Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 1999
Herbert L. Kessler and Gerhard Wolf, eds. The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation: Papers from a Colloquium at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Rome and the Villa Spelman, Florence, 1996 Bologna: Nuova Alfa Editoriale, 1998. 340 pp.; 167 b/w ills. Cloth (8877795158)

On August 15, 944 two sacred objects entered the city of Constantinople. One of these was a letter reputedly sent by Christ to King Abgar of Edessa. The other was a miraculous image of Christ impressed on a cloth and reportedly sent along with this letter. These objects were received with magnificent imperial ceremonial. Although they were soon secreted away within the Great Palace of Constantinople, the image/cloth itself was widely disseminated in Byzantine art. In time, the Holy Face was to become a key figure in Christian art of the Eastern and Western Middle Ages. This important and authoritative collection of papers provides a welcome and far-reaching discussion of the prehistory and afterlife of the arrival of this icon in Constantinople.

The sixteen papers collected in this volume offer a wide range of approaches, reflecting the varied intellectual disciplines and traditions of this international gathering. Art-historical, critical, philological, and archaeological approaches are to be found here. The materials discussed range from the fifth to the seventeenth century, and reach from Jerusalem to the British Isles. Given this breadth, it is commendable that the papers succeed in returning to a number of key themes (the nature of representation, touch and depiction, the implications of the copy). As such the volume as a whole allows the reader to consider and re-consider these issues in light of the changing evidence brought before him or her.

Two related yet distinct objects dominate this book. The first of these is the Byzantine Mandylion. This object is first mentioned in the fifth century, when it is described as an icon of Christ. In the course of the eighth century texts transform this object into a relic, whose existence authorizes the possibility of Christian representation. It is this dual identity as icon and relic that shapes the papers of Belting, Drijvers, Cameron, and Kessler and that sets up the “Paradox of Representation” found in this book’s title. Situated between a relic and an icon, the Mandylion depends for its power both upon the physical trace of Christ’s face imprinted on the cloth and upon the possibility of its recognizable iconic repetition. As such the Mandylion lies at the origin of Christian representation, while also standing outside of the normal terms that define a representation. It is this paradox that governs these essays as they each in different ways examine the language by which we might speak of this object. In so doing, the very nature of Christian representation and of the possibility of a Christian art remain in question.

The second key object is the Veronica icon, which from the start of the thirteenth century came to dominate Western Europe’s imagining of Christ’s face. This icon emerged in Rome in the later twelfth century and became cemented into that city’s liturgical life in the first decade of the thirteenth century in the course of Innocent III’s Papacy. The history and reception of this image are discussed in detail in the papers of Wolf, Egger, Schmitt and Hamburger. While the question of the precise identity of the object is discussed in these papers, they are able to add to this theme evidence of the personal devotion brought to this work. Actual pilgrimage and imaginary pilgrimage, liturgical texts and prayers help us to excavate the practices of personal devotion before this object and its copies. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the feminization of the narrative concerning the origins of this icon, embodied in the figure of Veronica, is matched by evidence of female devotion to this icon. Examples of this iconography such as the Holy Face of Laon, the Psalter and Hours of Yolande of Soissons, and the Lambeth Apocalypse were all intended for women.

The remaining papers touch upon related issues. Skhirtladze describes the Georgian response to the Abgar legend and the Mandylion itself. In markedly different manners Didi-Huberman, Trilling, and Klein consider the act of looking at the Holy Face. Didi-Huberman examines “distance” as an aspect of looking, Trilling underlines the value of rhetoric in the Byzantine tradition, while Klein discusses the changing representations of vision within the Apocalypse tradition. Schmitt and Bozzo Dufour discuss recent bibliography and findings on the examples of Holy Faces found at Genoa and Lucca. Preimesberger and Winner offer attempts to link Dürer and Raphael self-portraits to the Holy Face tradition. While both are suggestive neither is convincing. Finally, Melion returns us to the question of artfulness and repetition in a discussion of Abraham Bloemaert’s incorporation of the Veronica in a print of the Virgin of Sorrows from c. 1615.

The papers collected in this volume offer a very important contribution to an understanding of the Holy Face. The reader will find that the key texts and bibliography are discussed and that important and innovative ways of considering this material are brought forward. The book also has value in revealing problems that deserve to be clarified by further research. For example, it remains unclear as to whether the Mandylion first makes its appearance as an image not made by human hands in the sixth or the eighth century CE. A paper that specifically addressed the liturgical and devotional life of this object and its icons might have broadened the discussion of the Byzantine Mandylion. Such material is to be found, and would provide for a rich comparison with the discussion of the Veronica icon. Lastly, some final reflections from the editors on the paradox of representation would have been welcome. This paradox, built on a series of binary terms (relic and icon, touch and depiction, trace and likeness), perhaps needs further critical examination of its limits and of the art-historical desires that they mask. After reading this impressive, authoritative, and stimulating collection there remains the feeling (at least for this reader) that we have not yet found an appropriate language with which we might speak of and describe something that is and is not an icon and that is and is not a relic. It is, needless to say, a crucial issue in the study of medieval art and goes directly to our assumptions about that art.

Charles Barber
University of Notre Dame.