All indications point to the fact that the Shroud of Manoppello (otherwise known as “Veronica”) originated in Jerusalem. Scholars claim that the cloth bears the imprint of Christ’s face at the moment of His Resurrec-tion. It is probable that both the Veil and the Shroud of Turin made their way to Edessa in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey) and remained there until the fifth century
The oldest legend (the so-called Cumulia legend) dates from the sixth century. It tells of an image of Christ’s face which reached Constantinople in 574 AD from the small town of Cumulia near Edessa. A sixth century manuscript found in Tbilisi relates that after Jesus ascended into heaven, Our Blessed Mother kept an image of her Son on a napkin that had come from His tomb. The image was a gift from God the Father Himself, that she might pray while gazing on her Beloved Son’s face.
Another legend tells of Abgar, ruler of Edessa, who, having contracted leprosy, sent for Jesus, begging Him to come to Edessa and heal him. Jesus did not come but sent along instead a letter and a napkin bearing the image of His face. Upon gazing on the Holy Image of Jesus imprinted on the cloth, Abgar was completely healed of his leprosy.
The legend surrounding Saint Veronica (the woman who wiped Jesus’ face with her veil while He was on His way to Calvary) is of comparatively more recent provenance; most likely it dates from the Middle Ages. The legend represents yet another attempt to explain the existence of this marvelous image. In fact, the Veil bears no trace of blood and no woman by the name of Veronica ever existed. It is important to note that “Veronica” is merely a descriptive term for Jesus’ burial cloth. “Veronica” is a colloquial portmanteau of the Latin and Greek words “vera eikon” – which means “true image.”
The Veil reached Rome in the eighth century and reposed in St Veronica’s Chapel at St Peter’s Basilica. In the year 753, according to the papal annals, Pope Stefan II led a solemn procession, barefoot, bearing high the Face of Christ. The relic was called “the first icon,” “the Shroud of Cumulia,” and “the Mandylion of Edessa.” Since no human hand was believed to have painted the image, it was called “acheiropoietos.” Without doubt, it was the best known relic in St Peter’s Basilica.
“Veronica” drew huge crowds of pilgrims to Rome. The pilgrims could be readily recognized by the small pictures they carried of the Holy Face. In 1208 Pope Innocent III introduced the custom of leading a solemn procession with the “Veronica” on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Starting from the Basilica in the Vatican and ending at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia, the ceremony culminated in the distribution of alms: three denarii each for the poorest of Rome’s inhabitants (for bread, wine, and meat).
The Vita Nuova of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) tells of people thronging to catch a glimpse of Christ’s face on St Veronica’s veil. The Divine Comedy also makes frequent reference to the Veil. That the cloth reveals the face of God is always stressed. Crowning the Divine Comedy is the scene in which the pilgrim stands before God in heaven. God first reveals Himself in an aura of incredible light. From the center of this light emerges the face of Christ. (It was this very scene that inspired our new Pope Benedict XVI to write his first encyclical, God is Love.) The great Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) also makes mention of the Holy Face on Veronica’s veil in his Familiari Canzoniere. Saint Brigit of Sweden, who took part in the Jubilee Year ceremonies of 1350, likewise remarks on the True Face of Christ imprinted on Veronica’s veil.
Testifying to the great importance of this relic is the fact that construction of the new St Peter’s Basilica began (in 1506) with the raising of a prodigious column on the spot where the old cornerstone had lain. It was into this column that the Vatican’s most important repository – the one reserved for the “true image of Christ” – was built. To this day, the column, named after Saint Veronica of Jerusalem, bears the inscription in Latin, “ Pope Urban VIII built and embellished this place in the Jubilee Year of 1525 for the fitting veneration of the Savior’s majestic image as imprinted on the Veil of Veronica.”
Art historian Dr Heinrich Pfeiffer of Gregorian University has devoted many years to the study of “Veronica.” After carefully examining Christianity’s most ancient artifacts, he is convinced that the Face of Manoppello served as the prototype for centuries of representation of Christ’s face. Pfeiffer’s research was prompted by the pioneering efforts of German Trappist nun and icon expert Blandina Paschalis Schlömer. Years of painstaking study had enabled her to show that the Face of Manoppello and the Face of Turin constituted a perfect match.
Until the sixteenth century every official copy of “Veronica” bears the same face of Jesus. We see Jesus’ head and neck, hair, sparse beard and prominent nose. His ears are covered and his eyes are open. All the great masters of Europe tried their hand at rendering the image: Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Robert Camping, Andrea Mantegna and Dirk Bouts. Until the early seventeenth century, every great artist portrayed Christ with His eyes open after the model of the Holy Face of Manoppello. Even in the years 1618 and 1620, the frontispiece of the published editions of Opusculum de Sacrosanto Veronicae Sudario (a detailed inventory of the treasures of St Peter’s Basilica compiled on the Pope’s orders by notary Giacomo Grimaldi) shows the Holy Face of Veronica’s veil exactly as depicted heretofore. By contrast, the 1635 edition of the Opusculum shows a completely different portrait of Christ – with His eyes closed.
A remarkable change took place in the depiction of Christ’s face after Pope Urban VIII dedicated the newly rebuilt Basilica of St Peter’s in 1626. The living face of Christ was replaced by portraits of the dead Christ with closed eyes. This signaled a revolution in Christian iconography. It is around this time, supposes Paul Badde in his book The Holy Face: The Veil of Manoppello, that the real “Veronica” was stolen from St Peter’s Basilica and replaced by one bearing an image of the dead Christ..
News of the veil’s disappearance began to spread in early 1616. Pope Paul V is thought to have been the last to hold the real artifact in his hands during the solemn procession of January 25, 1606. But was it the real veil? It was in 1617 that Paul V forbade the making of any copies of “Veronica” without the consent and authorization of the Vatican.
Some historians surmise that the theft of the veil had occurred much earlier. When the armies of Charles V took Rome on May 14, 1527, Urban V wrote to the Princess of Orvieto informing her that five hundred men had been killed before the altar of the Basilica. The holy relics had been scattered and a good many destroyed by fire. Other scholars such as German historians Gustaw Groysen and Ludwig von Pastor in their History of the Popes claim that, after being stolen, “Veronica” made the rounds of various Roman taverns. Apparently no one realized it was the true relic. In 1528, Pope Clement VII issued a special decree that all stolen relics were to be returned to the Basilica. In a solemn procession held on November 26, 1528, the recovered relics were transposed from the Church of St Mark to the Vatican. Among the many artifacts returned at that time it would not have been difficult to plant a false veil. However, we have no way of knowing for sure if the real Veil disappeared from St Peter’s during the taking of Rome in 1527 or early in the seventeenth century.
Among the existing treasures of St Peter’s Basilica is an old Venetian picture frame containing two broken panes of glass. The Veil was kept stretched between these panes until the sixteenth or seventeenth century. The Veil of Manoppello fits perfectly into this frame. Paul Badde observes that lodged in the lower right hand corner of the Manoppello relic is a sliver of glass. The evidence suggests that the reliquary had been broken into and the relic, stolen. Based on the long-standing research of German scholars Pfeiffer, Resch, Thiermeyer, and Sister Blandina, Badde’s investigative journalism leads him to the sensational discovery that the church in Manoppello contains the Veil of Veronica, which had mysteriously disappeared from Rome in 1608 during the construction of the new Basilica of St Peter.
Professor Pfeiffer is convinced that the image on the Veil of Manoppello records the Holy Face at the moment Christ rose from the dead. The cloth had been placed on top of the Shroud over Our Lord’s face. Whereas the Shroud of Turin bears the negative image of the Dead Christ, the Veil records the positive print of the Risen One. When the face of the Shroud of Turin is laid over the face of the Veil of Manoppello, the two images form a perfect match. It is the very same face. We are therefore allowed to suppose that the images on the Shroud and the Veil were imprinted at the moment of Christ’s Resurrection. They are the only existing pictures of Christ’s face – images that no earthly hand made – acheiropoietoi, so-called.
In 1645, a Capuchin monk named Donato da Bomba wrote a history of Manoppello’s miraculous image. The manuscript is kept in the Capuchin provincial archives in Aquila. In 1506, according to the document, there lived in Manoppello a physician by the name of Antonio Leonelli. One day he and a group of his friends were standing on the square in front of the church when a stranger – a pilgrim – approached them. He asked the doctor to enter the church with him since he had something very important to convey to him. Inside the church, the mysterious visitor handed the doctor a small bundle. Upon opening it, Lionelli saw the beautiful image of the face of Our Lord. When he turned round to thank the pilgrim and invite him to his home, the palmer had vanished without a trace. Every attempt to find him in the town and surroundings proved fruitless. So Lionelli built an altar in his home to repose the miraculous image and guard it against theft. Every day he and his family prayed before it. For many years after the doctor’s death his relatives quarreled over the division of the heirloom. One of them, a soldier by the name of Pancrazio Petrucci, broke into Lionelli’s house and stole the priceless relic. When, several years later, Pancrazio found himself imprisoned in the town of Chieti and in need of money to pay his fine, he ordered his wife to sell the image. Heeding an inner prompting, the purchaser, Dr. Antonio De Fabritiis of Manoppello, gave the relic to the Capuchins in 1638. This way all the faithful could have access to it and venerate it in the parish church of Manoppello. In 1750, the Capuchins decided to celebrate the feast of the Holy Image every year on the third Sunday in May.
Professor Pfeiffer, however, questions the reliability of this story. He claims that “Veronica” did not reach Manoppello until early in the seventeenth century and that the whole story had been made up to put the Vatican off the scent, since the Holy See was seeking the lost relic.
We may never know how exactly the relic reached Manoppello. Nor is it possible to ascertain whether it was stolen from the Vatican Basilica in the early sixteenth or the seventeenth century. At any rate, all people of good will will cherish both the Veil and the Shroud of Turin as Christianity’s most precious relics.
Bruno Forte, Archbishop of the Diocese of Chieti and an outstanding theologian in his own right, has designated 2006 as the Great Jubilee Year of the Shrine of the Holy Face in Manoppello. The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, made a pilgrimage to this site on September 1, 2006. Increasing numbers of pilgrims visit Manoppello to pay homage to the Savior in order to experience His loving gaze. “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn. 1:18).
Sources: 1. Paul Badde, The Holy Face: The Veil of Manoppello, Polwen, Radom, 2006; 2. Saverio Gaeta, Il Volto Risorto, Familia Cristiani, 2005; 3. Interviews conducted by Leszek Dokowicz with Paul Badde, Sister Blandina Paschalis Schlömer and Professors Thiermeyer and Resch..