and the messenger is the painter Hannan or Ananias who paints the image and brings it back to King Abgar, who treasures it in his royal palace in Edessa.

The image is said to have resurfaced in 525, during a flood of the Daisan, a tributary stream of the Euphrates that passed by Edessa. This flood is mentioned in the writings of the court historian Procopius of Caesarea. During rebuilding work, a cloth bearing human facial features was discovered hidden in the wall above one of the city gates of Edessa.

Writing soon after the Persian siege of Edessa, led by the Emperor Chozroes I in 544, Procopius says that the text of Christ’s letter, by then including a promise that “no enemy would ever enter the city,” was inscribed over the city gate, but does not mention an image.

The first record of an icon like this comes half a century later from Evagrius Scholasticus, who writes in his Ecclesiastical History (593) about a portrait of Christ, which is of divine origin (θεότευκτος) and which miraculously helps the defence of Edessa during the Persian siege in 544.

The later, developed legend, says the painter was unable to capture Christ’s image because he was so dazzled by the light shining from his face. Instead, Christ wiped his face on a towel after washing himself and left an image behind.

So the legend develops from a letter, but without an image (Eusebius), to an image painted by a court painter (Addai), to a miraculously-created image supernaturally made when Christ presses a cloth to his wet face (Evagrius).

This last and latest stage of the legend became accepted in Eastern Orthodoxy, so that the ‘Image of Edessa’ was “created by God, and not produced by human hands.” This idea of an icon that was acheiropoietos (αχειροποίητος, “not-made-by-hand”) is a later enrichment of the original legend. I have come across similar accounts of supernatural origins for other Orthodox icons in Greece.

It is said the Holy Mandylion disappeared again after the Arab Sassanians conquered Edessa in 609. A local legend says conquering Muslims threw it into a well in what is today the city’s Great Mosque.

However, other accounts say the Image of Edessa was moved to Constantinople in the in 944, when Edessa was besieged by John Kourkouas and it was exchanged for a group of Muslim prisoners.

King Abgar with the Image of Edessa … a 10th century icon in Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

The Image of Edessa was received with great celebrations in Constantinople by Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, and placed in the Church of the Most Holy Theotokos on 16 August. The earliest known Byzantine icon of the Mandylion or Holy Face dates from the following year, 945, and is in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.

It is said this icon repeatedly gave exact imprints of itself. One of these, ‘On Ceramic,’ was imprinted when Ananias hid the icon in a wall on his way to Edessa; another, imprinted on a cloak, ended up in Georgia.

The Image disappeared during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade. It later reappeared in Paris as a relic belonging to King Louis IX in Sainte-Chapelle, Paris – not to be confused with the Sainte Chapelle at Chambéry, which housed the ‘Shroud of Turin’ for a time.

It has not been seen since the French Revolution, but some accounts claim the Mandylion of Edessa is now in the Pope’s private Matilda chapel in the Vatican.

The Eastern Orthodox Church feast of this icon is on 16 August (29 August New Style), and commemorates its translation from Edessa to Constantinople.

Apolytikion of the Holy Icon, Tone 2:

We venerate your most pure icon, loving Lord, as we ask pardon of our offences, Christ God. For by your own choice you were well-pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh, to deliver from the slavery of the enemy those whom you had fashioned; therefore with thanksgiving we cry to you: You have filled all things with joy, our Saviour, by coming to save the world.

Tomorrow:Christ in the Desert’ (1872), by Ivan Kramskoi.

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