Tuesday, July 12, 2011
July 12 -- Feast of Saint Veronica
If you've been in a Catholic Church, you probably noticed the fourteen images showing the sequence of the Crucifixion hung around the sanctuary. Perhaps you've seen them in Anglican, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches as well. They are the Stations of the Cross, the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow) -- visual prompts for the instruction and reflection on the Passion of Jesus.
The traditional sequence, which features Saint Veronica in the sixth image, was questioned for its departure from the Gospel. Veronica's just one example of the expansion of the Crucifixion story -- she doesn't appear in the Gospels at all. But her story's a good one, and it shows up later in a book that known as the Acts of Pontius Pilate / Gospel of Nicodemus, so let's run with it.
Jesus is hauling the cross on which he will eventually be killed. He's been interrogated, mocked, whipped, beaten, and spit on. And he's been up all night. Since there was no Red Bull to give him wings, he stumbled on the way. The guards pick some poor hapless bastard named Simon, a Libyan (Cyrene) Jew and probably a Christian, and make him haul the cross so they can get up to Golgotha (the Place of the Skull, the crucifixion zone) before sundown. Probably the centurion yelled at the legionnaires for overdoing it on the whipping and beating and crown of thorns (though not the spitting and mocking), but I'm just guessing because that isn't in the Gospel either. Simon the Cyrene is, though.
Anyway, the sixth station in the tradition cross shows a woman, let's call her Berenice (Verenice, Veronika), wiping the dusty, sweaty, bloody face of Jesus. It would have been a small, perhaps dangerous, act of kindness. She may or may not have even been a Christian, but she was moved by compassion for this poor suffering convict on the last day of his life. Or, according to one version, she is the unnamed woman in Luke 8 whose hemorrhaging is cured by touching Jesus' hem. The story of kindness repaid is nice, but I prefer to think this was just a local who was moved by compassion.
According to the story, which surfaced first in the fourth or fifth century, this woman's veil bore the print of Jesus face [Artist: Veronica, AD 33, blood and grime on linen.] The veil has a long history of its own -- being hidden from ransacking iconoclastic Lutheran soldiers who claim to auction it off in a tavern, being rediscovered in a secret compartment in the Vatican (calling Dan Brown: your sequel is here). There were so many copies of it floating around Europe, however, that the Pope eventually outlawed possession of something purporting to be the Veil or a copy of it on penalty of excommunication.
A few originals were left in the hands of the most prestigious or best connected churches. In the picture above, Pope Benedict XVI is contemplating one of them in 2006.
Posted by Tom Major at 7:02 AM