(the article is based on Лидов А.М. Святой Мандилион. История реликвии // Спас Нерукотворный в русской иконе. М., 2005.)

The Savior Not Made by Hands is the Image Not Made by Hands that miraculously imprinted on a piece of cloth. In Byzantine it was called “the Holy Mandylion”, in Medieval Rus The Holy Ubrus or The Savior Not Made by Hands.

The first mentions of the Image date back to the late 6th century. “A Tale of the Image Not Made by Hands” written in the mid-10th century contains two legends about the appearance of the Image. According to the first legend, Abgar, ruler of the Syrian city of Edessa, who suffered from heavy diseases, heard about Jesus Christ’s miracles and believed in Him. He wrote a letter requesting Christ to come and heal him. Abgar also ordered his messenger Ananias to paint an image of Christ. The Savior received his letter and wrote a reply in which he promised Abgar to heal him from the disease and the eternal life. The Savior also promised protection and strength to the city of Edessa. Christ “having washed his face with water and then drying his face with a towel, deigned to have His features imprinted on it with the divine and unspoken way.” The Savior sent the letter and the towel to Abgar with Ananias so that he be cured from the disease.

Another legend about the appearance of the Mandylion is reminiscent of the Passion of Christ. The Image Not Made by Hands appeared during a prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. “He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’ An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (Luke 22: 41–44). Having said this, Christ, according to legend, took a piece of cloth from one of his disciples and toweled off sweat from his face which has imprinted on the cloth. After the Resurrection of Christ the Apostle Thomas gave the Image Not Made by Hands to the Apostle Thaddeus to take it to Abgar and thus keep the promise made by Jesus Christ. When Abgar put the cloth on his head, eyes and mouth, he immediately recovered. He studied the “image imprint on the flax” and was astounded by its miraculous power as the Apostle Thaddeus was telling him about the “image without colors painted by sweat.” The Apostle Thaddeus worked many miracles, healed all sick people in Edessa and baptized Abgar and his family. The proselyte ruler of Edessa glorified the Image Not Made by Hands. He pinned it to a board, decorated it with gold, inscribed on its back the words “Christ Our Lord, those relying on Thee will not die” and placed it before the city gates, where a formerly venerated Greek statue of god had stood. Everyone had to bow unto the “miraculous image of Christ” as a new heavenly protector of the city.

But Abgar’s grandson turned backward from Christianity and decided to destroy the Image Not Made by Hands. Having heard about it, the bishop of Edessa sealed the Mandylion with tiles in a “semi-circle niche” but, before doing so, he had put a lamp before the Image. The hidden Image was forgotten about. The Mandylion was discovered again during the siege of Edessa by the Persians in 544, when “a beautiful armed woman” appeared in a dream to Bishop Eulalius and told him where the Image was hidden. Eulalius found the Image intact and the lamp still burning. Raising the Image above his head, the bishop walked around the city wall. Suddenly, a blast of wind blew up the fire and directed it to the Persian army. The city was saved.

On August 16, 944, the Image Not Made by Hands was solemnly transferred from Edessa to Constantinople, to the palace church of the Theotokos of Pharos where the most important relics of Christ’s Passion were kept – the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, the Nails from the Cross of Jesus and the Purple Robe. A special day was set to annually commemorate this event. Since that day the Image Not Made by Hands became one of the most important sanctuaries of the Byzantine world.

In 1204 Constantinople was seized and looted by the Crusaders and the fate of the Image has never been heard of again.

The existence of copies of the Image Not Made by Hands has been known about from literary sources since the 7th century. The earliest of them is a leaf of a mid-10th century folding icon from the St. Catherine Monastery on Sinai. In the 12th century the Image comes to live an independent life. It was broadly painted on church frescoes.

In Russia the Holy Ubrus comes to be venerated as a true image of Jesus Christ right after the adoption of Christianity. According to legend, a copy of the Holy Mandylion was brought from Byzantine by St. Theodor, the first bishop of Suzdal. The earliest of surviving Images is a double-sided icon of the Image of the Savior Not Made by Hands of the second half of the 12th century, now kept in the State Tretyakov Gallery.

The transfer of the Savior Not Made by Hands (Ubrus) is commemorated on August 29 (August 16, the old style).

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.


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