The Holy Face of Jesus

Our Carmel burns oil before the image of the Holy Face, and distributes it upon request.

St. Therese with the Child Jesus and an image of the Holy Face

History of the Devotion to the Holy Face

What did Jesus Christ look like?

“You are the fairest of the children of men, and graciousness is poured out upon your lips” - Psalm 45
“He was transfigured before their eyes. His face became as dazzling as the sun, His clothes as radiant as light.”
- Matthew 17:2

Scripture does not tell us exactly what the Lord looked like, and the Jews of the Old Testament did not dream they could one day see Him in human form. The psalms are full of supplications to the Lord not to hide His face, but the psalmist was speaking figuratively. Yet in the Incarnation, our deep spiritual need to see God is fulfilled as God takes to Himself a human nature and allows us to gaze upon His features in truth.

Devotion to the Holy Face of our Lord is not new in the Church. The first adorers of the Sacred Countenance were our Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, and the apostles and disciples. Those of us in subsequent ages have had to be content with the work of artists or poets, the revelations of mystics, and the fruit of our own prayer life as a means of seeing the face of the Lord. But from the early centuries of Christianity there exist traditions that Jesus had left His image on a piece of cloth. One such cloth in particular, which is preserved in St. Peter’s to this day, has played a vital role in the history of the devotion to the Holy Face: the Veil of Veronica.

How did the Holy Face get imprinted on the cloth, and how did the cloth come to Rome? It seems that between the eighth and the eleventh centuries, the story went about that a woman named Veronica was said to possess a “portrait” of Jesus which could cure disease, with which she healed a king, and the Roman Emperor Tiberius himself. But in manuscripts dating from the twelfth century, Veronica is said to own the cloth with which Jesus wiped His Face of His bloody sweat in the garden of Gethsemane, and the veil was frequently called the “sweatcloth of the Lord.” It is not until the end of the 1300’s that meditation books were carrying the familiar account of the woman Veronica wiping the face of Jesus with her veil on His way to Calvary.

The cloth relic seems to have appeared in Rome between the years of 900 and 1000, but the explanation for its image did not achieve its final form for another 400 years.

The Eastern Church had a separate tradition stating that Jesus had imprinted His Face on a cloth, while He was still alive, as a present to be given to King Abgar of Edessa (modern-day Turkey), who had sent a messenger to Jerusalem to ask Jesus to come and cure him of a mortal disease. Jesus had the cloth sent instead, after His death, and when the King looked upon it, he was instantly cured and converted, desiring instruction in the Christian faith as a consequence. This cloth was venerated in Edessa from the seventh century, and finally transferred to Constantinople in the year 944.

Thus is expressed the desire of the human heart to see the face of the Lord! Saint Augustine, writing at the end of the fourth century, addresses prayers to the Holy Face. Saint Gertrude and Saint Mechtilde, at the time that the veil of Veronica was being venerated in Rome, also expressed in writing their devotion to it.

Holy Face Veil of Veronica The Veil of Veronica

Although it was awe-inspiring for the medieval Christians to know that a relic of the Holy Face existed in Rome, this holy veil was not shown publicly for almost 200 years. Then, in 1207, Pope Innocent III was inspired to have a solemn procession, himself carrying aloft the veil of Veronica for all the faithful to view. He granted generous indulgences to all present and even to those who would simply say certain prayers before a copy of the image. To thus behold what had previously been guarded in such secrecy moved the people of Rome to deep religious fervor. This solemn procession and veneration was held annually, so that the fame of this holy relic spread throughout the known world. In 1269, when Marco Polo was a boy of fifteen, his father and uncle returned to Venice from a nine-year mission to the east, bringing with them a present from the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan: a piece of asbestos specifically for wrapping around the veil of Veronica for its protection.

During the Holy Year of 1300, Pope Benedict VIII allowed a weekly showing of the Holy Face. There was even a special guild of artisans who made and sold all sorts of Veronica souvenirs, from copies painted on vellum to hat-badges made of tin or lead. Many pilgrims felt that their sojourn in Rome was not complete until they could venerate the veil of Veronica. At this time there was also an increased theological interest in the subject of seeing the Face of Christ at the Last Judgement, and to many, venerating the veil became a foretaste of that solemn moment.

In 1527, Protestant soldiers sacked the city of Rome, looting and destroying countless religious treasures. The Veil of Veronica survived the pillage, but afterwards seems to have been displayed less and less to public view.

Sr. Mary of St. Peter Sr. Mary of St. Peter

Yet if the veil was being shown less often, devotion to the Holy Face was given a new impetus in a France and a Europe that was in the process of recovering from, or still enduring, revolutionary forces. It was from the Carmel of Tours in 1843 that our Lord brought this about by communicating to Sister Marie of St. Peter His desire that a special cultus of the Holy Face be given a place in the Church. He told her that the Father was greatly offended by sin, especially by the widespread violation of the first three of the Ten Commandments: the Holy Name of God blasphemed, and the Holy Day of the Lord profaned, and that through this work of the Holy Face, God’s justice would be disarmed. He promised to imprint His divine likeness on the souls of those who honor His most holy countenance. He further promised that all who would defend His cause in the Work of Reparation by words, by prayers, or in writing, will be defended by Him before His Father. In a word, He was seeking Veronicas. The Lord precisely requested Sister Marie to obtain official Church approval for this devotion to be offered publicly. “Rejoice, my daughter, for there is about to dawn upon the earth one of the most beautiful Works under the sun!” were His words to her, though adding that He would permit opposition to cross His Work to test the confidence of His servants.

Venerable Leo Dupont Venerable Leo Dupont

Sister Marie of St. Peter prayed and labored unceasingly to bring the Lord’s wishes to fulfillment. She was assisted in this Work by a holy layman, Leo Dupont. Their efforts met with either indifference or great opposition. It was not until after Sister Marie’s death (1848) that the Church finally gave its approval. It began in a remarkable way. Six months after her death, Pope Pius IX, who was living in forced exile from Rome, ordered public prayers to be offered in all the churches of Rome to implore God’s mercy on the pontifical states. Thereupon for three days, the True Wood of the Cross and Veronica’s Veil were exposed for public veneration at St. Peter’s Basilica. Although the impression on the Veil had become so faint as to be scarcely visible, and not visible at all through another silk veil which was used to cover this true relic of Veronica’s Veil, on the third day of its exposition, the Divine Face of Jesus appeared distinctly, as if living, and was illumined by a soft light. The features assumed a death-like hue, and the eyes, deep sunken, wore an expression of great pain. This vision lasted for three hours and was seen by all present.

Soon after, copies of the true Image were printed, touched to the Veil, and distributed. The prioress of the Benedictines of Arras, upon receiving several of these copies, and being acquainted with the revelations of Sister Marie of St. Peter, sent some to the Carmel of Tours. The Carmelite prioress immediately gave a copy to Leo Dupont who exclaimed, “Here at last seems to be the first ray of hope that Sister Marie’s mission of spreading devotion to the Holy Face shall become a reality.”

Leo hung this portrait copy of the Veil of Veronica in the drawing room of him home, and kept a lamp burning in front of it as his own private devotion. (The bishop of Tours had not yet approved public devotion.) Visitors to his home couldn’t help but ask questions, giving him the opportunity to tell them about the messages given to Sister Marie of St. Peter. He would pray with his visitors in front of the Holy Face, and anoint the sick with oil from the lamp. Many were the cures and conversions worked through God’s grace. In fact, so numerous were the miracles that people from around the world wrote to Monsieur Dupont requesting this holy oil. Later, Pope Pius IX declared him to be perhaps the greatest miracle-worker in Church history.

Still, the Church’s official approval was withheld. Leo, bewildered at this, came to believe the world was not yet ready. In his own words, “Devotion to the Holy Face is the highest and most exalted worship there could be, since its aim is to adore the Triune God Himself. In the Face of Christ, we see mirrored the very attributes of the Blessed Trinity as well as His human perfections. When we pray to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we are essentially concerned with His humanity, but, I repeat, when we look on the Holy Face, we are concerned with the Divinity, for ‘the Head of Christ is God,’ as St. Paul says. Let us recall that passage from Scripture which says that ‘Wisdom has built herself a house.’ How simple for us to grasp that the Head of Christ is that House which Wisdom had built for herself. Noting, therefore how exalted is this Devotion, should it be any wonder to us then that we might be obliged to wait a hundred years to see it become a reality?”

Here, also, a mention should be made, especially in light of Vatican Council II, of Leo Dupont’s deep love for Sacred Scripture. Besides the perpetual lamp burning before the Image of the Holy Face, Leo added a second lamp before the Holy Bible, for he said, “Scripture is the Face of God; before that Face, as before the Holy Image, the fire ought to burn day and night. I see Jesus Christ whole and entire in each word of the Bible. Jesus Christ cannot be divided.”

Leo Dupont’s home had become such a place of pilgrimage that upon his death in 1876, it was purchased by a community, and a public oratory was opened in the drawing room. Nine years later, Pope Leo XIII established the Archconfraternity of the Holy Face “not only for France but for the whole world!” thus fulfilling the mission of Sister Marie of St. Peter... and in 1885, a certain French family who is very familiar to us joined the confraternity: that of M. Louis Martin, with his daughters Marie, Leonie, Celine, and Therese. Pauline, who had entered the Carmel of Lisieux in 1882, had already found the devotion to the Holy Face firmly rooted there.

The news of the revelations made to Sister Marie of St. Peter had come to the Carmel of Lisieux through one of its foundresses, Mother Genevieve of St. Teresa who corresponded with the Carmel of Tours. In 1847, Mother Genevieve obtained permission to hang a copy of the Veil of Veronica in the chapel at the Carmel, and it was she who introduced the devotion to the community.

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face St. Therese of the Child Jesus
and the Holy Face

Thus, Pauline was well grounded in the devotion to the Holy Face by the time of Therese’s entry in 1888, and she hastened to deepen her younger sister’s understanding of the treasures hidden therein. Therese specifically credits her with doing so, and she requested that the title “of the Holy Face” be added to the name given her as a postulant, “Sister Therese of the Child Jesus.”

The illness of Louis Martin, which lasted for the first six years of Therese’s religious life, provided further impetus for the growth of her devotion to the Holy Face, and personalized her understanding of it. She meditated on the image of the Holy Face portrayed on the Veil of Veronica, and on the passage from Isaiah 53: 1-5, and drew an intuitive connection between the suffering Messiah and her father. It was in her meditation on the Holy Face that she found a meaning for the illness of M. Martin, and at the same time, the suffering and humiliation that her father endured illuminated for her the paradox of the greatness and the humiliation of the Lord’s Passion. By becoming nothing, the willing victim achieves true greatness. This principle of the Christian faith was amply illustrated for her in her father’s life, and so vividly shown in her own.

St. Therese’s love for the Holy Face was able to gather different spiritual themes into a united whole. Seeing the tears on the image on the Veil of Veronica, she understood that Jesus was weeping for souls. This inspired her to live the apostolic and ecclesial dimension of her vocation with renewed fervor - to save souls at any cost, which was a marked characteristic of her personal orientation, as well as the Carmelite vocation.

Equally as strong, was her desire to remain hidden. Her meditation on Jesus’ Face had taught her that its light and beauty was a hidden one, and that He, the King of Kings, had humbled Himself so that the divinity in His Face was hidden and no one recognized Him. Therese thus increased in the virtue of humility to a profound degree.

“I desired that like the Face of Jesus, my face be truly hidden, that no one on earth would know me. I thirsted after suffering and I longed to be forgotten.”

Holy Face Image Painted By Celine Martin Image of the Holy Face as
painted by Celine Martin

St. Therese’s love for the Holy Face was constantly surfacing in her poems and prayers, and she composed a consecration to the Holy Face for her novices in which the desire to save souls and remain hidden is again expressed. As her sister Celine said of her later, “…this devotion was the burning inspiration of the Saint’s life. It transcended - or more accurately, embraced - all other attractions of her spiritual life.”

St. Therese died eight months before the public exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, when it was photographed by Secondo Pia, and the startlingly lifelike image was revealed. The face on the Shroud has become familiar to people all over the world as being the most authentic likeness of Jesus Christ in human possession. The Veil of Veronica, so essential in earlier centuries, is nowadays unavailable to the public and is reputedly so faded that it no longer resembles a face. On the other hand, the face on the Shroud of Turin confronts us with an image so mysterious and yet so tangible that we are somehow compelled to acknowledge the reality of the love of God for His errant creation, and to be moved to our depths in return.

As the French poet Paul Claudel wrote, upon looking at the face on the Shroud, “In that image we see the majesty of the God-man, and in the presence of that majesty we become profoundly conscious of our complete and radical unworthiness. There is something overwhelming in those closed eyes, in that masterful countenance, which seems to bear the impress of eternity - something that pierces the conscience like the thrust of a sword to the heart, something so awful and annihilating that our only means of escape is to bow in adoration.”

Holy Face Graphic


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Wuenschel, Rev. Edward A., CSSR, The Holy Shroud of Turin, Holy Shroud Guild, 1953.
Frost, Christine, St. Therese of Lisieux and the Holy Face of Jesus, Theresian Study Series #1, 1983.
Scallan, Dorothy, The Holy Man of Tours, Tan.