August 16 – The Image Not Made by Hands; Roch of Montpellier

The Image Not Made by Hands came about in this wise. Back when our Lord was preaching in Jerusalem and Galilee and places even less reputable, there was a king in Edessa named Abgar with a leprosy problem (he had a low ABGAR score). He learned about the miracles Jesus was doing, believed in him, and sent him a letter asking for a healing visit. In case it was too hard to read, he sent along his favorite portrait artist to hand deliver it, and maybe whip up a canvas of the Savior while he was there.

Ananias (for that was the name of the artist in question) found himself at the edge of an impenetrable crowd, and his attempt to paint a portrait of Christ from afar was unsuccessful (although it was a fairly decent likeness of a tiny face-like dot in a sea of tiny head-like dots). Jesus saw Ananias with his easel and paintbox (or first century equivalents), and immediately called for a bucket and a face flannel. “He’s washing his face at me,” thought Ananias, confused. But when the cloth was removed from our Lord’s face, Lo! his image was indelibly (not to mention inexplicably) imprinted on the cloth! This was given to Ananias along with a letter to Abgar praising his faith and pronouncing his leprosy healed (which it was).

The Holy Napkin (the word “washcloth” is of fairly recent vintage) (don’t even ask about “face flannel”) was held in great reverence in Edessa for some time—with a gilt frame and everything—but when one of Abgar’s descendants fell into idolatry, the bishop received a dreamogram telling him to wall it up for safekeeping, which he did (along with its lampada, still burning). Hundreds of years later, when the Persians were at the gate, the Holy Theotokos appeared to the bishop again (well, it was a new bishop) and told him to unbrick the wall in such-and-such a spot. He did, and found the still-burning lampada, and behind it the image. It was carried in procession around the walls, and the Persians made an early withdrawal (suffering a substantial penalty). In the tenth century, the Napkin was moved from Edessa to Constantinople, and it is this “translation” of the image that we celebrate today.

Roch of Montpellier (1295–1327) (aka Roc, Rock, etc.) was a French nobleman, but everything else about him was admirable. He was born with an image of a red cross on his breast, which is presumably why he developed a special heart for the sick (I don’t get it either). He came into his inheritance (read: lost his parents) (read: they died) at twenty, upon which he gave everything to the poor and took off for the life of a pilgrim beggar (or “mendicant” as the old folks say, and doesn’t that sound so much nicer than “beggar”?[1]). He pilgrimed down to Rome, and finding it beplagued with plague, ceased his pilgriming and began ministering to the victims. He healed many by making the sign of the cross over them, but finally came down with the disease himself.

Fearing to infect anybody else, he wandered off to die, but he was found in the forest by a dog with no name. The dog brought him scraps from his master’s table and licked his wounds, and after an indeterminate number of days thus spent, Roch recovered his health. Thanking the dog, he wandered back to Montpellier, where he was immediately arrested (on orders of his own uncle, who later said he didn’t recognize him) as a spy, and sent to prison. There he languished for five years, being fed by an angel (the dog couldn’t get through the security gate), and there he died.

Although he is not the patron saint of Montpellier (I could not discover who was), Roch is the patron saint of bachelors, dogs, and tile makers[2].


[1] Them old folks ain’t so dumb.
[2] Seemingly-random patronages always leave one with the feeling that there is more story than we’re being told.