THE HOLY MANDELION
The icon of the Holy Mandelion ( mandelion = towel, kerchief ) is an unfamiliar icon to many. For our Church, however, it is the basic image of Christ, from which all other Magisterial icons are derived. Given that this image has been widely accepted as being non-handmade, it bears an immense importance for orthodox hagiography and therefore we shall attempt an analytical description of it.
This icon is celebrated on the 16 th of August. Specifically, as mentioned in the Monthly Book of Feasts, our Church celebrates on this day the "translation", the transfer of the non-handmade image of our Lord Jesus Christ - the Holy Mandelion - from Edessa of Mesopotamia to Constantinople .
In the Orthodox Church, from the very early years there were several pious stories about images that were not produced by human hands, but appeared miraculously. Thus, we have two ancient traditions that mention two, non-handmade images of the Theotokos that appeared in Lydda of Palestine. One imprint appeared on a column of a temple that was built by the apostles Peter and John in honor of the Theotokos, and the other imprint appeared on a pillar inside a temple that was built near Lydda by Aeneas the paralytic who was cured by the Apostle Peter ( Acts, 9,33 )
Copies of these non-handmade images later adorned the temples that were erected in honor of the Theotokos, in Thessaloniki , in Constantinople , in Cyprus and elsewhere.
The same happened with the image of the Lord; artists painted the image of the Divine-Human Lord, not with features derived from their own imagination, but according to that non-manmade image of the Lord.
According to the relevant " narration regarding the delivery of the divine, non-handmade image of Christ our Lord to Augarus " which was mistakenly attributed to the emperor Constantine Porfyrogenetos:
Augarus, who was king of Edessa in Mesopotamia during the time of Christ, was suffering from chronic arthritis and leprosy. So, he wrote a letter addressed to the Lord, in which he beseeched Him to come to Edessa to cure him.
This letter was brought to Palestine by his servant Ananias, who made several attempts to portray the Lord, without any success. This was because the Face of the Lord kept changing in appearance and would look different every time he attempted to draw it.
The Lord, who perceived Ananias' attempts, decided to satisfy his wish in another way; He asked for water to wash Himself, and, " having washed His face with water, the Savior then miraculously and inexplicably ensured that on the wiping cloth which He used, the dampness from His face would leave an impression ". The divine features of the Lord were miraculously impressed on the Mandelion with which He wiped His face. " And, giving this to Ananias, He ordered that it be delivered to Augarus, as consolation for his desire (to see the Lord) and for the needs of his ailment" . Thus, the Holy Mandelion arrived in Edessa .
Furthermore, the Lord wrote a letter to the king of Edessa , in which He promised that after His Ascension He would send one of His disciples to cure him and to proclaim the Gospel.
This Byzantine narration that refers to the icon of the Lord contains - within its mythical shell - an immense truth. It is proclaimed in the hymn of Orthodoxy Sunday (see vol.A - "The Period of the Iconomachy - The icon of Christ"). In it is stressed that the Lord is indescribable; that is, He is indefinable and formless. With His incarnation however, He became describable, because He took on human form and flesh.
This truth is apparent in the hymns of the feast day of the Holy Mandelion. There, the immaculate image of the Lord is linked to His incarnation. Before His birth, the Lord as God was bodiless; with His incarnation however, he acquired a physical form. " I do not portray invisible divinity; I portray the sighted flesh of the Lord " (John the Damascene). Thus, we have His divine imprint. This is stressed in another verse by the Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople: " With paternal goodwill, the previously Bodiless God did not refuse to take on a physical form; He took on our form, thus granting us a divine imprint ".
As aptly observed, " the first images of Christ - the Mandelion and two miraculous imprints of it on ceramic tiles - may be considered "non-handmade" evidence and therefore direct and material witnesses of the Incarnation of the Logos. These mythical narrations express in their own way a dogmatic truth: that Christian iconography - and mostly the ability to portray Christ - is based on the event of the Incarnation. Consequently, the sanctified art of icons cannot be perceived as arbitrary creations of the artists. Just as a theologian expresses the living Truth with his cogitations, so must the hagiographer with his art represent the "non-handmade" Truth, the Revelation, which the Church preserves in Her Tradition. More than any other icon, the "Non-handmade" image of Christ expresses the dogmatic principle of iconography. This is the reason that the 7 th Ecumenical Council (787 A.D.) paid special attention to it; hence, in order to establish the eventual triumph of the holy icons, this image of Christ is the one that is honored on the Sunday of Orthodoxy " (Vladimir Losky).
Even Saint Nektarios in his study "Of holy icons", when examining historical witnesses for the Holy Mandelion and the minutes of the 7 th Council, concludes that: " from the aforementioned, it is apparent that the 7 th Ecumenical Council had admitted the authenticity of the divinely-born image of the Savior Christ, and was convinced that the use of icons in church was an ancient tradition ."
Description of the icon. The icon of the Holy Mandelion portrays a cloth, on which the Face of the Lord has been imprinted. His Face is framed by a cross-embossed halo, on whose three points is inscribed the name of God " O Ω N" (He Who is). When Moses had asked God to reveal His name, during His appearance from within the flaming but never-burnt bush, " God said to Moses: I am the One who is " (Exodus 3,14). God is the one who actually and eternally exists, unlike the false gods.
Along with the name of God's divine nature, we also see inscribed at the top of the Mandelion His name; a reminder to the faithful that the person portrayed is Jesus Christ. He is the one we should believe as "consubstantial to the Father" and as " the one who came down from the heavens and became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and Maria the Virgin, for us humans and for our salvation " (extract from the Creed).
The Lord's countenance is reminiscent of nothing terrestrial and carnal. His large and pensive eyes, His arched eyebrows, the slender nose, the small lips, all comprise an image that inspires and expresses the all-holiness of the Lord and it "illuminates the intelligible" (Canon of the holy icon, ode 4). According to another hymn, albeit our Savior did not have a divine appearance or beauty during the time of His passion, in actual fact, He illuminated everyone. This is what the sight of His countenance tells us, whose semblance " though imprinted on a rag, has been bestowed on us as a treasure " (ode 7)
The icon is the work of the memorable hagiographer Fotis Kontoglou, dated 1963 and is found in the Greek Monastery of the Transfiguration in Boston , U.S.A. .
In summing up this analysis of the icon of the Holy Mandelion, we shall quote the closing hymn of the feast-day:
" We revere Your immaculate image o benevolent one, beseeching Your forgiveness for our sins, Christ our Lord; by Your own free will, you condescended to being raised onto the Cross in the flesh, so that You may deliver those who you created from the bondage of the enemy. Therefore we gladly cry out to You: You have filled everything with joy, our Savior, by caring to save the world ".