Veil of Veronica: Miraculous Relic Rediscovered?

A painting of St. Veronica with the miraculous veil, and the veil rediscovered by Heinrich Pfeiffer.

Who has the real Veil of Veronica – is there a real one at all? And does it possess supernatural powers?

The controversy surrounding the Shroud of Turin will probably never end. Scientific testing has determined that it originates from the 11th or 12th century – although the process by which is was created it still not known for certain – but those who believe that it is the actual burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth, and that it miraculously bears his likeness, cannot be dissuaded.

What is the Veil of Veronica?

The shroud is not the only relic believed to reveal the image of Christ. However, a somewhat lesser known, but equally well-guarded and revered (and disputed) relic, is the Veil of Veronica. According to legend, a pious matron named Veronica took pity on Jesus as he was carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem on the way to his crucifixion at Calvary and stepped forward from the crowd and wiped the blood and sweat from his face with her veil. Out of thanks for her kindness, Jesus worked a miracle and left a painting-like imprint of his face on the veil. The legend contends that the veil has healing powers.

The story is predominately held in faith by the Roman Catholic Church, which commemorates the event in a Lenten ritual called "the Stations of the Cross" and even lists Veronica among its saints, although there seems to be little or no evidence that the event actually took place or that Veronica ever existed. There is no mention of the event in any of the New Testament gospels.

In 1999, however, a researcher announced that he had found the veil of Veronica hidden in a monastery in the Apennine mountains of Italy. That may come as a surprise to many Catholics who thought the veil was in the hands of the Vatican, where once a year it is brought out from tight security and revealed to the public.

So which is the real veil, if either?

History of the Veil

According to Catholic Online, Veronica kept the veil and discovered its curative properties. It's said that she cured Emperor Tiberius (of what it doesn't say) with the veil, then left it in the care of Pope Clement (the fourth Pope) and his successors. Supposedly, it's been in their hands ever since, kept under lock and key in the Basilica of St. Peter. It is listed among the Basilica's many treasured relics.

Heinrich Pfeiffer, professor of Christian art history at the Vatican's Gregorian University, says that the veil in St. Peter's is only a copy, however. The original, he says, mysteriously disappeared from Rome in 1608 and that the Vatican has been passing off copies as the original to avoid disappointing pilgrims who come to see it at its annual display. It is Pfeiffer who claims to have rediscovered the authentic veil in a Capuchin monastery in the tiny village of Manoppello, Italy.

According to Pfeiffer, the legend of Veronica's veil can be traced back only to about the 4th century, and that it wasn't until the Middle Ages that it became linked to the story of the crucifixion. The original veil, its actual source unknown, remained in the Vatican from the 12th century until 1608, where it was worshiped by pilgrims as the actual image of Christ. When Pope Paul V ordered the demolition of the chapel in which the veil was preserved, the relic was moved to the Vatican's archives, where it was cataloged, complete with a drawing.

The veil then disappeared, says Pfeiffer. After 13 years of searching, however, he was able to trace it to Manoppello. Records kept in the monastery reveal that the veil was stolen by the wife of a soldier who sold it to a nobleman of Manoppello to get her husband out of jail. The nobleman, in turn, gave it to the Capuchin monks who placed it within a walnut frame between two sheets of glass. And it's been in their monastery ever since.

Paranormal Properties?

After examining the "true" veil, Pfeiffer contends that it possesses certain unusual, possibly even supernatural, properties. Measuring 6.7 by 9.4 inches, Pfeiffer says the cloth is nearly transparent with reddish-brown marks that trace the face of a bearded, long-haired man. The face becomes invisible depending on how light strikes it. "The fact that the face appears and disappears according to where the light comes from," said Pfeiffer, "was considered a miracle in itself in medieval times. This is not a painting. We don't know what the material is that shapes the image, but it is the color of blood."

Pfeiffer also contends that digital photos of the veil show that its image is identical on both sides – a feat, he says, that was impossible to achieve at the ancient date it was created. (Or is it merely because the cloth is so thin that the same image can be seen on both sides?)

Authenticating the Veil of Veronica

The authenticity of the veil is far from being conclusive. The veil has not yet been subjected to scrupulous scientific testing or dating in the way the Shroud of Turin has. Carbon-14 dating techniques should be able to estimate its true age. Already, some of Pfeiffer's colleagues do not agree with his conclusions. "Pfeiffer may have found an object that was venerated in the Middle Ages," Dr. Lionel Wickham of the faculty of divinity at Cambridge told John Follain writing for The Sunday Times of London, "but whether it dates back to early events is another matter."

Some believers who accept that both the shroud and the veil are authentic miraculous icons point to the fact that the images on both pieces of cloth are strikingly similar – they seem to depict the very same man. Historians suspect, however, that the image on the veil was, in fact, created as a deliberate copy of the face on the shroud. And that is why the veil was given the name that gave rise to the legend: Veronica (vera-icon) means "true image."