Image of Edessa

From Academic Kids

Missing image
According to the legend, King Abgarus received the Image of Edessa from the apostle Thaddeus.

According to Christian legend, the Image of Edessa, (known to Orthodox Christians as the Mandylion), was a holy relic consisting of a square or rectangle of cloth upon which an image of the face of Jesus was imprinted.

According to a legend recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea, King Abgarus of Edessa wrote to Jesus, asking him to come cure him of an illness. Instead, the apostle Thaddaeus is said to have come, bearing a cloth featuring Jesus' facial features, by the virtues of which the king was miraculously healed. Since Jesus was living at the time, this image would seem to have no connection with his alleged burial shroud. The vicissitudes of the Edessa image between the first century and his own time are not reported by Eusebius.

The image is next said to have surfaced in 525, during a flood of the Daisan, a tributary stream of the Euphrates. This flood is mentioned in the writings of Procopius of Caesarea. In the course of the reconstruction work, a cloth bearing the facial features of a man was discovered hidden in the wall above one of the gates of Edessa.

There is no record explaining why or when the image was hidden in this manner, although some have suggested that it was to extend the assumed protection provided by the cloth to the whole city, or to hide it from persecutors of the Christian faith; persecutions are recorded in the area from the late first century until the time of Constantine the Great. If the image was truly brought to Edessa in the first century, it might well have been hidden during the reign of Abgarus' son Ma'nu VI, who is thought to have reverted to paganism.

Evagrius Scholasticus mentions in his Ecclesiastical History the image of Edessa discovered in 544, that was "created by God, and not produced by the hands of man". This idea of an icon that was Acheiropoietos (Αχειροποίητος, literally "not-made-by-hand") is a separate enrichment of the original legend: similar legends of supernatural origins have accrued to other Orthodox icons.

John of Damascus (died 749) mentions the image in his anti-iconoclastic work On Holy Images [1] (, quoting a tradition that Abgarus had requested an image of Jesus and Jesus himself put a cloth to his face to produce the image. The cloth is described as being a "strip", or oblong cloth, rather than a square, as other accounts hold.

The Mandylion disappeared again after the Persians conquered Edessa in 609. An Arab legend, related to historian Andrew Palmer when he visited Urfa (Edessa) in 1999, relates that the towel (mendil) of Jesus was thrown into a well in what is today the city's Great Mosque. The Christian tradition is at variance with this, recounting how in 944 it was exchanged for a group of Muslim prisoners— at that time the Image of Edessa was taken to Constantinople where it was received amidst great celebration by emperor Romanus I, who deposited it in the Palatine Chapel. It remained there until the Crusaders sacked the city in 1204 and carried off many of its treasures to western Europe - though the "Image of Edessa" is not mentioned in this context in any contemporary document.

Other documents from the 6th century— it is said— in the Vatican Library and the University of Leiden, Netherlands, seem to suggest another image at Edessa. A 10th century codex, Codex Vossianus Latinus Q 69 found by Gino Zaninotto in the Vatican Library contains an 8th-century account saying that an imprint of Christ's whole body was left on a canvas kept in a church in Edessa: it quotes a man called Smera in Constantinople: "King Abgar received a cloth on which one can see not only a face but the whole body" (in Latin: Faciei figuram sed totius corporis figuram cernere poteris)1. This image is apparently not the same as the mandylion whose widely-disseminated and familiar iconic image is of a face alone.

However, some modern researchers have suggested that by folding the Shroud of Turin it is possible to display a rectangle of fabric showing only the face, suggesting that the Shroud and and the Mandylion are in fact one and the same relic. This interpretation is also a means of explaining the provenance of the Shroud - of which no record exists before the fourteenth century.


  1. Codex Vossianus Latinus, Q69 and Vatican Library, Codex 5696, fol.35

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