A look at vera icon: Dorothee von Windheim’s play with tradition

Wojciech Lippa

The Catholic University of Lublin


The first true image of God was created on the inititiative of a woman, St Veronica. She, the first woman-artist, paradoxically managed to capture tangibly, on a canvas, the image of the One who is intangible. Since the early Middle Ages, the true Face of Christ, the vera icon, has inscribed itself in the iconographic tradition of both Latin and Byzantine Christianity. One of many modern artists who’s ideas correspond to the work of Veronica is Dorothee von Windheim. In her cycle Salve Sancta Facies, by using traditional photography, the artist introduces the viewers into a game of perception, basing on which they should pose themselves a question about the authenticity of an artwork. Thus the artist deconstructs the originally adopted cult-related character of the vera icon and builds new semantic structures. Therefore, von Windheim’s creative attitude and her cycle Salve Sancta Facies place her among those artists anchored in the modernist understanding of the work of art. For von Windheim looks for the truthfulness (vera) and authenticity of the artwork not just in its cult-related and narrative message, but rather in its physical structure, thus treating the achievements of tradition as the building material for a new, autotelic artwork.

Keywords: Dorothee von Windheim, the true Face of Christ, Strappo, the Shroud of Turin, mandylion, vera icon, acheiropoietos, Holy Face, Salve Sancta Facies


“In popular research on women’s role in the development of art and culture, the prevailing approach is one marginalizing women’s spiritual sphere – the sphere associated with metaphysical exploration, expressed in the sacred and religious art, created by women-artists active in various fields of fine arts.”[1] Assuming that the above quote reflects the actual situation in the art of the 19th and 20th centuries, we are facing a paradox of a kind: for it was precisely the presence of a woman that constituted the beginning of the legitimization of sacred art, i.e. the art directly involved in cult.[2] According to the western religious-devotional tradition, the first true picture of Christ was created as a result of the collaboration (initiative) of a woman named Veronica. It was on this woman’s veil that Jesus left the imprint of His face. Whether the story reports an actual event, or belongs to the sphere of pious legends, the fact is that the phenomenon of Christ’s true image, eternalized on a veil and etched in the cultural collective memory, is associated with the figure of a woman – Veronica.[3] Moreover, the Veil of Veronica, as an autonomous image of Christ, has become strongly rooted in the artistic tradition of the West.

One of the many artists who draw on the abundant “museum” of vera icon is a German artist, Dorothee von Windheim. In this article, I shall present her attitude towards the iconographic tradition, understood here as a peculiar play with the artefacts of the past; I shall also make the necessary historical references in order to explicate this artistic and devotional phenomenon.

In the beginning of the 1970s, Dorothee von Windheim (born 1945) started to work on the cycle Strappo (Italian strappare – tear off), which consists in taking off (tearing off) fragments of walls and plaster, and placing them either on the flat surface of a painting or a wall, or putting them in specially constructed boxes or folders. The artist enriched the cycle with photographs documenting the original state, the process of tearing off the fragments, and the result of her artistic work. She gathered her material in the cities of France, Holland, Germany and Italy. The central point of her exploration was the attempt to grasp reality in its ordinary, common, everyday dimension. The structure of brick walls, scratched wall fragments, rotting tree bark, cracked facades along the streets, concrete pavement and gravel paths constitute – according to the artist – people’s immediate world. Those constituents of the external world, the visual context of everyday, are unique in character, built of molecules marked with an individual trait: many facades feature old graffiti, scraps of glued-on bills, subsequent layers of flaking paint, or fragments of vulgar texts carved by the youth in the columns, pillars, and walls. All these are traces of the inevitable passage of time.[4] Von Windheim focuses on surfaces which are deprived of any conventional artistic or aesthetic value, but which she perceives to contain a trace of the past. At the same time, they are projections of the vision of the world, in agreement with the synecdochic principle pars pro toto. The artist mostly found her material in condemned buildings and in others listed for renovation. She collected the traces of dilapidated mediaeval buildings of Florence (1972), documented fragments of inscriptions falling off (1973–1974), recorded details of architectonic arches and capitals of columns (1973, 1975), and translated to the language of art the splinters of balustrade balconies (1976) and a fragment of a frieze from the Paris metro (1979).

Translated by Anna Ścibor-Gajewska

[1] The article was written for the 3rd Polish Symposium on Sacred Art of the 19th and 20th century – “The work of women-artists”, organized by the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art of the University of Rzeszów, which was held in Rzeszów on 18–19 October 2012. The quote comes from the invitation addressed at the Symposium participants.

[2] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Vatican Council II draws a distinction between religious art and sacred art. Religious art is art which has its source in a religious inspiration experienced and expressed by the artist, expressed as a form or as a theme. On the other hand, sacred art should be understood as art specifically dedicated to Church worship, and therefore it is subject to evaluation based on the criteria established by the Church community (SC 122). Cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, complete text in English available at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html [accessed: 20 June 2013].

[3] According to the tradition of the Byzantine Church, the miraculous image of Christ was created during His earthly life and should be associated with a personage of the Syrian king Abgar. The monarch, who suffered from leprosy, sent his archivist Hannan to Christ with a letter, in which he asked Jesus to come to the capital of his kingdom, Edessa, and cure him. The messenger, being also a court painter of Abgar, had been obliged to paint a portrait of the Saviour in case his king’s request met with refusal. Having found the Saviour surrounded by crowds, Hannan stepped on a stone to see Him better. He tried to produce a picture of Christ’s face, yet he failed, because he was unable “to depict the majesty of his countenance”. Seeing that Hannan tried to paint His image, Christ asked for water, washed His face, and wiped it with a linen cloth, on which His features left an imprint. He returned the linen to Hannan and sent him back to his king. After receiving the image of Christ, Abgar was cured. The healed monarch ordered the removal of the figure of a pagan idol that was placed above one of the city gates, and to replace it with the holy picture. When Abgar’s great-grandson, who had reverted to paganism, intended to remove the image and destroy it, the bishop of the city ordered the picture to be walled up in a niche, after placing a lighted lamp in front of the relic. The hiding place was forgotten and only after many years was it discovered, during the Persian siege of Edessa. Not only was the lamp still burning and the image itself intact, but its miraculous reproduction was found on the inner side of the tile that had been concealing it for years.

To commemorate this event, there exist two kinds of the Holy Face image: one, showing Christ’s face on a cloth, and the other, showing Christ’s face as it was imprinted on the stone slab (keramion). Cf. J. Klejnowska-Różycka, D. Klejnowski-Różycki, Studium ikony, Zabrze 2011, pp. 364–365.

[4] E. von Radziewsky, Das Geheimnis der Fragmente. Auf der Spur der zufälligen Begebenheiten, “Die Zeit“ (online), http://www.zeit.de/1987/37/das-geheimnis-der-fragmente [accessed: 25 Nov. 2012].

[5] Dorothee von Windheim, exhibition catalogue, Museum Wiesbaden, 10 October 1987 – 19 November 1987, eds. D. Helms, D. von Windheim, Wiesbaden 1989, p. 85.

[6] Cf. Vorstellungen, exhibition catalogue, Museum am Ostwall, Dortmund, 25 February – 28 May 2007, ed. K. Wettengl, Dortmund 2007, p. 19.

[7] The photograph was taken in 1898 by an Italian photographer, Secondo Pio. Cf. M. Mollweide-Siegert, Dorothee von Windheim. Auf der Suche nach (Ab)bildern von Wirklichkeit. Zwei Werkgruppen im Kontext von Spurensicherung und Erinnerungskultur, Weimar 2008, p. 113; Dorothee von Windheim 1989 (fn. 5), p. 81.

[8] Cf. M. Duchamp, Der Fall Richard Mutt, in: Kunsttheorie im 20. Jahrhundert. Künstlerschriften, Kunstkritik, Kunstphilosophie, Manifeste, Statements, Interviews, vol. I: 1895–1941, eds. C. Harrison, P. Wood, S. Zeidler, Ostfildern-Ruit 1998, p. 295.

[9] G. Rombold, Ästhetik und Spiritualität. Bilder – Rituale – Theorien, Stuttgart 1998, pp. 109–111.

[10] H. Belting, Obraz i kult. Historia obrazu przed epoką sztuki, transl. T. Zatorski, Gdańsk 2010, pp. 239–258; English version of the book: H. Belting, Likeness and Presence. A History of the Image before the Era of Art, University of Chicago Press 1994.

[11] Ibidem, p. 258.

[12] Ibidem, p. 258.

[13] R. Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX wieku, Kraków 2009, p. 167.

[14] Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, vol. 1, ed. E. Kirschbaum, Rom–Freiburg–Basel–Wien 1968–1976, col. 418; ibidem, vol. 4, cols. 223–224.

[15] Rogozińska 2009 (fn. 13), pp. 176–190.

[16] Vorstellungen 2007 (fn. 6), p. 19.

[17] Mollweide-Siegert 2008 (fn. 7), p. 99.

[18] Ibidem, p. 94.

[19] The same inherent power concealed in the photographic material is the inspiration for the Polish photographer Zbigniew Treppa, cf. Z. Treppa, Fotografia z Manoppello. Twarz Zmartwychwstałego Mesjasza, Włocławek 2009, pp. 213–225.

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