St. Veronica is a legendary figure said to have lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, who put an imprint of his face on her kerchief. She begins to appear in the art in the early 15th century, in paintings like the one shown at right. In written texts, her first appearance is in The Avenging of the Savior, from possibly the 7th or 8th century: She explains to an envoy from Rome that during his ministry Jesus had imprinted his face onto a cloth for her. The envoy takes Veronica and the cloth to Rome, where it cures the Emperor Tiberius of leprosy.1
What then happened to the cloth is not explained either in The Avenging of the Savior nor in the retellings in The Death of Pilate and the Golden Legend. But a cloth with a face purporting to be Christ's was an object of veneration in Rome from at least the beginning of the 8th century, when John VII had an altar constructed for it in St. Peter's.2 In the 13th century Innocent III organized a procession with the cloth and had a hymn written to honor the "Holy Face…impressed on a kerchief whiter than snow and given to Veronica as a sign of love."3 Later Dante refers to it in Paradiso 31, comparing his awe at seeing St. Bernard to that of a pilgrim come to Rome from far away who is "never sated" in contemplating "our Veronica."
Both the hymn and the comment from Dante help us understand the iconography of the paintings. They typically present the cloth as kerchief-size and bright white. More important, they function as aids to the kind of contemplative awe that Dante was describing. While St. Veronica looks down or to the side, the Holy Face directly engages the beholder's gaze.
The 15th- and 16th-century paintings portray Veronica herself as what the early texts called her, a "matron of Jerusalem," her head covered with a kerchief to show her married status. Often the kerchief on her head is made to seem like a twin to the one with the Holy Face (example). She usually seems to be in her 20s or early middle age (example). In later centuries she is sometimes bare-headed, as in this portrait from 1625 or this Rubens from 1634.
The hymn and the passage from Dante also exemplify the ambiguity in the word veronica. The hymn speaks of Veronica as a person, while Dante's "our Veronica" clearly means the cloth. In the following century Chaucer's Pardoner will wear a pilgrim's badge called a vernycle (i.e., a "small veronica") with a miniature of the Holy Face.4 Modern scholars assume that it was the cloth that first had the name, which appears to be a combination of Latin vera "true" and Greek eikon, "image."5 The name of the object must have become the name of a person at some time before the writing of The Avenging of the Savior, but when or how is unknown.
Paintings like the first one at right continue in popularity through the 15th century. Then in the 16th we also start to see images that assume that it was on the way to Calvary that Jesus imprinted his face, not at some point during his years of ministry. Examples include the second picture on the right and this painting by Leonardo Corona. The earliest texts to make this claim cited by the Acta Sanctorum are a travel memoir from 1483 and a chronicle from 1486.6 But it is likely that this revisionist version of the legend existed earlier, because there is a 1420 Veronica portrait in which Jesus is wearing the crown of thorns.
Enthusiasm regarding Veronica as a saint kept growing through the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1556 a Franciscan monastery was dedicated to her in Murcia, Spain. In 1560 a mass for her feast day was added to the Ambrosian Missal in Milan, although it was removed later in the century. She was introduced into a revised version of the Roman Martyrology in 1590.7 The 17th century saw the growing practice of displaying "Stations of the Cross" in churches. These presented the events of the Passion in a sequence of images, always including Veronica's proffer of her veil to Jesus.8
The face itself was also a subject for paintings such as the third picture on the right from the 15th century or this fresco from the 16th that combines the cloth with a chalice, a Eucharistic host, and two skulls.
In North American Catholic churches, Veronica is often seen in the sixth of the fourteen Stations of the Cross displayed along the walls of the nave.
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University