Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Mandylion

The Mandylion was perhaps one of the most revered relics of Christendom, and like many other relics, it made its way to France during the Middle Ages. The Mandylion (called in the East the Keramidion) was a small, rectangular piece of cloth upon which an image of Christ's face was imprinted. The orthodox , due to its great antiquity, considered it the first icon.

The story of the Mandylion goes back to the apocryphal tale of Agbar of Edessa and Christ, which is first recorded in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History Book 1.13.1-20. Here, Eusbius relates how, during our Lord's life, a certain Agbar, King of Edessa, sent a message to Jesus asking Him to come to Edessa to heal the king of an infirmity. According to Eusbius, our Lord sent a letter back to Agbar, explaining that He would not come at that time but would later send one of His disciples. The letter is transcribed in Eusebius:

"Blessed are you who hast believed in me without having seen me. For it is written concerning me, that they who have seen me will not believe in me, and that they who have not seen me will believe and be saved. But in regard to what you have written me, that I should come to you, it is necessary for me to fulfill all things here for which I have been sent, and after I have fulfilled them thus to be taken up again to him that sent me. But after I have been taken up I will send to you one of my disciples, that he may heal your disease and give life to you and yours
" (Ecclesiastical History, I.13.9).

It is not my intention here to comment on the probable historicity of this letter; if it is our Lord's, it is the only thing He left behind in writing that we possess. At any rate, Eusbius says this letter was carried by a disciple named Ananias. Later, after the Ascension, St. Thaddeus came to the court of Edessa and healed Agbar as promised by our Lord.

There is no mention of an image here, nor in the diaries of Egeria (c. 380), when Edessa and the Agbar legend is mentioned again. The first mention of an image in Edessa comes from the Doctrine of Addai, written around 400. In this account, the messenger sent by Agbar to Jesus happened to be a painter and made a painting of Jesus based on His likeness, taking it back to Agbar who received it with joy. The image was later transferred to a chamber within the wall of the city gates of Edessa, where it was believed that it would draw down the mercy of the Lord in defending the city. Later (c. 593), Evagrius Scholasticus called the image "God-made", suggesting it was supernatural in origin.

The Mandylion is discovered in the walls of Edessa

From 609 to 944 Edessa was under the control of first the pagan Sassanids and then the Muslims, and accounts of the image dry up. In 944 the city was conquered by the Byzantines and the image suddenly reappeared, presumably having been kept hidden for the last three centuries. It was removed from Edessa to Constantinople where it was placed in the royal palace chapel by Emperor Romanos.

Once we trace the image to Constantinople, we can see how the French will play in to this. Of course, Constantinople was taken and sacked by French-Norman crusaders during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. At this time, the Mandylion and the Shroud of Turin were both taken from the Orthodox and made their way west, and the Mandylion was passed to St. Louis IX of France by the Norman King Baldwin II of Constantinople in 1241. There is some evidence that it passed through the hands of the Templars as well.

The saintly King of France placed the holy relic in his famous Sainte-Chapelle, the chapel he completed in 1248 that contained some of the most wonderful relics in Christendom, including the cape of St. Martin, the Crown of Thorns, the True Cross, the Lance of Longinus, and many other relics of Christ and the Apostles and even some clothing of the Virgin Mary. These relics were the common patrimony of the French kings until the Revolution of 1789, when they met a similar fate as the relics of Joan of Arc. The scattered relics that survived were handed over to the Archbishop of Paris during the Napoleonic era, but the Mandylion never resurfaced. The Vatican exhibits an image that many claim to be the Mandylion of Edessa, but it's connection is not certain; it is definitely possible that the sacred Mandylion was spirited away to Italy during the Revolution, but there is no way to be sure.

No comments: