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15.10.33, Nicolotti, From the Mandylion of Edessa to the Shroud of Turin

The Medieval Review

15.10.33, Nicolotti, From the Mandylion of Edessa to the Shroud of Turin

Andrea Nicolotti's From the Mandylion of Edessa to the Shroud of Turin: The Metamorphosis and Manipulation of a Legend is an English translation by Hiara Olivera of his original Italian publication, Dal Mandylion di Edessa alla sindone di Torino: Metamorfosi di una leggenda, published in 2011 by Edizioni dell'Orso. Two of the most striking changes that accompanied the translation are that the Italian text is divided into 36 small sections, while the English version has been restructured into seven chapters; and in the Italian version all of the images are placed at the end of the book, whereas the English version has integrated the images within the text. The author states in the acknowledgements that this English volume "can be considered a revised and augmented edition" (x).

Nicolotti's book reads both as a longue durée history of the Mandylion, and as a refutation of the claim often advocated by sindonologists (those who study funerary shrouds) that there can be any identification between the Mandylion from Edessa and the Shroud of Turin. Nicolotti compiles an impressively wide range of original sources in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Armenian and Syriac, tracing textual and visual evidence from Late Antiquity throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

In the introduction, Nicolotti describes the acheiropoieton (not made by human hands) image: Jesus wiped his face with a cloth, "miraculously imprinting the image of his own face on it" (2). In 944, this cloth was translated from Edessa to Constantinople. Nicolotti also introduces the main book that he will be contesting: Ian Wilson's The Shroud: The 2000-Year-Old Mystery Solved (London: Bantam, 2010), which asserts, among other things, that the Edessean acheiropoeiton image and the Shroud are actually the same object. For one thing, the Shroud, unattested before the fourteenth century, is a burial linen, almost 4.5m long and more than 1.1m wide, weighing over 1.1kg, so not very practical to wipe one's face with. It depicts a complete corpse with multiple wounds. The Edessean image, on the other hand, was by most accounts the size of a hand towel, and featured the face of Jesus in color and alive with his eyes open.

In the next two chapters, Nicolotti traces the image of Edessa through a series of legends and descriptions, beginning with the famous story of King Agbar, who, when suffering from a terrible disease, wrote a missive asking Jesus for help. According to one version, a painted portrait of the living Jesus in color was sent and the sight of it miraculously cured the king. The next major discussion is of the Acts of Thaddaeus, which is broadly dated between 609 and 944. This text refers to Jesus' towel as a tetrádiplon. While sindonologists (such as Ian Wilson) jumped on this word as a connection with the Shroud, Nicolotti proposes a more accurate translation as "quadrupled" or "folded in four" (46), and finds no reason to sustain this link.

Nicolotti also examines the texts surrounding the translation of the Edessean image to Constantinople in 944. The main text analyzed in this context is Gregory Referendarius' sermon. Gregory repeated reports that the image of the Edessa was "imprinted on a towel with which Jesus wiped his face" (62). Contemporary with Gregory's sermon is the Narratio de imagine Edessena, likewise composed on the occasion of the translation to Constantinople, and often attributed to the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. Similarly, the image is described as a towel. None of the texts mentions an image of an entire corpse or a burial cloth.

The next chapter includes an etymological discussion of the term "Mandylion," which as Nicolotti points out, came into use at a relatively late date: in fact, it is never employed prior to or even contemporary with the translation to Constantinople in 944. The word has roots in many Mediterranean languages: Byzantine Greek, Jewish Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic, all of which translate to a medium-sized piece of cloth for various uses. At this point, we see a divergence in traditions between the Edessean object (a hand-towel) transferred to Constantinople, and the ancient picture supposedly painted by Ananias, associated with the legend of King Agbar. Yet none of them references a folded burial cloth. By the time of the Fourth Crusade, we have a written account by Robert de Clari, a knight from Picardy. He includes details about both the Mandylion and the Keramion (a tile). According to this legend, a holy man in Constantinople had taken the cloth imprinted with Christ's face and hid it under a tile until the evening, but when he lifted the tile, he saw that the image had been miraculously impressed on the tile as it had been on the cloth.

The most vivid chapter follows, focusing exclusively on imagery. Nicolotti's visual history begins with a sixth century mosaic, and continues with images from the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai. Both the Mandylion and the Keramion are depicted in the Codex of John Climacus' Scala Paradisi, now in the Vatican Library, dating from the eleventh to the early twelfth century. Probably Nicolotti's most convincing refutation of the sindonologists is in the manuscript called the Madrid Skylitzes, from the late eleventh century. On folio 131r, the miniature bears the inscription "The Holy Mandylion," and depicts the reception of the Mandylion in Constantinople on August 15, 944. Here the towel with the image of Christ's face could seem at first glance to form part of a larger cloth. Correctly reading the adjacent Greek text, however, Nicolotti disproves this assertion, and by examining other miniatures in the series, we see that the long purple cloth was simply used to "prevent unclean hands from direct contact with the sacred object" (164). On folio 207v, for example, this substantial purple textile is also used to deliver reliquaries to Constantine Phagitzes. Finally, Nicolotti examines the two copies of the Mandylion of Edessa that are considered to be the most faithful: the Mandylion of Genoa and the Mandylion of Rome.

The final chapter focuses on the arrival of the Mandylion to Western Europe, in the aftermath of the looting of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Although the Palaces of Blachernae and Bucoleon were initially spared, within a few years, the Latin Emperor Baldwin II agreed to negotiate a sale of relics of King Louis IX of France, who subsequently sponsored the construction of the Sainte-Chapelle, long considered to be a large-scale reliquary built to house these precious relics from Byzantium. A document from June 1247 provides specific details about the relics. In addition to the most famous Crown of Thorns, three different textiles are mentioned: "the holy cloth inserted into a board," "part of the shroud with which he body was wrapped in the tomb," and "the linen which he put on when he washed the disciples' feet, and with which he wiped their feet." (190) These three cloths are also mentioned in Gérard de Saint-Quentin-en-l'Isle's Translatio sancta corone after 1241, and again in March 1534, in a detailed inventory completed by François de Montmorency, which is essentially a French translation of the 1247 document. In Paris, the Mandylion was mistaken for Veronica's veil: according to this legend, Veronica saw Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, and gave him a cloth to wipe his forehead; after using it, Jesus handed it back to her with an image of his face miraculously imprinted on it (the original miraculous Veronica was said to be kept in Rome, in St. Peter's basilica). Nicolotti leads us right up to the French Revolution, and the last recorded documentation of the Mandylion from 1793: an inventory taken after King Louis XVI's execution. Afterwards, the relics were "dismantled, dispersed or sold" (201).

As Nicolotti concludes, "it is clear that the ultimate aim of the theory that identifies the Shroud with the Mandylion is to demonstrate that the Shroud of Turin has existed and can be documented since Antiquity" (202). Yet there are no documents that refer explicitly to the Shroud that date prior to the fourteenth century, and radiocarbon dating places it between 1260 and 1390. In any case, Nicolotti has convincingly and methodically shown that throughout the textual and visual accounts, the Shroud and the Mandylion are two distinct objects.

For such a thorough historical study, it is disappointing that neither the Italian original nor the English translation contains a full bibliography. It would have been particularly helpful to have a list of all of the original primary sources that Nicolotti used, perhaps even in chronological order. Nevertheless, this book will be useful for anyone interested in miraculous images, the evolution of the image of Christ, and how legends transform over time.