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  • Writer's pictureJason Breen

The Mandylion Icon

A guest post by icon painter Zachary Roesemann

The icon on the front of the Holy Cross Tabernacle shows one of the most beloved images in the heritage of the Church: the “Mandylion” (which means “cloth” in Greek and is pronounced “man-DEE-lee-on”). In the West it is commonly called “The Holy Face.” Because of the story of its origin, it is also known as “The Icon Not Made by Human Hands” (acheiropoietos in Greek).

Legend tells us that during Jesus’ life on earth, King Abgar of Edessa, a city in Upper Mesopotamia, suffered greatly from a disease of the skin. Having heard of Jesus’ healing miracles, the king sent an emissary to ask Jesus to come to Edessa and cure him. Jesus, instead of travelling himself to see Abgar, took a cloth and pressed it to his face; an image of his face remained on the cloth. The emissary took the cloth back to the king, who beheld the image on it and was healed. The miraculous cloth became one of the holiest relics, and iconographic images of it have been treasured by Christians since the early years of the Church. (It should be noted that this is not the same as “Veronica’s Veil”—that is another example of an image considered not to have been made by human hands, but it depicts the face of the suffering Christ, usually with a crown of thorns.) 

The design of the Mandylion is straightforward:  Christ’s head, surrounded by a halo, is depicted in front of a draped cloth. The halo, the symbol of holiness, is inscribed with a cross, recalling the Crucifixion, and three letters that spell out “I AM” in Greek. This was God’s name revealed to Moses, and so this points to Christ’s divine nature, even as the viewer gazes at the image of Jesus’ human face. The letters “IC XC” at the top are an abbreviation of “Jesus Christ” in Greek. Painted using egg tempera and gilded with 23 carat gold leaf, the icon is executed in the time-honored manner to represent all creation joining together to praise God:  animal (the egg yolk that tempers the pigment), vegetable (the wood of the board on which the icon is painted), and mineral (the powdered pigments that provide color).

It is traditional, and most appropriate, for Christ’s face to be depicted on a tabernacle, the container for the consecrated bread and wine that have become for the faithful the body and blood of Jesus. Iconography as an art is justified by and celebrates the Incarnation, the invisible God becoming visible in the human body of Jesus. Indeed, the very shape of the tabernacle, suggesting a temple, recalls Jesus’ reference to the resurrection of his body: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). This tabernacle is carefully designed to honor what it contains, as well as to lead the viewer into prayer and contemplation of the holy mystery of God’s coming into the world to meet humanity face to face.

To view the Mandylion Icon on the tabernacle, see our previous post about the tabernacle itself.

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