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from issue no. 09 - 2004

Bernini or not, it’s a masterpiece

«The creator of the marble bust found in Rome is a great artist. His Salvator mundi is inspired more by the Moses of Michelangelo than by the Holy Veil, said to be Veronica’s, which is now venerated in Manopello». Interview with Heinrich Pfeiffer, specialist in Christian iconography

by Pina Baglioni

<I>The face of the Savior</I>, a detail from the apsidal mosaic in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome

The face of the Savior, a detail from the apsidal mosaic in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Rome

«From what I see, I can say that here there is the hand of a very great sculptor. The photograph is a reliable test: it gives an immediate response about the presence or not of artistic quality». Father Heinrich Pfeiffer, lecturer in the History of Christian Art at the Pontifical Gregorian University, has not yet had the possibility of seeing the marble bust of the Salvator mundi close up. It is kept in the Monastery of Saint Sebastian outside the Walls on the Via Appia Antica. He has been able to admire it only in photographs. «Whether it is the hand of Gian Lorenzo Bernini or not, I can only say after I’ve seen the work close up. It is certainly a 17th century masterpiece».
As well as being one of the most authoritative experts on Christian art in the world, Father Pfeiffer has always studied the iconographic canons which have ruled artists in the course of the centuries, in both East and West, when representing the face of Jesus. He wrote L’immagine di Cristo nell’arte (Città nuova, Roma 1986), Das ist Echte Christusbild (Knecht, Frankfurt 1992) and Il volto santo di Manoppello (Carsa, Pescara 2000).
The Jesuit father is also one of the major collaborators of the International Institute of Research on the Face of Christ, founded by Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Health Service Workers.
According to Father Pfeiffer, the model of models, the root of the genealogical tree that has generated all the images of the Lord is the Holy Face kept in the sanctuary of Manoppello in Abruzzo. This consists of a very fine veil set in a glass monstrance, on which a face with a high forehead is imprinted, with hair which falls down to the shoulders, a mustache and a parted beard. The eyes look slightly upwards so as to show the white of the eyeballs below the pupil.
After decades of research on this very delicate veil, Father Pfeiffer has no doubts: «Going from the perfect overlay of the face of the Turin Shroud with the face of Manoppello, one is led to admit that both the image on the veil and that of the Shroud were formed at the same time. That is to say in the three days inside the sepulcher between the burial of Jesus and his resurrection. The veil of Manoppello and the Shroud are the two unique real images of the face of Christ which are called “acheropite”, not created by the hand of man, that is».
The Holy Face of Manoppello is traditionally called the Veronica. Pfeiffer clarifies: «At a certain point the Holy Face of Manoppello began to be called “Veronica”. This began in the wake of the legend about the woman who, during the ascent of Jesus to Calvary, piously wiped his face with a cloth on which his face was supposed to be imprinted. But the two things must not be confused, otherwise we’ll go lose our bearings».
Above, the face of the Shroud of Turin; below, the veil of Manoppello. Father Pfeiffer says: «The veil of Manoppello and the Shroud are the two unique true images of the face of Christ, called “acheropite”,  not created by the hand of man, that is»

Above, the face of the Shroud of Turin; below, the veil of Manoppello. Father Pfeiffer says: «The veil of Manoppello and the Shroud are the two unique true images of the face of Christ, called “acheropite”, not created by the hand of man, that is»

Father Pfeiffer, what does the face of the Salvator mundi kept in Saint Sebastian outside the walls “recount”?
HEINRICH PFEIFFER: I insist in reminding that we are discussing photographic representations: in any case I can say that the brilliant artist of the Salvator mundi did not take the face imprinted on the veil of Manopppello as his model but Michelangelo. He sculpted a face that has obvious traits of Buonarroti art: awesomeness, divinity. The only element that the artist of the bust takes from the Holy Face is the hair, flowing, loose on the shoulders.
What does this mean exactly?
PFEIFFER: Let’s be quite clear: the intention of the artist of the Salvator mundi is definitely that of reproducing the face of Jesus. But this face makes one think more of the Moses of Michelangelo than of Christ. The beard shaped in a certain way, for example, even if done in totally different fashion. Mediocre artists imitate the details. The great ones imitate the spirit. The creator of the Salvator mundi is truly great. Because he succeeded in gathering something of the prophetic spirit of Michelangelo.
What does the face of Christ imprinted on the veil of Manoppello have that the face of the Salvator mundi doesn’t have?
PFEIFFER: The Holy Face of Manoppello has an innocent expression. It’s all contemplation. The Salvator mundi is too thoughtful, it possesses a human power as a sign of the divine; whereas the Holy Face reveals Christ innocent. An innocence which in less cultivated artists becomes something saccharine, it becomes “earthbound harmonious”.
What do you think of the other two busts of the Salvator mundi which, alternately, in the past, were considered original works of Bernini?
PFEIFFER: They’re copies. The one in Sées is superior to that in Norfolk. But the one in Rome is incomparably superior in technique and beauty to the other two. The American statue might even in fact be a fake: too close to 20th century taste. One can see it in the folds of the mantle wrapping the shoulders of the Savior: More than folds they look like holes.
Professor Lavin claims that in creating the Salvator mundi the great artist was inspired by the image of the Savior in the apse of the Basilica of Saint John and by the icon of the Holy Face in the Sancta Sanctorum at the Holy Stairs, in the Lateran. What do you think?
PFEIFFER: It’s possible. The ancient apsidal mosaic representing the Savior, made at the time of Constantine the Great, endured up to the pontificate of Leo XIII. At the end of the nineteenth century it was knocked down to make place for what we see today. It is therefore possible that Gian Lorenzo Bernini was inspired by that work.
As regards the Holy Face of the Sancta Sanctorum, what Bernini might have seen is an image that aimed to imitate something much more ancient, which however was no longer there. That something was nothing less than the Holy Face now at Manoppello, which came to Rome from Constantinople, probably around 705. It’s plausible that the relic remained hidden in the Sancta Sanctorum from the pontificate of Gregory II throughout all of the period of the iconoclast troubles. When, little by little, the Byzantine emperors lost their power and their influence on Italy, the Holy Face could have been taken from the Sancta Sanctorum to a chapel in Saint Peter’s Basilica. In place of the Holy Face, by then removed to the Vatican, an icon representing the Savior was set up in the Sancta Sanctorum, and so the same one we see today. It was Innocent III who promoted the cult and veneration of the veil of the Holy Face and that was the occasion in which the veil was for the first time called “Veronica”, that is a true icon of Christ. The title Holy Face remained, however, to the image of the Sancta Sanctorum.
Then there are a series of historical facts and iconographical data which, according to me, explain how the holy veil reached Manoppello in the Abruzzo from Rome. But this is another long story.

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