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Jesus takes a selfie: the Vernicle and Julian of Norwich

During her second ‘revelation’, Julian of Norwich has a bewilderingly dark vision of Christ’s face, which she compares with the most celebrated relic in medieval Rome. This was the ‘Vernicle’: the image of Christ’s face miraculously imprinted on a cloth that St Veronica lent Christ to wipe his face on his way to Calvary. The unique fascination of Veronica’s relic was that it purported to preserve an unmediated likeness of the face of God, the direct impress of his features, not as imagined or painted by anyone else, and so something akin to a photographic self-portrait – a ‘vera icon’ or true image, in a pseudo-etymology of ‘Veronica’ first recorded by Gerald of Wales (c.1215). The Veronica image became the universally-known image of Christ, and an emblem of every individual’s eventual face-to-face encounter with God in the hereafter. But this was a face often depicted as disconcertingly dark, unbeautiful, and seemingly as unfixed in appearance as the legend was fluctuating in form.

In Veronica’s story in its earliest shape a woman possesses an image of Christ on cloth (with no back story of how she came by it), and this image cures an illness suffered by Tiberius, Roman emperor at the time of the Crucifixion. In a subsequent revision of the legend, the sick emperor healed by Veronica becomes the later emperor Vespasian, so that Veronica’s cloth is instrumental in enabling the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. This was a historical event which medieval legend retells as the avenging of Christ’s death by a Roman emperor healed by Christ’s miraculous self-portrait. But much earlier the name ‘Berenike’ had already been attached to the woman in the Gospel who believes that if she so much as touches the hem of Christ’s garment she will be healed of a discharge of blood (Matthew 9:20). So Veronica’s touching of Christ’s hem is reciprocated by Christ’s later touching of her cloth with his face, and she who was miraculously healed by Christ becomes identified with an image of Christ which can effect Christ-like cures.

At first, contradictory legends circulated to explain how Veronica came to have her image of Christ. In one, the image is created when Mary presses Veronica’s veil to the dead Christ’s face on the cross, whereupon Veronica is cured of her leprosy. In the immensely influential Golden Legend, Veronica is on her way to an artist to get Christ’s likeness painted as a memento when she meets Christ who, knowing of her errand, imprints his face on her cloth. In the earliest version of what became the dominant tradition Veronica encounters Christ on his way to Calvary and he asks her to wipe his face. Not until she gets home does she discover the miraculously imprinted face, but this soon gives way to a more dramatic version in which the miraculous imprint and its healing powers are apparent at once.

Fitz MS 55.f.122v © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Used with permission.
Fitz MS 55.f.122v © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Used with permission.

Early references to the relic in Rome give little sense of its appearance, and it was a reported transformation in the image which propelled the relic to pan-European celebrity. In 1216 (according to the St Albans chronicler Matthew Paris) the image of Christ’s face turned upside down while being processed by Pope Innocent III, who composed a prayer to the image and instituted an indulgence for all who said the prayer. But those who could not recite the prayer received the same indulgence, provided they said the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary five times, and the Creed, while looking at an image of the Vernicle. Not surprisingly, devotion to the Vernicle mushroomed, along with images of it.

The earliest representations of the Veronica head in Western art survive from England, in manuscripts dated between the 1240s and 1270s. These take the form of noble head-and-shoulders busts, perhaps responding to the Golden Legend. Only from c.1350 do images appear of Veronica herself meeting Christ on the way to Calvary, just as the Stations of the Cross were being instituted for pilgrims in Jerusalem, of which Christ’s encounter with Veronica is the sixth. Now come references to ‘Veronica painters’ in Rome, busily producing souvenirs for pilgrims. Now the Vernicle appears just as a face, without shoulders, more accurate to what might be impressed of a face on to a cloth. But the imprinted face is soon shown wearing a crown of thorns, and often painted as if bloodied and darkened to the point of blackness. This was explained as Christ’s image reflecting to the observer the darkness of fallen humanity into which Christ had entered. As St Bernard put it: ‘Beautiful in his own right, his blackness is because of you’. The brown- or black-faced Christ may imitate copies of a famously dark-faced Orthodox icon – the Holy Face of Edessa – also imprinted by Christ himself. But there always coexisted contradictory claims about the face’s darkness alongside the divine radiance in a likeness of himself portrayed by the Supreme Artist.

For Julian of Norwich, the Vernicle image – given by Christ unmediatedly to a woman – parallels and authorizes the visions vouchsafed to women visionaries like herself. Indeed, a Lollard heretic in 1391 included the Vernicle among Christ’s miracles performed for women when arguing that there was no reason why women should not be priests. But if you’re wondering why you haven’t heard of the Vernicle’s authenticity being investigated like the Turin Shroud, it is because Veronica’s relic disappeared during the sack of Rome in 1527, and Veronica was eventually deleted from the Roman missal, the list of martyrs and calendar of saints, despite her role in one of the omnipresent images of the Middle Ages.

Featured image credits: View over Modern Day Jerusalem, CC0 via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Lex Cole

    The face has been discovered in 2011 enjoy by an experimental photographer from Australia it’s real and still in Rome https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvJU1eIfLgo

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