Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by First Things.
On a trip to Crete to research onetime Venetian colonies, our class of twelve wandered into an Orthodox church in Chania. It was one of the many Cretan “double-nave” churches that, select art historians would argue, originated in Crete’s Venetian period, when both Orthodox and Latin services were sometimes held under the same roof. Within this tiny space, surrounded by icons, we found we were not alone. Joining us was a tall, stately Cretan; his sweater hung neatly over his shoulders. He spoke British English with the trace of a Greek accent and was eager to entertain questions.
We seized the opportunity and asked about a particular Cretan icon of Mary consoling the infant Christ. By this time most of us were seated, and our guide gave an impromptu lecture.
Mary was permitted, due to her wisdom, to study in the Temple from a very early age. Because of her access to Solomon’s mysteries, she knew what was to happen to her son. And so, as Gabriel confronts Christ in this icon with the instruments of the Passion, Mary comforts her son.
Sensing incredulity, he explained himself with a smile.
This story of the Temple is a myth, not in the sense of a lie, but in the sense of a code that must be decoded to get to the truth.
What the mysterious visitor related was riffed from the second century source, the Protoevangelium [Proto-Gospel] of James. Though apocryphal, it has attained near canonical status in the East, and for good reason. While it is historically unlikely that Mary was permitted to dwell in the Temple as a young girl, the story abounds in what Jacques Maritain called “Poetic Knowledge.” Only the most thickheaded of literalists would be unmoved to learn that—according to the Protoevangelium—Christ was being knit in Mary’s womb just as she herself was knitting the Temple veil. As the French scholar Emile Mâle claimed, apocryphal tales “grew out of love and longing for more intimate knowledge of the life of Jesus and of all who were with Him,” and “under the trappings of legend the people’s insight almost always divined the truly sublime.” Whether or not Mary actually studied in the Temple is beyond the point, for the suggestion explores and amplifies a canonical truth: the mystery of the nativity and passion of Christ, whose historicity is not beyond the point.
To expect contemporary Christians to navigate this delicate terrain is much to ask. Either the entire sweep of the Creed is all just a beautiful story valuable only for the sentiment or action it can inspire (the thinner strands of narrative theology), or each detail, however insignificant, must be verified or discarded according to standards foreign to the biblical accounts (certain brands of fundamentalism). G.K. Chesterton referred to the first error as the “aesthetics, or mere feeling, which is now allowed to usurp where it has no rights at all, to wreck reason with pragmatism and morals with anarchy.” The second he called “the temptation of the professors to treat mythologies too much as theologies; as things thoroughly thought out and seriously held.” I would not be the first to argue that both errors are two sides of the same Enlightenment coin: refusing to accept that miraculous events can occur, or submitting every distant detail of such events to dated standards of historical scholarship. Instead, Christian truth fulfills and transcends these shortsighted categories, containing what Hans Urs von Balthasar called “its own interior authenticity,” to which aesthetics and historicism need both submit.
Appropriate legends like Mary at the Temple do not obscure, but rather amplify, the truth of the gospel. Should Christians learn to discern between actual events and the myths—whose actuality is secondary—that embellish them, they may by moved to even rediscover that genre most despised by sixteenth-century Reformers: Legends of the image of Christ.
To begin in the East: the Kamouliana legend arose in the sixth century. A pagan woman in Asia Minor refused to convert to Christianity, for who can believe in an unseen God? While gardening, she noticed a piece of linen in a garden well; on it was an image of Christ. Lifting it from the water, she found it dry; clutching it to her dress, she found it automatically replicated. The cloth and the dress both worked miracles and were processed through surrounding towns, eventually to be venerated in Constantinople.
More well-known is the legend of another famous cloth, the “Mandylion.” The first written account, dating to 944, tells of a first-century Syrian ruler, King Abgar of Edessa, who was ill and sought the healing powers of his contemporary, a Palestinian miracle-worker named Jesus. He sent a servant to invite him to Edessa, but Christ was otherwise engaged. Instead, the Lord washed his face on a cloth, which retained his image. When delivered to the king, the cloth affected healing power, and became one of the most revered images in the Byzantine capital, until the Crusaders seized it in 1204.
A competing tradition of miraculous portraiture exists in the West. In the Chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, there is a portrait said to have been painted by St. Luke. Known as the Salus Populi Romani—the Salvation of the Roman People—it is a stunning portrait of Mary holding the infant Christ, some art historians even suggesting it is the prototype for the Mona Lisa. The painting was met in an August procession each year by another image, the Acheiropoieton or “image made without human hands,” held today in the Sancta Sanctorum, a onetime private papal chapel in the Lateran palace. Legend has it that St. Luke painted this portrait of the adult Christ as well, but it was only completed with the assistance of angels, who—thanks to their continued beholding of the face of Christ in heaven—ensured its accuracy.
Then there is the Veil of Veronica, a story that appears to be the conflation of two separate legends: a sweat cloth of Christ, called the sudarium, and tales of a woman named Berenice or Veronica who had witnessed the passion and sought a portrait of Christ. These stories combined in the Veronica image, a likeness of Christ that was indeed a vera icon (Veronica), a “true image,” distinguished from the similar Mandylion by a crown of thorns. In 1216, Pope Innocent III offered a ten-day reduction of time in purgatory for any prayer said in front of the Veronica, and soon pilgrimages to and copies of the image abounded. While its critics maintain that such images collapse theological tension, instead Veronica invites it. Reflecting on the image’s mysterious opacity, Julian of Norwich mused that “it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial.” The dark Veronica served as commentary on St. Paul’s remark that we “see through a glass darkly.” Countless more meditations on the image show that Veronica was a repository of theological truth.
Lesser than Veronica in fame was a sculptured image called the Volto Santo, or “Holy Face,” a near life-size sculpture of the crucified Christ, today located in the shrine of St. Martino in Lucca. The sculpture originated in the East but had been sent to Lucca for safety during the iconoclastic controversy. Legend relates that this was the handiwork of Nicodemus, who aside from being a clandestine student of Christ, was a sculptor. As with St. Luke’s portrait, an angel assisted in its completion. Contrasting the Veronica and Volto Santo, Matthew of Janov wrote in 1390 that of the two authentic portraits of Christ that survive, the Veronica “has a gentle and friendly appearance,” and the even darker Volto Santo “is terrible to behold. . . . Thus the images match Christian doctrine, in that one recalls the gracious mercy and the other the rigorous justice of God.”
Most famously of all, the Shroud of Turin appeared in fourteenth-century France, though its origins are unknown. It was decried a forgery as early as 1389, but papal permission overrode the accusations and permitted its display. In the custody of the dukes of Savoy, it survived several fires and arrived in Turin in 1563. The first photograph was taken in 1898 and unexpectedly clarified the faint image through the negative. The shroud’s popularity then increased dramatically, and its resemblance to the Veronica image appeared to confirm its authenticity.
Recent events connected to the shroud have made the stuff of medieval legend strangely immediate. In 1997 a Turinese fireman saved the shroud from another fire; not a believer at the time of the rescue, his life was thereafter transformed. In his book Seeing Salvation, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, records his interview with the rescuer:
I wasn’t really thinking about the shroud. . . . I said to myself, I must save it for them, not for myself. Today they have told me it weighs about twenty-five to twenty-seven kilos, but . . . I felt as if I was carrying a baby. If you can be affected by the face of the shroud, which is the face of suffering, then once in a while you see a man and you are able to understand his suffering and help him . . . after that I was no longer capable of harming anyone.
The Kamouliana, the Mandylion, the Acheiropoieton, the Volto Santo, the Veronica, and the Shroud can be classified with the words of the sixth-century church father Evagrius: They are “God-made images, not the work of human hands.” Medieval Christians understood that the commandment forbidding images was not to be trifled with. But while there was a command against humans imaging God, there was no command against God imaging Godself. Christ, they understood, was just such an image. Legends of the portraiture of Christ testify both to the urgency of the commandment forbidding graven images and to its unexpected messianic loophole.
In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea—citing the precedent of the Incarnation—permitted human-made portraits of Christ. But the above images, made by divine or angelic assistance, were in a category by themselves. They made the same statement of 787, but with an exclamation point. Christ, the “icon of the invisible God,” miraculously perpetuated himself in such portraits, to the increase of faith, leading later to the theological insights of Julian of Norwich or Matthew of Janov, or the coming to faith of an Italian fireman. Such miraculous icons are a reverent commentary on St. John’s words that “no one has ever seen God, but the Son of God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.”
It may be possible that all or some of the above “legends” of Christ’s portraiture did, in some way, occur. On the other hand, it may be that no dress was ever so imprinted, King Ephrem of Edessa never existed, Luke did not paint nor Nicodemus sculpt, Veronica did not wipe Christ’s face, the Shroud of Turin is a fake—and Mary never studied in Solomon’s Temple. To question the historicity of these accounts is not to question the substance of Christianity, but it is also to miss their point. Like John the Baptist, these legends and images point to their referent, urging, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” This story of these images may be myths, not in the sense of a lies, but in the sense of codes that must be decoded to get to the truth.
Having captured our attention with the legend of Mary in the Temple, our Cretan guide continued.
In the icon, Gabriel tells the young Christ of the Passion to come, but because Mary knew, she comforts him. As with the Annunciation, Gabriel is here God’s porte parole, but this time he carries word of the Passion. Of course, Christ is also a porte parole. He also bears a word, but not just any word . . . the Word.
At this, the group of students and I navigated a pregnant silence as our new friend infused the evident joy that accompanied his proclamation into all eyes he could find. The charming story about Mary in the temple became an entrée to gospel truth.
“The frog laughed,” wrote Chesterton, “but the folklore student remained grave.” One thinks of John Calvin’s insistence “that it is not the métier of angels to be painters.” Calvin might have also debunked the apocryphal tale, that on the night of the Saviour’s birth, vines didn’t really flower throughout Palestine. We ought not be so humourless, instead applying, at times, an appropriately lighthearted approach to medieval lore. Martin Luther snapped that medieval legends are but “stinking, devilish lies.” On the contrary—legends of Christ’s image validate his image that is no legend.