Mandylion: What became of the God-Created Image of Jesus Christ?

The feast day of the Dormition of Our Lady on August 15, 944, was a day of jubilation for Constantinople, as one of the most precious relics of Christianity, the famous Mandylion with the imprint of Christ’s face, was brought to the city from Edessa, now Urfa in Turkey. The following day, the relic was transferred to the Hagia Sophia and eventually found its repository in the famous chapel of the imperial palace, the Pharos Chapel of the Bukoleon, which is now lost.

An annual commemoration of the transfer of the image was included in the orthodox liturgical calendar for August 16. This day is to this day the feast of the translation of the ‘image not made by man’.

However, it remains a mystery what became of it.

What is the Mandylion about?

According to Christian Orthodox tradition, the image of Edessa was a sacred relic consisting of a rectangular cloth on which a miraculous image of the face of Jesus had been imprinted. The Savior is said to have wiped his sweat-covered face with it, and in the process God is said to have burned his image into the textile.

The so-called mandylion (from Greek μανδύλιον “cloth, towel”) was thus understood as the first icon and original image of the Savior. In Eastern Orthodoxy it is also called an acheiropoeiton, a ‘non-man-made image’. This definition of ‘not man-made’ was important in the Byzantine image controversy, which was about whether the divine nature of the Savior could be depicted. If God had created the Mandylion, it was said, the answer to the question was yes.

The story of the Mandylion is similar to that of the Shroud of Veronica and is intermingled with it in the Western world. Some interpretations think that Veronica is just a verbalization of the word ‘true icon’ (Latin ‘vera’, ‘the true’ and Greek ‘eikon’, the image) and both cloths are identical.

Sinai Mandylion Icon
The Sinai Mandylion Icon

The Mandylion was depicted not long after its arrival in Constantinople on an icon that is still kept in the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It is divided into four panels: At the top right, King Abgar is seated, holding in his hands the Mandylion with the face of Christ clearly visible to the viewer. To the left is a smaller figure making a pointing gesture. This is probably Hannan, Abgar’s messenger, who delivered a letter from the king to Christ in Jerusalem and received the Mandylion in return. On the upper left panel there is another seated figure, dressed in white and alone. That is Addai (or Thaddeus in the Greek tradition), the apostle of Edessa. On the lower panels are two standing pairs of saints: on the left, St. Paul of Thebes and St. Anthony; on the right, St. Basil and St. Ephrem.

Where did the Mandylion come from?

The Mandylion made its appearance on the great world stage at the moment of its entry into Constantinople. At the beginning of 944, the Byzantine Emperor Romanos I had reached an agreement with the Muslim rulers of besieged Edessa that they would hand over the Mandylion to the commander John Kurkuas in exchange for 200 Muslim prisoners and 12,000 pieces of silver. However, it did not come into the hands of the Byzantines alone, but was accompanied by 3 copies and the Keramidion, a god-made copy of the Mandylion imprinted on a roof tile (the Mandylion had been hidden on a roof for a while).

However, the year 944 was not the moment of origin of the legend of the cloth, which turns out to be much older:

Already a tradition of Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History from the early 4th century describes how King Abgar of Edessa had asked Jesus to come to him and heal him from an illness. From a later extension of the story, one can surmise that it may have been leprosy. This is not certain, and it may be a later interpretation, since leprosy did not become a problem in the Byzantine Empire until the 3rd century.

Abgar V did indeed exist. He also called himself Ukkāmā which means “the black one” in Syriac and other Aramaic dialects. He was the Arabic-born king of Osrhoene, with Edessa as its capital (c. 1st century BC – c. AD 50).

Abgar allegedly received a reply letter from Jesus in which he declined the invitation to Edessa but promised a visit by one of his disciples. One of the seventy disciples, Addai or Thaddeus of Edessa, is said to have subsequently come to Edessa and delivered a letter from Jesus, by which the king was miraculously healed.

The letter is said to have been preserved, and Eusebius claims to have copied and translated it in the Syriac chancery documents of the king of Edessa. However, he does not mention an effigy.

An effigy is first mentioned in a Syriac work, the Doctrine of Addai. According to it, the messenger of Abgar, here called Ananias, was also a painter, and painted the portrait, which was brought back to Edessa and kept in the royal palace.

The first report of the existence of a god-made image that was supposed to have been in the ancient city of Edessa then comes from Evagrios Scholastikos, who around 593 mentions an image of Christ of divine origin (θεότευκτος), which in 544 is said to have provided miraculous help as a palladium in the defense of Edessa against the Persians.

Eusebius reports nothing about the fate of the Edessa letter, but if it was made of papyrus, which seems likely, it will have decayed. Papyrus had a lifespan of about 100 to 200 years in ancient libraries. What is striking, however, is the later transformation from letter to image and then to cloth. History transforms the venerated object from written to hand-painted and then to god-made. The mandylion subsequently disappears, is thrown into a well, which thus becomes miraculous, and reappears. One falsifies it by copies and so on. The path of the cloth is bumpy.

It is therefore not by chance that the Byzantines, during the siege of Edessa, also demanded all the copies of the cloth. It seems that already at that time it was not completely sure which cloth or picture was the real one.

It should also be mentioned that around ancient Edessa there is a strong tradition of the miracle tree, on which cloths are hung to get wishes fulfilled. Such a tree still stands today in nearby Göbekli Tepe. A leap from letter to cloth would therefore not be out of place to do justice to this tradition.

Wishing trees with cloths like these still serve as “wish mediators” in Turkey and also close to ancient Edessa (Urfa).

In addition, it is not the number of three that is worshipped in the area, but the number five. Still today one worships the five-fingered hand of Fatme (Hamsa) or damns enemies in using the number five. Five relics would meet this condition for holiness as a collection (Mandylion, Keramidion and three copies).

What became of the Mandylion?

The Mandylion, together with the Keramidion, remained in the Pharos-Chapel in Constantinople in golden shrines suspended from the ceiling until 1204, when the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade sacked the city. Its further fate (and that of its copies) leaves room for speculation. There are several versions and candidates:

The cloth of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris

After Constantinople was sacked, the new Latin imperial house had to sell the Passion relics accumulated in the previous two centuries to balance its treasury. France acquired them from the Venetians for an astronomically high sum after Baldwin II had pawned them and could not redeem them.

The relics, twenty-two in all, were originally in Constantinople in the Bucoleon Palace and the Blachernae Church, and were brought to Paris in three separate voyages: first, the famous Crown of Thorns, which left Constantinople in 1239. Then a group of several relics, which may have included the Mandylion, which arrived in Paris in 1241. And finally, a smaller group of relics that left Constantinople in 1241 and arrived in Paris in 1241 or 1242.

Crown of Thorns, parts of the Cross, Blood of Christ, Head of John the Baptist and many other relics were kept in a large chest (the Grande Châsse)in the Sainte-Chapelle from then on.

One of the relics is described as “sanctam toellam, tabulae insertam”. However, it is uncertain whether this was really the Mandylion.

First, it should be noted that the Mandylion was unknown in the West and is therefore described in vague terms when it arrived at the Sainte-Chapelle. One does not refer to it in inventories as the Mandylion or Image of Edessa but as a ‘sacred cloth’.

What came to Paris was kept in the chest containing all other relics, the Grande Châsse, elevated on a platform behind the altar under a canopy. All the reliquaries were behind closed doors, which were locked with ten different keys. So was the cloth.

Most of the relics and reliquaries were then lost during the French Revolution. Only three of the relics remain today: the Crown of Thorns, the Nails of the Passion and a piece of the True Cross, which were first kept in the treasury in Notre-Dame, but after its fire went to the Louvre. The Sainte-Chapelle no longer houses relics or reliquaries.

The question is whether the Mandylion arrived in Paris and, if so, what became of it.

The theory circulating is that it arrived in Paris and was given by King Philippe VI of Valois to Geoffroy de Charny as a gift for his great services to France, and was therefore identical to the Shroud of Turin. However, this is not credible, since pilgrims had previously described seeing both, Mandylion and shroud in Byzantium. Moreover, the first inventory, i.e., a list given by Balwin II to Saint Louis, mentions both the words ‘sanctam toellam, tabulae insertam’ (a sacred cloth) and ‘partem sudarii quo involutum fuit corpus ejus in sepulchro’ (a part of the burial shroud of Jesus). The last inventory in Morand’s book, dated July 1, 1790, continues to mention both separately.

Yet, an inventory of the Sainte-Chapelle, made on March 22, 1534, on the occasion of a theft, certainly confirms a fundamental doubt about the identity of the textile:

Et au regard du huitième article, contenant la trelle inserée à la table, après plusieurs difficultés, a esté finallement trouvée en un grand reliquaire et tableau garny d’argent surdoré, où y a apparence d’une effigie, ladite trelle comme consommée contre ledit tableau, autour, environ et dans ladite effigie.

And regarding the eighth article, which contains the image inserted in the grid, so after several difficulties it was finally found in a large reliquary and a tablet covered with gilded silver, in which there is an effigy, the grid being consumed with and around the image.

Inventory of 22 March 1534

The officials were probably looking for a cloth, and none was found in the reliquary. After several attempts to find it in the reliquaries, the officials concluded that what had previously been called a cloth (“toile”) must rather be a “trelle” (treillis), a grate or one of the typical icon metals (Russian ‘riza’), and therefore a misspelling. Thus, the officials would have wanted to write “trelle” instead of “toile”.

In the text of all subsequent inventories, the words “trelle” (grid) and “toile” (cloth) are no longer used, as this description was too complicated to express the obvious directly: There was a face of Jesus Christ on the floor of the reliquary. The terms “Veronica” and “Holy Face” are preferred to describe it succinctly.

One can draw three possible conclusions:

  1. The Mandylion never came to Paris, but only an image, i.e. most likely one of the three copies; or
  2. The Mandylion was made of a fabric or painted with something that melted or stuck to the substrate or bonded to the metal placed over it (resin?). This would be supported by the description of the fusion (‘consommé) as well as the preceding formation of the Keramidion; or
  3. The Mandylion was taken out of the reliquary after its arrival, stolen or given away. What remained was the empty shrine with an image of the original contents.

According to all this, it is possible that the Mandylion came to Paris and was destroyed during the French Revolution. However, given the little attention paid to the relic since its arrival in Paris, it is more likely that the original cloth never reached the city and that it was only one of the three copies from Edessa. One sees the reliquary of the Mandylion in Morand’s picture as a flat box on which one has placed quite unceremoniously the cross with the part of the lance that touched the Christ.

Illustration: an 18th century artistic replica of the Grande Châsse containing twenty relics, eighteen of which are from Constantinople. Two relics of the Virgin Mary were added and three relics from Constantinople were placed in the basement of the Sainte-Chapelle.

Many Byzantine reliquaries were replaced with new ones, but not the reliquary of the Mandylion and the reliquary of the piece of stone from the tomb of Jesus Christ. Here is the engraving from Morand’s book. The last presentation of the Châsse.

In the center of the image is the reliquary with the crown of thorns. All reliquaries are numbered. 11 is the cloth of the washing of the feet. 15 is the veil of the Savior. Relic 17 is a part of the sudarium that had wrapped Jesus Christ in his tomb. 18 is the Mandylion (“une sainte face“). Planche de Sauveur-Jérôme Morand [p. 40, Morand, 1790].

Alternative relics?

So, if the Mandylion did not come to Paris, where is it?

There are several images similar to each other that are claimed to be the true Mandylion. Each is surrounded by an ornate outer frame, into which is set a gilded metal sheet, into which is cut an opening through which the face appears. At the bottom of the face are three points that correspond to the shape of the hair and beard. This manner of always similar representation suggests that there was also a strong tradition in Western Europe of what the Mandylion looked like and what we are looking for.

The Veil of Veronica, St. Peter’s Church

If the Mandylion did not come to Paris, perhaps it came to Rome?

St. Peter’s Basilica keeps an image that is said to be the Veil of Veronica. This image is kept in the chapel located behind the balcony of the southwest pillar that supports the dome. In 1907, the Jesuit art historian Joseph Wilpert was allowed to remove two crystal plates to examine the image. He described a square, age-yellowed fabric with two large, faint rusty-brown spots.

It is often assumed that this Veil of Veronica was already in the old St. Peter’s Basilica during the reign of Pope John VII (705-8), as a chapel known as the Chapel of Veronica was built during his reign. However, there is no reference to the cloth. However, it seems that the veil venerated today was present at least in 1011, when a scribe was identified as the keeper of the cloth.

It is worth noting that the image was in the Vatican at the same time that the Mandylion was still hanging in Byzantium. Therefore, it cannot be identical to it. However, it otherwise shows the same style as all replicas of the Edessa image, gold framing, head and beard shape, and seems to be inspired by it. There are also (opportune) reports that the Edessa image was stolen from Edessa before the Byzantines obtained it, and therefore the real image came to Rome via Jerusalem.

The Manoppello image

Another candidate for the Mandylion is the Manopello image found in 1999 by German Jesuit Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, professor of art history at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He announced at a press conference in Rome that he had found the Veil of Veronica in a church of a Capuchin monastery in the small village of Manoppello in Italy, where it had been since 1660.

He claimed that it was the real Vatican Veronica, which had been stolen from there. Verification has shown that it is a monochrome late Gothic brush drawing on gauze-like linen. It is probably a Dutch-influenced German work executed around 1500.

Holy Face of San Silvestro, Vatican

The Holy Face of San Silvestro was kept in the Roman church of San Silvestro until 1870 and is now in the Matilda Chapel in the Vatican. It is housed in a Baroque frame donated by Sister Dionora Chiarucci in 1623. The earliest evidence of its existence dates to 1517, when nuns were forbidden to display it to avoid competition with the Veronica. It is painted on cardboard and therefore almost certainly a copy.

Holy Face of Genoa

The most interesting painting is the Holy Face of Genoa, kept in the modest church of St. Bartholomew the Armenian in Genoa.

It was given to Doge Leonardo Montaldo in the 14th century by the Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus. The painting was studied in detail in 1969 by Colette Dufour Bozzo, who dated the outer frame to the late 14th century, while the inner frame and the painting itself are thought to be earlier.

An exact dating was not possible, but it is obviously a picture painted in the Mandylion tradition. It is not excluded that it is one of the copies from Edessa. A more detailed study for dating would be necessary. However, it is certainly not the original Mandylion, which would have been too precious for the Byzantines to send as a gift to Genoa.


According to all this, the cloths in Paris, Rome and Genoa may well be (or have been) copies of the Mandylion. Their style and presentation are almost identical. However, the whereabouts of the real Mandylion, just like the Keramidion, remain questionable.

And if the Mandylion is still in Istanbul?

As there is a legend in Istanbul that there are relics of Christ under a column and the Bukoleon Palace is also lying unexcavated in the ground, both remain good for surprises.

In Istanbul, there is a legend that Christ’s relics are buried under the Çemberlitaş Column (Constantine’s Column) and that there is even a tomb underneath it where the body of the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine, is said to be hidden after he fell and disappeared at the Canon Gate of Theodosius’ Wall.

It is commonly thought that this legend talks of the Nails of the Passion. However, since these are proven to have come to Paris, it is possible that instead Mandylion and Keramidion lie under the column.

According to another legend, the relics might be in a cisterns under the Bukoleon Palace. The palace facade and the rooms behind it are being excavated as we speak and, surprisingly, 12 skeletons have already been recovered. Why not also relics? Anything is possible. The Bukoleon has never really been investigated.

Stay posted.

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