August 16, 2014

A Tenth Century Icon of the Holy Mandylion from Sinai

By Hierodeacon Silouan Peponakis

In the Old Testament, in the books of 1 and 2 Deuteronomy, there is clear reference to the prohibition of the worship of other gods, as well as a prohibition against the depiction of divine images as a prerequisite to the realization of this divine commandment given to the chosen people for their entrance into the Land of Promise. The Promised Land is a prefigurement, an image of the Kingdom of God (Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon in the Orthodox Church).

All this happened in the Old Testament prior to the incarnation of the Son and Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. When the Word of God "appeared in the flesh", He put an end to that prohibitive law in the Old Testament, and we gained the right to depict the form of the Lord, as well as His saints.

Indeed, the first icon of the Lord appeared not only when Christ lived on earth, but it was "painted" by Himself. This is the icon of the Lord "not made by hands", the Holy Mandylion. The story is well known. When Abgar the local ruler of Edessa suffered from leprosy he desired to see Jesus whose fame for the healings He performed was widely disseminated. Unable to fulfill his desire he sent Jesus a letter by means of a certain Ananias indicating his desire. He also gave Ananias a command to paint an image of Jesus, and by this means he was first to receive his healing and second to see the much desired face of the Lord.

Ananias gave the letter to Jesus and he tried without success to paint Jesus. "He began to copy the appearance of what he saw, but he was quite unable to capture His form because it appeared now with one now with another appearance and with differing aspect." The Lord understood his intention, and having washed His face "He was given a cloth folded in four and He wiped His most pure and divine face with it. Thus His divine form and appearance were imprinted - O the wonder! - on the cloth. This He gave to Ananias" (Synaxarion for August 16th). Together with the Mandylion He also gave a letter for Abgar where He blesses him for believing in Him even though he had not seen Him, and He said that after His Ascension He would send one of His Disciples, Thaddeus, to cure and catechize him. Abgar received the image of the Lord with indescribable joy, and having been baptized by the Apostle Thaddeus he placed it at the entrance of the city for its protection and as a blessing for the inhabitants. It was the most precious treasure of Edessa and it was venerated by all throughout the East.

During the Iconoclastic dispute Saint John of Damascus mentioned this miraculous image, and in 787 the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod referred to it several times. The honorary veneration of this precious relic was widely spread also in Byzantium after it was transferred to Constantinople in 944. However, after the looting during the Crusades in 1204 traces of this sacred relic became lost.

In the icon placed above we see one part of a Sinaitic triptych featured in the classical style of the tenth century, probably painted in Constantinople shortly after 944. The sheet of the triptych is divided into two zones. The upper part depicts Saint Thaddeus and King Abgar seated on thrones, and the latter holds the Holy Mandylion. The lower zone depicts Saint Paul of Thebes, Saint Anthony the Great, Saint Basil the Great and Saint Ephraim the Syrian.

The confession of the true God and the absence of His image in the Old Testament was a prerequisite for the people to enter the Land of Promise. In the New Testament the confession of Christ and in general our faith in whatever leads us to the person of Christ, is in turn a prerequisite for us to be members of His Church and from His Church to His Heavenly Kingdom.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η «αχειροποίητος»", July 2002. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.