Francisco de Zurbarán’s Veil of Veronica at the MFAH

Posted on August 18, 2019

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Francisco de Zurbarán, Veil of Veronica, c. 1630s. Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

The wall label next to Francisco de Zurbarán’s (1598-1664) Veil of Veronica, c. 1630s, in the Sarah Campbell Blaffer galleries of The Museum of Fine Arts Houston reminds viewers of the image’s iconography: “According to an early medieval legend, a pious woman named Veronica wiped the sweat from Christ’s face on the way to Calvary, and the image of his face was miraculously left on the cloth.” If this account of the story is straightforward enough, Zurbarán’s painting of the veil complicates matters considerably. Part of the complication is in the painting’s seeming juxtaposition of two painterly languages. While the veil itself is depicted with all the verisimilitude that the painter could muster through his trompe-l’oeil technique, Christ’s face, by comparison, appears at first glance to be merely sketched in. There’s a tension in the highly finished treatment of the cloth versus the apparent sketchiness of the face—a tension that calls for some sort of resolution.

Resolution comes with the recognition of the subtle game that Zurbarán has played in this image; rather than paint Christ’s face onto his veil, he has painted a drawing of Christ’s face. Once the image of Christ’s face is recognized for what it is—the painting of a drawing—its status as a bit of trompe-l’oeil verisimilitude comes to light. The vividness with which the painter treats both painted cloth and painted drawing are now in accord. Yet something unusual about the image remains. Why would a sketch-like portrait of Christ end up in place of the ostensible wiped or printed impression of the Veronica legend?

read the full essay as originally published on Painter’s Table

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