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Veronica and Helen

· The Female Origin of the Cult of Relics ·

Rome succeeded in imposing itself as the first pilgrimage destination thanks to the fact that it preserved what were considered the most important relics of the Christian tradition: those of the Passion, largely retrieved by Helen and preserved in the Sancta Sanctorum at the Lateran, and the Volto Santo [Holy Face – in English known as the Veronica], according to the legend imprinted miraculously on a woman’s veil during Jesus’s ascent to Calvary. Two women, Helen, Constantine’s mother, and Veronica, probably an imaginary figure, thus made a crucial contribution to making Rome the most important centre of Christian pilgrimages, the heart of the Jubilee.

The pontiffs focused mainly on the re-evaluation of a relic, the Veronica, whose presence in the city had been known since the 8th century. Devotion to this image of Byzantine provenance intensified especially after the year 1000, due to a legend that identified it as the true image of the face of Jesus obtained by a woman, Veronica, who was supposed to have wiped his face during his ascent to Calvary. Although this is not supported by the Gospels, and in spite of the fact that the woman’s name – derived from “vera icona” [true icon] – revealed its metaphorical nature, it was not long before the legend came to be considered true, and above all the high profile which the pontiffs began to give to the precious cloth helped to reinforce it.

In addition to the traditional exposition of the veil on Good Friday, in the course of the 13th century private ostensions for distinguished figures were introduced. In 1208 Innocent iii instituted the solemn procession of the Volto Santo led by the pontiff himself and in 1289 Nicholas iv went so far as to declare that the relic of Veronica was more important than that of the Apostle Peter. Pilgrims used to sew on to their clothing reproductions of it in material and lead to prove that they had made the journey to Rome.

There are few reliable reproductions of this image, which would seem to be in the Byzantine style and does not appear to bear any sign of the Passion, in contradiction to the legend. The existence of copies of the Veronica that were too different from each other and the news of the disappearance of the relic during the sack of Rome in 1527, may explain why, with the passage of time, the Church of Rome tacitly accepted the gradual waning of interest in this image, unlike the Holy Shroud preserved in Turin.

Furthermore, already in the edition of the Roman Martyrology – published in 1583 at the request of Gregory xiii by a commission of which Cesare Baronio, who also compiled the historical notes, was a member – St Veronica was not mentioned. With the pontificate of Urban viii copies of the image were prohibited. Indeed, in 1629 Pope Barberini ordered that all existing copies of this image were to be burned. Even if the measure was not fully executed, the papal disposition certainly contributed to the decadence of this devotion.

However, at the time of the proclamation of the first Jubilee, in the year 1300, devotion to the veil was very deep and pilgrims, as Dante writes in the 31st canto of Paradiso, would arrive with trepidation before it, believing that they were seeing the true divine likeness: “Segnor mio Gesù cristo, Dio verace, or fu sì fatta la sembianza vostra?” [My Lord Jesus Christ, true God, so was this your likeness?]. Therefore, at least until the 16th century, the Veronica constituted the main attraction for pilgrims coming to Rome for the Jubilee and its presence meant de facto the symbolic insertion of a female nature into a male devotional practice: pilgrims came to Rome to pray on the tombs of the apostles, ad limina Apostolorum, and to see the pontiff.

Remains of the instruments of the Passion, especially the Cross, were another focal point of the pilgrimage to Rome. The legend claims that they were found and recognized by St Helen and that she personally brought them to Rome, where on the foundations of her palace she had the Basilica Sessoriana di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme built, in which to preserve them. Together with the collection of relics of the Passion of Christ in the Chapel of San Lorenzo in the Lateran, that is, the Sancta sanctorum, and Jesus’s manger preserved in the basilica of St Mary Major, this is the most important collection of Christ’s relics.

The Emperor’s mother had made her pilgrimage though advanced in years, as Eusebius of Cesarea, a contemporary of hers, writes in De vita Constantini [The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine] “The elderly woman came to the Holy Land to visit the eastern provinces and people with a truly imperial solicitude”.

The spread of the legend of Helen, who was supposed to have found the Cross of Christ, probably dates back to the end of the fourth century, as is proven by the fact that the pilgrim Egeria, who went to the Holy Land between 381 and 384, while recording the Feast of the Finding of the Cross does not mention Helen, whereas in 395, in his funereal address for the Emperor Theodosius, St Ambrose explicitly connects the finding of relics of the Passion of Christ with the mother of Constantine.

Two women, therefore, Helen and Veronica – and that the latter was an imaginary figure matters little here, since what is interesting is the feminine symbol – are thus at the origin of the “material nature” of the sacred which distinguished Christianity first and Catholicism later, providing an indispensable support – since it was understandable and accepted by all – for the transformation of Rome into a strong pole of attraction for pilgrimages. The competition with the ancient sanctuaries and with the new devotional poles was in fact won by Rome. This was due not only to the wise policy of Indulgences organized to coincide with the occurrence of Jubilees, but also, especially, to the presence of these extraordinary relics, all due to feminine creativity.

The two great statues of Helen with the Cross and Veronica with the Veil, which are imposed on the view of visitors gathered round the main altar of St Peter’s Basilica, pay homage to their contribution.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 23, 2019