Genoa hosts mysterious mandylion panel

by Elisabetta Povoledo

ANSA English Media Service
June 14, 2004


(ANSA) – Genoa, June 14 – More than a thousand years ago, in 945,
a triptych with the sacred image of Christ and the two panels that
served as doors to cover it were split up.

The central panel of the miraculous imprint of Christ s own face,
or Mandylion as the Byzantines called it, was taken from Edessa to
Constantinople and then on to Genoa, where it has been venerated for
more than 600 years in the church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni. The
two doors ended up in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai.

This year, panels and image have been reunited in the Ligurian capital
as the centerpiece of an intriguing exhibit that runs to July 18 at
the city s Diocesan Museum: “Mandylion, concerning the Holy Face,
from Byzantium to Genoa.”

“It was my idea to write the mayor of Genoa about having the icon and
the panels meet,” said Gerhard Wolf, director of the Kunsthistorisches
Institut in Florence, and the curator of the exhibit. The aim was
to stimulate new discussion about the icon, which has been virtually
ignored by scholarship save for a book written 30 years ago by Colette
Dufour Bozzo of the University of Genoa, who co-curated the show.

The bishop of the Egyptian monastery and his entourage will visit
the exhibit in July, and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, of the Genoese
diocese, will return the courtesy call.

“We didn t just put objects together but persons, and it s right that
we worked to do this,” Wolf said. “As art historians we can’t change
the world, but we can contribute to more cross-cultural dialogue.”

In keeping with the theme of the “voyage,” which is the leitmotif
of the celebrations of Genoa as one of Europe s two capitals of
culture in 2004 (they other is Lille, France), the exhibit follows
the Mediterranean journey of the Mandylion from one Middle Eastern
capital to a Western one.

“In this sense the show is very topical because it touches on issues
like multicultural conflicts,” said Wolf. It also underscores the
common roots of eastern and western Christianity.

In addition the show brazenly deconstructs, literally, one of the most
venerated icons in Christendom, separating the various elements of
the image (frame, fabrics, gold screen) to the delight of Byzantine
scholars who flocked to Genoa last month for a rare chance to see
the figure in a state of undress and probe its parts.

A three-day conference was held for the occasion bringing together
top-notch scholars who spoke on matters arcane and otherwise.

The Mandylion is an impression of the face of Christ. The story goes
that King Abgar of Edessa, who ruled the ancient titular archiepiscopal
see in what is now Sanli Urfa in South Turkey in the first decades
of the first millenium, was ill and sent a letter to Christ asking
him to come to the city.

Christ said he couldn t come but sent back a painted portrait that
Jesus miraculously created by washing His face and drying it with a
towel, on which the likeness appeared.

The icon, of which another copy is in the Vatican, is known as the
Mandylion by the Byzantine word used to describe this particular image.

It was venerated in Edessa – where it was a palladio, or protective
image, placed at the gates to the city – for centuries before it was
transferred to Constantinople in 944, where again it was adopted as a
protective image for the imperial city and placed in the royal chapel.

It came to Genoa in the late 14th century as a gift from the Byzantine
Emperor John V Palaeologus to the Captain Leonardo Montaldo, a crusader
who later became a Genoese Doge.

So the story of the Mandylion is closely tied to the contacts that
the crusaders had with Genoa.

Shortly before his death, Montaldo bequeathed the image to the
Monastery of St. Bartholomew of the Armenians, where it has been
housed and venerated since then. Until the recent show at the Museum,
and with the exception of the 2000 Jubilee, the relic had only been
shown to the public for eight days a year, in early June.

The two tempera doors that have been brought here from St. Catherine
s on Mount Sinai date from 945 and show King Abgar in the likeness of
Constantine VII Porphirogenitus, the emperor of Byzantium, receiving
the Mandylion. Dating and corresponding size make it a good bet that
the so-called Abgar Diptych may have originally been one with the
Mandylion, or so some scholars believe.

The story of the Mandylion and its voyage is illustrated in the small
gold relief panels on the frame that surrounds it. One image, showing
a wild-eyed demon being freed from a sailor s body in the presence
of the sacred icon traveling with a bishop, has been chosen for the
exhibit s logo.

Professor Mario Milazzo of the University of Milan carried out carbon
testing on the image. The results suggested that the image dates from
1250-1280. “We used to think it was very ancient, now there s some
doubt, clearly from the esthetic point of view it seems to have been
over painted,” Wolf said. The wood frame was found to date to around
100 years later.

There s bound to be friction between faith and science, and the
church hasn t always enthusiastically embraced requests for scientific
testing on images or religious relics like the Turin shroud (which,
incidentally was believed to also have been in Edessa before it came
to Constantinople and then to France and Italy).

But Wolf said that the Barnabite Fathers who care for the icon had
been open-minded both about letting the image be tested, and then
letting it go on show in the Diocesan Museum.

“They were a little skeptical at first and were worried that the image
could be desecrated, but they came to understand that the exhibit
was more like a trip that offered space for reflection in which to
emerge oneself in the icon,” said Wolf.

But the idea was not just to carry out scientific tests on the
icon. “It wasn t a question of determining what style it had been
painted in but rather to probe the theological, anthropological,
historical and politics aspects of the image,” Wolf said, a task that
was amply carried out in the impressive catalogue by Skira.

Testing done on the cloth that was glued to the back of the icon in
1370-80, depicting a winged animal within two wheels, a reference
to the Imperial cosmology of kings, was found to date to the 10th
century when the silk industry was booming in Islam.

Scholars posit that this cloth may have come directly from Edessa. “We
joke that this is more authentic than the Mandylion,” Wolf said during
a tour of the exhibit.

The exhibit also shows the precious objects found inside the case
with the Sacro Volto, like reliquaries from Byzantium and famous 11th
and 12thcentury illuminated manuscripts that illustrate the history
and legend of the image. Other works have iconographic ties with
the Mandylion.

The exhibit also includes a sculpted copy of the Mandylion that stood
atop of the city gates in the 16th century (there were nine gates
in all).

“By putting the face atop the gates, Genoa became the new Edessa,”
Wolf said.