Facebook of heaven for the Word that became flesh.
A new Mount Tabor for a divided Christianity.
Reference point of return for the formerly Christian nations:
the human face of God
“Truth is a person“ – Nicolàs Gómez Dávila
By Paul Badde
In October 2011, at the baptism of our latest granddaughter Josephine, we discovered a copy of the “true image” in Frankfurt Cathedral as I had never seen it before: Christ’s mild face, levitating in front of a transparent veil on which it lies as on a nimbus. I do not know who painted it, though for certain it was done by the hands of a master. The image sits within a six-fold lunette on the left side at the rear of the sanctuary of this venerable Gothic cathedral, above the door leading to the election chapel for the kings of the Germans’ Holy Roman Empire. In 1345 Frankfurt-on-Main had been determined as the location for royal elections by the Golden Bull of Charles IV. The church had been completed shortly before this while the election chapel was only finished in 1425. This is also around the time when this image was affixed above the architrave, the door through which the “Roman kings” of the Germans along with the electors stepped into the cathedral right after their election, to present themselves to the people in order to sing the Te Deum together.
This door therefore occupies a key position in Europe’s history. The architects were well aware of this when they had the image of the Savior of the World, unknown to any other culture, painted precisely here. The fact that Christians do not just have one but the image of God in Christ, was and remains a unique feature of Christianity amongst the other religions. Only Christians have this. They know: God showed his face through Jesus.
Additionally they believe that God left an image of this face which could not have been created by men. “The secret of a person is expressed in his face,” as Sister Columba wrote to me from a monastery in the Orthodox world where this belief is maintained to the present day. “In the face of the one who lives in the midst of all as the Alpha and Omega, are — as Dante put it — also our faces engraved. Only if we wholly behold the face of him who is called I AM, will we be able to say — now within him — I AM.” This knowledge let icon painting blossom among the Orthodox.
The icon of icons, however, is the Vera Icon. Here he is painted in an incredibly modest manner so that the only one who recognizes it is the one who has seen the original before. The painter had surely seen it.
Copies of the original received the most exclusive and prominent places of honor in the eastern and western cathedrals. But in order to see the prototype one had to travel to Rome. Because for the “true image” itself only the most prominent place in the West could suffice: the tomb of St. Peter. It was no surprise that the largest church in the world was to be built for this original in 1506. Bramante erected a tower-like treasury for the true image right above the foundation stone of the new Basilica of St. Peter’s.
This mysteriously beautiful yet ethereal veil arrived in Rome under Pope John VII in 706 during the age of Byzantine iconoclasm. It remained here for 820 years until 1527. During this time numerous copies were made, one more beautiful than the other, from the mosaic in the Zenon Chapel in Santa Prassede to the large depictions by Italian, German, French and Flemish masters.
The most fascinating factor for us in the origin and history of this true image is, however, that it disappeared during the “sack of Rome” in 1527, went missing for centuries but luckily did not remain lost. For it returned into history almost as silently as it had disappeared the moment Pope Benedict XVI — as the first Pope to do so after 479 years — got down on his knees on a hill behind Manoppello on the Adriatic in front of this most precious papal treasure of former times. It was the first pilgrimage of his pontificate within Italy of his own choice. No one was prepared for this rediscovery. Contrary to the case of the Shroud of Turin, which at the time when it was first photographed in 1898 had already been venerated for centuries in the West, the true image had been forgotten by us for centuries. No one had anticipated its reappearance. No one had expected it. Not a single researcher had it on his radar anymore — only a few shepherds and farmers and fishermen in Abruzzo, by whom it had been revered in a local shrine.
Unbelieving amazement therefore accompanied the rediscovery. Yet the finding was by far no Christian Troy. It is not an unearthed ruin, rather a living picture, as blazing and self-explanatory as it was on the first day, but actually even brighter, more revealing and surrounded by so much more light than ever before. It is incredibly easy to access on every day of the year and this access is free. Most uplifting of all is, however, that this legendary “true image” of the Church is no legend at all despite being described in this way even by extraordinary scholars such as Hans Belting. According to him, it could never have existed. If examples of the legendary kind would have been preserved, he wrote in his 2005 book The Real Image, they would have quickly “revealed themselves as fake.” But the authentic image is preserved here; and despite manifold attempts no one has yet been able to expose it as a fake. Here we have it in front of us.
The mother image of all Christ icons, inexplicable, it is therefore no surprise that amazement and disbelieving skepticism have always accompanied this image — from Dante to Martin Luther. Because this isn’t just any image. It changes with every reflection of light, is painted by light and sometimes looks like photography. Yet there exists no objective photograph of it. Almost all photographs of this image show an unambiguity and one-dimensionality that in fact it doesn’t have. It contains thousands of images, all of which are different — except for the merciful look in his eyes: “Would you like to become my friend?” It is the facebook of heaven.
It is impossible to count and explain all the names it has previously been called: Mandylion, Abgar-Image, Camuliana Veil, Sanctum Sudarium, Holy Face, Byssus Cloth, Veronica — but no name has captured its essence as has the term “true image.” Truth is the archimedic reference of its being. That is why we may best imagine this image in its wafer-thin, transparent fabric as a piece of material truth. Such a thing cannot exist, as everyone knows, because we commonly view the truth as a strictly philosophical term. Nonetheless, we are faced with a paradox. “Truth is a person,” Nicolàs Gómez Dávila says. That is how it is. Here he is. Jesus himself, on the other hand, remains silent when Pilate puts the question to him: “What is truth?” The true image is silent in a similar way. He only looks at us.
Generation Facebook and the following Christian generations may perhaps discover and recognize it as an almost cosmic memory chip of the merciful God, with innumerable gigabytes of unread information, which they will then begin to try to decode. In fact, it returned to us in history precisely at the dawn of the digital age. At the Iconic Turn! During the daunting return of images and hieroglyphs at the gates of our perception, it today reminds us as no other document does: We have an image of God! The word became flesh.
Nobody must therefore demand that this icon shall be elevated to become the polar star of evangelization. It is and will become so in any case, even without any publicity campaigns. Since Benedict XVI’s visit, a massive migration movement from all parts of the world has begun to reach the true image on top of the Tarigni Hill behind Manoppello, as to a new Mount Tabor, and is unlikely to cease.
The Pope, who never tires of praising the “human face of God,” has led and initiated this movement with his pilgrimage. “During these times we will need to keep our gazed fixed upon Jesus Christ,” he said on October 11 during his announcement of the upcoming “Year of Faith.” The ecumenical procession leading the new evangelization of formerly Christian nations, made up of people from all sides of a Christianity divided in so many ways, has finally reached its destination here. By 2027, the 500th anniversary of the abduction and recovery of the veil from the Vatican, Manoppello will be unrecognizable.
“He looks like a sheep!” my wife frightenedly said when we stood in front of the true image of Christ for the first time. While we await the full rediscovery of this mysterious veil, many thousands of people, myself included, recognize in this face the most beautiful being of all. But my wife was obviously right.
Behold the lamb of God!