The veil of Veronica in Saint Peter’s Basilica

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On the left, just behind Bernini’s Baldachin in the central space of the Basilica you will find the Statue of Veronica by Francesco Mochi, whose extraordinary history is almost unknown. Above the statue is preserved what is said to be her original veil.

So who was Veronica and why is her veil preserved here?

A great many churches possess a copy of a veil on which in imprinted a miraculous image of the face of Christ. The closest biblical origin of this image is to be found in the Gospels of Matthew (9: 20-22), Mark (5: 25-34) and Luke (8: 43-38), which all relate the story of the woman who touched the robe of Jesus and who was healed by him of  haemorrhage condition but there is no actual mention of the woman called Veronica.

Around the year 400, the Bishop of Lydia named this woman Berenike, a little before the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (c. 450) finally referred to her as Veronica. The name seems to derive from “vero” and “icona”, meaning “true image”, while the personality of Veronica was embellished, gradually departing from the miraculously healed woman. In the 7th century, another apocryphal text, The Death of Pilate, spoke of Veronica as a confidante of Jesus to whom he had given the veil on which his face was imprinted.

Towards 1160, the Canon of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pietro Mallius, put forward the hypothesis that this legend had arisen when, seeing Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha, a woman removed her veil to wipe his brow and the image of his face was miraculously imprinted on it. This notion took root and little by little it was established as the true version of this rare and miraculous acheiropoieta (an image not made by the hand of man).

Firm recording of the veil began in 1199 when two Pilgrims, named Giraldus Cambrensis and Gervase of Tilbury made two accounts of the existence of the Veronica at different times. In 1297 Pope Innocent III publically displayed the Veil of St. Veronica and granted indulgences to those who prayed before it.

During the sack of Rome in 1527 some writers recorded that the Veronica veil was destroyed. Some reports say the veil was passed around Rome. Other reports say it was never found by any looters. Many artists of that time created reproductions of the veil.

In 1616 Pope Urban III not only prohibited reproductions of St Veronica’s veil (or the Veronica), he also ordered all existing copies of the veil to be destroyed. His edict declared those who did not turn their copies over to the Vatican would be excommunicated.

No history of the veil of Veronica after that time has been recorded.

Still according to legend, Veonica’s veil was first reported to be kept in Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1287, although Pope Celestine III (1191-1198) had prevously mentioned the existence of such a shroud. The veil may well have been sold during the sack of Rome in 1527, but, as often happens with relics, it soon reappeared and was again noted in the relics hall in the 17th century, although some claimed that the face imprinted on the veil was that of a peasant named Manopello.

So next time you are in Saint Peter’s Basilica, pay a visit to the Statue of Veronica – a curious inclusion I think to the Basilica. it is an interesting piece will will no doubt leave you with something to discuss.

As an aside, when the statue was unveiled in 1640, there was considerable controversy and criticism. The frantic activity shown in her pose is vastly different than that of the other sculptures around it in the Basilica and Bernini asked where the wind had come from that disturbed her garments, to which Francesco Mochi replied that it came from the cracks Bernini had caused in the dome!!

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