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The Shroud and the Convention of the Mandylion

Home » Specific Entries » The Shroud as a Prototype for the Depiction of Jesus » The Shroud and the Convention of the Mandylion

Karolina Aszyk-Treppa
University of Gdansk, Poland

Zbigniew Treppa
University of Gdansk, Poland

The name mandylion (Old Greek: μανδύλιον—‘towel, handkerchief, tablecloth’) refers to one of the oldest painting canons in Christian iconography. This is also how the well-known object, which is referred to as the Mandylion of Edessa due to the fact that it was kept for a long time in →Edessa (today’s Sanlıurfa in Turkey). Most sindonologists believe that this very artefact is the model for the painting convention of the Mandylion. There are many terms used to describe this object and the icons modelled on it.

In the Byzantine tradition, this painting canon—which has been in continuous use since at least the 7th century—is referred to as the Not-Made-By-Hands Image, Ἀχειροποίητος, Спас Нерукотворный, and also (according to Jarosław Charkiewicz) as: Holy Mandylion, Holy Veil, Holy Face, Saviour on the Veil and Saviour on a Tile. Daniel Scavone believes that numerous medieval documents that can refer to both the Mandylion of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin besides the terms Ἀχειροποίητος and μανδύλιον refer to it as: sancta toella, imago Christi Edessena, ektypoma, linteum faciem Christi repraesentans, soudarion, manutergium, ekmageion and morphe.

The origins of the mandylion, understood as a canon of painting, are linked to the legend of King Abgar V, reigning between 13–50 BC in Osroene, a small state between the Roman West and the Persian East, with its capital in Edessa. The legend has it that King Abgar, suffering from leprosy, wrote a letter to Christ asking to be cured. He received a reply in which Jesus announced a visit from one of His disciples after His Ascension. According to one version of the legend, Abgar sent a painter named Ananias to Jesus […] in response, Christ handed Ananias a bed and a linen cloth on which the colourful reflection of His Countenance miraculously remained (after He had wiped His face with the cloth). Abgar reverently accepted the holy cloth, applied it to his body and was healed of his illness (Charkiewicz 2008, p. 7). According to another version of the legend, the one who brought the mandylion to the leprosy-stricken ruler was Thaddaeus, one of the seventy disciples of Jesus who would be sent to Edessa by the apostle Thomas (Onasch, Schnieper 2007, p. 124).

From the 6th century onwards, the stories of King Abgar contributed to the spread of a new canon of the image of Jesus, which is known from the numerous iconographic representations showing Christ’s face on a white cloth or tile. This latter way of presenting the appearance of the Son of God is linked to the story concerning the hiding of the Holy Veil within the walls of Edessa, above one of the gates (the Gate of the Vaults), where it was covered with clay tiles and bricks, some one hundred years after its appearance in that city. The main reason for hiding the mandylion was to protect it from profanation by King Abgar’s great-grandson, who had renounced Christianity. The further fate of the object is linked to the story of the miraculous rescue of Edessa during the Persian invasion in 545. At that time, Bishop Eulalia of Edessa, after a miraculous night vision, dismantled the bricks and put down the clay board behind which the icon was located. On the clay tile he also saw the reflection of the Saviour’s Face, exactly as on the Holy Veil (Charkiewicz 2008, pp. 7–8). After finding the mandylion, the Persians were said to have abandoned their intention of conquering Edessa, and the cloth remained in that city until 944, when it was carried in solemn procession to Constantinople. In the Byzantine capital, the Holy Veil received veneration for 260 years until it was looted by the Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade and is said to have sunk in the Sea of Marmara along with a ship carrying other Christian relics: at least that is what is handed down to us by one of the traditions most prevalent in the Orthodox world. The Mandylion of Edessa, despite being lost in 1204, is still held in high esteem in the Orthodox Church today. This is evidenced by the fact that the denomination celebrates a feast on 16 August, the full name of which is the Translation of the Image Not-Made-By-Hands of our Lord Jesus Christ from Edessa to Constantinople, the Image Called the Holy Veil.

Linked to the story of the disappearance of the Mandylion of Edessa is the hypothesis promoted by Ian Wilson, who identified this object with the Shroud of Turin. However, on the basis of historical texts, the identity of the two fabrics can neither be unequivocally confirmed nor rejected. Apart from I. Wilson in favour of their identification is, among others, the historian D. Scavone, whose argumentation is based on an analysis of a number of documents from the 10th to 13th centuries. The results of the analyses of the faces reproduced on the various mandylions argue against this hypothesis. Although the depictions found both on them and on the Shroud of Turin refer to the same Man, from an iconographic point of view the images differ fundamentally in the way Christ’s face is depicted. On the mandylions, Jesus is presented with his eyes open and as being alive, while on the Shroud he is depicted with his eyes closed and as being dead.

When making a judgement as to what is a Mandylion and what is a Shroud, one must certainly also take into account the fact that there is a tradition in the Orthodox Church, present since the 13th century, which distinguishes the robbed Mandylion, or Holy Veil, from the posthumous Linen of Jesus Christ. This seems to be how the Shroud of Christ is referred to in Theodore Angelos Komnenos’ 1205 letter to Pope Innocent III, written in reaction to the Crusader armies sacking Constantinople and robbing it of its relics and treasures: Sharing the spoils, the Venetians took treasures of gold, silver, ivory. The Gauls, or Franks, took the relics of the saints and the Linen, the most sacred of all, in which the Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after his death (quoted by Treppa 2004, p. 77).

Analyses of the icons (carried out by Andreas Resch CSsR, Heinrich Pfeiffer SJ, Karolina Aszyk, Zbigniew Treppa) mandate the exclusion of another hypothesis by I. Wilson, based on Paul Vignon’s hypothesis, which is several decades earlier, that the image from the Shroud had a direct influence on the formation of the oldest canon of images of Christ, including the iconographic convention of the mandylion. This reasoning is based on the fact that the anatomical features of the Shroud image of Christ cannot be observed before 1989. This was done for the first time by converting the original negative image from the Shroud into a positive (→The Shroud as a Prototype for Depiction of Jesus Christ). This does not mean that the image from the Shroud could not have influenced the development of mandylion conventions in later times. However, this can only apply to the most elementary formal feature that is common to the Shroud image and to the mandylion convention, namely the positioning of Christ’s face in a frontal manner, facing the viewer (en face).

The most elementary and characteristic conventional features of a mandylion are the complete orthogonality (perpendicularity) of the depicted image and, in most cases, also symmetrically placed irises in a very distinct linear eye-surround (exceptions include the famous Mandylion from Novgorod from the second half of the 12th century, which is kept in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, where the irises are asymmetrically and divergently placed in relation to each other). A recognisable feature of this type of image, although not present in all depictions, is a strand of hair falling over the forehead and the shape of the hair merging with the split beard. Anatomical details such as the characteristic form of the open eyes and the strand of hair are not visible on the Shroud, while the form of the hair cannot be seen in the original negative version. In contrast, these details appear very clearly on the →Veil of Manoppello, a relic which was available for viewing by icon makers much earlier than the Shroud. Conventional representations of the mandylion are dominated by static, flat and hieratic representations.

3. The comparison of the Veil of Manoppello, the Mandylion of Novgorod and the Shroud of Turin

The canonical features of the image of Christ on mandylions also include those showing the face without signs of suffering and the attributes of the Passion (e.g. in the form of a crown of thorns). Usually, the image is surrounded by a nimbus in a shape similar to a circle, with the form of the Greek cross (all four arms of equal length) inscribed. Such images are also considered to be the oldest in the circle of the various iconic traditions of the Eastern Church (Charkiewicz 2008, p. 9). Most depictions are dominated by a background with the distinct form of a headscarf, which fits tightly into the frame of the composition, less often against a tile background. The form of the headscarf and the way it is draped, which is more or less chiaroscuro and more or less linear, reflect the character and style of specific iconic schools and have undergone various changes. In many representations, the upper corners of the shawl are either in the hands of two angels or supported by them.

Some images of Christ, to which Christian tradition gives the name Mandylion or Volto Santo or uses both names interchangeably, are extremely economical in form. These include the Mandylion/Volto Santo of Genoa, dated by some image analysts to the 3rd century (→The Shroud as a Prototype for the Depiction of Jesus Christ). This may indicate that the formal features of the depictions of Christ’s face were present in Christian iconography before the convention of the mandylion was established, as well as that they were applied to it. This supposition is highly probable because the iconographic canon of the mandylion does not exhaust all the variants of early representations of Christ.

Later depictions of Christ, which developed in parallel with the formation of the mandylion canon over the centuries, include such conventions as the Icon of Christ Pantocrator, the Icon of Christ the Lamb of God, the Icon of the Saviour Emmanuel, the Icon of Christ in the form of an Angel or Seraphim, the Saviour with the Fiery Eye, Christ the Salvation of the Soul, etc. In many cases, the aforementioned iconographic conventions were subject to an evolution of forms, had their own history and different types, depending on historical periods and even on the possibility of using specific colour ranges related to the availability of pigments in a given region.

In the Church of the Roman tradition, the Byzantine canon of the mandylion evolved into the iconographic symbol of the Veil of Saint Veronica. This iconic image is linked to a legend that describes the fasting of the image of Christ on a shawl to wipe away the blood that was given to Him during the Way of the Cross by a merciful woman whom tradition has given the name Veronica. The origin of this legend is usually linked to the mystical visions of St Brigid of Sweden, which strongly influenced spiritual life in the 14th century. Under this influence, the figure of St Veronica appeared in Western passion literature, and the motif of the Veil of St Veronica spread among artists of the early Renaissance. When comparing the formal and expressive principles governing the Eastern mandylion canon with Western depictions of the St Veronica Veil convention, clear differences emerge regarding the painters’ approach to the image of Christ. In the East, symbolism and the divinised face of the Victorious Christ predominate; in the West, realism and the face of the Suffering Christ.


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Sources of Images

1. Wikimedia Commons, https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plik:Christos_Acheiropoietos.jpg (public domain)

2. Wikimedia Commons, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Christ_Icon_Sinai_6th_century.jpg (public domain)

3. Collection of K. Aszyk-Treppa and Z. Treppa

4. The National Museum in Kraków, https://zbiory.mnk.pl/pl/katalog/64831 (public domain)

5. Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Face_-_Genoa.jpg (public domain)

6. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hans_Memling_026.jpg (public domain)

Karolina Aszyk-Treppa

Graduate of the Department of Painting and Graphic Arts of the Kracow Academy of Fine Arts, assistant professor in the Department of Media Systems and Mass Communication at the University of Gdansk.

Zbigniew Treppa

Full professor at the Institute of Media, Journalism and Visual Communication, University of Gdańsk, Head of the Department of Image Anthropology, Associate of the Polish Syndonological Centre in Krakow, Member of the Syndonological Section of the Polish Theological Society. In his research work he undertakes issues of visual theology, using the tools of image semiotics, he analyses artefacts of religious cult and structural properties of non-human-hand-made images (Greek: acheiropoietos). He has recently published The Phenomenon of the Image of Incarnate Mercy (Gdansk 2021).

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