A woman named Veronica figures in a number of post-classical and medieval accounts of the Passion. In an addendum to the Gospel of Nicodemus, she testifies at Jesus' trial that he once cured her of a flux of blood. In several other sources she is a disciple of Jesus who wished to have a picture of him. Jesus obliged her by pressing to his face a cloth which then bore his likeness. Years later, she took the cloth to the Emperor Tiberius, who was cured of a grave illness by gazing on it.
This version of the St. Veronica story, in which the cloth is imprinted during the time of Jesus' public ministry, is prevalent in the literary sources throughout the middle ages, appearing both in Voragine's Golden Legend and in Caxton's translation of that text, which sometimes departs from the original to accommodate late medieval developments. However, by Caxton's time another version was already coming to prevail in Catholic tradition. In it, the imprinting of the cloth occurs during the Passion, as Jesus makes his way to Calvary. In this second version, St. Veronica wipes Jesus' brow with a sudarium, a cloth for wiping off sweat. It is this sudarium that is then imprinted with his image.
A sudarium imprinted with the image of a man claimed to be Jesus was on display in Rome until 1608, and its fame supported the second version of the St. Veronica story. Apparently, the crown of thorns could be seen in this image.
In portraits St. Veronica is a middle-aged matron with her head covered. She stands frontally before the viewer and holds up the cloth, as at left. Her eyes do not engage ours but look slightly down or to the side. The image on the cloth may include the crown of thorns (example), but it often does not (example). Copies of the image itself were also popular, especially in the 15th century (example).
Actually, the notion that there was a St. Veronica arises from confusion about the name of the cloth. The sudarium at Rome was sometimes referred to in Latin documents as the veronica -- a neologism formed from Latin vera, "true," and Greek icon, "image." The word is used in this primary sense in Dante's Paradiso XXXI (cached) in the Middle English derivative vernicle, a miniature veronica such as worn by Chaucer's Pardoner (cached).
In the 17th and 18th centuries many Catholic churches adopted the Franciscan practice of displaying "Stations of the Cross," chronologically arranged images of the events of the Passion. Eventually a standard version gained official sanction, and this included St. Veronica and her sudarium. St. Veronica then became universally familiar in the Catholic world.
At left, a 1410 oil of St. Veronica
Other portraits with the sudarium:
Master of the Legend of St. Ursula, 1480-1500
El Greco, 1579
Bernardo Strozzi, 1625-30
The Avenging of the Savior, 6th century or later (cached)Also see:
The Death of Pilate, Who Condemned Jesus, 7th or 8th century (cached)
Episode in the Golden Legend's account of the Passion
Veronica figures briefly in Jesus' trial in the Gospel of Nicodemus.