The Gospels don’t tell us how Jesus looked. And extrabiblical reports about Jesus’ appearance are difficult to interpret and impossible to verify. But there is one other potential source for the face of Jesus—his portrait.
Throughout history, claims have been made about the existence of paintings of Jesus made from life. The earliest report names Pontius Pilate as Jesus’ personal portrait painter. In the late second century, the church father Irenaeus reported that the Carpocratians (a Gnostic Christian sect from Alexandria) owned a portrait painted by the governor-judge himself: “[The Carpocratians] maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world.”1
Other portraits of Jesus are said to have more miraculous origins.
These include a portrait of Jesus associated with the fabled first-century king Abgar of Edessa (in what is now Turkey). Abgar, the legend goes, was suffering from a dread illness, so he sent his scribe to the Holy Land with a message imploring Jesus the healer to come to Edessa. The Abgar legend was popular in the East from about the fourth century on, and several different versions of the tale exist, but according to a general outline, Jesus sent back a note with the scribe saying that he could not come himself but that he would send one of his apostles. After Jesus’ death, the apostle Thaddeus arrived in Edessa to perform the cure.2
Later versions of the Abgar story claim, however, that the cure was effected not only by Thaddeus but also through contact with an image of Jesus that Abgar’s scribe brought back to Edessa. Legend varies about whether the scribe painted the portrait himself or whether it was made “without hands” (Greek, acheiropoitos) when Jesus wiped his face upon a towel and an impression of his face was miraculously left on the cloth.3 The image of Edessa came to be known as the Mandylion (Greek mandulion, meaning “handkerchief”).
The portrait was credited with magical abilities. In the sixth century, the Syrian church historian Evagrius recounted how the cloth had been used to repel a Persian attack on Edessa. In the tenth century it was removed to Constantinople, where Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos commissioned an official history of the Mandylion. Countless copies of the original portrait were made. But the original Mandylion disappeared at the beginning of the 13th century, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople.
The miraculous image of Edessa was regarded not only as proof of the legitimacy and power of holy images (contra the iconoclasts), but also as a record of how Jesus really looked. That’s why its innumerable copies, found throughout the Eastern world, share certain basic features: Jesus’ face appears on a blank background, representing the linen handkerchief. His eyes look straight out, under well-defined brows and high forehead. His nose is long and narrow; his small mouth is framed by a drooping mustache and a beard that comes to two points. His shoulder-length hair is parted at the center.
The story of the Mandylion was less popular in the West, which had its own legend about a miraculous portrait of Jesus—the Veronica Veil, or Sudarium (Latin for “handkerchief”). The legends of the Veronica Veil and the Mandylion (including their amazing travels and rediscoveries) become so deeply entwined in the Middle Ages that today they are difficult to distinguish.
The Veronica Veil was also made “without hands” when Jesus’ face left its imprint on a cloth that a woman named Veronica held out to Jesus as he passed along the Via Dolorosa (the way to Calvary). The woman’s name is a mixture of Latin (vera, or “true”) and Greek (icon, or “image”). Neither she nor this episode are mentioned in the New Testament, but the apocryphal Acts of Pilate identify her with the hemorrhaging woman whom Jesus heals (Mark 5:25–35). Although the legend is difficult to trace, by the 12th century the Veronica Veil had found its place among the most sacred objects of St. Peter’s Basilica, and Pope Innocent III promoted its veneration in the 13th century. Veronica’s legendary encounter with Jesus became the sixth of the 14 stations of the cross (the Catholic devotion that commemorates the stages of Jesus’ walk to Calvary). Like the Mandylion, the Sudarium also disappeared; during the sack of Rome in 1527, it was said to have been sold in a tavern by Lutheran soldiers.4 It reemerged in the 17th century, and was installed in a reliquary in one of the main piers supporting the dome of St. Peter’s.
A vast number of painted and sculpted copies of the Veronica Veil were distributed all over Europe. As shown in the painting by Hans Memling on the
The Mandylion and Sudarium portraits have much in common with another “miraculous image,” the Shroud of Turin.5 They also resemble the earliest Byzantine panel paintings of Jesus. Unlike ordinary portraits, all these images “made without hands” were imprints claimed to have been produced from direct contact with Jesus’ body. And although they were mirror images, they nevertheless had a special kind of authority and authenticity since they were not dependent upon the imperfect skills of human artists.
Do they show us the face of Jesus?
As one who honors tradition, and at the same time recognizes that tradition is transmitted through human agents, simultaneously inspired and fallible, I can only say, with Augustine, that each person forms an image in his or her mind of the face of the savior, and that each of these has validity. Which is to say that all of these images may be true, in their own way, since truth cannot be circumscribed by one image alone.