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The woman who wiped the face of Christ on the way to Calvary

St Veronica painted by Hans Memling (1430–1494)

Veronica, it has been believed, wiped the face of Christ when He fell under the weight of the Cross on the way to Calvary. Much later the story developed that He left an image of His face on the cloth.

The tale rests entirely on faith, for there is no convincing evidence even that Veronica existed. Her very name, created from the Latin vera (true), and the Greek eikon (image), suggests a pious confection.

The earliest reference to Veronica, dating from the fourth or fifth century, appears in the Acts of Pilate, where she is identified with the woman whom Jesus cured of an issue of blood after she had touched the hem of His garment (Mt 9:20-22).

Later, the narrative continues, this Veronica went to Rome and cured the Emperor Tiberius by showing him a painting she had made of Christ after her own healing.

It was not until the early 13th century, however, that accounts began to multiply in Rome of “Veronica’s veil”, miraculously impressed with the image of Christ.

St Peter’s had possessed a towel said to have been used by Christ during his Passion. Now it was held to bear His likeness. In 1216 Pope Innocent III authorised a Mass and Office of the Holy Face.

There had long been a painting of Christ at the Lateran, supposedly executed by St Luke. In the 13th century other Roman churches began to display images of the Holy Face. Copies proliferated throughout Europe, notably at Laon, in northern France, which became a popular pilgrimage centre.

When Rome was sacked by the mutinous troops of Charles V in 1527 the soldiers auctioned off the St Peter’s Veronica in a tavern. In the 17th century it was apparently rediscovered in a relic chamber which Bernini had built into one of the piers supporting the dome of St Peter’s. This veil, however, bears no image.

There had been an especially celebrated cloth painting of the head of Jesus at Edessa in Syria, dating from the sixth century. Around the 10th century the story began to circulate that the image had been produced by Jesus Himself pressing a towel to his face. This cloth disappeared after being transferred to Constantinople in 1204. It seems almost as though the legend of Veronica was resurrected at Rome to take its place.

The fact that nothing was known about Veronica left the devout free to speculate. Was she Martha, the sister of Lazarus (Jn 12)? Or the wife of Zacchaeus (Lk 19)? Or perhaps the woman of Cana’s daughter, who was cured in Matthew 15? Or the wife of a Roman legionary? 

Whatever the theory advanced, there was never any lack of credulity brought to its estimation.