|Dimensions||0.0 × 30.0 × 39.0 cm|
According to Christian legend, the Image of Edessa was a holy relic consisting of a square or rectangle of cloth upon which a miraculous image of the face of Jesus was imprinted — the first icon (“image”).
In Eastern Orthodoxy, the image is known as the Holy Mandylion, a Byzantine Greek word not applied in any other context. The Keramidion is the name of a “holy tile” imprinted with the face of Christ miraculously transferred by contact with the Mandylion.
According to the legend, King Abgar of Edessa wrote to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness. Abgar received an answering letter from Jesus, declining the invitation, but promising a future visit by one of his disciples. This legend was first recorded in the early 4th century by Eusebius of Caesarea, who said that he had transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the king of Edessa, but who makes no mention of an image. Instead, the apostle “Thaddaeus” is said to have come to Edessa, bearing the words of Jesus, by the virtues of which the king was miraculously healed.
The report of an image, which accrued to the legendarium of Abgar, first appears in the Syriac work, the Doctrine of Addai: according to it, the messenger, here called Ananias, was also a painter, and he painted the portrait, which was brought back to Edessa and conserved in the royal palace.
The first record of the existence of a physical image in the ancient city of Edessa (now Urfa) was in Evagrius Scholasticus, writing about AD 600, who reports a portrait of Christ, of divine origin (θεότευκτος), which effected the miraculous aid in the defence of Edessa against the Persians in 544. The image was moved to Constantinople in the 10th century. The cloth disappeared from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade [Sack of Constantinople] in 1204, reappearing as a relic in King Louis IX of France’s Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It finally disappeared in the French Revolution.
The vicissitudes of the Edessa image between the 1st century and its location in his own time are not reported by Eusebius. The materials, according to the scholar Robert Eisenman, “are very widespread in the Syriac sources with so many multiple developments and divergences that it is hard to believe they could all be based on Eusebius’ poor efforts” (Eisenman 1997:862).
The Eastern Orthodox Church have a feast of this icon on August 16 (August 29 in N.S.), which commemorates its transition from Edessa to Constantinople.
History of the legend
The story of the Mandylion is the product of centuries of development. The first version is found in Eusebius’ History of the Church (1.13.5-1.13.22). Eusebius claimed that he had transcribed and translated the actual letter in the Syriac chancery documents of the king of Edessa. This records a letter written by King Abgar of Edessa to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness. Jesus replies by letter, saying that when he had completed his earthly mission and ascended to heaven, he would send a disciple to heal Abgar (and does so). At this stage, there is no mention of an image of Jesus.
In AD 384, Egeria, a pilgrim from either Gaul or Spain, was given a personal tour by the Bishop of Edessa, who gave her many marvellous accounts of miracles that had saved Edessa from the Persians and put into her hands transcripts of the correspondence of Abgarus and Jesus, with embellishments. Part of her accounts of her travels, in letters to her sisterhood, survive. “She naïvely supposed that this version was more complete than the shorter letter which she had read in a translation at home, presumably one brought back to the Far West by an earlier pilgrim” (Palmer 1998). Her escorted tour, accompanied by a translator, was thorough; the bishop is quoted: “Now let us go to the gate where the messenger Ananias came in with the letter of which I have been telling you.” (Palmer).