Here, on a background of sparkling gold tesserae, a woman, veiled and dressed in beige-brown clothing, is shown kneeling. Her forearms are stretched forwards from underneath a cloth towards a young Christ. Beardless and with long, golden, curly hair, this Christ has the conventional attributes of an emperor. His clothing is royal: a purple tunic with long sleeves edged in gold stripes is overlaid with another with golden stripes running from shoulder to hem. Over this is a purple mantle. His right hand is stretched out authoritatively. Even his halo—a gold cross with blue gems—is worn like a crown.
Behind Christ is a bearded man dressed in white, with purple trimming. He gestures as if explaining something. But what?
This sixth-century image forms part of a series of thirteen panels depicting Christ’s miracles and parables in the upper register of a wall mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (Deliyannis 2014: 152–75). Christ’s royal clothing identifies him as God’s kingly Messiah, the divine ruler on earth. The white-clad man, also found elsewhere in the series, represents an evangelist. This indicates that the scene is only truly understood by reference to the Gospel story.
But in fact, this story is blended with another, and the key is in the cloth that covers the woman’s hands. Unrecognized hitherto, this is the earliest visual depiction of the story of Veronica’s cloth, as told in the most ancient versions of the seventh/eighth-century Vindicta Salvatoris and Cura Sanitatis Tiberii (Taylor 2018: 27–38). The haemorrhaging woman was understood to have been named Berenice (Greek), or Veronica (Latin). As a reward for her faith, Christ effects a miraculous self-portrait on the cloth. Christ’s gesture here then invites Veronica to give him the cloth. It is not a blessing, since elsewhere in the panels Christ blesses with two fingers; here his hand is wide open, fingers apart.
Ultimately, this asks us to think of the power and generosity of Christ: miracle-maker supreme.
Deliyannis, Deborah Mauskopf. 2014. Ravenna in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Taylor, Joan E. 2018. What Did Jesus Look Like? (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark)
20 And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment; 21 for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.” 22 Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well.
24b And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. 25 And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, 26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.” 29 And immediately the hemorrhage ceased; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone forth from him, immediately turned about in the crowd, and said, “Who touched my garments?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ ” 32 And he looked around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had been done to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
42b As he went, the people pressed round him. 43 And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one, 44 came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. 45 And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!” 46 But Jesus said, “Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.” 47 And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”