Mandylion, Transfer of, 944

1. The cult of icons and relics in Byzantium

The cult of the holy icons was widely spread in the bosom of the Orthodox Church, especially in the period after Justinian I (527-565) and was one of the most important demonstrations of piety of the Byzantines. Meanwhile the cult of the holy relics (holy bodies of saints or martyrs and objects which had been sanctified through contact with them) continued undiminished throughout the Middle Ages. In the eve of the Iconoclasm the cult of relics and icons was that popular that it turned out to be a dangerous superstition and resulted in the outbreak of Iconoclasm.

Constantinople possessed the greatest treasure of relics in the Christian Medieval world.1 One of the most important relics of this treasure was the Holy Mandylion, a piece of cloth on which, according to the legend, the characteristics of the face of Jesus Christ were imprinted. It was considered to be an acheiropoietos (not made by human hands) icon to which miraculous qualities were attributed. The Mandylion was initially kept in Edessa (mod. Urfa, Turkey), where it remained after the conquest of the city by the Muslims in 639. It was transferred to Constantinople in the middle of the 10th century, when Romanos I Lakapenos (920-944) was emperor and Constantine VII Porphygogenetus (908-959) was co-emperor.

2. The hand-over and translation of the Mandylion

In 944 the city of Edessa was besieged by the Byzantines and the Arab authorities were forced to hand over the relic to general John Kourkouas. In exchange the Byzantines released 200 Muslim prisoners and were bound by a treaty not to make any raids in the area of the city in the future. The translation of the Mandylion is described in detail in the Narratio de Imagine Edessena, a text which is attributed to Constantine Porphyrogenetus and was written probably in 945, for the celebration of the first anniversary of the arrival of the Mandylion in Constantinople.2 According to this text, along with the icon, a letter of Jesus adressing to king Abgar (king of Edessa in the 1st century AD, during the rule of whom the acquirement of the Mandylion is dated) was given to the Byzantines.3

The holy relic was transferred with a luxurious escort to Constantinople. The itinerary of the translation could be in general lines reconstructed as follows: the procession followed a 12 miles long road on foot and reached the Syrian side of river Euphrates, where they embarked on a ship, in order to reach the city of Samosata on the opposite bank. Then it crossed Asia Minor. The last stop of the procession was made at the Monastery of Theotokos which was at the site of Ta Eusebiou, on the river Sangarios (Theme of Optimaton).4

It seems rather plausible that the procession did not follow the crowded diagonal road, which passed from Nicaea, but a more eastern road which connected Sykees (Galatia) with Nicomedia. This road crossed the valley of river Gallos, and then crossed the bridge of Justinian I on Saggarios and the northern bank of Sophon or Boane lake (Lacus Sophonensis, today Sabanca). At Sangarios the Mandylion was officially received by a delegate of Romanos Lakapenos, the parakoimomenos Theophanes.

3. Reception and procession of the Mandylion at Constantinople

The reception of the Mandylion at the Byzantine capital on 15th August 944 became a major religious festival. The Mandylion was initially transferred at the church of the Blachernai, where it became an object of pilgrimage and worship and then it was moved to the chapel of the Pharos, in the Great Palace. The next day (16th August) the reliquary with the image and the letter of Jesus were loaded on the imperial ship (royal trireme), which sailed around the city and anchored outside the western wall. The escort disembarked and entered through the Golden Gate in Constantinople, where it was received by the sons of emperor Romanos I Lekapenos, co-emperors Constantine and Stephanos, and the patriarch Theophylaktos (933-956). The triumphal procession crossed the city, while a big crowd attended this unique spectacle, reached the forum, which was in front of the Augustaion, and ended at the Palace. There the image was initially placed on the imperial throne at the hall of the triclinium and finally it was placed in the church of Theotokos of the Pharos.5

The ceremony (arrival, procession and litany of the image), which clearly sought to sanctify the city and the state and to promote the image as the protector of Constantinople and of the emperor, was celebrated every year on 16th August in Constantinople.6 The relic remained at the imperial capital until the 13th century, when, according to one version, it was sold to King Louis XIX of France by the Latin emperor Baldwin II and was transfered to Sainte Chapelle in Paris, from where it was lost (or destroyed) during the French Revolution.

4. The political exploitation of the Mandylion by Porphyrogennetos

The translation of the Mandylion to Constantinople was a major event which was carried out thanks to the initiative of emperor Romanos I Lakapenos. The reception of the image by his sons and mainly its placing on the imperial throne during its litany had a clear political meaning and aimed to connect the holy relic with the dynasty of Romanos, as a kind of legalization. In reality, Romanos I had put aside Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, and, having crowned his sons as co-emperors, wanted to establish a dynasty of his own.7

A few months after the arrival of the Mandylion at the capital however, in December 944, Romanos I Lakapenos was dethroned by his two sons, co-emperors Constantine and Stephanos, and imprisoned in a monastery on the island of Prote. In January 945 Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos arrested and exiled the two usurpers, remaining the sole sovereign ruler and free to exercise his imperial office. A few months later the Narratio was written, by himself or on order, in order to commemorate the first anniversary of the arrival of the Mandylion in Constantinople. In this text the effort to present Porphyrogennetos as a pious emperor who fulfils his spiritual duties by taking care of the obtention of holy relics and their transfer to the city is evident. The image, on the other hand, is presented as a protector of Porphyrogennetos' right to power: it is characteristic that one of the miracles of the image is made only when a believer applauds Constantine Porphyrogennetos as the sole emperor, failing to mention the name of Romanos.8

After all the Narratio is not an isolated example of the effort of Porphyrogennetos to exploit politically the Mandylion and its transfer to Constantinople. On a triptych of the mid-10th century from the monastery of Saint Catherine of Sinai we see, on the upper zone of the left wing, king Abgar receiving the Mandylion. It has been proven that Abgar is depicted under the facial traits of Porphyrogennetos, practically promoting the latter as the successor of the first in the possession of the holy relic.9

1. See Talbot, R. F. - Kazhdan, A., "Relics" in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium III, Kazhdan, A. (ed.), (New York - Oxford 1991), pp. 1779-1781.

2. Constantinus Porphyrogenitus, Narratio de Imagine Edessena, Patrologia Graeca 113, col. 421-454.

3. The legend for this letter is in fact older than the one of the Mandylion and is already documented by Eusebius in his Εκκλησιαστική Ιστορία (1st half of the 4th century AD).

4. Janin, R., Les Églises et les monastères des grands centres byzantins : Bithynie, Hellespont, Latros, Galèsios, Trébizonde, Athènes, Thessalonique (Paris 1975), p. 93.

5. Janin, R., La géographie ecclésiastique de l'Empire byzantin I : Le siège de Constantinople et le Patriarcat Oecuménique, v. III: Les églises et les monastères (Paris 1969), p. 232.

6. Grumel, V., “Léon de Chalcédoine et le canon de la fête du saint Mandilion”, Analecta Bollandiana 68 (1950), pp. 135-152. Cf. Cameron, Av., “The History of the Image of Edessa: The Telling of a Story”, in Okeanos. Essays presented to I. Ševčenko, Harvard Ukrainian Studies 7 (1983), pp. 91-93.

7. Ostrogorsky, G., Ιστορία του Βυζαντινού Κράτους, vol. 2, transl. Παναγόπουλος Ι. (Αθήνα 1997), pp. 147-8.

8. Patlagean, E. “L’entrée de la Sainte Face d’ Édesse à Constantinople en 944”, in Vauchez, A. (ed.), La religion civique à l’époque médiévale et moderne (Chrétienté et Islam), Actes du colloque (Nanterre, 21-23 juin 1993) (Coll. de l’École française de Rome 213, Rome 1995), pp. 21-35. Cf. also text 2 in the Appendix.

9. Weitzmann, K., “The Mandylion and Constantine Porphyrogenitus”, Cahiers archeologiques 11 (1960), pp. 183-184.