Not Made by Human Hands

August 28, 2008 Length: 16:04

Fr. Thomas relates the story of the icon not made by hand which is celebrated each August after the Dormition of the Theotokos. Could it actually be the shroud of Turin?





When we were reflecting on the month of August, that strange last month of the ecclesiastical year in the Orthodox Church, I mentioned that there were three feasts of the Savior: August 1, the so-called first feast of the Savior, was the procession and celebration of the wood of the Cross that began the 15 days of prayer and fasting before the Dormition of the Theotokos. Then we mentioned the sixth of August, the celebration of the Christian festival of booths, the tabernacles, exactly 40 days before the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September, where Christ, before his Passion, reveals himself in divine glory on the mount with Moses and Elijah to three of his disciples—Peter and James and John—after Peter has confessed him as the Messiah and after he says for the first time that the Messiah has to suffer. Then we mentioned the Dormition on the 15th.

But the third feast of the Savior is the 16th of August, and this is something for us to think about. The 16th of August, the day after the Dormition, which most likely in Byzantium and certainly in the city of Constantinople was a great day… The 15 days of the prayer and fasting were completed, the great summer Pascha of the celebration of the victory of Mary by faith and grace through Christ over death itself was celebrated. And then the very next day the Church had a festival which is called in the Church books the Festival of the Transference of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands from Abgar in Edessa into the city of Constantinople, the imperial city. But it seems also the case that, when that festival was begun in Constantinople, probably in the 10th century, that every year on the day after the Dormition of Mary in August, this icon that was claimed to be not made by human hands was exposed; it was put on exhibition to the people for their veneration.

So the question arises: what was that icon? What is this story all about? What significance does it have for us today, of course, but what significance did it have at the time historically? Here it might just well be the case that this is what it was. What I’m going to say now, it’s not necessarily provable, but it’s very plausible that this is what it was. Certainly some scholars think so, for example, a man named Ian Wilson wrote a book—a scholar, and not a member of the Orthodox Church at all, but he was writing his book and his study together with several other books that were written of similar kind about the Shroud of Turin.

We know that there’s this shroud that claims to be the kind of burial cloth of Christ, that there’s a kind of image superimposed on this cloth that is now kept in Turin. It’s almost never revealed; people see it only at very particular times. Studies are done on this shroud to try to figure out what that imaging was, whose body it is that’s there, and so on. I will not say anything now at all about the Shroud of Turin except to say that there are some people who think that this Icon Not-Made-by-Hands that this Abgar, King of Edessa, had was in fact the Shroud of Turin. He had it. Don’t know how he got it, but he had it, but there are some kind of stories about Abgar which I’m not too familiar with, actually, and I’m certain that if one would go and look in a classical Lives of Saints, you could find the story in some detail.

But the general lines of the story are that this Abgar, this king, allegedly had the burial shroud of Jesus on which the delineation of his body was somehow imposed; it was put on this shroud. Now, of course, this is all shrouded (excuse me for that pun, but it’s shrouded in mystery); we do not know. But what is very interesting is that it was claimed that this particular shroud was brought to the city of Constantinople in the 10th century, that it was there, that it was kept there. What’s also very interesting is that icons were painted on panels that depicted the face of Jesus on a cloth, and on these icons which are called in Greek “acheiropoietos, not-made-by-hands,” that’s what even the hand-painted, hand-made icons are called, the icon not-made-by-hands. It’s claimed to be a depiction of an icon of a face of Jesus that actually was not done by human hands but somehow was imprinted on this cloth.

Now, there are various traditions about that cloth. There’s a so-called Veronica veil tradition or the Canaanite woman tradition, that they wiped Jesus’ face with a cloth and therefore they got this image of his face. There are some folks who say it was the Canaanite woman who was the first to make a kind of an image of Jesus as sort of a statue. Some people point out that, until about the fourth century, when this Abgar of Edessa story emerged about having this shroud with the imprint of Jesus’ body, including his face on it, that the original depictions of Jesus were not the way that we normally know him now, that they were symbolical depictions, kind of a Roman boy with a sheep on his shoulder. Even in Ravenna, some of the icons that still show a kind of a Roman-imaged Jesus as a Roman king, shaven, by the way, not bearded, young, and so on. You have those icons of Jesus, and they exist in various places.

But then, at one moment in history, the face of Jesus began to be painted always the same way, more or less, and that would be the same way that we know his face today: bearded, with some kind of hair, not too long, but kind of shoulder-length type of hair, which of course in the Roman times would have been even on this beardless Christ, because long hair was a symbol of earthly power; it was a symbol of kingship. The king had long hair. Those in the Church, by the way, were tonsured; they had their hair cut off. It was only when the bishops and priests got power in the Ottoman Empire from the Turks that Orthodox priests began growing long hair. In fact, this summer I read a commentary on the Divine Liturgy by St. Germanos of Constantinople, written during the time of iconoclasm in the eighth century, and Germanos clearly points out that the bishop at that time was tonsured, that his hair was cut, because that was pre-Turkish period. And the emperor is the one who had the long hair.

But in any case, at some point in history we get the face of Jesus pretty much like it is all over the world nowadays, whether it’s iconographic and Byzantine tradition or Russian tradition or whether it’s Coptic or Ethiopian or Anglican or Celtic or Italian, whether it’s classical iconography, modern art, Protestant/Catholic art. You have pretty much the same type of face of Jesus. But what is interesting for us now is that some scholars studied those first icons that were actually painted by human hands, the face of Jesus on a cloth, and then they compared that face, even very technically, by dimensions, like the space between the eyes, the shape of the nose, how that face is on the Shroud of Turin, and they came to the conclusion that these painted images, called the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, the face of Jesus on a cloth, were identical in dimension and in form to the face that is found on the Shroud of Turin.

They draw the conclusion that this historical face of Jesus actually came from the Shroud. It came from this cloth that Abgar seems to have had, which was then transferred to the imperial city in Constantinople, became a feast day on the day after the Dormition, when it was put on exhibition for veneration and prayers on the day following the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, after the first 15 days of August, so that would be on the 16th of August, which is the festival of this icon to this day.

Now it seems also plausible that that would be very fitting, because if in August you had these 15 days of prayer and intercession, if you had this particularly holy time of the year, particularly a time when people were particularly fearful of diseases and sicknesses and so on, if you had this time when you have not only the Dormition of Mary on the 15th but the festival of Transfiguration of Christ on the sixth, in the middle of those 15 days, it would seem quite appropriate—it would seem logical, it would seem fitting—that when there would be crowds in Constantinople and these great summer celebrations would be taking place, that that would be the perfect time to expose this Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, which in that case, in this seemingly plausible argumentation, what would have been exposed was not the entire shroud, but the face of it.

The shroud would have been folded up in a reliquary, in a kind of a casket, a probably very ornate box—gold and jewels or whatever upon it—where the face would be exposed. That would be the face that the artists copied when they painted their icons of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands. So many of them of the earliest time are so similar to each other and, as I mentioned, the scholars say that they have virtually the same forms and same dimensions as that face that is on the Shroud of Turin. So it seems plausible that the 16th of August was a day when the shroud, or at least the face of Christ on the shroud, was shown, was brought to the church, was put in the center of the church, was incensed, was prayed about, was sung about, and then was given over to the possibility for the faithful people to look at it and even to venerate it, perhaps to kiss it or perhaps even to add some type of covering that could be kissed or transparent type of covering, but in [that case] we do not know,

But if all this is so—and again don’t know for sure if it is, but it just seems to fit together so well—the question then would be asked: What happened to that shroud? When did that stop happening? And here the plausible answer seems to be that the Crusaders took it, that when Constantinople was sacked, and particularly the Great Sack of Constantinople in I think it’s 1204, 13th century, many things were stolen by the Crusaders. In fact, all the holy sacred treasures were stolen; they were taken. Some were taken to be sold, some were taken to be venerated, some were taken to “belong to the true Church, not to these rebellious Easterners” or whatever, and we do know, for example, like in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, you have the icon of the Theotokos called the Doer of Victory, the Triumph of Victory icon, the lions there are from Constantinople, the horses were stolen.

We know that many relics were taken, the relics that were in the Great Church were just taken away. Some of them even recently were given back or partially given back, like the head of St. Andrew who was considered legendarily connected to the Church of Constantinople, Peter’s brother who was the first-called. So as Peter was connected to Rome at a certain point in history Andrew came to be legendarily, I believe, connected to Constantinople. I think the Orthodox Church teaching is that none of the apostles, including Peter and Andrew, were ever bishops of particular churches; they were apostles, and they were the ones who founded churches, perhaps, certainly Peter and Paul in Rome, but they were technically the first bishop. The first bishop was the one who was the first man who received the laying-on of hands to be the head of that church.

But in any case, this whole story seems to fit together that whatever that Icon Not-Made-by-Hands that Abgar of Edessa had and was brought to Constantinople in the 900s, which this festival remarks upon and celebrates, it really does seem to have been the shroud, and the shroud that was taken to Turin by Crusaders. So it’s now called the Shroud of Turin, but it may very well have been this shroud that Abgar had that was brought to Constantinople, and it seems to have been exhibited for veneration and celebration on the day after the Dormition.

But whatever the case may be, that third feast of the Savior in August on the 16th of August is the celebration of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, and in the churches on that day, on the central analoy during the divine services is placed a painted icon of the face of Jesus on a cloth, and it claims that the original one was not made by human hands. So whatever it was, we don’t know what it was, but it seems that it does seem plausible that it may in fact have been the face of the figure that is imprinted on the Shroud of Turin, which many people believe, whatever its origin, is in some way the face of Christ himself, or perhaps at least the face believed to have been the face of Christ himself, which then became the model for the face of Jesus in all icons and paintings and sculptures throughout the whole of Christendom. So this, too, is a feature of the Orthodox Church right in the middle of the month of August.