Pope Benedict became the first pontiff yesterday to visit Veronica's Veil, which Christian tradition says was used to wipe the sweat from Jesus' brow on his way to crucifixion and miraculously recorded his features.

Pope Benedict knelt in prayer before the relic also known as the Sacred Visage, which has been guarded by Capuchin friars in a remote monastery in Manoppello in the Apennine mountains for centuries.

But the Pope stopped short of endorsing the veil, venerated since the Middle Ages, as the true face of Christ.

"Together we seek to know the face of our Lord and in it find a path for our lives," the German-born Pope told priests and pilgrims after viewing the relic, housed in a heavy frame adorned with gold and silver above the altar.

The fragile cloth depicts very clearly, in blood red hues, a bearded man bearing a striking resemblance to a more famous relic, the Turin Shroud in northern Italy, which is revered by some Christians as the cloth used to wrap Christ's body.

Measuring 17 by 24 centimetres, legend says it was used by a woman called Veronica to wipe Jesus's face as he bore his heavy cross through Jerusalem to his place of execution by the Romans on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull. The cloth is said to have healing properties and in medieval times it was considered miraculous that the visage of Christ is only visible from certain angles. Its origins are uncertain.

Veronica is not mentioned in the Bible but in an apocryphal version of the life of Christ called the Acts of Pilate. It has been revered by pilgrims in Italy at least since the 12th century.

Housed in the Vatican until 1608 and mentioned in Dante's poem the Divine Comedy, it disappeared during building works. One legend says a soldier's wife sold it to get her husband out of jail to a nobleman, who donated it to the Capuchins.

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