The Divine Face (Veronica’s Veil)

El Divino Rostro (La Verónica)

Feast day: February 4

Essay by Courtney Sisk

The Divine Face, otherwise known as Veronica’s Veil, remarks itself as a more obscure reference within the collection of Mexican retablos. The original representation of Veronica’s Veil was derived from the Stations of the Cross, a series of fourteenth-century Franciscan devotional stories and imagery. Representing Veronica, touched by the suffering of Christ to rushed to His side to wipe blood from His face. In the story of this miraculous cloth, the imprint of Christ’s face was revealed on the cloth and believed to be the authentic likeness of Him, thus referred to as “The True Image.” Veronica, whose name means true image, vera icon, plays a quiet role in this relics representation as the artist often eliminates her presence in the composition entirely, possibly due to lack of historical evidence of her existence or the origin of the cloth itself. The original relic of the cloth now resides in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, although holds no trace of the face of Christ anymore. Representations of this theme across Christianity is more limited outside of láminas due to its more legendary nature. The NMSU collection of Mexican retablos houses seven examples of Veronica’s Veil, all of which are visually complex and display the miraculous nature of this theme.

Many representations of the Divine Face focus solely on the cloth, with the imprint of Christ upon it. The already elaborate depiction of Christ is even further embellished through the gilded elements of cloth, as well as the gold painted throughout Christ’s hair (Fig. 1). This gold adds to his representation of royalty, and the miraculous spirit of the cloth. His eyes, removed from the viewer’s gaze, move downward expressing his sorrow and pain. The droplets of blood are expertly painted, dripping from the Crown of Thorns placed upon His head, nose, mouth, and a wound on His cheek. The color removed from His face, showing death as well as further emphasizing His imprint on the cloth. Even more unique, is the choice of red lettering painted across the top and bottom of the composition in Spanish. The English translation of the words read,

The True Blood of Christ our Redeemer, whose image alone freed the Israelites in Egypt by the strong arm of God, save and defend us from the plague and all evil. Oh Blood of my Jesus! Oh universal remedy! Frees us from all evil. Since you shed it on the Cross. Oh tears of Mary! Spilled for my sins! Mixed with that blood protect me night and day. Praise [be] to God.

The inclusion of this inscription, only adds to the beautiful sorrow, shown through Christ’s face and the golden features included by the artist. In another unique example of the representation of the Divine face (Fig. 2) the centralized representation of the Divine Face, is surrounded by an altar with faux wood paint including four angels and multiple symbols of the Crucifixion. In this elaborate depiction of the Veil, the artist represents the cloth pinned to the altar, whose top is shaped-like a Cross.

Four angels are included venerating the Veil. The cross is crafted with the Arma Christi, or weapons of Christ: The ladder, the Holy Lance, the Holy Sponge, the silver vessel used to hold gall and vinegar, and the lantern. The rooster, whose represents the denial of Christ by Peter, sits upon the top of the Cross. Also included on the top of the Cross is the plaque with the inscriptions “INRI” and the label “S.P.Q.R.” is attached to the lances. INRI represents the Latin inscription for “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” which was placed on the top of the Cross during the Crucifixion whereas SPQR translates to “The Roman Senate and People,” and represents the government of the Ancient Roman Republic.

The face of Christ wounded by the Crown of Thorns and covered in his droplets of blood is masterfully portrayed through shading and great quantities of blood common for the Veil’s depiction of the Crucified Christ. Below the veil, the artist chose to include a narrative portrait of Veronica walking beside Christ and two soldiers holding the Veil as Christ moves on His way to the Calvary. The phrase El Divino Rostro, The Divine Face, is scribed directly below the scene. The Veil is the entire focus in some examples, portraying the imprint of Christ’s face as a valuable relic held within the retablo (Fig. 3).

The veil is painted as if it hangs from the upper corners of the tin, with a simple dark background. In this composition, the artist depicts Christ’s expression upon the Veil as sorrowful, and his skin is almost transparent upon the fabric. The Crown of Thorns creates blood that falls down His face in droplets like teardrops. The dramatic shading of Christ’s facial features and hair is emphasized by the white of the Veil. The simplicity of this representation of The Divine Face allows for the artist’s portrayal of emotion of Christ, capturing the moment He walked to His death, to shine through.

Figure 1. The Divine Face (Verónica’s Veil) /El Divino Rostro (La Verónica)

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 9 ¾”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1967.2.44.

Donor: Dr. Ezra K. Neidich.

Figure 2. The Divine Face (Verónica’s Veil) /El Divino Rostro (La Verónica)

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 13 ¼ x 9”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.27.

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.

Figure 3. The Divine Face (Verónica’s Veil) /El Divino Rostro (La Verónica)

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 13¾ x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1966.6.28.

Donor: Mr. Fran E. Tolland.

References

Fernandez, Justino. An Aesthetic of Mexican Art: Ancient and Modern. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23 (1964): 21–28.

Giffords, Gloria Fraser, and Yvonne Lange. The Art of Private Devotion: Retablo Painting of Mexico. Fort Worth, TX: InterCultura, 1991.

Giffords, Gloria Fraser. Mexican Folk Retablos. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1974.

Schiller,Gertrud. Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. II, 1972 (English trans from German), Lund   Humphries, London, pp. 179-181.

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil and Charles Muir Lovell, ed.  Art and Faith in Mexico: The Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.