09.09.21, Guscin, The Image of Edessa

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Averil Cameron

The Medieval Review 09.09.21

Guscin, Mark. The Image of Edessa. The Medieval Mediterranean, 82. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Pp. xiv, 226. ISBN: 978 90 04 17174 9.

Reviewed by:
Averil Cameron
Keble College Oxford

This book offers an English translation of the tenth-century Greek Narratio de imagine Edessena (an account of the translation of the well-known Image or Mandylion of Edessa from Edessa in Mespotamia to Constantinople in AD 944), the homily of Gregory the Referendarius, [1] the relevant section of the Constantinople Synaxarion [2] and several texts from Athos MSS not previously utilized. A related English translation of the Narratio was previously published in Ian Wilson, The Turin Shroud (London, 1978), 272-90; Guscin ascribes it in the book under review (3, n.4) as "supervised by" Bernard Slater of Bradford Grammar School. [3]

The standard edition and discussion of the texts relating to the Image of Edessa is still that of E. von Dobschütz, Christusbilder. Untersuchungen zur christlichen Legende, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1899); however, given the importance attached to the Mandylion and the story of its translation in the Middle Byzantine period, and the depictions in visual art, it is not surprising that there are more and varied MSS and versions of liturgical texts, though whether they have much to add is another matter. Guscin does not include any Syriac material, or discuss the Syriac tradition in any detail (for the Doctrina Addai see pp. 144-45), though it is discussed in detail by Han J.W. Drijvers. [4] The structure of the book is also somewhat confusing, in that there are no historical or other notes to the translated texts, while part two includes sections on the Abgar legend, the origins of the Image and the nature of early Christianity at Edessa which overlap considerably with each other. The section of The Image of Edessa in art (193-200) is mainly descriptive (see below).

Guscin's focus is on the attempt to determine the origins of the Image, though he has to admit himself that very little can in fact be said about this. He also wishes to stress the uncertainty about the Image's history after it came to Constantinople, and especially in and after 1204, and argues against the view that it ended up among the Passion relics in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. [5] He mentions only in passing and without discussion the related "tile" (keramion), on which the image of Christ was also miraculously impressed. Finally, the author is at pains to argue that the cloth bore a full-length image of Christ's body, not just of His face, and thus that it must have been "quite large," but folded into four with only the face showing.

A closer look suggests that while he is discreet in saying so openly anywhere in this book, Guscin has a further agenda, which is to underpin the argument of those who want to identify the Image of Edessa, as a full-length image of Christ on a cloth, with the mysterious Shroud of Turin, for which there is no secure attestation before the late medieval period. Ian Wilson and Daniel Scavone, both thanked in the Acknowledgements, [6] are both associated with this argument, and likewise with arguments against the reliability of the radiocarbon dating of the Shroud which apparently showed it to be a piece of medieval cloth.

Leaving this aside, it needs to be recognised that the evidence for the Image of Edessa, an object known to us only from texts and artistic representations, represents very murky territory. To do it justice requires an extraordinarily wide range of expertise, including an understanding of the religious landscape of late antique Syria, the growth in image-veneration in the early Byzantine period, and the degree to which iconophiles and iconoclasts alike elaborated, varied and at times falsified earlier written and oral materials. A very wide range of terminology was applied to the Image of Edessa, much of it ambiguous. The earliest mention of a picture of Christ at Edessa is in the early fifth-century Doctrina Addai, where there is clear mention of a painting made by Abgar's messenger Hanan. Only in the late sixth century do we hear from Evagrius Scholasticus of an image "not made with hands," [7] without further description (HE IV.27, discussed by Guscin at p. 149, where he gives the correct reference, and p. 172, where, probably through a confusion with Procopius, he ascribes the passage to a non-existent Bellum Persicum and gives the reference as IV.28); the passage in Evagrius has been suspected of being a later interpolation but Guscin, pp. 149, 171-74, accepts Michael Whitby's defence of its probable authenticity. In the Greek Acts of Thaddaeus of the seventh century or later, [8] there is more detail: the cloth is called both tetradiplon and sindon, the latter word suggestive of a full-length cloth or shroud, yet Jesus is said to have wiped only His face. Similarly in John of Damascus (eighth century), who refers to a "large cloth," but also says that the cloth was put against Jesus's face, with which it was imprinted (151-52). This is already complex enough, and there is no point in bringing in later references, as Guscin does (e.g. 146) to support the idea that the Image was a whole-body imprint; we need to start from the earliest references. For similar, if unstated, reasons Guscin argues against the identification with the Image of a sancta toella among the items looted from Constantinople in 1204 (186-90, in a very inadequate account of the complex evidence). Clearly if the Image was indeed in Paris it cannot be identified with the Shroud. But in any case this approach is dangerous; we need to recognize that we are not dealing with scientific descriptions, and the references to the Image in different texts cannot be placed in a single straightforward line of development.

We will be disappointed if we look here for a serious discussion of the place of the Image of Edessa in the context of the development of image-veneration in the early Byzantine period, or of the process by which after the "triumph of images" in the ninth century the Image became one of the canonical iconophile "proofs" of the power of images. [9] What Guscin has to say about the art-historical record of the Image is drawn mainly from André Grabar, with the addition of references to examples in Cappadocian art and to manuscripts in Athonite monasteries seen during the author's visits to Mount Athos. The fifteen plates give preference to photographs of relevant texts in Athos MSS which add nothing to the argument. They do not include such an important illustration as the tenth-century Sinai icon showing Abgar and the cloth, and while Guscin (194) refers to f. 131 in the heavily illustrated Madrid Skylitzes he does not reproduce it. [10] The most recent discussion of the Genoa image is not mentioned; [11] Guscin regards it (probably rightly) as an early copy (190), but there is no real discussion, since as such it is of no interest to him in his search for the "real" Image.

It is unfortunate that one has to point out the many minor errors in this book, which occur even when reporting bibliographic details. More serious however are its failures in methodology and what seems at many points to be a lack of understanding of the issues involved in handling this material. Not only does it not add to the understanding of this mysterious object and its history, but it is seriously lacking in its treatment of the subject and level of discussion. One can only say that such deficiencies are surprising in a book in such a prestigious series, and published at such a high price.



1. For text and French translation see A.-M. Dubarle, "L'Homélie de Grégoire le Référendaire pour la reception de l'Image d'Edesse," Revue des Études Byzantines 55 (1997), 5-51.

2. Ed. H. Delehaye, Synaxarium Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae (Brussels: Society of Bollandists, 1902, repr. 1985), 893-904.

3. Cf. Ian Wilson, The Shroud of Turin (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978), 235-51, with ascription at 235 n. to Bernard Slate (sic) and boys of Bradford Grammar School, assisted by the Reverend John Jackson.

4. The Image of Edessa in the Syriac Tradition, in Herbert L. Kessler and Gerhard Wolf, eds., The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation (Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 1998), 11-31, a paper mentioned elsewhere by Guscin without giving its title.

5. A closer discussion of the arguments of J. Durand, B. Flusin and others (see Byzance et les reliques du Christ (Paris: Association des amis du Centre d'histoire et civilization de Byzance, 2004, and cf. J. Durand, Le trésor de la Sainte Chapelle (Paris: Louvre, 2001), cited at p. 213, n. 5, but not in the Bibliography, would have helped.

6. At p. 202, n.4 Guscin also acknowledges a debt to Scavone for the argument based on the Greek word tetradiplon.

7. A term soon applied to any icon reputed to be extremely old and venerable: see Leslie Brubaker, "Image, audience and place: interaction and reproduction" in Robert Ousterhout and Leslie Brubaker, eds., The Sacred Image East and West (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995), 204-20, at 212-13.

8. P. 145; for the Greek Acts of Thaddaeus see Drijvers, The Image of Edessa in the Syriac Tradition, 25 ("the seventh century at the earliest").

9. For this see Herbert L. Kessler, "Configuring the invisible by copying the Holy Face," in Kessler and Wolf, eds., The Holy Face, 129-51, both in general and specifically at 139-41; Kessler's is one of the most thought-provoking of recent art-historical contributions. The Letter of the Three Patriarchs, dating from the late ninth century or later, to which Guscin refers at pp. 171-72, and where the Image features as a "proof" image, is a case in point.

10. See André Grabar, La Sainte Face de Laon. Le mandylion dans l'art orthodoxe (Prague, 1931). Guscin wrongly refers to Codex Skylitzes; the MS in question is in fact a copy of the chronicle of John Skylitzes in Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, vitr.26-2, and belongs to the twelfth century, not the thirteenth.

11. C. Bozzo Dufour, "Il Sacro Volto di Genova. Problemi e aggiornamenti," in Kessler and Wolf, eds., The Holy Face, 55-67, is the best recent discussion.

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Averil Cameron

Keble College Oxford