AN EASTER REFLECTION: Truth, forgiveness and the recognition of wrongdoing runs deep through the story of Veronica’s Veil

As we’ve all made the long, tortured walk towards Golgotha over the past weeks, the familiar images of the Stations of the Cross will have served to illustrate for us the terrible events that Our Blessed Lord suffered on that fateful day long ago. Across the centuries artists have striven to portray the human suffering of these key moments in countless ways, but for me there is one artist more than any other who has captured the darkness and chaos that must have been the lived experience of that day on the road to Calvary.

Although born in Belgium, Frank Brangwyn is generally referenced as a Welsh artist, on account of his Brecon family roots. In his final years he lived as a recluse at the Catholic Land Movement’s arts and crafts community at Ditchling in East Sussex, where he died on 11th June 1956. He was buried in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green.

A prolific painter, watercolourist, printmaker, illustrator, and designer who was once apprenticed to William Morris, Brangwyn’s religious works remain as some of the most outstanding artistic contributions of his time. In particular his exquisite glass mosaic depicting St Aidan and his followers in the apse of St Aidan’s Church, Leeds remains one of his most exceptional works, and an absolute masterpiece of the Arts & Crafts era.

Even in his own time Brangwyn’s works proved controversial. In particular his etchings, woodcuts and lithographs have a dark, often disturbing quality that make no compromises to the stark chaos of the moment he was depicting. During the First World War he produced more than 80 poster designs promoting the war effort but has never been recognised as a war artist – his portrayals of the brutality of the trenches caused outrage at the time in both Britain and Germany and the Kaiser even placed a bounty on his head. Only after the war did the accuracy of Brangwyn’s graphic imagery of that horrific conflict become chillingly apparent.

I’ve always greatly admired Frank Brangwyn’s work, and especially his many interpretations of the Stations of the Cross, a theme he returned to constantly throughout his life. I’m particularly intrigued that in later life, as he increasingly struggled with his Catholic faith, he began inserting his own face into the crowd – was this a form of penance and repentance, or was Brangwyn placing himself on that fateful road with Jesus, hoping for a forgiving glance?

It should be mentioned that his first attempt at a Stations of the Cross was not for any important institution or wealthy benefactor, but for Father Thomas Ryan’s leper mission in Pretoria, South Africa where Brangwyn intended his paintings to be distributed as prayer cards to raise funds for the mission. Later versions of his Stations were also gifted rather than sold, such as the two sets of stunning lithographs he had printed onto sycamore panels – with one set being presented to Campion Hall, Oxford and the other to the monastery of St André in Zevenkerken in Belgium.

In 2022 one of his most recognised Stations passed through Christie’s, when the auction house was disposing of the collection of Sir Nicholas Proctor Goodison, a British businessman and art historian who was chairman of the London Stock Exchange from 1976 to 1986. Shortly after retiring from the Exchange Goodison had acquired at a Southeby’s auction Brangwyn’s gloriously vivid oil on canvas The Sixth Station of the Cross: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus that been commissioned shortly after the First World War for Arras cathedral. In another typical Brangwyn gesture of generosity, it was intended that reproductions of this particular set of Stations would be distributed to other war damaged churches across Belgium (hence the Flemish dress of the figures) but sadly the Stations were never completed due to the death of the artist’s model that Brangwyn had been using to portray Christ.

The legend of Veronica was one that fascinated Brangwyn, and she remains one of the most enigmatic but profoundly popular of Catholic saints – not least because she is the subject of one of the Stations of the Cross, yet has no mentioned in the canonical Gospels.

In documentary terms Veronica emerges around the 7th Century and by the Middle Ages the story of how she encountered Jesus along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary and wipes the blood and sweat from his face with her veil has become a central devotion of the Catholic Church. It has also been said that St. Veronica later travelled to Rome to present the cloth to the Roman Emperor Tiberius, where the veil was believed to quench thirst, cure blindness, and even raise the dead.

In common with many narratives surrounding women in the life of Christ, Veronica has come down to us as a largely apocryphal person, but one on whom the Church has placed the most profound significance and veneration.

In the times in which we live it is well worth looking far more deeply at the story of Veronica, and the significance her narrative has for women – and for healing generally – within our Church.

The name Veronica has its roots in both Greek and Latin – vera being Latin for ‘truth’ and the Greek eikon meaning ‘image’; other sources reference the Greek phérein meaning ‘to bring,’ and níkê, ‘victory.’ Thus the legendary Veronica has always been a metaphor for the woman who reveals both truth, and the reflected image of Christ.

For Brangwyn, his own struggles in later life to reconcile himself to his Catholic faith and his bitter regrets and depression at certain particular events in his life drew him increasingly towards depictions of Veronica, whom he portrayed as the one person – even more than Simon of Cyrene – who pushed through the tumult and terror of the human crucifixion of Jesus and her own burdens to acknowledge both his suffering and his sanctity. It was for this that Brangwyn so often portrayed Veronica not as the traditional glowing maiden of common Catholic iconography, but as a much older, more burdened woman reaching out to Christ with uncertain hands.

It was thus no surprise that Our Blessed Lord rewarded Veronica with such a cherished gift – his own image.

Physical versions of the Veil of Veronica can be found in many locations, but the oldest and potentially original cloth is locked away in St Peter’s, Rome – though records of this cloth only go back as far of the 12th century. It is displayed each year on the 5th Sunday of Lent, Passion Sunday, as three canons carry the heavy frame out on the balcony above the statue of St. Veronica holding the veil, though unfortunately you still can’t see the actual image, just its heavy frame.

Like St Philomena and St Winefride, Veronica rests outside the conventional, male-nuanced narratives of the Church and points to a distinctly feminine path to an acknowledgement of truth that is so necessarily a prerequisite to forgiveness and reconciliation.

The passage towards truth and the recognition of sins in the modern Catholic Church has been both slow and painful, though we are finally beginning to see the first ripples of reparation. Through shifts in some areas of theology we have also begun to explore and question our own limitations in terms of forgiveness, and our lack of openness in welcoming many of those afflicted by inner turmoil and injustices.

Most recently, the groundbreaking Loudfence initiative has begun to open meaningful pathways to healing and reconciliation for survivors of all forms of abuse, and Bishop Peter Brignall of Wrexham has drawn on the story of St Winefride to make her Shrine at Holwell a place of reflection and reconciliation for “those who have suffered similarly in their own lives in the 21st century.”

“Drawing on the great tradition of healing in Holywell … that those who in our own time, and particularly women who have been domestically or sexually abused or suffered violence of any sort, and who are inevitably traumatised by this, may find at Holywell a consolation, a hope, some comfort, some reconciliation – and even that they are healed,” said Bishop Peter.

When one looks at the very similar historical narratives relating to the physical intimidation and violence towards both Winefride and Philomena, their life stories come down the centuries like a scream that far too few were listening to. This makes their resonance in the modern age all the more profound and apposite, so it’s entirely right and proper that the life and martyrdom of these two very special saints should be reassessed and reinterpreted.

As for the third of our ‘outsider’ female saints, I’m drawn back to Brangwyn’s many portrayals of Veronica as an older woman clearly worn down by the troubles of the world, but who has been transformed and restored to life by history and her devotion to Christ. Curiously this very same idea was seemed to be in the mind of great Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins when he penned The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo – (Maidens’ song from St. Winefred’s Well), one of the few surviving fragments from an epic play he was writing about St Winefride and Holywell shrine, a place that Hopkins visited frequently. The poem is a conversation that takes place between a woman who visits Holywell, and encounters a divine voice from within the water reminding her that while mortal life and its burdens can weigh us down, we can find peace if we look to greater things.

So too it is with the story of Veronica. We really know absolutely nothing of her circumstances, and frankly that’s how it should be. Sadly, her burdens and grief are hers alone to bear and reconcile but – in encountering the face of Jesus and through her one instinctive act kindness for another who is suffering the wounds of men – she finds her both her peace and her reward, becoming one of the key figures of the Passion story – and one of our most beloved of saints.

Wishing you all a very happy and Holy Easter.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian.