According to an extrabiblical legend in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Mandylion is a piece of cloth believed to be imprinted with a miraculous image of the face of Jesus Christ. The Mandylion is considered the “first icon” by Orthodox Christians. Icon simply means “image”; Mandylion, also spelled Mandilion, comes from a Greek word for “towel” or “napkin” and a Middle French word for “small cloak.”
The legend of the sacred Mandylion, also called the Image of Edessa, progressively developed over centuries. It originates from the writings of the ancient Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (circa AD 260—340), who wrote Historia Ecclesiastica (“History of the Church”). Although Eusebius never reported the existence of an actual cloth or physical image, he did record a story that, over time, flourished and gave life to the venerated relic.
Eusebius stated that, while Jesus was ministering on earth, King Abgar V of Edessa (in modern-day Turkey) heard of Christ’s miraculous powers of healing and concluded that Jesus must be either God or the Son of God. The king wrote a letter to Jesus, pleading with the Lord to come and heal him of his leprosy. Christ’s written message in reply supposedly praised Abgar’s faith but declined the invitation. Instead, Jesus pledged to send one of His disciples later, after completing His earthly mission and ascending into heaven. (Eusebius claimed to have found Christ’s letter in the archives of Edessa and then translated it.)
In the late fourth century and early fifth century, the tale developed further through the Doctrine of Addai. This Syriac text describes how King Abgar was brought into communication with Jesus. The teaching of Addai (translated “Thaddeus”) differed from Eusebius’s account in that Jesus delivered an oral reply (rather than a letter) meant to convert and heal the king. The superstition continued to grow. One legend was that there was an image of Jesus Christ associated with the Letter of King Abgar. At first, it was said the picture was painted by a court painter in Edessa who had actually seen Christ or that Jesus had painted the likeness Himself. Later, the story took on the miraculous detail that the portrait appeared on its own and that it was the image that cured King Abgar. The monk John of Damascus provided even more fantastic details, saying that Jesus had pressed His face into a cloth, causing the image to appear. This image of Jesus, called the Image of Edessa or the Holy Face of Edessa, is the Mandylion of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The king allegedly kept the portrait in his royal palace.
Intermingled in the progressive lore of the Mandylion is the legend of Veronica, the woman who presumably presented her headcloth to Jesus as He passed her on His way to be crucified. According to the legend, when the Lord handed the cloth back to her, the image of His face was miraculously impressed on it.
The Mandylion was lost for centuries but allegedly resurfaced in AD 525, after a flood that occurred in Edessa. According to court historian Procopius of Caesarea, during repairs to the city’s floodgates, workers discovered a cloth hidden in the walls of one of the gates. Imprinted on the fabric was the visage of a man. During the tenth century, the relic was moved to Constantinople and remained there until the city was besieged in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. A fragment of the Mandylion was believed to have been acquired by Louis IX of France in 1241 and kept in Paris until it disappeared again during the French Revolution.
By the sixth century, the long-evolving story of the Mandylion was adopted by the Eastern Orthodox Church not as a legend, nor as an object made by human hands, but as a historically factual, supernatural image of Jesus Christ. During the month of August, the Eastern Orthodox Church observes a feast for the Mandylion that commemorates the move of the icon “Not-Made-By-Hands” from Edessa to Constantinople.