Transformations of the Edessa Portrait of Christ / Professor Sebastian Brock, Oxford University

Posted by on Mar 28, 2016 in Articles, Library | Comments Off on Transformations of the Edessa Portrait of Christ / Professor Sebastian Brock, Oxford University

August 15th 944 was a day of great jubilation and excitement for the citizens
of the capital of the Byzantine Empire, for on it one of the most precious relics,
the famous mandylion bearing the imprint of the face of Christ, came to the end
of its long journey from Edessa, to be escorted in solemn procession into
Constantinople; the following day the relic was taken in procession to the great
church of the Holy Wisdom, and then finally found its resting place in a chapel of
the imperial palace. An annual commemoration of the image, on 16th August,
was inserted into the liturgical calendar.1 Earlier in the year of 944 the Byzantine
Emperor, Romanos I, had managed to reach an agreement with the Muslim
authorities that they would be willing to hand it over in exchange for 200 Muslim
prisoners and 12,000 pieces of silver.2 Probably not long after its arrival in
Constantinople, the mandylion was portrayed on an icon that is still preserved in
the Monastery of St Catherine, Mount Sinai.3 The icon is divided up into four
fields: on the top right King Abgar is seated, and in his hands he holds the
mandylion with the face of Christ clearly visible to the viewer; to the left is a
smaller figure who stands and makes a gesture; he is, of course, Hannan, Abgar’s
messenger who conveyed his letter to Christ in Jerusalem. In the top left panel is
another seated figure, clothed in white, and alone: this will be Addai (or
Thaddaios in the Greek tradition), the apostle of Edessa. On the panels below are
1 Thus a long account (largely based on the Narratio, for which see note 2) is found in
H. Delehaye (ed.), Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinoplitanae (Bruxelles, 1902), cols
893-901 (for August 16th).
2 The details are given in section 56 of the Narratio (“account”), written shortly after
the transfer to Constantinople; the text is edited by E. von Dobschütz,
Christusbilder (Texte und Untersuchungen XVIII; Leipzig, 1899), pp.39**-85**.
This work, which includes a collection of most of the relevant texts, remains of
fundamental importance. (Two relevant texts have been published subsequently, both
in the Revue des études byzantines 55 (1997): a homily by the Archdeacon Gregory
(perhaps dating from 945), and a late twelfth-century text on the mandylion). The
recent bibliography on the history of the Edessa portrait is extensive; of particular
importance are: A. Cameron, “History of the image of Edessa”, in her Changing
Cultures in Early Byzantium (Aldershot, 1996), ch. XI, and H.J.W. Drijvers, “The
image of Edessa in the Syriac tradition”, in H.L. Kessler and G. Wolf (eds), The
Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation (Villa Spelman Colloquia 6; 1998),
pp.13-31; this volume contains a number of other contributions of relevance.
3 An illustration can be found in S.P. Brock and D.G.K. Taylor (eds), The Hidden
Pearl, II. The Heirs of the Ancient Aramaic Heritage (Rome, 2001), p.49. (A section
on the image is to be found on pp.122-5). On this icon, see K. Weitzmann, “The
mandylion and Constantine Porphyrogennetos”, Cahiers archéologiques 11 (1960),
Transformation of the Edessa Portrait of Christ 47
two pairs of standing saints, St Paul of Thebes and St Antony on the left, and St
Basil and St Ephrem on the right.

The mandylion remained in Constantinople until 1204, when it was part of
the spoils seized by the Crusaders who infamously sacked the capital. Its
subsequent fate is totally unknown, a situation that has left ample room for
speculation, with among the modern claimants are icons in the church of St
Bartholomew degli Armeni in Genoa, and in the Vatican Museum (formerly in
San Silvestro in Capite, in Rome), and even the Turin Shroud.4 That a similar
relic was in Rome by 1208 is indicated by the fact that Pope Innocent III
instituted a ceremonial procession and liturgical office for it.5 Eighty years later
the monk Rabban Sauma, who had travelled all the way from the region of
(modern) Beijing in China as an ambassador for Argun, the Mongol Ilkhan, saw
in St Peter’s ‘the piece of pure linen on which our Lord had impressed his own
image in order to send it to King Abgar of Edessa’.6 Although it seems that
Abgar’s connection with the relic was subsequently largely forgotten in Rome,
being replaced by the legend of Veronica, nevertheless in the middle of the
sixteenth century the Syrian Orthodox priest Moses of Mardin, who assisted in
the production of the first printed edition of the Peshitta New Testament
(published in Vienna in 1555), records that when he was in Rome he saw with his
own eyes ‘the mandila which was sent by our Lord to Abgar’, specifying that this
was in the church of the Apostles Peter and Paul.7

The relic that was brought to Constantinople from Edessa was clearly a
piece of clothe on which the image of Christ’s face had been impressed. What
has happened to the portrait of Christ which, according to the Syriac Teaching of
Addai (dating from the early fifth century), %annan, King Abgar’s emissary to
Jesus, painted when he was in Jerusalem? In the Teaching of Addai we are told
that, after Christ gave an oral reply to king Abgar’s letter,
4 For the Turin Shroud, see below, note 35.
5 A cloth (sudarium) with the holy face imprinted on it, but described as the
“Veronica” (< vera icona?) is already recorded as being in St Peter’s in Rome c.1160
(von Dobschütz, p.285*). The two relics are often confused in the sources; for the
dominance of the “Veronica” image in Rome, see especially I. Ragusa, “Mandylion-
Sudarium: the translation of a Byzantine relic to Rome”, Arte Medievale II.v.2 (1991),
pp. 97-106; H. Belting, Likeness and Presence: a History of the Image before the Era
of Art (Chicago, 1994), pp.208-24 (“The ‘Holy Face’: legends and images in
competition”); and G. Wolf, “From mandylion to Veronica”, in Kessler and Wolf
(eds), The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, pp.153-79.
6 Ed. P. Bedjan, Histoire de Mar Jab-Alaha, patriarche… (Leipzig/Paris, 1895), p.63
(p.58 in his earlier edition of 1888).
7 He gives this information in a marginal note to Michael the Syrian’s Chronicle which
he copied c.1560; the text is given by J-B. Chabot, Chronique de Michel le Syrien I
(Paris, 1899, repr. Bruxelles, 1963), p. xxxix.
48 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 18, no. 1, 2004
Because (%annan) was the royal artist, he took up (paints) and depicted the
image (1almeh) of Jesus with choice paints, and brought (it) with him to king
Abgar his master. And when king Abgar saw that image he received it with great
joy and placed it in great honour in one of the rooms of his palace.8

As is well known, the earliest account of Abgar’s correspondence with
Jesus, dating from about AD 300 and in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, in fact
has no mention at all of such a portrait, and the western pilgrim Egeria, who
visited Edessa about 385, still only knows of the correspondence, and not the
portrait. But what is of concern here is the transformation, over the course of
time, of what was originally understood to have been a painted portrait into a
piece of cloth with Christ’s face imprinted on it. As always in such cases, it is
essential to look at the sources in chronological sequence, and to observe closely
the specific terms used in connection with the portrait. As it will emerge, there
are four main stages in the tradition over the portrait:
(1) No mention in any source before early fifth century.
(2) A portrait of Christ is painted by Abgar’s emissary, Hannan: thus the
Teaching of Addai (probably dating from about the third decade of the fifth
(3) The portrait (evidently painted) is a miraculous one, not made by human
hands. Evagrius Scholasticus, at the end of the sixth century, is the witness
to this development.
(4) It is no longer question of a painted portrait, but of an impression of
Christ’s face on a cloth: it proves impossible to paint a portrait, so Christ
washes his face and wipes it with a towel, on which the impression of his
face is left, for Abgar’s emissary to take back to Edessa. This version is
found in Syriac in the Acts of Mari and the anonymous Chronicle to the
year 1234, and in Greek first in John of Damascus and the Acts of
Thaddaios, as well as in most later texts.

After the passage in the Teaching of Addai it is not until the sixth century
that we next have references to the portrait. The first is in the Life of Jacob of
Galash, by Jacob of Serugh (d.521); there it is mentioned in passing that Daniel
and a fellow monk went to Edessa where they ‘were blessed by the portrait of
Christ’.9 Much more specific information is to be found in the account of the
Persian siege of Edessa in 544, as written up by Evagrius Scholasticus in his
Ecclesiastical History, a work he completed in 593/4. Evagrius tells of how the
citizens of Edessa “brought the divinely created image, which human hands had
not made, the one that Christ the God sent to Agbar [sic!] when he yearned to see
Him”, and with its aid they managed to set fire to Persian siege mound from a
passage dug underneath it. At first they had not managed to ignite the fire, but
8 G. Phillips, The Doctrine of Addai the Apostle (London, 1876), pp.5*-6* (Syriac), p.5
(tr.); G. Howard, The Teaching of Addai (Chico, 1981), pp.8-11 (text and tr.).
9 Paris, syr. 235, f.166r.
Transformation of the Edessa Portrait of Christ 49
once “they brought the all-holy image (eikon) into the channel they had created
…. at once the timbers caught fire.”10

Perhaps from about the same time as Evagrius, though it could be
somewhat later, is the first mention of a linen cloth; this is to be found in the Acts
of Mari, the Apostle of the Church of the East.11 Mari is presented as a disciple
of Addai, and after recounting Abgar’s correspondence with Christ (taken mainly
from Eusebius, but with a few details derived from the Teaching of Addai), the
author presents an account of the portrait of Christ that is considerably different
from that in the Teaching of Addai:
The Letter (of Christ) came to King Abgar and he received it with great joy.
When they told him of the miracles that were being performed by Him in the
land of Judaea, he was full of astonishment at the power of God. Because he was
not worthy to see this, he was in a state of great grief. What then did King
Abgar do? He saw some skilled artists and ordered them to go with his emissaries
and depict (Him), and bring back on an image (yuqna) the face of our Lord, so
that he might take pleasure in his image (1almeh), just as if he had met Him. The
artists arrived, along with the King’s emissaries, but they were unable to paint a
portrait (1 urta) of the venerable humanity of our Lord. Our Lord perceived in
them, with the knowledge of His divinity, the love that Abgar had for Him: on
seeing how the artists had toiled in their attempt to portray the image as it was,
but had not succeeded, He took a linen cloth (sedona; from Greek sindon), and
the Saviour of the World imprinted it with His face – and it was (exactly) like
Him. And the linen cloth was brought and placed as a source of assistance in the
church of Edessa, up to today.12

A passing reference to “the eikon (yuqna) that Christ impressed with his
face and sent to Abgar, the king of Edessa” is found in a Syriac Dispute between
a monk of the monastery of Beth Hale and a follower of the Emir Maslama
(d.737).13 In Greek a similar narrative which introduces the linen cloth is to be
found in the Acts of Thaddaeus (Thaddaeus was Eusebius’ name for Addai), a
10 Evagrius, Eccl. Hist. IV. 27, English tr. M. Whitby, The Ecclesiastical History of
Evagrius Scholasticus (Liverpool, 2000), p.226; in his Appendix II (pp.323-6)
Whitby convincingly refutes the view of J. Chrysostomides [see n.15] that the passage
was an interpolation of the eighth century, intended to bolster the position of the
opponents of iconoclasm.
11 Unfortunately the date is uncertain (as in the case of several of the other key
documents!): C. Jullien and F. Jullien, Les Actes de Mari, l’apôtre de la Mésopotamie
(Turnhout, 2001), p.53, think the late sixth or early seventh century is the most likely.
12 Acta Sancti Maris, section 4, ed. J-B. Abbeloos, Analecta Bollandiana 4 (1885),
pp.43-138. Note that the image is only acquired on a second visit to Jerusalem: this is
paralleled in the Greek Epistula Abgari, but not in the Acts of Thaddaeus or the
13 I quote from H.J.W. Drijvers, “The image of Edessa in the Syriac tradition”, p.27; the
text has not yet been published.
50 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 18, no. 1, 2004
work also of uncertain date.14 Unlike the situation portrayed in the Acts of Mari,
Abgar instructs Ananias (Hannan) at the very outset to “describe Christ
accurately, what sort of appearance he has, his age, his hair, in brief, everything”.
Ananias then goes off with the letter, hands it to Christ, gazes carefully at him,
but is unable to take anything in: “Realizing this, He who knows hearts asked to
wash. He was given a cloth folded in four; once he had washed, he wiped his
face. His image (eikon) was imprinted linen cloth (sindon), and he gave it to
Ananias”, telling him to take it to Abgar, along with his (oral) reply to the king’s
letter. Basically the same form of the narrative was known to John of Damascus,
writing shortly before the middle of the eighth century.15

Since the term eikon is used in the Acts of Thaddaeus for the imprinted
portrait of Christ on the linen, one cannot be sure exactly what was implied by
the phrase “shrine of the eikon (yuqna) of our Lord”, which features in the
colophon of a Melkite manuscript written in Edessa in 723: the ‘eikon’ could be
either painted on wood, or refer to an image on linen.16 An indication that, at
least in some circles, the image of Christ was understood as having been painted
is shown by an account in the Chronicle of Patriarch Michael the Great (d.1199),
which derives from the lost Chronicle of Patriarch Dionysius of Telmahre
(d.845), in which
The Edessans owed part of the taxes they had to pay and had nothing
with which to pay it. A crafty man…advised the collector of taxes, ‘If you
take the portrait they will sell their children and themselves rather than
allow it [to be removed]. When he did this, the Edessans were in
consternation…. They came to the noble Athanasius (bar Gumoye) and
asked him to give them the 5,000 dinars of the taxes, and to take the
portrait to his house until they repaid him. He gladly took the portrait
to his place and gave the gold. Then he brought a clever painter and
asked him to paint one like it. When the work was finished and there
14 Greek text in R.A. Lipsius and M. Bonnet, Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha I (Leipzig,
1891; repr. Darmstadt, 1965), pp.273-8; French translation by A.N. Palmer in A.
Desreumaux, Histoire du roi Abgar et de Jésus (Turnhout, 1993), pp.138-45.
Unfortunately the date is very uncertain; Palmer (p.137 note 1) suggests that it dates
from the latter part of the reign of Heraclius (611-641).
15 On Orthodox Faith IV.16 (89) (ed. Kotter, II, p.208). Here he specifies that it was the
luminosity of Christ’s face that prevented the painter making a portrait (the cloth is
termed himation, whereas in his treatise On Images he calls it rakos, ed. Kotter, III,
p.145-6). According to Chrysostomides, these passages too are later iconophile
interpolations (in J.A. Munitiz, J. Chrysostomides, E. Harvalia-Crook, Ch. Dendrinos,
The Letter of the Three Patriarchs to Emperor Theophilus and Related Texts
(Camberley, 1997), pp.xxiv-xxxvii); in view of the Syriac texts, this seems rather
16 R.W. Thomson, “An eighth-century Melkite colophon from Edessa”, Journal of
Theological Studies NS 13 (1962), pp.249-58.
Transformation of the Edessa Portrait of Christ 51
was a portrait as exactly as possible like [the original] because the painter
had dulled the paints of the portrait so that they would appear old, the
Edessans after a time returned the gold and asked him for the portrait. He
gave them the one that had been made recently and kept the old one in
his place. After a while he revealed the affair to the faithful [i.e. his
fellow Syrian Orthodox], and built the wonderful shrine of the baptistery.
He completed it at expense great beyond reckoning, spent in honour of
the portrait, because he knew that the genuine portrait sent through
Yohannan [sic] the tabellara, had remained in his place. After several
years he brought it and put it in the baptistery.17

This story would imply that the Melkite priest who was looking after “the
shrine of the eikon of our Lord” was actually just looking after its recent copy! It
also helps to explain why there were evidently three different portraits in Edessa
(one being in “the church of the Nestorians”) at the time when one of them was
transported to Constantinople in 944.18 Reference to a painted portrait is found as
late as the second quarter of the 10th century in Agapius of Mabbug’s Kitab al
`Unwan, where Hannan is said to have painted the portrait on “a square tablet
(luh )”.19

A later Syriac account which introduces a portrait imprinted on linen,
instead of a painted one, features in the anonymous Chronicle to the year 1234,
no doubt taken from an earlier source.20 After giving the text of Abgar’s Letter to
Jesus in a shortened form (based on Eusebius), there is a section entitled
“Concerning the yuqna or depiction (1 urta) of Christ which is on the towel
(shushepa)”. Then comes the following narrative:
Because king Abgar had previously instructed Hananya the tabellara that, if
Christ was not going to come with them (back to Edessa), by all means they
should bring up on a piece of wood (dappa) the yuqna of his portrait (d-1 urteh)
so that he might see it. Now when they reached Jerusalem and met Christ, they
17 XI.16 (ed. Chabot, pp.448-9); I quote from J.B. Segal’s translation, in Edessa, ‘the
Blessed City’ (Oxford, 1970), p.214; another translation can be found in A.N. Palmer,
The Seventh Century in West-Syrian Chronicles (Liverpool, 1993), pp.203-4.
Athanasius bar Gumoye was active in the reign of Abdalmalik (685-705). The
account is said to go back to Dionysius’ maternal grandfather.
18 This is mentioned in the Narratio (47) concerning the bringing of the relic to
Constantinople in 944.
19 Ed. A. Vasiliev, Patrologia Orientalis 7 (1911), pp.18-19 (474-5). Eutychius (Sa`id
ibn Bitriq), patriarch of Alexandria (933-40), however, already uses the term mandil
in a passing reference in his Book of Demonstration/Kitab al-Burhan (ed. P. Cachia,
tr. W. Montgomery Watt, CSCO Scr. Arab. 20-21, 1960, p. 207 (text), p.162 (tr.)).
20 Ed. J-B. Chabot, Chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens, I (CSCO Scr. Syri 36,
1920, repr, 1953), pp.121-2. Drijvers, “The image of Edessa”, p.23, suggests the
passage goes back, by way to Dionysius of Telmahre, to the lost chronicle of
Theophilus (late 8th cent.).
52 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 18, no. 1, 2004
gave him the letter and he read it. He wrote a reply to the letter on the spot, and
knowing hidden things, he asked for water and washed his face. He (then) took a
towel (shushepa) as if to wipe his face, and straightaway by some great wonder
the yuqna of his face was portrayed on that towel, in his likeness and
resemblance. And he gave the towel, along with the reply to the letter, to Abgar’s

The Chronicler then gives the text of Jesus’ letter, again based on Eusebius
rather than the Teaching of Addai, though it ends with the blessing of Edessa and
promise that it no enemy would have dominion over it (found in the Teaching,
but not in Eusebius). There follows a completely new episode (pp.122-3), headed
“Concerning the return of Abgar’s emissaries”. It reads as follows:
Once the emissaries had received the letter and the towel, or mandila, they
set off to return to their master. They reached as far as the town of Mabbug, and
stayed in a certain place outside the town. Since they were concerned about the
mandila, they went up to the roof of the place where they were staying, and
placed it between two tiles (keramidia), in a clean spot. While they were asleep at
night a great light descended from heaven over the place where it had been
placed. When the local inhabitants saw that great sight, they came in droves to
the place. The emissaries, being unable to conceal the matter, related the whole
story, just as it was. Once the citizens understood what was the cause of the light,
they demanded to be blessed by the yuqna, for they hade seen this great wonder
that had taken place. When Hananya the tabellara stretched out his hand to take
the mandila, he found that the portrait (1 urteh) of the Saviour had been marked
on the times. When the local inhabitants saw this second miracle, they were once
more fired with a desire for it, and they urged Hananya to give them the tiles, to
be a source of blessing and protection for their region. Once they had received
the tiles they placed them in honour in a splendid location in their place of
worship. In this way many miraculous healings were performed by them, up to
the time when the Apostle Philip came to them; it was he who converted them
and built a large church, in which he placed the holy tiles. When the holy apostle
died in martyrdom for Christ, his holy body was place there.

The emissaries took the mandila and came to Edessa. On hearing of this,
king Abgar went out to meet them with all the town; he received them with great
ceremony. He was blessed by the holy mandila, and received relief from his
illness, until the Apostle Addai came to him, after our Lord’s ascension: (Addai)
then baptized him and healed him completely from his sickness. The citizens of
Edessa were also converted and they were all baptized, becoming Christians.

This episode is also found in the Greek Narratio (section 14) composed
shortly after the transfer of the image to Constantinople in 944. A similar account
also features, but in a shorter form, in the Greek Epistula Abgari (section 5),
composed around 1032. The Syriac account is by no means a translation of either
Transformation of the Edessa Portrait of Christ 53
of these Greek accounts; rather, it represents a separate, though related, tradition
that circulated in Syriac.21

The same Chronicle has one further passage concerning the image. After
describing the arrival of Zengi in Edessa (1145), the Chronicler has a section
entitled “Concerning the well of the lepers outside Edessa” (I, pp.134-5).22 This
reads as follows:
We shall indicate here the story of this well. Because we have already
written about the mandila of Christ our Lord which was sent to Abgar, king of
Edessa, and how he was healed of his sickness, we will indicate here about this
well that we have just mentioned,23 how and whence it acquired the power of
healing. We mentioned earlier that there was in this place a renowned monastery,
named after the glorious Cosmas, the true confessor and martyr, who was a
healer of bodies in Edessa, along with his companion and spiritual brother,
Damian (Dumyana): they used to heal everyone free with their medicaments, as
is described in their History. Cosmas’ (body) was laid in this place, and over it
this monastery was built. Damian was placed high up on the mountain, and over
him another splendid monastery was built. Healings and miracles were
performed by their bones.

Now there was at a certain time an Oriental who was present in Edessa. He
cunningly waited for a time when he could find an opportunity to steal from the
church the mandila which had been sent by our Lord to Abgar, which was
preserved in a church in Edessa. Once he had taken it, he left by the south gate in
the evening and passed the night in this monastery of St Cosmas. The mandila
filled his lap as it were with fire, burning him. In anguish he removed it from his
lap, and in his fright he threw it into this deep well in the monastery. All at once
there was seen above it a column of fire coming down from heaven into the well.
People thronged to see what had happened. Peering into the well they saw that
something looking like the ball of the sun was shining out in the water.

Descending into the well, they found the mandila and brought it up. All the
sick who were in the monastery were healed after washing in that water. Report
(of this) spread everywhere, and many people – especially those with various
kinds of leprosy and everyone who had the same disease as Abgar – poured
along, washed in the well’s water and were healed. It was especially people who
do not belong to our Christian religion who were speedily healed.

The next paragraph tells how Zengi, on learning about the well’s healing
parts, had said “I believe that Christ’s blessing can perform miracles”, and when
one of his officers was healed he wanted to build an endowed hostel for the sick,
but this did not come to fruition. The Chronicler adds the information that by
21 The image (on a shushepa) was still commemorated liturgically in Edessa in the 12th
century, to judge by an Enyono mentioning it in British Library Add. 14697, f.168r
(Syrian Orthodox); the passage is quoted in The Hidden Pearl, II, p.124.
22 Segal refers to this episode in Edessa, ‘the Blessed City’, p.250.
23 It was mentioned in the previous paragraph of the Chronicle.
54 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 18, no. 1, 2004
Zengi’s day the monastery had been in ruins “for a long time”; however, the
reference in the passage quoted to non-Christians being healed suggests that it
did not fall into ruin until some time after Arab rule.

This episode of the theft of the mandylion and its being thrown into a well
seems not to be known from any other source. The motif of the hiding away of a
precious object can be traced back to the hiding of the sacred vessels of the
Temple by Jeremiah after Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of the Jerusalem in BC 587,
a tradition which goes back to 2 Maccabees 2:5. More intriguingly, an episode
involving the hiding of the mandylion in a well is depicted in a Latin manuscript
perhaps written in Rome in the second half of the thirteenth century. This
manuscript (now Paris, Lat. 2688) contains an extended cycle of 22 miniatures
illustrating the story of Abgar and the sudarium (as the cloth with the image is
here called).24 Towards the end of the cycle, when the sacred image is on its
journey back to Abgar, there is a scene where it is being brought up out of a
well.25 Such an episode seems to be completely without parallel in the other later
texts on the history of the image, and this makes the counterpart in the Syriac
Chronicle all the more striking, even though the narrative context is quite
different. As it happens, there is another intriguing link, albeit again remote,
between our Syriac Chronicle and this Latin text: the Latin text identifies the
gentiles who approach Philip, “wanting to see Jesus” (John 12:21-3), with king
Abgar’s emissaries. This too, seems to be something without parallel in other
accounts; Philip, however, does feature in the Syriac Chronicle’s account, though
again in a different context, the conversion of the people of Mabbug (something
not mentioned in either the Narratio or the Epistula Abgari).

The Latin manuscript provides a unique ending to the story. After
describing how Abgar’s son reverted to paganism, instead of having the bishop
of Edessa hiding the image (as the Narratio and Epistula Abgari relate it),
Abgar’s widow takes it off for safety to Jerusalem.26 The motivation behind this
is clear: in the Narratio and Epistula Abgari the image has to be hidden so that it
can be rediscovered at the siege of Edessa in 544, as related by Evagrius (and
expanded in The Letter of the Three Patriarchs, where bishop Eulalios is
24 On this see I. Ragusa, “The iconography of the Abgar cycle in Paris ms lat. 2688 and
its relationship to Byzantine cycles”, Miniatura 2 (1989), pp.35-51. (The cloth is
evidently also called sindon in the text). The visit to Hierapolis/Mabbug (but in the
Latin corrupted to Menpente) on the return journey to Edessa indicates a general
relationship to the Greek accounts in the Narratio and Epistula Abgari; the latter text
was provided with a cycle of illustrations on a Greek scroll of the 14th century in the
Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (M 499): for this see, S. Der Nersessian, “La
légende d’Abgar d’après un rouleau illustré de la bibliothèque Pierpont Morgan à
New York”, in Actes, IV congrès international des études byzantines, II (Sofia, 1936),
pp.98-106; Ragusa, “The iconography”, also gives several illustrations.
25 Illustrated in Plate IV.
26 Plate III in Ragusa, “The iconography”.
Transformation of the Edessa Portrait of Christ 55
introduced for the first time); furthermore, the image has to remain in Edessa so
that the genuine article is still there in 944, to be transported to the Byzantine
capital, Constantinople. Rome, however, where Paris Lat. 2688 was probably
written, had no interest in Constantinople, and indeed was happy to undermine its
claim to have the Edessa relic by neatly removing the image from Edessa only
shortly after Abgar’s death!

It is striking that an interest in the return journey from Jerusalem to Edessa
only begins to feature in texts that are subsequent to the transfer of the image to
Constantiople in 944. Thus it is only with the Narratio and the Epistula Abgari
that the Hierapolis (Mabbug) episode (providing the origin of the image being
impressed on two tiles) and the healing of a man outside Edessa, first appear.
These would seem to have been introduced as counterparts to episodes on the
journey in 944 from Edessa to Constantinople, when miracles are performed on
the way at Samosata, and a demoniac is healed at a monastery of the Virgin in
the theme of the Optimates.27 That Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (who
became emperor on 16 December 944, replacing Romanos) sought to have
himself portrayed as the new Abgar is suggested by the fact that on the Sinai icon
Abgar’s face bears Constantine’s features.28

Although there are indications in the Narratio that the Christian population
of Edessa were – not surprisingly – extremely unwilling to give up their treasured
image of Christ,29 its removal to Constantinople did at least ensure that the Abgar
story gained a great deal of publicity that it would otherwise not have had.
Although in the west, outside the remarkable Paris manuscript, the Edessan
image was largely forgotten, being replaced by the Veronica tradition, the
correspondence between Abgar and Christ became known far and wide, with
translations of Christ’s letter into many different languages. It was in the
Byzantine east, however, that the Edessan image on cloth came to be reproduced
again an again.30 The mandylion was portrayed already in the eleventh century
churches in Cappadocia31 and even further afield, in Georgia,32 where two
27 Whose capital was Nikomedia.
28 See Weitzmann, “The Mandylion”.
29 Michael the Syrian, Chronicle XIII.3 (ed. Chabot, pp.553-5) and Bar `Ebroyo,
Chronicon (ed. Bedjan, pp.179-80) only give passing reference to the event. Both use
the term mandila.
30 The Mandylion in the mosaics of Monreale (Palermo, Sicily) in the late 12th century
belongs to the Byzantine iconographic tradition: see E. Kitzinger, “The Mandylion at
Monreale”, in A. Iakobini and E. Zanini, Arte profana e arte sacra a Bisanzio (Rome,
1995), pp.575-602. Another rare western example is provided by the cycle of ten
scenes from the Abgar story, largely based on the Narratio, on the frame of the Genoa
‘Volto Santo’; these are described, with illustrations, by C. Dufour-Bozzo, “La
cornice del Volto Santo de Genova”, Cahiers archéologiques 19 (1969), pp.223-30.
31 See C. Walter, “The Abgar cycle at Mateic”, in Studien zur byzantinischen
Kunstgeschichte. Festschrift für H. Hallensleben (Amsterdam, 1995), pp.221-31; that
56 Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 18, no. 1, 2004
successive translations of the correspondence between Abgar and Jesus were
made. Cycles of miniatures also feature in two Gospel manuscripts, with 5
illustrations in the Alaverdi Gospels of 1054, copied on the Black Mountain, near
Antioch,33 and with 10 in the Gelati Gospels, of the twelfth century.34

If one works backward in time, the image on cloth of Christ’s face, brought
from Edessa to Constantinople in 944, turns out to be the last of several different
transformations: prior to the impression on cloth, it had been an image (evidently
painted) not made by human hands; then before that, it was a portrait painted by
Abgar’s emissary Hannan, prior to which it vanishes altogether into thin air.
Although this makes a very unsatisfactory ancestry for those who would like to
identify the famous Turin Shroud with the Edessan mandylion,35 the gradual
development of the story, and above all its immense influence, provide an
excellent example of how a subsequent interpretation and perception of the past
can prove to have a far greater historical impact than that of the historical reality
(or in this case, non-reality) of the original event.

at Sakli kilise is illustrated in M. Restle, Byzantine Wall Painting in Asia Minor
(Greenwich, Conn., 1967), I, p.103f.
32 See Z. Skhirtladze, “Canonizing the apocrypha: the Abgar cycle in the Alavardi and
Gelati Gospels”, in Kessler and Wolf (eds), The Holy Face and the Paradox of
Representation, pp.69-93; in 1989 apse murals of the much earlier date, 8th/9th
century, with the inscription “The holy face of God”, were identified at the church of
the Holy Cross at Telovani (p.72).
33 Tbilisi, A-484. For Syriac manuscripts (all Melkite) copied there at much the same
time, see my “Syriac manuscripts copied on the Black Mountain, near Antioch”, in R.
Schulz and M. Görg (eds), Lingua Restituta Orientalis: Festgabe für Julius Assfalg
(Ägypten und altes Testament 20; 1990), pp.59-67.
34 Tbilisi, Q-908; the scenes are listed by Skhirtladze, pp.81-2 (and illustrations in figs.
35 E.g. I. Wilson, The Turin Shroud (Harmondsworth, 1979; A-M. Dubarle, Histoire
ancienne du linceul de Turin jusqu’au xiiie siècle (Paris, 1985