A Handbook of Christian Symbols: King Abgarus

The apocryphal gospel spoken of by Eusebius, and called “Christ and Abgarus”, begins with “A Copy of a Letter written by King Abgarus to Jesus, and sent to Him by Ananias, his Footman, to Jerusalem, inviting Him to Edessa.” This letter opens with greetings to the Saviour, and goes on to urge him to go to Edessa, to cure the king of a serious disease. It adds, “My city is indeed small, but neat, and large enough for us both.” Jesus returned an answer that he could not go, as he must fulfil his mission at Jerusalem, but promised that after his ascension he would send a disciple, who would cure the king and give life to him and to all who were with him. This account ends here; but up to the tenth century there were a variety of additions made to it, until then it had assumed the following form.

“Abgarus, King of Edessa, suffering from the two-fold infliction of gout and leprosy, withdrew from the sight of men. Ananias, one of his servants, returning from a journey to Egypt, tells him of the wonderful cures by Christ, of which he has heard in Palestine. In the hope of obtaining relief, Abgarus writes to Christ, and charges Ananias, who was not only a good traveller but a skillful painter, that if Christ should not be able to come, he should at all events send him his portrait. Ananias finds Christ as he is in the act of performing miracles, and teaching the multitude in the open air. As he is not able to approach him for the crowd, he mounts a rock not far off. Thence he fixes his eyes upon Christ, and begins to take his likeness. Jesus, who sees him, and also knows in spirit the contents of the letter, sends Thomas to bring him to him, writes his answer to Abgarus. and gives it to him. But seeing that Ananias still lingers, Jesus calls for water, and having washed his face, he wipes it on a cloth, on which, by his divine power, there remains a perfect portrait of his features; this he gives to Ananias, charging him to take it to Abgarus, so that his longing may be satisfied, and his disease cured. On the way Ananias passes by the city of Hierapolis, but remains outside the gates, and hides the holy cloth in a heap of freshly made bricks. At midnight the inhabitants of Hierapolis perceive that this heap of bricks is surrounded with fire. They discover Ananias, and he owns the supernatural character of the object hidden among the bricks. They find not only the miraculous cloth, but more still, for, by a mysterious virtue, a brick that lay near the cloth has received a second impress of the divine image. And as no fire is discoverable, except the light that proceeds from the picture, the inhabitants keep the brick as a sacred treasure, and let Ananias go on his way. He gives King Abgarus the letter and the cloth, who is immediately healed.”

This last legend was edited by the Emperor Constantino Porphyrogenitus, and in his time the original napkin was at Constantinople; two others at Rome and Genoa, while a false copy had been sent to the King of Persia. The brick, too, had remained in its first city, but had furnished images to other cities. In fact, the Roman one still exists in the church of San Silvestre. But Constantino has given a third version, which is that Christ, on the way to Calvary, wiped his face ou a piece of linen on which the impress of his countenance was left, and gave it to Thomas, commanding that after his ascension Thaddeus should take it to Abgarus in order to fulfil the promise which Jesus had made. This was done; but Thaddeus first goes to the house of a Jew in Edessa, determined to do some miracles which shall attract the attention of the king. And he heals the sick, until Abgarus hears of him and sends for him, hoping that he is the disciple whom Christ had premised him should come. As Thaddeus enters the room, he lifts up the picture, and so great a light proceeds from it that Abgarus springs from his bed, forgetting all his lameness, and goes to receive the picture. He touches with it his head and limbs, and receives strength. The leprosy disappears except from his forehead. He is converted; and when he is baptized, even the last marks of the leprosy disappear. This legend has been often represented in painting.