Abgar, the King of Edessa, was very ill. He had heard rumors of a healer in Galilea to the south that had performed miraculous cures. He sent an ambassador to invite the healer to his court, in the hopes of being healed himself.
Jesus declined the offer, remaining with His ministry in His homeland. Abgar, noting that an picture of Caesar was often used to stand in for the emperor in his absence and thus make decisions official, then sent an artist to make an image of Jesus. He reasoned that an image would represent Jesus, and thus he might be healed through the Lord’s power. And so the artist set out.
He sat and tried to draw Jesus as he preached, but he just couldn’t get it right. Jesus saw the man struggling there, and had pity on him. He went up to the hapless artist, and held the linen cloth that was being used for the painting to His own face. He handed it back. The image of His Holy Face was imprinted on the cloth. The artist hurried back to Edessa and the King, who prayed to Jesus while standing before it, and was cured.
King Abgar and all of his kingdom became believers and followers of the teachings of Jesus–some of the earliest Christians. The cloth with the miraculous image was hung on the city gates. For many years it was venerated there by the people, and there were numerous cures and prayers granted.
One day, the kingdom was besieged by foreign armies. To protect the precious image, the Christians of Edessa made a niche in the walls of the city, and hid the cloth inside, leaving a lamp burning before it, then sealing it up with clay bricks. The kingdom was overrun. The cloth remained hidden, its existence unsuspected by the conquerors. Centuries later, it was remembered by the Bishop of Edessa, and he searched for and found the secret compartment in the walls. To the amazement of all, the cloth was intact, and the lamp was still burning. In addition, the same image that was on the cloth had been imprinted onto the interior of the bricks as well.
During the reign of Constantine, these relics were brought to Byzantium for veneration. They remained there until Crusaders looted and sacked the empire. Then the relics disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened to them.
One story says that the cloth was brought to Gaul (France) where it was called “vera ikon“–a true image. Perhaps this title is the origin of the story of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus during His Passion with her veil. Eventually the cloth was sent by ship to Italy, when there was a great storm and the ship sank to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, never to be seen again.
This the story of the icon of the Holy Face, which is also called the Mandilion (in the Western church), as well as Christ-Not-Made-With-Human-Hands (in the Eastern church). At least, that is the story as I recall it. There are many versions with differing details. The icon itself is most often seen with the image on a cloth, but there are also versions of it painted as if on the clay tiles. The traditional role of either version has been to protect, and to give victory over evil.
Edessa was a city state kingdom near the border of Syria in present-day Turkey. It is called Sanliurfa today. The Agbar dynasty did exist, and the people of the kingdom were staunchly Christian from the ancient times. During a war with the Persians long ago, the king of Edessa carried the holy cloth as his banner into battle, and the victory was credited to Jesus’ image.
(The first image above is a 10th century painting of King Abgar holding the sacred image. The second two are my own work, showing the 2 different types of The Holy Face icon. IC XC are the Greek abbreviations for Jesus Christ. The inscriptions in His halo are abbreviations for the words: I Am. In the second version of this icon, the letters IC XC are in the top circles, and NI KA are in the lower circles. These letters stand for “victorious” or “conqueror” –similar to the word nike).