While Christ still walked the earth, word about the Word spread far and wide. A certain Syrian king called Abgar came to hear and believe the works performed by Jesus and sent a letter to Him begging His presence in the royal court at Edessa, to cure the king of an illness he had. In some accounts the messanger was also given instructions to draw an image of this famous man, Jesus of Nazereth.
When the messanger got through the crowds thronging Christ and His disciples, the invitation was declined as Jesus had other plans. Yet the Son of God sent the messanger back with two powerfully edifying things: His word and His image.
The word was given in the form of a letter – not written but dictated by Our Lord – and the image was altogether more special. Amid the bustle, Jesus used a face-cloth which miraculously bore the image of His face. This was given to King Abgar’s courtier and, with the letter, was returned to Edessa with the promise that Christ would send one of His disciples soon.
The image of Christ preserved on the face-cloth was thus kept in Edessa, and became known variously as “The Image of Edessa”, the “Mandylion” (Gr. “face-cloth”), or “The Image Not Made With Hands”. As for Christ’s promise, naturally that too was kept, and it was Thaddeus, one of the Seventy Disciples who after the Ascension (and within a year of Ebgar receiving the mandylion) came to explain the true nature and purpose of Jesus Christ to the King. With the salvation-bearing words of the Gospel, King Ebgar was cured, and became the first Christian King in history.
The image of Christ not made with hands had a remarkable history of its own – allegedly protecting the city of Edessa from Persian invasion in 544 A.D. The mandylion was transferred to Constantinople – by then the political centre of Christendom – in the 10th century. After that it was lost in the sacking of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204. Although claims have been made as to its whereabouts since then, it is assumed to have been lost for good.
The “first” icon of Christ does what all future, “man-made”, Orthodox icons of Christ do: attest to the reality of God’s incarnation on earth. Beyond this, the Image of Edessa’s miraculous origins can be seen as a symbol of God’s authority and centrality to all true worship – because after all is said and done, the first iconographer was Jesus Christ Himself.