Thursday, December 12, 2013

A History of Veronica, 02: Abgar and the Image of Jesus, Part 01

(Part 01 here)

Picking up where I left off:

It is in the 8th century that in the West we begin to see Berenice/Veronica connected with an image of Jesus on a piece of cloth. But, before we get to that, let's first talk about the earlier story of King Abgar and the image of Jesus he received known as the Mandylion.

Once again Eusebius comes into play here. He records a tradition concerning a correspondence exchanged between Abgar, king of Edessa (modern Şanlıurfa, aka Urfa, in southeast Turkey) and Jesus. Abgar, according to the story, was afflicted with some sort of incurable sickness. He had heard of Jesus' ability to heal the sick and wrote to Him asking Him to come to Edessa and heal him. At the same time Abgar's letter acknowledges Jesus' divinity, and offers Him asylum in the city. The story then goes on that Jesus wrote a letter turning down Abgar's invitation, but promising that after His ascension, he would send one of His followers imbued with His power before Abgar - which would turn out to be Thaddaeus (Addai in Syriac), one of the seventy disciples. This is what Eusebius says (Ecclesiastical History I.13.1-20):
Because of his miraculous powers the divinity of Christ was noised abroad everywhere, and myriads even in foreign lands remote from Judea came to him in the hope of healing from diseases of every king. Thus, when King Abgar [V], the celebrated ruler of peoples beyond the Euphrates, was suffering terribly from an incurable illness and often heard the name of Jesus and his miracles, he sent him a request, via letter carrier, pleading for relief from his disease. Jesus did not consent to his request at the time but favored him with a personal letter, promising to send one of his disciples to cure the disease and bring salvation to him and his relatives.

The promise was soon fulfilled. After his [Jesus'] resurrection and ascension, Thomas, one of the Twelve, was divinely inspired to send Thaddeus, one of the Seventy, to Edessa as preacher and evangelist, who fulfilled all the terms of our Savior's promise. There is written evidence of this taken from the archives at Edessa, the then royal capital, which include ancient history as well as the events of Abgar's time. Here are the letters themselves, which I have extracted from the archives and translated word for word from the Syriac:

Copy of a letter written by the Abgar the toparch to Jesus, sent to him at Jerusalem by the courier Ananias

Abgar Uchama, the Toparch, to Jesus the excellent Savior who has appeared in the region of Jerusalem, greeting.
I have heard about you and the cures which you accomplish without drugs or herbs. Word has it that you make the blind see and the lame walk, that you heal lepers and cast out unclean spirits and demons, and that you heal those tortured by chronic disease and raise the dead. When I heard all these things about you, I decided that one of two things is true: either you are God and came down from heaven to do these things or you are God's Son for doing them. For this reason I am writing to beg you to take the trouble to come to me and heal my suffering. I have also heard that the Jews are murmuring against you and plot to harm you. Now, my city-state is very small but highly-regarded and adequate for both of us.

(He wrote this letter when the divine light had only begun to shine on him. It is appropriate to hear also the letter that Jesus sent him by the same letter carrier. It is only a few lines long but very powerful: )

The reply of Jesus to the toparch Abgar by the courier Ananias

Blessed are you who believed in me without seeing me! For it is written that those who have seen me will not believe in me and that those who have not seen me will believe and live. Now regarding your request that I come to you, I must first complete everything all that I was sent to do here, and, once that is completed, must be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up, I will send one of my disciples to heal your suffering and bring life to you and yours.
Eusebius then continues to provide an account of Thaddaeus' audience before Abgar, which he claimed was "appended to these letters in Syriac." He then concludes by dating these events "to the year 340" (of the Seleucid era, which began around 311-310 BC), which would correspond with around AD 29-30. (Later versions of the story would put it as occurring just days before Jesus is arrested and crucified.)

By the late 4th century, the story has apparently become popular enough that the pilgrim Egeria was familiar with it. She had a brief stopover at Edessa while returning from her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There was given a personal tour by the bishop of Edessa, who introduced her to various sites in the city (including a supposed statue of Abgar) and gave her many accounts of miracles that had saved Edessa from the Persians (usually involving the letter of Jesus) and put into her hands transcripts of the correspondence between Abgar and Jesus, which she thought was more 'complete' than the version she is familar with: "although I have copies at home, yet it seemed to me more pleasant to receive them from him, lest perhaps something less might have reached us at home, and indeed that which I received here is fuller."

When we come to the so-called Doctrine of Addai, a Syriac Christian text written perhaps about AD 400, the tale and the letters are given in a more elaborate form than the one given in Eusebius. In fact, there is a new element in the story:
When Jesus received the letter [of Abgar] at the house of the chief priest of the Jews [Gamaliel], He said to Hannan, the keeper of the archives: "Go and say to thy lord, who hath sent thee to Me, 'Blessed art thou, who, although thou hast not seen Me, believest in Me, for it is written of Me, Those who see Me will not believe in Me, and those who see Me not, will believe in me. But as to that which thou hast written to Me, that I should come to thee, that for which I was sent here is now finished, and I am going up to my Father, who sent me, and when I have gone up to Him, I will send to thee one of my disciples, who will cure the disease which thou hast, and restore thee to health; and all who are with thee he will convert to everlasting life. Thy city shall be blessed, and no enemy shall again become master of it for ever.'"

When Hannan, the keeper of the archives, saw that Jesus spake thus to him, by virtue of being the king's painter, he took and painted a likeness of Jesus with choice paints, and brought with him to Abgar the king, his master. And when Abgar the king saw the likeness, he received it with great joy, and placed it with great honour in one of his palatial houses. Hannan, the keeper of the archives, related to him everything which he had heard from Jesus, as His words were put by him in writing.
About a century later, the Syrian author Evagrius Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History (AD 593) speaks of this image of Jesus in the context of the siege of Edessa by the Sassanid Persian emperor Khosrau I (aka Chosroes, reigned 531-579). But his description of the image is different:
THE same Procopius narrates what the ancients had recorded concerning Edessa and Abgarus, and how Christ wrote a letter to him. He then relates how Chosroes made a fresh movement to lay siege to the city, thinking to falsify the assertion prevalent among the faithful, that Edessa would never fall into the power of an enemy: which assertion, however, is not contained in what was written to Abgarus by Christ our God; as the studious may gather from the history of Eusebius Pamphili, who cites the epistle verbatim. Such, however, is the averment and belief of the faithful; which was then realised, faith bringing about the accomplishment of the prediction. For after Chosroes had made many assaults on the city, had raised a mound of sufficient size to overtop the walls of the town, and had devised innumerable expedients beside, he raised the siege and retreated. I will, however, detail the particulars. Chosroes ordered his troops to collect a great quantity of wood for the siege from whatever timber fell in their way; and when this had been done before the order could well be issued, arranging it in a circular form, he threw a mound inside with its face advancing against the city. In this way elevating it gradually with the timber and earth, and pushing it forward towards the town, he raised it to a height sufficient to overtop the wall, so that the besiegers could hurl their missiles from vantage ground against the defenders. When the besiegers saw the mound approaching the walls like a moving mountain, and the enemy in expectation of stepping into the town at day-break, they devised to run a mine under the mound--which the Latins term "aggestus"--and by that means apply fire, so that the combustion of the timber might cause the downfall of the mound. The mine was completed; but they failed in attempting to fire the wood, because the fire, having no exit whence it could obtain a supply of air, was unable to take hold of it.

In this state of utter perplexity, they bring the divinely wrought image, which the hands of men did not form, but Christ our God sent to Abgarus on his desiring to see Him. Accordingly, having introduced this holy image into the mine, and washed it over with water, they sprinkled some upon the timber; and the divine power forthwith being present to the faith of those who had so done, the result was accomplished which had previously been impossible: for the timber immediately caught the flame, and being in an instant reduced to cinders, communicated with that above, and the fire spread in all directions. When the besieged saw the smoke rising, they adopted the following contrivance. Having filled small jars with sulphur, tow, and other combustibles, they threw them upon the aggestus ; and these, sending forth srnoke as the fire was increased by the force of their flight, prevented that which was rising from the mound from being observed; so that all who were not in the secret, supposed that the smoke proceeded solely from the jars.

On the third day the flames were seen issuing from the earth, and then the Persians on the mound became aware of their unfortunate situation. But Chosroes, as if in opposition to the power of heaven, endeavoured to extinguish the pile, by turning all the water-courses which were outside the city upon it. The fire, however, receiving the water as if it had been oil or sulphur, or some other combustible, continually increased, until it had completely levelled the entire mound and reduced the aggestus to ashes. Then Chosroes, in utter despair, impressed by the circumstances with a sense of his disgraceful folly in having entertained an idea of prevailing over the God whom we worship, retreated ingloriously into his own territories.
Unlike in the Doctrine of Addai, the image is here no longer a mere portrait painted by Hannan, but a "divinely wrought image, which the hands of men did not form." Whereas before, it is the correspondence between Abgar and Jesus which was the focus of attention, as time went on the story focused more on this divinely-wrought image of Jesus - dubbed the Image of Edessa or the Holy Mandylion.

For Christians in that era, Edessa was considered to be a blessed city by virtue of the letter of Jesus and, later, the Mandylion. The letter and the image were considered to be palladia, protecting the city from invaders. (Note the version of the letter in the Doctrine of Addai and in later accounts, which specifically promises that "Your city will be blessed and no enemy shall be the master of it.") In fact the story and the letter was so popular that copies (with variations in the text) circulated virtually everywhere; in some places it was even incorporated into the Liturgy. Some even used the letter as an amulet, considering that the protection promised by Jesus will be extended to them as well. That being said, there were also some skeptics, mainly from the West: the Decretum Gelasianum attributed to Pope Gelasius I (pontificate 492-496) considered the letter to be apocryphal. The author of the Libri Carolini (a treatise written under Charlemagne attacking the Byzantine 'worship' of images which was purportedly condoned by the anti-Iconoclastic Second Council of Nicaea of 798) also attacked the story. His reason? It's not in the Bible.

In any case, Evagrius is our first witness to the Mandylion's actual existence. Funny thing is, the Mandylion's existence (rediscovery?) seemed to have sparked a chain reaction: soon different places began reporting images of Jesus 'not made by hands' miraculously appearing on church walls or apses. Interestingly, it is also around this time (the 6th century?) that artists begin to be more and more consistent as to the way Jesus is depicted: it is at this time that the familiar image of Jesus (long hair and a long-ish forked beard) begin to have the upper hand over against rival portrayals (such as those showing Him as a young man or as having a 'Semitic' look: short, frizzy hair and a close-cropped beard), although it was considered by some to look a bit too much like the Greek god Zeus. There was even a story about how a painter's hands withered up when he portrayed Jesus in this way, first recounted by an early 6th-century Byzantine historian named Theodorus Lector, who dates it to the time when St. Gennadius was patriarch of Constantinople (458-471).

Jesus with short, frizzy hair and a close-cropped beard, from the 6th-century Rabbula Gospels. Before the standard iconographical depiction of Jesus as a long-haired, long-bearded man became firmly established (around the 9th century), this 'Semitic'-looking depiction was one of its main competitors, alongside the one which showed Him as a clean-shaven young man.
At the time of Gennadius was withered the hand of a painter who dared to paint the Saviour in the likeness of Zeus. Gennadius healed him by means of a prayer. The author [Theodorus Lector] says that the other form of Christ, viz. the one with short, frizzy hair, is the more authentic.

- Theodorus Lector, Ecclesiastical History 1.15 (ca 540s), from Theophanes the Confessor (ca. 810-15)

Theodore the historian of Constantinople, from his History of the Church, about Gennadius, archbishop of Constantinople:

I shall set down other things about him full of amazement. A certain painter, while painting an icon of Christ our Master, found that his hand shriveled up. And it was said that, as the work of the icon had been ordered by a certain pagan, in the adornment of the name of the Savior he had depicted his hair divided on his forehead, so that his eyes were not covered—for in such a way the children of the pagans depict Zeus—so that those who saw it would think that they were assigning veneration to the Savior.

- Theodorus Lector as quoted by St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images (720s-30s), Treatise 3, 130
(To be continued)

1 comment:

Nest of the Doves said...

Your work is amazing!
I just discovered it and posted two links on my
blog page The Holy Face

They are with an engraving that I find very interesting but can not understand. Maybe you will have some ideas...