According to various apocryphal sources, a young woman named Veronica encountered Christ as he carried the cross to Calvary, and gave him a cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. The cloth subsequently revealed a miraculous image of Christ's face, and, according to legend, was transported by Veronica to Rome where it was revered as an object with the power to heal and even raise the dead. Like the Mandylion, the Byzantine version of this subject, the Veil of Veronica, also known as the Sudarium, is an example of Acheiropoieta: images not made by hand but miraculously created. Because such images of Christ were formed when a piece of fabric was pressed against him, they became doubly significant as both miraculous portraits and the rarest of relics: those bearing traces of the Redeemer's physical body. The story of Veronica's veil appeared early on in the writings of Roger d'Argenteuil in the 13th century and became widespread through the Meditations on the Life of Christ by the so-called Pseudo-Bonaventure, written about 1300.
Datable to circa 1354, the present panel is a mature work by Paolo Veneziano, the most important Venetian painter of the 14th century. In its original carved and gilded circular frame, the image of Veronica's veil is inscribed within a quatrefoil. The blue and red striped cloth on which the Redeemer's image appears is set against the gold leaf background, projecting his visage forward as a hypnotic and powerful presence. According to Fiocco, an inscription on the verso, now no longer legible, indicated that this picture was carried back from Constantinople by a sea captain. Although Paolo Veneziano is not known to have traveled to the East, his awareness of Byzantine art is here seen in Christ's rigid frontality, long hair, furrowed brow, and the solemnity of his gaze. Like many of his Venetian contemporaries, Paolo Veneziano took inspiration from the shimmering colors, decorative brilliance, and deliberately archaizing iconography of Byzantine painting.
The present work was first published by Fiocco as a work of the Sienese school. Although Coletti and Pedrocco ascribed it to 'a son of Paolo' and by a follower of Paolo, respectively, Pallucchini, Berenson, Muraro, and Pope-Hennessy, among others, have all given it in full to the master. Everett Fahy has also confirmed the attribution to Paolo Veneziano based on firsthand inspection. The Veil of Saint Veronica can be compared stylistically to Paolo's polyptych of the Relic of the Cross at the church of San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna, datable to about 1350, as well as to his Campana polyptych in the Louvre, Paris, dated 1534 (inv. MI 396). Muraro has suggested that this slightly later date is more likely (Muraro, op. cit., p. 113). Scholars have also agreed that the roundel has been cut from a larger complex. It is possible that the Veil of Saint Veronica was originally part of an altar front or tympanum, and thus would have been an important object of veneration during the ceremony of Mass.
The picture was acquired in 1950 by Sir John Pope-Hennessy (1913-1994), among the most eminent scholars of Italian art of his generation and Chairman of the European Paintings Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.