The story of Saint Veronica is recounted in various apocryphal sources, which tell of the young woman who encountered Christ as he carried the cross to Calvary and kindly gave him a cloth to wipe the sweat from his brow. Miraculously, this cloth subsequently revealed an image of Christ's face and was transported by Veronica to Rome, where it was revered as an object with the power to heal and even raise the dead. 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.
In the 15th-century Netherlands, painters seized on the pictorial challenges the idea of Acheiropoieta afforded, embracing subjects which demanded that the artist mask his presence entirely. The most popular such subject became known as the Vera Icon or Holy Face, often painted on a small scale for private devotion and intended to inspire meditation through visual identification with Christ's likeness. These images depict Christ – head and shoulders – staring out with unflinching directness at the viewer, often against a dark background embellished with gilt foliate designs. Meant to seem as if made “without hands”, these works were painted to create the illusion that Christ's face had actually appeared before the worshipper – a miracle in and of itself.
The most famous painted example of the Holy Face from this period is a lost work by Jan van Eyck, which is known from copies dating from 1438. The physiognomy of Van Eyck's Christ was probably derived from a description in Ludolph of Saxony's 14th-century Life of Christ, which describes the Redeemer as having a part in the middle of his hazelnut-colored hair, “according to the fashion of the Nazareans”, and a full beard forked at the chin (M. Ainsworth, From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 286).
Van Eyck's painting also served as the model for other variations on the Acheiropoieta theme, including the present work by the anonymous artist known as the Master of Saint Ursula. In this striking image, the artist has depicted the irises of Christ's eyes and wispy curls of his hair with scientific precision. The whites of his eyes are tinged with blue as if to suggest the sorrow welling up behind the steely boldness of Christ's visage, and the shadows surrounding his features are faithfully depicted to suggest the three-dimensionality of a head cast into relief by light falling from the upper left. The angels who carry the Veil to the viewer's attention are exquisitely painted too, their blue robes delicately gradated to reflect the same light source and their shimmering, multi-colored wings hovering against the gilt and oil-glazed background.
Active in Bruges in the last quarter of the 15th century, the Master of Saint Ursula was so named by Max J. Friedländer after an altarpiece showing scenes from the Life of Saint Ursula now in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges. A number of portraits, altarpieces and smaller devotional works attributable to this distinctive hand also survive, including a Holy Face in the Wendland Collection, Lugano, and a depiction of Saint Veronica holding the Sudarium, now in the Countess Durrieu Collection in Paris. Another version of the present work, also given by Friedländer to the Master of Saint Ursula, is in the Pinacoteca Manfrediana, Venice (see M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, VIa, pt. 1, Leyden, 1971, p. 61, no. 132, pl. 146).