The Holy Face, or Veronica, is one of the three great, remarkable and very holy relics which the patriarchal Basilica of St. Peter of the Vatican preserves with a jealous care, and which have been in every age of the Church, the object of the veneration of the faithful. The Veronica, is a veil, or handkerchief, on which is impressed the true likeness of the adorable face of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, miraculously imprinted, not produced by artificial colours, but by the divine power of God the Son made Man.
These precious relics are preserved in an oratory situated in the interior of one of the four large pentagonal pillars, which support the magnificent cupola, at the epistle side of the papal altar. Paul V. placed the Holy Face there in 1606, and Urban VIII., the holy Lance in 1625, and the wood of the true Cross in 1629.
From a constant tradition, which is founded on the most authentic documents, we are informed, that whilst our Saviour was on the painful journey to Calvary, loaded with the heavy wood of the cross, the altar on which He was to sacrifice His life for the redemption of mankind, a holy woman, moved by compassion, presented Him a handkerchief, or towel, to wipe His face, all covered with sweat, spittle, dust, and blood; and that Jesus, having used it, gave it back to her, having impressed on it His majestic and venerable image, so full of the deep sorrow into which He was then plunged by the weight of the sins of the world.
It is for this reason, that this holy woman is usually represented near our Saviour, holding in her hands the Holy Face, as may be seen in the sixth station of the holy way of the cross.
The learned Piazza, in his work entitled, "Emerologio di Roma," which was published in 1718, relates this pious tradition on the feast of St. Veronica, the 4th of February. St. Veronica, a noble lady of Jerusalem, lived about the year 88 of the Christian era, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. It is believed that she is the woman that was cured of the bloody flux by our Lord, and whom Baronius calls Berenicia, being called Veronica, from the circumstance of her having possessed the blessed relic of the Holy Face. After Jesus had left the house of Pilate, and was on His way to Calvary to be put to death, being all covered with blood from the scourges which He had received, and the wounds of His blessed temples, which were caused by the crown of sharp thorns; after having gone 450 steps, He came near to a house which formed an angle, where, Veronica seeing Him approach in the distance, through compassion, went to meet Him, and, taking the veil from off her head, presented it to Him to wipe His face, all covered with sweat and blood. Our Lord benignly received it from her hands, having wiped His face with it, returned it to her with the impress of His Holy Face printed on it. (Brev. Ambr. Petr. in Catal) A gracious acknowledgment, but with a resemblance so natural, that the marks of the fingers of the cruel man who had given Him the sacrilegious blow, are quite visible. Veronica, full of joy at possessing so precious a treasure, piously cared it till the arrival at Jerusalem, from Rome, of the ambassadors whom Tiberius on being informed by Pilate of the great number of miracles which Jesus had performed, had sent in the hope that he likewise might be cured of a malady with which he was afflicted. When the envoys of the Emperor arrived, they found that Jesus had been crucified, and heard from the Jews the fable of His disciples stealing His body, and pretending that it had arisen, but Veronica undeceived them by showing them the towel with the Holy Face of our Lord impressed upon it. She promised to accompany them to Home, and likewise told them that at the eight of the holy relic the Emperor would be cured. Having placed the Holy Face in a case, or shrine, she set out with the ambassadors for Rome, where, having presented it to the Emperor, he was instantly cured.
This is why Tiberius wished to honour Jesus Christ by placing a statue to Him in the Lararium, or chapel, where the Romans kept their household gods ; but the Roman Senate would not allow it, ''on the principle" says Baronius, " that they would not give that worship to a mortal which was due to a god." 1
Cardinal Baronius, in his "Ecclesiastical Annals" 2 of the year of our Lord, 34, after he had spoken of the shroud which enveloped the head of our Saviour in the sepulchre, said, "Now, this shroud is different from that which Berenicia gave our Blessed Redeemer to wipe His Face all covered with sweat and blood, and on which remained the impress of His adorable Face, according to the tradition of the Christians, and testimony of an ancient manuscript 3 which is preserved in the Vatican library, and that mentions it was brought to Rome." Bishop Methodius, an ancient chronographer, speaks of this Berenicia, likewise called Veronica, and of the image of our Saviour impressed on the veil.
Very many writers testify the truth of this fact, authenticated by a perpetual and uninterrupted tradition; we will quote some in the course of this notice. We will content ourselves to cite in this place what the learned Bishop of Samelli affirms in his " Letters on ecclesiastical subjects that all the writers on the Holy Land, and especially Adricomio, say that the house of Veronica was situated on the same route on which Jesus went to Calvary, and that everything occurred that we have already related.
Although the act attributed to Veronica may appear to us somewhat extraordinary, we are, however, less astonished when we know that a custom prevailed among the Jewish women of wearing on the head or neck a veil of linen or cotton, which they presented to persons as a mark of friendship, when they saw their face covered with sweat or bathed in tears. Such is, in effect, the primary meaning of the word suaire, which Bergier thus defines in his theological dictionary : " A handkerchief or linen, used to wipe the face." Veronica not only conformed to the received custom of her nation, hut she had to hrave the fury of the cruel soldiers, and also the wicked treatment of the violent and bloodthirsty populace. But she merited by her devotion to Him, in having His sacred image impressed on her handkerchief, as a mark of eternal love; this is why the heroic action of this woman will be glorified in every age, and pious souls will not cease to bless her for this service and this honour rendered to Jesus in His dolorous agony.
Valerius Maximus speaks of another Berenicia, which Pliny calls Pherenicia, who, by an exceptional favour, was allowed to be present at the Olympic games, which was not allowed to other women. But far greater and still more exalted was the glory given to our Berenicia, by the image of the Holy Pace being impressed on her handkerchief by our Saviour. The prize obtained by the conquerors at the Olympic games, was a laurel crown; for Berenicia, the highest glory was a head crowned with thorns; it is for this reason, that the hymn composed in honour of Holy Face, by Pope John XXII., who was created Sovereign Pontiff at Avignon in 1316, says—
"Salve, sancta Facies nostri Redemptoris,
In qua nitet species divini decoris
Impressa panniculo nivei candoris
Dataque Veronicæ signum ob amoris."
Hail! O Blessed Face of our Redeemer,
Face pure, where shines celestial splendour
Upon linen white divinely impress'd,
A pledge of love to Veronica blest.
1 It appears that the senate was angry because Pilate sent the account of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ to the Emperor Tiberias, and not to them, as was customary. It is likewise certain that the governors of provinces wrote directly to the emperor on great and urgent occasions.
2 Translated by Pierre Coppin, D.D., Cure of Notre Dame du Vailes, Paris.
3 Alveri, in his ,c Roma in ogni Stalo," vol. ii., page 210, gives us the history of Veronica, taken from an ancient manuscript of Nicholas Signorile, inscribed in the Vatican library, No. 3351.