Moscow, Pennsylvania, is the home of Saint Catherine’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. A whirlwind visit today turned up a rare example of Saint Veronica and her veil as a funerary image on the Nichols monument.
Despite its name (veronica means ‘true image’), the veil is one of the dicier relics, reputedly held in the second floor of one of the piers of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Although it is not canonically attested, the encounter of Jesus and Veronica on the Via Dolorosa—she wiped the sweat and blood from his face with her veil, receiving a miraculous image on her veil as a result—rose to the dignity of being the sixth of the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross. We needn’t fault Roman Catholics in the trenches for reaching uncritically for an image familiar from childhood.
The image (figure 2) depicts a robed Jesus carrying the cross toward stage left with his left hand. He reaches down with his right hand, which barely emerges from his sleeve to a female figure kneeling before him. The artist has used hierarchical scale—Jesus is much larger than the female figure—to show the relative importance of the two figures. The female figure holds, and in fact has its lower arms enclosed in a large piece of cloth which falls from over her hands in complicated folds.
We’ll recall that the division of Jesus’ garments occurs later in the sequence of stations, so that finding Jesus robed here is not problematic. The practicalities of the situation led to the cross being depicted at a small scale, to keep it from getting in the way of the central focus of the image. The stonecutter has done quite good work in evoking a long, gaunt, gothic image of Jesus’ face and head in the unforgiving granite. The background of the relief consists of very low relief curves that add a bit of texture to an otherwise blank surface. We ought to ask where the crown of thorns is, however.
The image seems to me indebted to early Christian art, though the explicit connection of Jesus with the cross seems to have been iconographically formed only in the fifth century (see, e.g., figure 3, one of the very earliest).
But early Christian art is full of little staccato images, as they’re sometimes called, encompassing a moral or theological teaching in a small, easily legible scene from scripture, canonical or not. In the Nichols monument the idea could be to signify ‘devotion and its reward’—fitting in funerary imagery for a devout Christian.
I’ve never seen another example of this scene on an American funerary monument, which more than justified today’s trip to Moscow.