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)