A long tradition of miraculous portraiture exists in the West as well. In the Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, there is a portrait said to have been painted by St. Luke. Known as the Salus Populi Romani, the Salvation of the Roman People, it is a stunning portrait of Mary holding the infant Christ. The painting was met in an August procession each year by another image, the Acheiropoieton or “image made without human hands,” held today in the Sancta Sanctorum, a onetime private papal chapel in the Lateran palace. Legend has it that St. Luke painted this portrait of the adult Christ as well, but it was only completed with the assistance of angels—who, thanks to their continued beholding of the face of Christ in heaven, ensured its accuracy.
Then there is the Veil of Veronica, a story that appears to be the conflation of two separate legends: a sweat cloth of Christ, called the sudarium, and tales of a woman named Berenice or Veronica who had witnessed the passion and sought a portrait of Christ. These stories combined in the Veronica image, a likeness of Christ which was indeed a vera icon, a “true image,” distinguished from the similar Mandylion by a crown of thorns. In 1216, Pope Innocent III offered a ten-day reduction of time in purgatory for any prayer said in front of the Veronica, and soon pilgrimages to and copies of the image abounded. The original Veronica disappeared in the sack of Rome (1527) and was later auctioned off in a tavern by Lutheran soldiers. While its critics maintain that such images collapse theological tension, instead Veronica invites it. Reflecting on the image’s mysterious opacity, Julian of Norwich mused that “it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial.” The dark Veronica served as commentary on St. Paul’s remark that we “see through a glass darkly.” Countless more meditations on the image show that Veronica was a repository of theological truth.
Lesser than Veronica in fame was a sculptured image called the Volto Santo, or “Holy Face,” a near life-size sculpture of the crucified Christ, today located in the shrine of St. Martino in Lucca. The sculpture originated in the East but had been sent to Lucca for safety during the iconoclastic controversy. Legend relates that this was the handiwork of Nicodemus, who aside from being a clandestine student of Christ, was a sculptor. As with St. Luke’s portrait, an angel assisted in its completion. Contrasting the Veronica and Volto Santo, Matthew of Janov wrote in 1390 that of the two authentic portraits of Christ that survive, the Veronica “has a gentle and friendly appearance,” and the even darker Volto Santo “is terrible to behold. . . . Thus the images match Christian doctrine, in that one recalls the gracious mercy and the other the rigorous justice of God.”
Most famously of all, the Shroud of Turin appeared in fourteenth-century France, though its origins are unknown. It was decried a forgery as early as 1389, but papal permission overrode the accusations and permitted its display. In the custody of the dukes of Savoy, it survived several fires and arrived in Turin in 1563. The first photograph was taken in 1898 and unexpectedly clarified the faint image through the negative. The shroud’s popularity then increased exponentially, and its resemblance to the Veronica image seemed to confirm authenticity.
Recent events connected to the shroud have made the stuff of medieval legend strangely immediate. In 1997 a Turinese fireman saved the shroud from another fire; not a believer at the time of the rescue, his life was thereafter transformed. In his book Seeing Salvation, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, records his interview with the rescuer:
I wasn’t really thinking about the shroud. . . . I said to myself, I must save it for them, not for myself. Today they have told me it weighs about twenty-five to twenty-seven kilos, but . . . I felt as if I was carrying a baby. If you can be affected by the face of the shroud, which is the face of suffering, then once in a while you see a man and you are able to understand his suffering and help him . . . after that I was no longer capable of harming anyone.
Read the whole thing