Some years ago I had a conversation with an acquaintance concerning this very icon. My friend had traveled to Russia and had seen a very ancient depiction of the icon. He was not Orthodox but had great respect for the faith. Interestingly though, he was troubled about this particular icon. My friend interpreted this icon to be some sort of miraculous depiction, not painted by human hands. He mockingly responded that he could actually see the stroke marks when he inspected it closely.
There is a valuable lesson here, which applies to all other icons. The icon my friend saw in Russia was a famous and miracle-working icon but it was not the original, which tradition says our Saviour Himself created. Rather, this is a depiction of that original icon- a rendering of an archetype.
I have heard of and have personally witnessed Icons pour forth myrrh in which these icons were themselves photographs of myrrh-streaming icons. The originality of an icon clearly doesn’t change its ability to work wonders, though this is best for a discussion at another time.
The icon of which we write is commemorated by the Church on August 16th and as the blessed Bishop Nikolai writes in the Prolog:
THE ICON OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST, “NOT MADE WITH HANDS”
At the time when our Lord preached the Good News and healed every illness and infirmity of men, there lived in the city of Edessa on the shore of the Euphrates Prince Abgar who was completely infected with
leprosy. He heard of Christ, the Healer of every pain and disease and sent an artist, Ananias, to Palestine with a letter to Christ in which he begged the Lord to come to Edessa and to cure him of
leprosy. In the event that the Lord was unable to come, the prince ordered Ananias to portray His likeness and to bring it to him, believing that this likeness would be able to restore his health. The Lord
answered that He was unable to come, for the time of His passion was approaching. The Lord instead took a towel, wiped His face and, on the towel, and His All-pure face was perfectly pictured.
The Lord gave this towel to Ananias with the message that the prince will be healed by it, but not entirely, and later on, He would send him a messenger who would erase the remainder of his disease. Receiving the towel, Prince Abgar kissed it and the leprosy completely fell from his body but a little of it remained on his face. Later, the Apostle Thaddaeus, preaching the Gospel, came to Abgar and secretly healed and baptized him. The prince then destroyed the idols which stood before the gates of the city and above the gates he placed the towel with the likeness of Christ attached to wood, framed in a gold frame and adorned with pearls. Also, the prince wrote beneath the icon on the gates: “O Christ God, no one will be ashamed who hopes in You.”
Later, one of Abgar’s great grandsons restored idolatry and the bishop of Edessa came by night and walled up that icon over the gates. Centuries have passed since then. During the reign of
Emperor Justinian, the Persian King Chozroes attacked Edessa and the city was in great hardship. It happened that Eulabius, the Bishop of Edessa, had a vision of the All-Holy Theotokos who revealed to
him the mystery of the sealed wall and the forgotten icon. The icon was discovered and, by its power, the Persian army was defeated.
Homily on the Icon “Not made by hands”
The Orthodox Church surpasses all other Christian groups in the richness of her Tradition. The Protestants want only to adhere to Holy Scripture. But, not even Holy Scripture can be interpreted
without Tradition. The Apostle Paul himself commands: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
The tradition of Prince Abgar, without doubt, is of Apostolic Tradition even though the apostles do not mention him in their writings. The Apostle Thaddaeus, did not write anything at all and, according to Protestant thinking, did not say anything and neither did he teach the faithful. According to what then was he an apostle of Christ?
St. John Damascene mentions the tradition of Prince Abgar in his defense of the veneration of icons. How wonderful and touching is the letter of Abgar to Christ. And since he previously wrote that he heard of His miraculous power, that He cures the sick and since he implored Him to come and to heal him, Abgar further writes: “I also hear that the Jews hate You and that they are preparing some evil against You. I have a city, not large, but beautiful and bountiful in every good: come to me and live with me in my city, which is sufficient for the both of us for every need.”
Thus wrote a heathen prince while the princes of Jerusalem were preparing death for the Lord, the Lover of Mankind.