Thursday, October 6, 2011

More on the Shroud and Miraculous Images

tenth century icon showing King Abgar
of Edessa with the Holy Mandylion
Sorry for the hiatus.  A colleague of mine passed away somewhat suddenly and I am his executor.  It has taken a bit of time, but now I am back on track.  Burying the dead is a corporal act of mercy and, of course, it is not one that will wait.  
     We had been talking about Veronica’s veil and then the shroud of Turin.  In the last entry, I had mentioned the “Image of Edessa” which is—or was—Christos Acheiropoietosan icon of “Christ, not painted by human hands”—a miraculous image.  We need to understand the theology of images in Eastern Christianity to appreciate the importance of this image. The Icon, unlike a statue in Western Christianity, does not merely depict but “represents” in the theological sense of that term, that is makes present, the one whose image it is.  In Eastern Christianity when God wishes Christ or a Saint, including the Mother of God, to represent himself or herself, they do it my means of a miraculous icon—perhaps a weeping icon, or one that miraculously emits a scented oil.  There is no tradition of visions in Eastern Christianity, the miraculous icon performs that same function.  And, of course, the icon—unlike the vision—can be seen by all.  The most important icons are the ones allegedly of miraculous orign.   One of the oldest, if not the oldest, of these icons is the Image of Edessa.    
     According to the story, King Abgar of Edessa—a Syriac city in northern Mesopotamia—was converted to Christianity by Addai, one of the 72 disciples that Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus sent out to prepare the towns and cities that he, Jesus, intended to visit.  Now, Edessa would have been a bit of the beaten path for Jesus, especially as he limited his mission “to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” and gentile Edessa was no where near the Galilee and Judah of Jesus.  But, a story is a story.  Anyway, supposedly King Abgar was ill with a fatal disease (and he did die relativel young) and he heard about the miracle working Jesus and wrote him asking him to come and cure him.  Eusebius, the fourth century Church historian, relates the legend that Jesus declined but promised to send a disciple.  Enter Addai, (aka Thaddeus of Edessa) one of the Fathers of the East Syriac Church who, by tradition, was one of the 72 disciples of Jesus.  Sometime after Eusebius wrote the earliest known version of the story—based on oral tradition—a new element was added to the story.  Supposedly Jesus gave Addai a portrait of himself (Jesus) to give King Abgar and the king kept this painting—painted on a piece of cloth—in a shrine in one of his palaces.  Evagrius Scholasticus, writing at the end of the sixth century, mentions this painting and claims that its miraculous powers delivered the city of Edessa from the Persian invasion of 544.  When Edessa fell to the Muslims in 638 Christianity was allowed to its citizens without persecution.  The Byzantines tried to retake the city in the tenth century and the Muslim authorities used the sacred icon to ransom Muslim Prisioners from John Kourkouas, the Byzantine general.  Thus the image, known as the Holy Mandylion,  came to Constantinople.  The Archdeacon of Constantinople,  Gregorios Referendarios, preached the sermon of welcome  in 944.  The image was stolen from Constantinople by the Crusaders during the infamous sack of the city in 1204.  Baldwin II of Jerusalem sold it to Louis IX of France to placed it in palace chapel he built to hold various relics he acquired in the Holy Land—the famous Sainte Chapelle of Paris.  It remained there until it was lost or destroyed in the French Revolution.  During its time in Constantinople various copies were made on icons, the most famous being at Saint Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai.  Another copy was held in the Roman Basilica of San Silvestro in Capite but moved in 1870 to the Vatican Palace.  It is currently on loan to the British Museum, though due to return to Rome this month (October 2011).  Some historians believe that the Image of Edessa is the same artifact as the Shroud of Turin, but there are two problems with this.  The Image of Edessa allegedly portrayed a living Christ, the Shroud Christ’s corpse.  Secondly, the Shroud’s existence and the Image of Edessa’s existence in two distinct places between the years 1390 and the disappearance of the Edessa Icon during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, can be clearly documented, the same object not able to be present in two places.  The Image of Edessa is referred to as acheiropieta—images “not made by hands,” that is miraculously produced images.  History sometimes becomes hopelessly entwined with myth, but even as a historian I find the myth far more interesting than any old facts. 

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