Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
tel. +48 17 872 20 98

Wojciech Lippa

The Catholic University of Lublin

 Abstract:

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

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“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).

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In order to perfect her artistic craft, the artist participated in many workshops, training programmes and courses. Those especially significant for her artistic profile are the courses she completed in the conservation laboratories in Florence, which deal with removing frescoes from walls and stabilizing them on new, stronger surfaces. The above-mentioned activities occurred simultaneously with other, though similar, undertakings, in which the artist created large-format figure paintings. The most important works are her self-portraits, as she called them,[5] produced by impressing her own body on canvas or paper [fig. 1].

The main idea of von Windheim’s artistic workshop is producing imprints of the existing reality. The artist does not simply copy the immediate world, but rather physically imprints it, impresses it, takes its cast, retrieves it, and then places the imprint in a new, artistic, expositional context. This also concerns her own body, impressed on canvas, as well as the surrounding reality. Thus the artist’s activities are associated with a more general issue, which can be grasped in the relation: original – copy, impression – imprint (German Bild – Abbild, Abdruck – Abnahme).

Her fascination with imprinting and eternalizing the traces of reality on canvas brought von Windheim to the problem of the Shroud of Turin. “After 1971”, says the artist in one of her interviews, “I lived in Italy. One of my first journeys took me to Turin. During my visit to the royal chapel in the Turin cathedral I was greatly disappointed not to be able to see the Shroud. The last time the Shroud had been displayed was in 1933. Since 1977, I have lived in France. One day I learned of the planned exposition of the Shroud of Turin. To receive important news on the subject, I joined the French Brotherhood of the Holy Face”.[6] To have even better access to the Shroud, Dorethee von Windheim joined the International Sindonological Association, a respectable company of researchers of different fields of science and humanities. Before the Holy Shroud Exhibition, planned for August 1978, the artist acquired thousands of postcards presenting a double image of Christ’s face, imprinted in the negative and positive on the photograph of the Shroud of Turin [fig. 2].[7] On the reverse of each card, she wrote: “Invitation to the Shroud of Turin Exhibition in St John the Baptist Cathedral, St John’s square, 10122 Turin, from 27 August to 8 October 1978, open daily between 7.00 a.m. and 8.30 p.m.”, and then, via the Cologne Gallery Reckermann, she sent the cards to various addressees. In this way von Windheim, using the media commotion connected with the Shroud Exhibition, invited people to a great international event as if to her own exhibition. The Shroud itself becomes Duchamp’s ready-made, found object, which, in the artist’s intention, is detached from the institutionalized art market and acquires the status of an artwork – not owing to the artist’s purposeful (artistic) action, but owing to the viewer’s interpretative activity. Following this idea, the very presence of visitors at an exhibition is a sufficient argument in defence of art, which thus – eventually – becomes a criticism of the modern myth of a great artist.[8] In this case, the artist criticises not only her own actions as an artist-creator, but also the image imprinted on the veil, burdened with the devotional load. She treats the relic as an exhibit, as an artwork. Thus she poses a question about the authenticity of the artwork; the question is suspended, unanswered, yet she leaves some hints, such as the title, the reproduced photographs, and the invitation, which should provoke the recipients to search for the sense on their own, and which are supposed to move the viewers, so that they create their own idea of the artwork. Questioning the authenticity, the truthfulness of a painting, about – to play with words – the “vera icon constitutes the centre of Dorothee von Windheim’s further exploration. The Shroud of Turin and the doubts about the authenticity of an artwork pushed her towards the phenomenon of vera icon, the Veil of St Veronica.[9]

There exist two traditions associated with the Holy Face of Christ imprinted on a cloth. The earlier, the eastern one, is connected with the Mandylion and the legend of the Syrian king Abgar. The later tradition, developed in the west, is connected with a woman figure, with Veronica.[10] The core of both these traditions is the conviction that the image was impressed, imprinted without human intervention; that it was “not made by hand”, (acheiropoietos). In the conflict with the iconoclasts this fact was raised as the decisive argument for the sense of cult images: God himself, by leaving us His image, legitimized image as an object of worship. Hans Belting states that the image on the veil is the first one to fulfil all the conditions of a cult image as far as Christianity is concerned. Being of supernatural origin, and therefore sanctioned by Heaven, the image is an authentic picture of a living person and thus can also confirm the human nature of Christ.[11] In this way, the cult image was brought out of the area of controversy (iconoclasm), for it was connected directly with the intention of the model. In Byzantium, Christ’s image imprinted on the veil was treated mainly as an argument in dogmatic disputes, especially those conducted with monophysites and iconoclasts, and when the disputes ended – i.e. when the dogmatic doctrine on the cult of images reached the state of a complete canon (mid-8th century) – the same image was used as the archetype of an ideal human image, which reflects the face of God. At the same time, it must be seen as a model for the proto-icon; its beauty reflected in its copies is better visible than in the original itself, which merely represents the idea of a perfect icon.[12] In western Christianity, the trend connected with the phenomenon of acheiropoietos was different in character. Here, the veil was treated chiefly as a relic, which was in contact with Christ’s physical being, therefore it substituted for the missing relics of the body. Both these traditions shared the phenomenon of numerous reproductions of the Holy Face. Its background was the idea of an imprint: according to this conception, the resulting image is strictly connected with the original. The replicas were basically meant to repeat the model of the imprint. This formula was developed to such an extent that the borderline between the original and the copy was becoming blurred. Renata Rogozińska writes, “In practice, those borders were easily blurred. As a result, artefacts were worshipped equally with acheiropoietoi […]. For it was believed that all copies, regardless of their number, possessed the same energy of the proto-image, and in fact were not worse than the original.”[13] The whole Christian world saw the multitude of reproductions of “Christ’s Holy Face”. The best known examples in the east are: the Constantinople Mandylion in Genoa, Christ’s Mandylion from Novgorod, or the Laon cathedral Mandylion. One of the eastern paintings found its way to Rome in 1011, and it is the one considered authentic, the one regarded as the Saviour’s “true” face. From the 13th century on, the cult of the Holy Veil became widespread, which gave rise to a new iconographic type: Christ’s face in frontal view, with eyes open or closed, on a strongly marked cloth. What is crucial is the fact that the veil functions autonomically, yet sometimes it is held (presented) by angels, and sometimes by St Veronica.[14]

From the Middle Ages on, this well-established iconographic type or model showing the Saviour’s face was the source of creative inspiration for many artists: Albrecht Dürer, Jan van Eyck, El Greco, Hans Memling, Master of Flémalle, Master of St Veronica, Zurbaran, and others [fig. 3]. Also many contemporary artists worked in this theme. The Polish artists that should be mentioned here are Tadeusz Brzozowski, Ewa Kuryluk, Eugeniusz Mucha, Jerzy Nowosielski, Teresa Rutowicz, Wojciech Sadley, Alina Szapocznikow, Zbigniew Treppa, Danuta Waberska, and others.[15] It must be emphasized that the paintings created since the Middle Ages appeared in response to the parallelly developing devotional cult of the Holy Face. Hymns were created, glorifying the Veil of St Veronica: the most famous of which are Salve sancta facies and Ave facies praeclara. Additionally, brotherhoods of the Holy Face appeared, popularizing the cult. On Pope Pius IX’s initiative, in 1849 the Mandylion of Rome was exhibited to the public for three days. In that time, a copy was made, a model, which made the cult re-flourish. The Christian world was flooded with reproductions of paintings and photographs showing the Veil of Veronica. Those copies frequently received a certificate of authenticity [figs. 4, 5]. Dorothee von Windheim joined one of those brotherhoods, which was supposed to facilitate the access to the Shroud of Turin.[16]

It was the Shroud itself and the question of the truthfulness (authenticity) of an artwork that brought the artist closer to the phenomenon of vera icon. In 1980 she began working on a cycle entitled Salve Sancta Facies, referring to the title of a mediaeval hymn. The cycle comprises 72 paintings showing the whole face of Christ and 31 fragments showing only a part of the Saviour’s face, mostly the eyes. Before she started to work on the cycle, von Windheim conducted thorough research in libraries and archives of art institutes, looking for reproductions showing the Veil of Veronica. She focused on painting and ignored the reliefs, drawings and graphic representations, as, in her opinion, they did not follow the formula of an imprint on cloth. She also ignored the modern painting. From among numerous representations she chose only those works relevant to the genre, which not only presented the idea of vera icon, but were also the epitomes of their epoch, as e.g. the Novgorod Mandylion, the Holy Face of Manopello, the Genoa Mandylion, paintings by Master of Flémalle and by El Greco.

The crucial point is the technique of producing particular paintings in the cycle. First, the artist takes photographs of the reproduction of vera icon, then on cleansed pieces of gauze (cloth) she spreads a special kind of silver gelatine, which serves as the photographic emulsion. In the next stage of the creative process, which takes place in a darkroom, she projects the picture registered on the photographic film onto the prepared material. When photographing the paintings of the Veil of Veronica, the artist uses reproductions of various sizes: from large format colour album illustrations to small photos found in iconographic lexicons. Yet, in the process of transferring them onto the prepared cloth (the gauze soaked with the photosensitive emulsion), they all receive the same format, very close to live human proportions. This makes the enlarged photographs blurred, out of focus, due to which they hold the viewer’s eye not so much with the “reflected” picture as with the visible fabric (gauze) structure. On the other hand, the reduced photographs reveal traces of the brush, the raster of the original reproduction, or the craquelures on the old masters’ paintings, captured by the camera. Moreover, all works are monochromatic (black and white), and therefore, as the artist emphasizes, they constitute a coherent chain of signs, which refer to one theme – to their prototype [fig. 6].[17] Von Windheim believes that reconstructing the colour would introduce an unnecessary, distracting polychromaticity. The photosensitive emulsion on the pieces of gauze makes the picture not merely emerge on the surface of the canvas, but rather enter its structure. Gauze, unlike photographic paper, reacts to the beam of light in an irregular manner; the effect is sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, thus the resulting picture is not homogeneous: darker in some places and lighter in others, often blurred and dim, underexposed. This effect evokes associations with blood and sweat left on the vera icon and the Shroud, which soaked the cloth unevenly, more in some places and less in others.[18]

Viewers of the cycle Salva Sancte Facies experience a multitude and diversity of the presentations of Christ’s face. They experience the reality of the material (cloth – gauze) on which the representations are imprinted [fig. 7, 8]. They see the canvas, notice the shreds and scraps of yarn, the warp and weft of the fabric, and the emerging face of Christ. But in the foreground they see the truth of the fabric (!). This manoeuver purposefully causes the viewer’s annoyance and reinforces the paradox of the vera icon. The true – vera (!) – image “not made by hand” is the fabric. The chemical process in which the photographic image emerges exists beyond the human sphere; it develops per se, by the power encoded in the material and the potential concealed in the emulsion and the light.[19]

The cycle Salve Sancta Facies by Dorothee von Windheim balances between the experience of authenticity and originality, and the experience of fiction and manipulation. It consists of pictures reproduced and reproducing themselves, which, however, owing to the technology (alchemy) of photography, suggest that they have emerged without the direct intervention of a human being. Von Windheim creates her cycle with her feet anchored firmly on the ground of the modernist attitude towards an artwork – seen as autonomous and opaque. Searching for the truthfulness and authenticity of a painting, she points to its material structure: the shreds of fabric and the optical medium of photography. Thus she becomes the new Veronica, the woman who presents the world not with the true image of religion, but with the true image of art.

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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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