‘The True Picture’: What Veronica Shows Us

The image of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus with a towel on the journey to Calvary, is familiar to us all, especially as we pray the Stations of the Cross in Lent. We are pleased to include here an article on Veronica, contributed by Dr. Alison Habens.

“Nothing is known about the ‘real’ Saint Veronica. She’s never mentioned in the bible but appears on the Stations of the Cross, number VI: the woman who wipes Jesus’ face with her veil after he falls for the first time. Her name may just be a play on words. Vera means true in Latin and Icon means image: Vera Icon, the holy face indelibly printed. Early church fathers might have confused the term for the cloth itself with the person who carried it. There may not have been a Veronica at all. Though the way of the cross, along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary, was walked by pilgrims to Jerusalem within a hundred years of the crucifixion’s actual date, it was not until the eighteenth century that a pilgrimage of the fourteen holy sites could be taken around any church nave.

Nobody can say at what stage Saint Veronica took her place on the way of tears; but one thing is certain. The veronica, that legendary vera icon which wiped the blood and sweat off Christ’s face as he carried his cross, can still be found in the Vatican today. This relic is exposed every year on the fifth Sunday of Lent, though when a Jesuit art historian was allowed to examine it in 1907 he saw only ‘two faint rust-brown stains, connected one to the other…’

More vivid are the images of Saint Veronica found in paintings and stained glass windows across the world. From churches in Alicante and Georgia USA to Vienna; by famous painters from Hans Memling to Corregio and El Greco; these ‘true pictures’ show, as clearly as the face of Christ, the passion and power of one of the first female Christians. So if she really did exist, who was she?

In the medieval period, when depictions of her first appear, she was referred to as a good woman of Jerusalem, sometimes called Bernice which means ‘bearer of victory’ in Greek. Again, it’s easy to see how the spelling of Berenike could became Veronica in Latin. But she has also been linked to the ‘woman with an issue of blood’. Cured of a problem that had lasted twelve years (perhaps endometriosis) when she touched the hem of Christ’s robe, this lady had faith that he could heal her, even though he wouldn’t feel her hand.

Whoever that real woman was she may have followed Him back to Jerusalem. But the bible gives testament of thousands of followers over a three year period, and evidence of a body of seventy disciples who closely followed Jesus in the final stages of the story. They were not all fishermen: there are many women Saint Veronica could have been. The myth goes that she carried the handkerchief, with her master’s features magically preserved, to Rome. The legend goes that it cured the emperor Tiberius of illness. From the year 1011, a formal ‘keeper of the cloth’ was appointed at St Peter’s Basilica; in the year 1616 Pope Paul V banned the manufacturing of copies, on pain of excommunication.

I first came across her while being shown around St Swithun’s Church in Southsea, when the priest (Fr Peter Hollins) pointed out a statue and told me what Veronica got her name for. Enjoying the Latin word play, I was intrigued by the character; a flesh and bone girl actually gazing upon the face of God. What sort of woman would be standing in the heaving streets of Jerusalem at the heart of an angry mob that day? And how should we reflect her calm presence today?

The gospels give evidence of nameless women of independent means who supported Christ’s mission from as far away as Phoenicia. Suppose Saint Veronica was a rich Roman businesswoman who had followed Jesus since she met him in ancient Tyre, dealing in expensive purple dye there? Roman women didn’t wear veils to hide their elaborate hairstyles but they did carry handkerchiefs. The sudarium, which literally means sweat-cloth, was made of fine linen and bleached using human urine. The lady who held such a luxury item and treated it immediately as a sacred relic may well have been prepared to die for it. If she had, according to myth, then carried the cloth back to Rome, perhaps she could have been martyred there eventually, by Nero, in around AD 67.

In my novel, “The True Picture”, based on this possible history, I envisage Veronica selling off her pricey purple silk and amethyst jewellery to follow the disciples from Galilee to Judea. I guess that she’d be heavily made-up at the start, all antimony eyeliner which is gradually wiped off as she gets nearer to mirroring the Christ. In this plot-line, the only possession she hasn’t sold, given up or given away, is the still pristine white hanky she presses to the face of her saviour.

Even if Saint Veronica was just a character in medieval myth, we know she is based on something real. Any woman who feels Jesus turn to face her in his suffering; who wishes to help her brother and master, friend and lord at that station on his journey; who knows his help is hers for ever, indelibly printed on the fabric of her life, can call herself vera icon and show that ‘true picture’ to the world.

Written by Dr Alison Habens (www.thetruepicture.co.uk)