Holy towel

I have finally finished working on Douce’s portfolios of religious prints -over 900 images classified, like the rest of the collection, by subjects, including ‘Trinity’, ‘Images of the Madonna’, ‘Sudarium’ and ‘Relics’.

To mark this milestone, I popped in the British Museum, where I saw their exhibition Treasures of Heaven:


Gleaming in the dark was the Mandylion of Edessa, lent by the Vatican:


Mandylion of Edessa, Vatican.

As you know, the Mandylion is a fringed white cloth bearing Christ’s face. The scenes on the margins of this etching (probably 16th century) belonging to Douce tell us the story of King Abgar of Edessa, to whom Christ was said to have sent the ‘holy towel’ from Jerusalem:


Sanctissimus Christi Vultus, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

In The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, Herbert Kessler discusses the relationship between the Mandylion and the copies made after it. Prints like this might have been regarded as partaking of the holiness attributed to the original image, but they ended up transformed into collectable curiosities and museum exhibits. Why did Douce acquire them? On the verso of an etching by Jean Lepautre that shows a crowd of worshippers kneeling before an image of the Virgin in a Parisian street, Douce wrote:

An idolatry less rational than that of Jupiter and Diana and as stupid as that of the Chinese Joss.

Douce considered his prints of relics and other religious imagery as examples of what Robert Southey, one of his correspondents, called the ‘epidemics of the mind’ -the elements of irrationalism and superstition that could be found in all systems of beliefs. This does not mean he was not religious (after a fashion), as he wrote to his friend George Cumberland when discussing the ‘Catholic question’ in 1827:

It is of no importance to you or to me whether the state be Catholic or Protestant so long as we enjoy what no person or tyrant can take from us, an independent & uncontrollable mind. That is to make a concord not with them, but with the being to whom we owe our existence & every thing else that is good.

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