Icons are art pieces made by human hands. Not this one.

By James Day     9/8/2017


Last month the liturgical calendar contained many recognizable feast days. Among them: the Transfiguration on Aug. 6; St. Dominic, Aug. 8; St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Aug. 9; St. Maximilian Kolbe’s feast day on Aug. 14; St. Augustine on Aug. 28; and, of course, the most profound Solemnity of the Assumption on Aug. 15. 

Recently, however, I discovered a minor feast day on the Eastern calendar, considered an element of the “afterfeast” to the Dormition, since it is celebrated on Aug. 16. I came across it during my ongoing research on the Turin Shroud, iconography, and the historical intersection of faith and art. Such vibrant sacred creativity has been largely lost in the last few centuries.  

This minor feast is known as the Translation of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands. If such a title stirs within you curiosity, wonder and awe, it should. It did for me.  

Technically, the feast marks the third in a trilogy of Christological feast days in August, the Transfiguration the most prominent in the West. Yet that day is preceded by the Procession of the Cross on Aug. 1. The Aug. 16th Translation of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands completes the triptych. But what exactly does it mean? 

One must journey back over a thousand years, to modern-day Istanbul in Turkey, to what was once Constantinople. Today, we tend to take the artistic depiction of the divine for granted—even if there is a growing, if quiet, reclamation to infuse beauty and prayer. But it is precisely that artistic depiction that speaks of the veracity of the Christian claim to begin with: the very real existence of the Holy Family, of the apostles, the early martyrs, popes, and others who testified to the significant events that emerged in the “reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee…” (Luke 3:1). The people mentioned in Scripture had a physical likeness, the iconographers reasoned. We would do well to depict them. In other words, Christian art spoke truth.  

As the early church worked out how to actualize what had been revealed by the presence of Jesus Christ on earth, such debates were layered with questions of art. What is the role of God in art? Can artists depict the face of the Incarnate Word respectfully? What about the long-standing Jewish prohibition of images? Councils were convened, hundreds of years passed as the debate unfolded, and questions remained: are faithful worshipping the art itself or only venerating it? Are they confusing human-produced replicas for the reality of what it represents? 

One other question lingered: what did this face look like? 

This became particularly significant in the East, with its tradition of icons—and for its possession of the mandylion, a cloth purportedly containing an imprinted image of that very face—the face of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, contemporary culture has become too cavalier towards that face, flattened in its appreciation of it by decades of lampooning Jesus culturally to the habit of cursing His name, particularly in media, and conditioned by woeful modern sacred art.  

The existence of such an image, this mandylion of Edessa (modern day Sanliurfa in eastern Turkey), one considered to be “not made by human hand,” or known, in Greek, as acheiropoietos, reportedly was brought to that location from Jerusalem shortly after the seismic events that would shape civilization—the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. It would become the basis for the fascinating relationship between image and faith. 

“He is the image of the invisible God,” Colossians 1:15 reads, “the firstborn of all creation.” Elsewhere, St. Paul writes, “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:49). “Now we know His face,” Pope Benedict wrote in Jesus of Nazareth, “now we can call upon Him.” 

What did this mandylion look like? We have seen it countless times—the singular face of Jesus gazing back at us. Some historians have speculated it to be the cloth known for the last 500 years in the West as the Shroud of Turin. But in Edessa, its exposition was a bit different: folded up in four and encased in such a way that its appearance was of a towel with a faded impression of a bearded face on it. Only centuries later via modern photography would the Turin Shroud reveal its most staggering secret: the negative film image would reveal an altogether stunning dimension: there was far more to this faded image than meets the naked eye.  

Which brings us back to the minor feast in question: the Translation of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, a feast that refers to the specific date of Aug. 16, 944 AD.  

For three hundred years Arab Muslims ruled Edessa, largely acceptant of its Christian citizens. The Image of Edessa endured and survived the iconoclast controversy of the 8th century—the boiling point in the debate over the ongoing role of icons. Much art, architecture, and icons, however, did not survive the destruction—valuable clues and windows into forms of worship now forever lost. 

That this Christian relic featuring the likeness of a Jew and protected in a Muslim-controlled land speaks volumes to the potential of unification that not only art but specifically the face of Christ can say to the division dominating our own times. Not only in regard to religion, but also to the swaths of pervading atheism that finds no hope in the presence of the divine. “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God,” Syriac monk (and Doctor of the Church) St. John Damascene wrote in the 700s–a message searchers might use as a starting point in setting out towards the God of Jesus Christ. 

Following the iconoclast controversy, the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital, again emerged as a bastion for icon productions. In 943, Byzantine Emperor Romanus I commissioned a general, John Kourkouas, to venture to Edessa. In an exchange for 200 Muslim prisoners, Edessa’s leaders handed over the city’s most prized possession. Kourkouas returned to Constantinople with it—the beloved image “not made by hand”—on Aug. 15, 944, and the feast day commemorating its arrival to Constantinople was accorded the date of Aug. 16. It would remain in Constantinople until the Fourth Crusade and the sacking of the once magnificent city in 1204. 

Though the debate over the authenticity of the Turin Shroud continues, the image of the King of Kings who endured torment and crucifixion remains an enduring image of fascination in our own times, even as modern technology seeks to abolish anything inconvenient to comfort: death, suffering, and pain. Interestingly, it is this very same modern technology that seeks to decode by its own devices the image on the Shroud of Turin—to decode the very same truths about life the Shroud contains—suffering, pain, death, and yes, Resurrection. 

But the image of Christ is anything but an image of worldly comfort. It is an icon of real life, an icon of truth.