Image of Edessa

According to the account, King Abgar received the Image of Edessa, a likeness of Jesus.

According to Christian tradition, the Image of Edessa was a holy relic consisting of a square or rectangle of cloth upon which a miraculous image of the face of Jesus had been imprinted—the first icon ("image"). In the Orthodox Churches, including English-speaking Orthodoxy, the image is generally known as the Mandylion.[1]

By this account, King Abgar of Edessa wrote to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness. Abgar received a reply letter from Jesus, declining the invitation, but promising a future visit by one of his disciples. Instead, one of the seventy disciples, Thaddeus of Edessa, is said to have come to Edessa, bearing the words of Jesus, by the virtues of which the king was miraculously healed.

This tradition was first recorded in the early 4th century by Eusebius of Caesarea,[2] who said that he had transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the king of Edessa, but who makes no mention of an image.[3] The report of an image, which accrued to the legendarium of Abgar, first appears in the Syriac work, the Doctrine of Addai: according to it, the messenger, here called Ananias, was also a painter, and he painted the portrait, which was brought back to Edessa and conserved in the royal palace.[4]

The first record of the existence of a physical image in the ancient city of Edessa (now Urfa) was by Evagrius Scholasticus, writing about 593, who reports a portrait of Christ of divine origin (θεότευκτος), which effected the miraculous aid in the defence of Edessa against the Persians in 544.[5] The image was moved to Constantinople in the 10th century. The cloth disappeared when Constantinople was sacked in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and is believed by some to have reappeared as a relic in King Louis IX of France's Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. This relic disappeared in the French Revolution.[6]

The provenance of the Edessa letter between the 1st century and its location in his own time are not reported by Eusebius. The materials, according to the scholar Robert Eisenman, "are very widespread in the Syriac sources with so many multiple developments and divergences that it is hard to believe they could all be based on Eusebius' poor efforts" (Eisenman 1997:862).

The Eastern Orthodox Church observes a feast for this icon on August 16 (August 29 in N.S.), which commemorates its translation from Edessa to Constantinople.

History of the legend

The story of the Mandylion is likely the product of centuries of development. The first version is found in Eusebius' History of the Church (1.13.5 – 1.13.22). Eusebius claimed that he had transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the king of Edessa. This records a letter written by King Abgar of Edessa to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness. Jesus replies by letter, saying that when he had completed his earthly mission and ascended to heaven, he would send a disciple (Thaddeus of Edessa) to heal Abgar (and does so). At this stage, there is no mention of an image of Jesus.[7]

In AD 384, Egeria, a pilgrim from either Gaul or Spain, was given a personal tour by the Bishop of Edessa, who provided her with many marvellous accounts of miracles that had saved Edessa from the Persians and put into her hands transcripts of the correspondence of Abgarus and Jesus, with embellishments. Part of her accounts of her travels, in letters to her sisterhood, survive. "She naïvely supposed that this version was more complete than the shorter letter which she had read in a translation at home, presumably one brought back to the Far West by an earlier pilgrim" (Palmer 1998). Her escorted tour, accompanied by a translator, was thorough; the bishop is quoted: "Now let us go to the gate where the messenger Ananias came in with the letter of which I have been telling you." (Palmer). There was however, no mention of any image reported by Egeria, who spent three days inspecting every corner of Edessa and the environs.

The next stage of development appears in the Doctrine of Addai [Thaddeus], c. 400, which introduces a court painter among a delegation sent by Abgar to Jesus, who paints a portrait of Jesus to take back to his master:

When Hannan, the keeper of the archives, saw that Jesus spoke 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 honor in one of his palatial houses.

— Doctrine of Addai, 13

The later legend of the image recounts that because the successors of Abgar reverted to paganism, the bishop placed the miraculous image inside a wall, and setting a burning lamp before the image, he sealed them up behind a tile; that the image was later found again, after a vision, on the very night of the Persian invasion, and that not only had it miraculously reproduced itself on the tile, but the same lamp was still burning before it; further, that the bishop of Edessa used a fire into which oil flowing from the image was poured to destroy the Persians.

The image itself is said to have resurfaced in 525, during a flood of the Daisan, a tributary stream of the Euphrates that passed by Edessa. This flood is mentioned in the writings of the court historian Procopius of Caesarea. In the course of the reconstruction work, a cloth bearing the facial features of a man was discovered hidden in the wall above one of the gates of Edessa.

Writing soon after the Persian siege of 544, Procopius says that the text of Jesus' letter, by then including a promise that "no enemy would ever enter the city", was inscribed over the city gate, but does not mention an image. Procopius is sceptical about the authenticity of the promise, but says that the wish to disprove it was part of the Persian king Khosrau I's motivation for the attack, as "it kept irritating his mind".[8] The Syriac Chronicle of Edessa written in 540-550 also claim divine interventions in the siege, but does not mention the Image.[9]

Some fifty years later, Evagrius Scholasticus in his Ecclesiastical History (593) is the first to mention a role for the image in the relief of the siege,[10] attributing it to a "God-made image", a miraculous imprint of the face of Jesus upon a cloth. Thus we can trace the development of the legend from a letter, but no image in Eusebius, to an image painted by a court painter in Addai, which becomes a miracle caused by a miraculously-created image supernaturally made when Jesus pressed a cloth to his wet face in Evagrius. It was this last and latest stage of the legend that became accepted in Eastern Orthodoxy, the image of Edessa that was "created by God, and not produced by the hands of man". This idea of an icon that was Acheiropoietos (Αχειροποίητος, literally "not-made-by-hand") is a separate enrichment of the original legend: similar legends of supernatural origins have accrued to other Orthodox icons.

The Ancha icon is reputed to be the Keramidion, another acheiropoietos recorded from an early period, miraculously imprinted with the face of Christ by contact with the Mandylion. To art historians it is a Georgian icon of the 6th-7th century.

According to the Golden Legend, which is a collection of hagiographies, compiled by Jacobus de Varagine in the thirteenth century the king Abgarus sent an epistle unto Jesus and he answered him writing that he will send him one of his disciples (Jude Thaddeus) to heal him. The same works adds:

And when Abgarus saw that he might not see God presently, after that it is said in an ancient history, as John Damascene witnesseth in his fourth book, he sent a painter unto Jesu Christ for to figure the image of our Lord, to the end that at least that he might see him by his image, whom he might not see in his visage. And when the painter came, because of the great splendour and light that shone in the visage of our Lord Jesu Christ, he could not behold it, ne could not counterfeit it by no figure. And when our Lord saw this thing he took from the painter a linen cloth and set it upon his visage, and emprinted the very phisiognomy of his visage therein, and sent it unto the king Abgarus which so much desired it. And in the same history is contained how this image was figured. It was well-eyed, well-browed, a long visage or cheer, and inclined, which is a sign of maturity or ripe sadness.[11][12]