The Image "Not Made by Human Hands"

Sergei Fyodorov, St. George Church, Bausha, Russia, 1990

Written by Paula Howard, OSB, March 2000

According to legend, the image of the Savior "not made by human hands" reproduces the true appearance of Christ that had been impressed upon a cloth, the mandilion. Christ himself is supposed to have given the mandilion to King Abgar V of Edessa who, gravely ill, prayed that Christ would come to him. The significance of this legend is that it attests to the historicity of Jesus Christ, and it affirms that every representation of his likeness goes back to an initial image that was received, not fabricated; divine, not human. The Council of Nicaea in 325 affirmed that testimonies regarding the features of Christ went back to Jesus himself.

The face of Christ shown against the background of a cruciform halo represents the Christian mystery of the transforming penetration of divinity into fragile humanity in a permanent gift of love. This visual synthesis can be seen in the ancient Byzantine-style icon of the Savior Not Made by Human Hands, which was first painted in the region of Novgorod at the end of the twelfth century. The center of the pattern of the entire icon, the source of movement, radiating outward, coincides with the ideal center of the face, situated, according to Byzantine aesthetic canons, at the root of the nose. The distinct contour of the eyes and the shadows under the arches of the eyebrows augment the profundity of the gaze, while the asymmetrical arrangement of the pupils "opens out" this gaze in all directions. Furthermore, the design of the hair, combed in waves, the symbol of time without end, indicates that Christ, the Image of the Father "not make by human hands," is the eternal Word. A cross contained in a circle, which is itself contained in a square, is a universal symbol of the orderly and beneficent entry of the Transcendent into the earthly reality. Meanwhile the cross of Christ ( the cruciform halo) is superimposed upon the four-directional spaced earth. In this way the entire icon becomes an expression of the mystery of Creation and Redemption.

Some of this information is from the book Praying with Icons by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 2008).