Image of Edessa

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Image of Edessa

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Edessa, known today as Urfa, is located in southeastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. The Christian historian Eusebius, writing around the year 324 CE, claimed he came into possession of two letters, one reputedly written by King Abgar of Edessa to Jesus Christ, and the other Jesus’ reply. In the former, Abgar notes that he had learned of Jesus’ healings and, as he was ill, he requested Jesus to come and heal him. In the reply, Jesus says that he will commission a disciple to come to Abgar after he completes his early mission. The letters are obviously later documents, reflecting not only an anti-Semitic theme in the third century church, but the tradition of doubting Thomas.

According to the developing tradition, Jesus designated Thomas to go to Edessa, but Thomas passed that task to one of his disciples, Addai. In a document written at the beginning of the fourth century CE, The Doctrine of Addai, Thomas’s colleague became the instrument of bringing Christianity to the city. Soon after his arrival, the king sent for Addai and was healed. Unfortunately, Addai’s mission was undone by Abgar’s son, who was not a believer. In the give and take between Addai and Abgar, The Doctrine of Addai mentions the painting of a cloth with Jesus’ face on it and the giving of that cloth to Abgar. That act is not connected to his healing.

The story of the cloth underwent a significant enrichment in later centuries. Written around 596 CE, Evagrius Scholasticus’ (c. 536-c. 600) Ecclesiastical History tells the story of a piece of cloth discovered in 544 in Edessa, which the author describes as “created by God, and not produced by the hands of man.” Then in the eighth century, John of Damascus (d. 749), in his work On Holy Images, recounts that Abgar had, in fact, requested an image of Jesus. In response, Jesus had placed a piece of cloth to his face, and his image miraculously was transferred to the cloth.

By the time that John was writing, the Image of Edessa had disappeared. In 609, the Persians overran Edessa. At this point, a variety of stories emerged about the image’s fate. The most promising account suggests it was exchanged for some Muslim prisoners in 944, taken to Constantinople, then captured by Crusaders when they sacked thecity in 1204. They would have taken it to the West, but no account of its deposition has been found.

Any further telling of the story must make mention of a variety of cloths that existed in the Eastern Christian world that were said to have an image not made with hands, but supernaturally imprinted. These would later become known as vera inconas, or true icons, the most famous being Veronica’s Veil. In each case, the cloth showed the portrait of Christ’s head and face in a reddish pigment.

The particular vera icona called the Image of Edessa would not be very important were it not that contemporary writers have suggested it was the icon now known as the Shroud of Turin. The Shroud, whose supporters claim to be the burial shroud in which Jesus’ body was wrapped following the crucifixion, first appears in the fourteenth century, more than one hundred years after the disappearance of the Image of Edessa. Some equate the Shroud with the Image of Edessa, which is recovered after its disappearance, thereby pressing the Shroud’s credentials backward by almost a millennium.

Ian Wilson is the leading spokesperson suggesting the Image of Edessa, known as simply a cloth bearing the face of Jesus, was in fact the Shroud folded so as to present only the face. This argument has been accepted by only a few Shroud apologists.

Sources:

Nickell, Joe. Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Tribbe, Frank C. Portrait of Jesus: The Illustrated Story of the Shroud of Turin. New York: Stein and Day, 1983.
Wilson, Ian. The Mysterious Shroud. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1986.