When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger coined the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” on April 18, 2005, in the shadow of Mochi’s gigantic Saint Veronica sculpture, he was a day from becoming Benedict XVI. In that same sermon also appeared a larger Ratzinger theme: “[Christ] reveals his face to us.” This simple phrase is veiled with great significance in today’s image-seeped culture.
The last three popes have evoked the motif of God’s face at an accelerated pace in the third millennium. John Paul II in 2004: “Christianity is a person, a presence, a face: Jesus, who gives meaning and fullness to human life.” Benedict in 2011: “[K]eep our gaze fixed on Christ, whose face radiates the Truth which enlightens us.” And Francis in his first Sunday Angelus: “God’s face is the face of a merciful father.”
Did not the centuries of artistic depictions of the face of the God who became man anticipate the age of self-manipulated multimedia? That the first profile pic is actually the image of Christ on the veil of Veronica, an image documented by any serious artist, painter and iconographer throughout the history of Christianity? Ask anyone named Veronica and they’ll tell you the name’s meaning: from the Latin-Greek hybrid vera ikon—“true image.”
“He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus said (Jn 14:9). God finally revealed His countenance, replete with a name and a face, in the Incarnation. His followers could barely be contained in expressing it. Christianity burst open the Jewish world’s prohibition of images by featuring His human face on a veil—and thus the Veronica image was born.
In the third millennium, the face of God has become an archaic relic, entire generations having turned its back on it. Christ is now an acceptable cartoon while Catholic-raised artists and writers ignore encouragement to follow the footsteps of Michelangelo, Dante or Mozart. The Incarnation and Resurrection have gone from the world’s greatest events to childish after thoughts. Facebook five hundred years ago might have been a collection of Veronica images from Edessa to Oviedo.
And yet, in spite (or precisely because of today’s visual ego) the Veronica, the Shroud of Turin and the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, three images known as acheiropoieta—“not made by human hands”—captivate the imagination of all people of goodwill. That images of mysterious origins continue to catch our dulled eyes is both a telling sign of God the Artist’s eternal masterwork and a divine invitation to conversion.
In following the trail of the Veronica veil, once the defining relic in Christendom, stirred none other than Dante to pen The Divine Comedy. But is Dante at all relevant today? One of the unlikeliest inaugural encyclicals in papal history proves he is.
“Like someone coming from Croatia, say,
to view our Veil – the Saint Veronica –
who still can’t satisfy the age-old ache
will murmur in his thoughts: ‘My Lord, Christ Jesus,
was this the way, true God, you looked on earth?’
(Paradiso, Canto XXXI, 103-107)
It was re-reading Dante that inspired the new Pope Benedict XVI to write Deus Caritas Est in 2005. “I wanted to try to express for our time and our existence some of what Dante boldly summed up in his vision. He tells of a ‘sight’ that ‘was altering’ as he ‘gazed on’ it and was being interiorly changed.” Soon after, Benedict traveled to the town of Manoppello, tucked away in the Abruzzis, where a transparent veil the size of a handkerchief, a sudarium, has held a most unique face: a swollen face of a man as if recovering from a beating, an expression as if just awakening, mouth slightly open as if taking the first breath after a coma. If the Turin Shroud shows a crucified dead man, this veil shows one alive.
Once we let the scales fall, the Veronica image can be seen everywhere: overflowing around Rome to the University of Notre Dame and thousands of places in between. In all of them, the face of Christ greets an increasingly unbelieving world.
And so it is no wonder the popes have been evoking this image as an antidote for today’s culture. In one of his final General Audiences, Benedict mentions the face of God no less than two dozen times. In his seminal Spirit of the Liturgy Ratzinger devotes a chapter to “The Question of Images,” acknowledging the impact of the acheiropoieta, specifically the famous mandylion from Edessa. However, he rises above discussing interesting trivia to address what vera ikon really means: “The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits and enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in him, of the Father,” he writes.
His article “The Face of Christ in Sacred Scripture” continues the theme, which along with Spirit of the Liturgy were published around the time of Dominus Iesus, the document that John Paul II asked Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger to be its chief architect. Sure enough, there is an early citation of Colossians 1:15—“He is the image of the invisible God.” Incidentally, Dominus Iesus was issued on the Feast of the Transfiguration in 2000, the Gospel moment where “the appearance of His face became different” (Lk 9:29).
Finally, Ratzinger’s 1970s reflection “God has names” predicts the dangers of the digital revolution. “When functions are all that exist,” he said then, “man, too, is nothing more than a function. The machines that he himself has constructed now impose their own law on him: he must be made readable for the computer, and this can be achieved only when he is translated into numbers.”
“Everything else in man becomes irrelevant,” he continues. Whatever is not a function is—nothing. The beast is a number, and it makes men numbers. But God has a name, and God calls us by our name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face.”
And so when Benedict XVI visited Manoppello in the Abruzzis to gaze upon the image on the veil, it was a culmination of a lifetime’s quest—and again to call attention to the face of God. Joseph Ratzinger, whose parish assignment as a young priest contained a painting of two angels holding a cloth of the face of Christ above the church entrance, knew his hour had come.
Foreign correspondent Paul Badde devoted three books on acheiropoieta. His investigations convinced him of the veracity of the Manoppello image as the authentic veil of Veronica, no less the sudarium quod fuerat super caput eius, “the face cloth that had been on His head” found by Peter (Jn 20:7).
“The very clicking of the scales on the ground I might have first heard was when I downloaded the photos I had taken that day in Manoppello,” Badde told me. “I was stunned by the sudden insight: It’s him. It’s all real. It can’t be otherwise. That the Resurrection is real. That the passion is real. And one thing is clear: the Hagion Soudarion has come and is coming back into our times.”
The search for the face of God dominated the Old Testament, most especially in the Psalms. “Your face, Lord, do I seek!” intones Psalm 27. Modern technology has immensely aided the psalmist’s longing by providing an outlet for close scrutiny of the acheiropoieta images, whether it be Juan Diego’s tilma in Mexico City or the ancient Shroud in Turin. It was a photographic negative that uncovered the figure of a man in the Shroud in 1898, just as digital photography today has transmitted the Holy Face in Manoppello to the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, that media—press, entertainment, artists and creators—has conspired so hard to distance viewers from contemplating portraits of the divine is not lost on Badde. “Things are going to continue explosively along these lines,” he writes in The True Icon. “The billboards and flickering advertising towers are at any rate only a faint foretaste of what still awaits us.”
Iconoclasm (literally “image-breaking”), the controversy that dominated certain eras of Church history, remains a crusade by the dictatorship of relativism to destroy the images of Christianity, from religious liberty to artistic pursuit. “Sustain us in the hour of the combat and of the trial,” voiced John Paul II at the canonization of Padre Pio. Pio himself was purported to have visited the Holy Face in Manoppello via bilocation hours before his death in 1968.
If the disarming face of the true revolutionary again becomes the inspiration for those seeking change, His image will replace all other fleeting rebels plastered on walls and murals that have gradually diminished the Holy Face. What results will be what Ratzinger dubbed a Copernican revolution: “Being a Christian means having love, by which we cease to make ourselves the center of the universe.”
The most meaningful acheiropoieta is not however an icon, but mere bread “not made by human hand,” at every Mass. Listen for when after knees bend and the consecrated host is raised—for all to see (or for Him to see all)—there is the imploration to “welcome them into the light of your face.” Only when the last scale ceases clicking will we see that unlike the Narcissian habit of countless, forgettable selfies, the vera eika throughout the centuries lift one’s eyes to the loving gaze of the Verum Corpus, the Real Presence.
The Image of images, the Friend of friends. That in each transformed unleavened bread the Hebrew word for “house of bread” is meekly recalled—Bethlehem. We can remain like the psalmist and yearn for His face, or we can let Him transfigure our craft, with new depictions of the same Face.
Welcome us into the light of your Face.
“Deep within, painted in a shade of the same color,
Appeared to me our likeness—
And through this I discovered my own face.”
(Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 130-132)