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Sacred life in a scrap of cloth


Continuing our series inspired by the displays at the British Museum’s new exhibition on medieval relics and devotion, The Tablet’s art critic Laura Gascoigne considers the mysterious origins of the Mandylion of Edessa


Many famous places of pilgrimage have con- tributed relics to the British Museum’s current exhibition, “Treasures of Heaven”. The names of Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem will be known to everyone; those of Canterbury and Durham to all British Christians. But Edessa? It’s not even marked on the exhibition’s pilgrimage map. Yet this ancient capital of Osroene in Armenian Mesopotamia – Urfa in modern Turkey – was the site of many early Christian martyr- doms. The Mandylion of Edessa has a special place in the exhibition, occupying the last display case before the exit. In its flashy baroque frame, it is eye-catching. In its unadorned state, it would be easy to miss. Exotic as it sounds, the derivation of


“Mandylion” is simple: it comes from the Arabic, mandil, meaning “sash, cloth, turban”, a relation of the Greek mantelionfrom which we get “mantle”. But the origins of the object itself are a mystery. The legend emerging from the various apocryphal accounts goes something like this. King Abgar V of Edessa (AD 13-50) suffered from leprosy, and hear- ing of the miracles worked by Jesus sent his archivist and court painter, Hannan, to Palestine to invite the miraculous healer to his court. Jesus declined but promised to send an apostle later, and in due course a certain Addai (Thaddaeus) arrived bearing an image of the Holy Face, which cured the king and converted him to Christianity. At some point the identities of Hannan and Addai became confused, but there’s agreement about the genesis of the portrait. Dazzled by the radiance of the divine face, Abgar’s artist was unable to capture it from


coins circulated a whole range of tin coins – worthless in international times, but providing the means of exchange around cities and cathedrals.


Argentina plunged into new kinds of money more than a decade ago, and in a similar situ - ation – their currency was tied to the dollar. The IMF was horrified at the notes issued by regional government and stamped them out. But people power came up with its own solu- tion. By 2002, the local money printed by organisations known as “global barter clubs” were supporting around two million people. Inevitably, that pressure was too strong and widespread counterfeiting brought the experi - ment to an abrupt end – though there are still global barter clubs there and in Venezuela. But a decade on, local money has got more sophisticated. The Central Bank of Brazil took legal action against its new community banks, lost, and is now fully supporting the initiative – the first central bank in the world to do so.


life, so Jesus helpfully washed it and dried it on a cloth, leaving behind a miraculous impression. I like to imagine Hannan unrolling his turban and offering it to Jesus as a towel, but whatever the details of its creation, the Mandylion was revered as an “acheiropoieton”, an image “not-handmade” – a “vera icon” like the Veronica. Although the version here is not original, it has the status of a “contact relic”, since the Mandylion was credited with the power to imprint itself on other surfaces it touched. The original Mandylion – the Mandylion of Edessa – is lost. Rescued from the Muslim-controlled city


in 944 by Constantine VII and kept in the Pharos Chapel in Constantinople, in 1241 it was sold to King Louis IX of France by his cousin, Baldwin II, in exchange for an eco- nomic bail-out. It disappeared from the Sainte Chapelle during the Revolution, but two “con- tact prints” survive, one in San Bartolomeo degli Armeni in Genoa and the other – the version here – in the Sacrestia Pontificia. Whatever its provenance, this dusky


impression of the Holy Face is extraordinary. There’s nothing unusual in its Byzantine lin- eaments – the clear line of the eyebrows, the long straight nose, the beard divided sharply into points – but there is something unfor- gettable in the eyes. For one thing, they are different colours – the right one dark, the left one light – making their expression hard to fathom. Unlike later “speaking reliquary” busts in the exhibition, the Mandylion doesn’t establish eye contact; it waits for us to give it our attention, then absorbs it. There’s a weight of sadness in its steady gaze, as of


There are now 51 community banks in Brazil, issuing and managing social currencies – which are legal food and transport tokens – but also organising low-interest microcredit loans in both currencies. To get these loans, you can bypass the credit-protection agencies as long as your neighbours vouch for you. There are plans for 300 community banks by 2012. Even more sophisticated are the Commercial Credit Circuits (C3), now in five Latin American countries, and developed by the Dutch consultancy the Social Trade Organisation (STRO), backed by the World Bank, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the European Commission. They are designed to increase the liquidity of small to medium-sized enterprises. The C3 factors their debts, insuring them against default and paying out in C3 credits instead, all to speed up the circulation of money in the small busi- ness sector. There is usually a negative interest


Mandylion of Edessa, of unknown date and place of origin, with a frame by Grancesco Corni, 1623. © Sacrestia Pontificia, Vatican Museums


one who knows the worst but refuses to relin- quish belief in the best. Even in its jewelled frame this treasure belongs to earth rather than heaven, not a ruby in the dust but a piece of dust enshrined in rubies. Its darkness overcompensates for its subject’s brilliance, as if deliberately extinguishing all surplus light. Was it always this dark? Is it the patina of age or candle smoke? Has the surface been artificially “distressed” to make it look older? None of this matters. This fascinating image from a forgotten city off the pilgrimage map is an artistic treasure in its own right. It inspires reverence not for its status as a con- tact relic but because its creator, whether human or divine, was touched with the genius to breathe sacred life into a scrap of cloth.


■“Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe”is at the British Museum, London, until 9 October.


of 0.5 per cent to stop people hoarding credits. All state-owned enterprises (water, electricity, public transport, communication) now accept C3 credit and taxes can be paid in C3 credit too.


A Distributist approach to surviving national bankruptcy, if there is one, would provide these extra means of exchange so that ordinary life can carry on. In fact, providing this kind of alternative to the euro in people’s lives might make some kind of bail-out more acceptable politically. One more point. It is strange that the


European Commission can back C3 in Uruguay, but apparently not in Greece – or other parts of Europe, like our own cities, where small enterprises no longer get support from the banks.


■David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and the co-author of Eminent Corporations (Constable).


2 July 2011 | THE TABLET | 7


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