Every July 12, St. Veronica is honored with her feast day, a day to remember the one simple act of kindness and empathy that catapulted her into Christian fame. On the road to Calvary, after Jesus falls with the cross weighing Him down, Veronica steps forward and compassionately wipes the sweat and blood from his face with a cloth. A miracle instantly occurs: An image of Jesus’ face immediately appears on the cloth. Other than that, very little is known about her. She does not appear in the Bible, and not much shows up in the hagiography of her life. Even her name is uncertain. Taken from the Latin vera icon (“true image”), her name seems to have been assigned to her after the miracle. Although we don’t know anything about her other than this isolated incident, Veronica and her very humane gesture have become renowned around the world. She has been deemed the patron saint of, not surprisingly, wardrobe workers, cleaners, textile merchants, and embroiderers. Artists have depicted her claim to fame for centuries in a wide range of materials — oil paintings, tapestries, mosaic tiles, marble sculptures, stained glass, and so on. These are my favorites.
#1 Basilica of St. Peter (Vatican City)
The actual shroud of Veronica has been housed in St. Peter’s Basilica since the eighth century, and those who look upon it are believed to be spared a violent death. Of course, the shroud is not readily available to the thousands who visit the basilica on a daily basis. They have to be satisfied with a statue instead, and what an incredible statue it is. The four colossal pillars that support the basilica’s iconic dome measure nearly 148’ tall, and each contains a large niche occupied by a 16’ marble statue, above which is a tabernacle containing a relic associated with the saint below. Of the four, St. Veronica is the most theatrical. Sculptor Francesco Mochi created an audacious depiction of Veronica that caused quite a stir when it was revealed in 1640. As if rushing through a fierce windstorm, Veronica races ahead, her garments whipping around her and clinging to her body in dramatic disarray, eager, perhaps, to show everyone the miracle that has just occurred. She holds a cloth with a subtle image of Jesus’ face up and to her side, as if she’s a matador taunting a bull. Lifelike in its appearance and posture, and bold in its presentation, you would almost expect her to descend from her plinth in her fervor and whirl around the basilica. The passion of her figure was not appreciated originally, as it contrasted with the three other more sedate statues; its frantic motions were considered unsuitable for both the subject and the prominent location. Urban legend holds that when Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the basilica’s successor architect to Michelangelo, critically asked him where all that wind that was disrupting Veronica’s garments came from, Mochi sarcastically shot back that it originated from the dangerous cracks that Bernini had created in Michelangelo’s dome.
#2 St. Veronica’s Catholic Church (New York, New York)
Completed in 1903, St. Veronica’s Catholic Church in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was named a New York City landmark a century later. And that’s a great thing, because in 2017 it held its final service, thanks to the Archdiocese’s shuttering of more than a dozen churches when it consolidated scores of parishes. At least the building will be preserved, no matter what its future function may be. I had managed to visit just before the closure. The brick and limestone Victorian Gothic Revival church has a broad façade, with twin towers and a large central window. Inside, the wonderful interior includes the Stations of the Cross, with Veronica showing up in number six. But she also appears in a beautiful pointed stained-glass window. In the colorful image, a group of angry and armed men surround Jesus, pushing Him on while bearing the cross over His shoulder. In the background, an almost unnoticed Mary is faded out in gray. Amid all the spectacle, including a very incensed church elder furiously demanding her to leave, a serene Veronica offers Jesus the cloth to wipe His face. She seems completely unaware of the tumult around her, or she’s remarkably adept at ignoring it all. Her laser focus on Jesus is unswayable, by which her gesture is made that more poignant. Beautiful as it is, I wondered if the artist claimed it as an original work: Almost the exact same scene, with the same figures in the same positions with the same gestures, was done in tile in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, back in 1732.
#3 Basilica of St. Nicholas (Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
One of the most beautiful churches in Amsterdam, the Basilica of St. Nicholas commands a prominent position on a canal, very close to one of the world’s most beautiful train stations. Completed in 1887 and named after the city’s patron saint, the basilica features two tall towers, a terrific rose window, and an octagonal dome that rises 190’. Inside, there’s an abundance of elements to admire, including the very large Stations of the Cross. It took the artist, Jan Dunselman, seven years to complete the paintings, in 1898 — that averages six months for each station. He chose parishioners as models for the figures; some Amsterdammers today can still see the faces of their ancestors. In the busy scene of Station VI, about two dozen figures jostle around Jesus, arms flailing, fingers pointing, weapons raised. A young woman holds an ewer and cup, perhaps to offer Jesus a drink, but it’s Veronica and Christ who hold center stage. An older-looking Veronica kneels down and offers a worn-out Jesus her cloth. Unlike most depictions, Veronica already has a nimbus, a radiant circle around her head indicating her sainthood. Although plainer than the one encircling Jesus’ head, it nevertheless sends the message that as soon as Veronica made her gesture she became a saint, and that’s practically unheard of.
#4 National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
One of the top depictions of St. Veronica, in Washington, D.C., isn’t found in the city’s beautiful churches. Rather, I found it in one of its museums, one of the best art museums in the United States. The National Gallery of Art boasts an astounding collection of decorative arts, works on paper, paintings, photographs, and sculptures, including works by such big names as El Greco, Botticelli, da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rodin, Goya, Cole, and Munch. But it was the work of an unknown Flemish artist that caught my eye as a spectacular depiction of Veronica. Dating from around 1540 and acquired by the museum in 1982, this massive wool and silk tapestry measures about 10’ wide by 12’ high. Dyed with reds, blues, and beiges, The Procession to Calvary requires a good amount of time to take it all in. No fewer than 20 remarkably detailed human figures, plus half a dozen horses, some trees and buildings, a dog, and a mountain cram the chaotic scene. Jesus is front and center, bearing His cross and clad in a virtually colorless robe. Veronica kneels beside Him, holding her cloth imprinted with the mirror image of Jesus’ face. But this Veronica is no ordinary plain Jane that she assumes in just about every other portrayal I’ve seen. This Veronica is regal. With hair perfectly coiffed and wearing a crown, this Veronica is clad in an exquisite gown and sumptuous robe. Her royal bearing makes her unique among all the other Veronicas.
#5 Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul (Tallinn, Estonia)
The Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia, bubbles with activity, crowds drawn to its gorgeous Town Hall, cobblestone streets, defensive walls and towers, and architecturally significant churches. But it’s a very ordinary church that holds one of the best images of Veronica. With a plain white façade and small grassy courtyard, and set back from the street behind a gated wall, the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul is easy to miss. Built in 1844, it’s the only Catholic cathedral in the city, but both its exterior and interior defy the tradition of ornate ornamentation lavished in Catholic churches. The whitewashed interior features pops of gold in the columns, chandeliers, and ceilings, but that’s it. The lack of flamboyance makes the Station of the Cross on the walls more prominent than they would ordinarily be. Created by a Tyrolean artist, the 14 stations are also understated. In Station VI, the figures look like detailed sketches with a bit of subtle watercolor thrown in — a faded brown in the cloak of one of Jesus’ tormentors, a pale green in the shirt of another. The brightest colors are reserved for Jesus and Veronica: He with a red halo, she with a yellow babushka. The figures themselves are what makes this depiction so memorable. Rather than Roman soldiers and Palestinian onlookers, the few figures here look like Estonian peasants, clad in simple garb of the time and carrying rough clubs instead of slick spears. It’s this localization of a historic event that took place somewhere else that gives this depiction its uniqueness.
- Station of the Cross, mosaic, St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption (Covington, Kentucky)
- Station of the Cross, tile, Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
- Saint Veronica, by Hans Memling, oil painting, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
- Station of the Cross, mosaic, Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph (Brooklyn, New York)
- Station of the Cross, sculpture and mosaic, Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
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