The Transfer of the Icon of our Lord Jesus Christ Not-Made-by-Hands from Edessa to Constantinople occurred in the year 944. Eusebius, in his History of the Church (I:13), relates that when the Savior was preaching, Abgar was the ruler of Edessa. He was stricken with leprosy all over his body. Reports of the great miracles performed by the Lord spread throughout Syria (Mt.4:24) and even reached Abgar. Without having seen the Savior, Abgar believed in Him as the Son of God. He wrote a letter requesting Him to come and heal him. He sent his own portrait painter Ananias to Palestine with this letter, and commissioned him to paint a likeness of the Divine Teacher.
Ananias arrived in Jerusalem and saw the Lord surrounded by many people. He was not able to get close to Him because of the large crowd which had gathered to hear the Savior. Then he stood on a high rock and tried to paint Christ's portrait from afar, but this attempt did not succeed. Then the Savior saw him, called him by name, and gave him a short letter for Abgar in which He praised the ruler's faith. He also promised to send His disciple to heal him of his leprosy and guide him to salvation.
Then the Lord asked for some water and a cloth to be brought to Him. After washing His Face, He dried it with the cloth, and His Divine countenence was imprinted upon it. Ananias brought the cloth and the Savior's letter to Edessa. Reverently, Abgar pressed the holy object to his face and received partial healing. Only a small trace of the terrible affliction remained until the arrival of the disciple promised by the Lord. This was Saint Thaddeus, an Apostle of the Seventy (August 21), who preached the Gospel and baptized Abgar and all the people of Edessa. Abgar attached the Holy Napkin to a board and placed it in a gold frame adorned with pearls. Then he placed it in a niche above the city gates. On the gateway over the Icon he inscribed the words, “O Christ God, let no one who hopes on Thee be put to shame.”
For many years the inhabitants had the pious custom of bowing down before the Icon whenever they went forth from the gates. Later, one of Abgar's great-grandsons, who ruled Edessa, fell into idolatry, and decided to remove the Icon from the city wall and to replace it with an idol. In a vision the Lord ordered the Bishop of Edessa to hide His Icon. The bishop came by night with his clergy, lit a lampada before the Icon, and placed a ceramic tile in front of the Icon to protect it, and then he sealed the niche with bricks.
As time passed, the people forgot about the Icon. But in the year 545, when the Persian emperor Chozroes I besieged Edessa and the city's position seemed hopeless, the Most Holy Theotokos appeared to Bishop Eulabios and ordered him to remove the Icon from the sealed niche, saying that it would save the city from the enemy. When he opened the niche, the bishop found the Holy Mandylion, and the lampada was still burning before the Icon, and an exact copy was produced upon the tile protecting the Icon.
The Persians lit a huge fire outside the city walls. Bishop Eulabios carried the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands around the city walls, and a violent wind turned the flames back on the Persians. The defeated Persian army retreated from the city.
In his Church History, the sixth century writer Evagrios Scholastikos refers to the Holy Mandylion (or Napkin) as The Icon made by God (Η θεοτεύκος εἰκών).
In the year 630 Arabs seized Edessa, but they did not hinder the veneration of the Holy Napkin, the fame of which had spread throughout the entire East. In the year 944, the emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos (912-959) wanted to transfer the Icon to Constantinople, so he paid a ransom to the emir of the city for it. With great reverence the Icon of the Savior Not-Made-by-Hands and the letter which He had written to Abgar, were brought to Constantinople by clergy.
On August 16, the icon of the Savior was placed in the Pharos church of the Most Holy Theotokos. There are several traditions concerning what happened later to the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands. According to one, Crusaders stole it during occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261), but the ship on which the sacred object was taken, perished in the waters of the Sea of Marmora.
According to another tradition, the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands was transported to Genoa in 1362, where it is preserved in a monastery dedicated to the Apostle Bartholomew. It is known that the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands repeatedly produced exact copies of itself. One of these, named “On the tile,” was made when Ananias hid the Icon in the wall on his way to Edessa. Another, imprinted on a cloak, wound up in Georgia. Possibly, the various traditions about the original Icon Is explained by the existence of several exact copies.
During the time of the Iconoclast heresy, the defenders of the holy icons, who shed their blood for them, sang the Troparion to the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands. In proof of the validity of venerating icons, Pope Gregory II (715-731) sent a letter to the Byzantine Enperor, in which he mentioned Abgar's healing, and the sojourn of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands at Edessa as a commonly known fact.
The Icon Not-Made-by-Hands was put on the standards of the Russian army, in order to protect them from the enemy. In the Russian Orthodox Church it is a pious custom for a believer to read the Troparion for the Icon of the Savior Not-Made-by-Hands when entering the temple, together with other prayers.
According to the Prologue, there are four known Icons of the Savior Not-Made-by-Hands:
- Abgar's original Icon at Edessa (August 16).
- The one at Kamuliana (Καμουλιανά), which is mentioned by Saint Gregory of Nyssa (January 10).
- According to Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (July 14), the Kamuliana Icon appeared in the year 392, but it resembled an icon of the Mother of God (August 9).
- During the reign of Emperor Tiberius (578-582), Saint Mary Synklitike (August 11) was healed by the Icon on the tile (August 16).
The Feast of the Transfer of the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands is observed along with the Afterfeast of the Dormition. The commemoration of the third Icon Not-Made-by-Hands mentioned above is called the “The Savior on Linen Cloth.”
The particular reverence for this Feast in the Russian Orthodox Church is also expressed in iconography, and the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands was one of the most widely distributed.