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Has Veronica's Veil Been Found?

by Antonio Gaspari


Speaking of signs and wonders, German Jesuit Fr. Heinrich Pfeiffer recently announced that he has located the veil with which Veronica is traditionally believed to have wiped the face of Our Lord. In this article, Inside the Vatican's Antonio Gaspari investigates the claim.

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Urbi et Orbi Communications, November 1999

At a Roman press conference this summer, a German Jesuit scholar, Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, announced he had located "Veronica's Veil" — the veil that, according to tradition. Veronica used to wipe the face of Jesus on his way toward Calvary.

Pfeiffer, Professor of Christian Art History at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, says he located the veil at a small Capuchin friary, the Sanctuary of the Sacred Face, in Manoppello, a small town in the Abruzzo region about 150 miles from Rome in Italy's Apennine mountains.

"After 13 years of study, I am convinced that this is the authentic veil of Veronica" Pfeiffer, official advisor to the Papal Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, said during the May 31 conference.

The Vatican has had no comment on Pfeiffer's claim. (His conclusion is a bit controversial, since Veronica's veil should officially still be inside St. Peter's Basilica. There, beside the main altar, one will find a statue of Veronica and a Latin inscription saying the veil is preserved within.)

Some British scholars, however, have reacted with skepticism. "The Gregorian University is quite respectable, but I think the claim about the veil is totally absurd," Keith Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, said. "Almost everybody accepts that it is a legend. I would put it on the same level as seeing the face of Mohammed in a potato."

Cambridge Professor of Divinity Lionel Wickham was more positive. "Pfeiffer may have found an object that was venerated in the Middle Ages — I wouldn't discount that," he said. "But whether it dates back to early events is another matter."

To learn more, Inside the Vatican visited Manoppello to take a look at the veil.

Manoppello is an ancient town, its origins dating to the period before Christ. The first Christian community was formed by the Benedictines in the early Middle Ages. The town is distant from main roads and has often suffered from earthquakes.

We were met by Brother Germano, the friar in charge of the Sanctuary.

Together we entered a small, relatively modern church. We immediately noted, above the altar, a reliquary where there is a silver ostensory. At the center of the ostensory there is a white transparent linen measuring 6.5 by 9.5 inches (17 by 24 cm).

From a distance the veil is barely visible. It is so thin one can easily see through it. Father Germano says the veil is "so ethereal that it is possible to read a newspaper through it."

As we approached the altar, the material began to appear more and more colored and the face of a suffering man began to be visible.

The face is that of a young man who has suffered greatly. He looks tired. The marks of blows that have struck him are clear: bruises and other scars on the forehead, clotted blood on his nose, one pupil slightly dilated. Yet, in spite of the evident signs of suffering and pain, the look is that of a serene man enduring his suffering with patience.

"The fact that the face appears and disappears according to where the light comes from was considered a miracle in the Middle Ages" Pfeiffer notes. "This is not a painting. We don't know how the veil became colored or how the image was impressed. We can only say that it has the color of blood."

Another detail: the image clearly appears on both sides of the cloth, like a photo slide.

Father Germano is cautious. He does not want publicity. He reveres the image with devotion and loving care. He studies to understand and know more about its history. One senses that he is convinced this is really the veil of Veronica.

The History

According to an ancient legend from the apocryphal Acts of Pilate (c. 6th century), a holy woman whose name was Veronica dried Christ's face on the road to Calvary. The result: the image of his face was impressed onto the cloth.

Many critics have questioned the name "Veronica," which seems to be a lexical deformation of the Greek and Latin words "vera icona" ("real icon" or "authentic image"), used in the Middle Ages to mean Christ's miraculous images.

The story of Veronica's veil persisted, becoming part of popular Catholic piety. (Film director Franco Zeffirelli recently re-told the story in his movie Jesus of Nazareth.)

As early as the 300s, there were documents, which spoke of the existence of the veil, but only in the Middle Ages was it strictly connected to the Passion of Jesus Christ.

On the occasion of the first Holy Year in 1300, the Veil of Veronica was publicly displayed and became one of the "Mirabilia Urbis"' ("wonders of the City") for the pilgrims who visited Rome.

Numerous descriptions note the veil's fine material — so fine that a breeze can pass through — with an image stamped on both its sides of a still living person with eyes wide open, a face full of suffering and with evident blood spots. The great Italian poet, Dante Alighieri, mentions the veil in the Divine Comedy (Paradiso, Canto XXXI, verses 103-111).

Pfeiffer argues Veronica's Veil was stolen from the Vatican in the years following the Holy Year of 1600, when St. Peter's was in the chaotic phase of being rebuilt, and he notes that the veil appeared in Manoppello at that time.

Recent historical research shows that, in 1608, during St. Peter's restoration under Paul V's papacy (1605-1621), the Chapel where Veronica's veil was kept was demolished.

Pfeiffer thinks it likely that on that occasion the veil was stolen.

Pfeiffer notes that Pope Paul V in 1616 prohibited copies of Veronica's veil not made by a canon of St. Peter's Basilica. He argues that this suggests that the precious relic wasn't in the Vatican anymore.

In fact, all the copies made after this period showed the image of Christ with his eyes closed, though earlier images show Christ with his eyes open.

Urban VIII (Pope from 1623 to 1644) not only prohibited reproductions of Veronica's veil, but also ordered all existing copies to be destroyed. Pfeiffer argues that this action also suggests the veil had been lost or stolen.

In 1618, Vatican archivist Giacomo Grimaldi made a precise list of the objects held in the old St. Peter's.

On his list: the reliquary containing Veronica's veil. But, he writes, the reliquary's crystal glass was "broken." (Pfeiffer notes that the veil in Manoppello has, on its bottom edge, a small piece of glass.)

Pfeiffer has no theory about how the veil was brought to Manoppello.

According to an account written in 1646 by the Capuchin friar Donato da Bomba, in 1608 Marzia Leonelli, to ransom her husband from jail, sold Veronica's veil, which she had received as her dowry, for 400 scudi (an old Italian unit of currency) to Donato Antonio de Fabritiis.

As the relic was not in good condition, after 30 years, de Fabritiis gave it, in 1638, to the Capuchin friars of Manoppello.

Friar Remigio da Rapino cut out the veil's contour and fixed it between two panes of glass framed with chestnut wood — the glass and frame, which can still be seen today.

Tests Inconclusive

Many have said the veil in Manoppello is a simple painting. But the image does not have the characteristics of any painter, artistic school or epoch.

In 1977, Professor Donato Vittori of the University of Bari examined the veil under ultraviolet light and found that the fibers do not have any type of color.

Observing the veil under a microscope, it is clear that it is not painted and not even woven with colored fibers. Through sophisticated photographic technology (digital enlargements) it is possible to see that the image is identical on both sides of the veil.

Scientific research carried out recently shows that the image on the Holy Shroud of Turin and the image which appears on the veil in Manoppello are of identical size and superimposable, the only difference being that on the relic of Manoppello the mouth and eyes are open.

Research carried out by Father Enrico Sammarco and Sister Blandina Paschalis Schomer show that the dimensions of the face on the Holy Shroud are the same as on the veil of Manoppello.

Comparing the two images, they say, it is clear that the face is the same, "photographed" at two different moments.

To seek more evidence for his theories, Pfeiffer carried out a systematic study of the main works of art, which represent Veronica's veil before the image imposed by Pope Paul V. He found that several details — the hair cut, the blood traces, the shape of the face, the beard's characteristics and the cloth's folds — all reflect a single model: the image in Manoppello.

"When the different details are assembled in one image, it means the image must have been the model for all the others," Pfeiffer argues. "So, we can say that the veil of Manoppello is nothing other than the original Veronica's Veil."

For Christians, in the case of Veronica's Veil — as also in the case of the Shroud of Turin — to believe or not to believe in its authenticity is not a matter of faith.

© Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 800-789-9494.

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