Still wishing I’d get to see the “Treasures of Heaven” exhibit

The British Museum will be showing off Christian clap-trap relics over the course of the exhibit. The Independent has an article featuring one of the pieces on loan from the Vatican, the so-called “Holy Towel of Jesus.”

It is Jesus’s “Holy Towel”, once visited by pilgrims in the belief that it showed the face of Christ, formed when he dried his wet head on a piece of cloth and left an indelible mark.

The Christian relic the Mandylion of Edessa usually takes pride of place in the Pope’s private Matilda chapel in the Vatican. It is rarely seen in public, and is one of the earliest images of Jesus – although there is scholarly disagreement about whether the facecloth is the original or a copy made 400 years after the life of Christ.

It’s never been shown in Britain before so the Museum is pleased to have this opportunity to show it off.

Curator James Robinson compared the reverence in which the cloth is held to modern-day idolatry.

“In the Middle Ages it would have been greeted in the same way that David Beckham’s sweaty shirt would be greeted today,” said Mr Robinson. “It is an ordinary object made extraordinary by the person claimed to have come into contact with it.”

The object was the subject of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages, say British Museum experts.

I hadn’t heard of this thing before. The article lists an interesting legend about the piece but I wanted some more information so I looked up its history via Joe Nickell and The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He reports on other versions of the legend surrounding it.

In one version of the story, found on a mid-fourth-century Syriac manuscript, the King of Edessa (an area of Turkey now known as Urfu) had written to Jesus with a request to fix his leprosy and offered up a safe haven if the Lord wanted to avoid being killed. The messenger Ananias was told that if he couldn’t get Jesus to do any of that he’d better at least come back with a souvenir portrait of the man so there’d be proof the meeting took place. Jesus supposedly wrote back to apologize for not coming in person, promised to send a lacky by later and passed his used towel onto Ananias to take back with him. Some versions claim it’s from the Garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers came for Christ (as reported in Luke 22) and was held in safekeeping until Ananias came along and others suggest Ananias painted the thing himself.

Historian Sir Steven Runciman has denounced all versions of the legend as apocryphal: “It is easy to show that the story of Abgar and Jesus as we now have it are untrue, that the letters contain phrases copied from the gospels and are framed according to the dictates of later theology” (qtd. in Sox 1978, 52).

Nevertheless, Runciman adds, “that does not necessarily invalidate the tradition on which the story was based …” (qtd. in Sox 1978, 52). The best evidence in the case would be the image itself, but which image? There have been several, each claimed to be the miraculous original. Obviously, only one could be authentic, but does it even still exist?

The trouble with relics in history has to be the vast amount of time they’re not seen or heard about. Centuries may go by between mentions and there’s really no decent way to tell if every mention is about the exact same piece, especially when it comes to a so-called picture of Jesus. In terms of the Mandylion (lit: “holy towel”) it’s a different problem. There’s one sitting in Genoa at the Church of St. Bartholomew and has been in their possession since 1388, apparently. The one the Vatican holds

has no certain history before the sixteenth century, when it was known to be kept at the convent of San Silvestro in Capito. In 1517, the nuns were reportedly forbidden to exhibit it, so it would not compete with the church’s Veronica. And in 1587 it was mentioned by one Cesare Baromio. In 1623 it received its silver frame, donated by Sister Dionora Chiarucci. It remained at San Silvestro until 1870 when, during the war that completed the unification of Italy, Pope Pius IX had it removed to the Vatican for safekeeping.

In 1996 researchers pulled that Mandylion out of its fancy frame to better inspect it and reported obvious use of pigment to create the image. X-rays and other non-invasive techniques also uncovered spots where the image had been altered.

Nickell notes that it was not uncommon for people to make copies of these kinds of icons on wood to pass around back then so the fact that both the Genua and Vatican ones are painted onto linen leads him to think there was intent by the artists (or commissioners) to trick believers into thinking each was the original piece touched by Jesus Christ himself. The Vatican makes no claim now that this piece is “an image made without the intervention of human hands…” but back when it was made a little dose of false authenticity would have gone a long way toward promoting whatever they wanted people to think then, too.

Hopefully the museum will have placards up detailing this kind of stuff for those who do line up to see it. Treat it as a slice of nifty religious history and leave it at that.

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