One of the most recognizable and deeply felt trompe-l'oeil images in the canon of European art, Zurbarán's masterpiece exists in a dozen autograph versions (including the present painting), workshop replicas and numerous later copies. The artist conceived of Veronica's Veil as a subject for meditation, and an object of veneration, and painted versions of it for the private devotions of pious collectors throughout his career. Only two versions are signed and dated: the earliest, in a private collection (sold, Christie's London, 17 December 1999, lot 5), is dated 1631; the other, in the Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, was made almost three decades later and is dated 1658.
The apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus relates how, as Christ made his final journey to Calvary, Veronica came from her house and gave him her veil to wipe his face (in Latin sudarium, or 'sweat cloth'), whereupon the image of his features was miraculously imprinted upon it. From the tenth century an antique image of the Veil on cloth was the object of worship in the Church of San Silvestro, Rome (now kept in the Basilica of Saint Peter). The image of Veronica began to appear frequently in paintings by the 14th century, and the Veil, associated with the instruments of Christ's Passion, figured in pictures of the Mass of Saint Gregory, often represented fixed to the wall above the altar with two nails. Veronica, whose name translates from Greek as 'true icon', has been depicted as holding out the sudarium for Christ; sometimes two angels hold up the holy cloth or, as here, it is just the pinned up veil with the imprint of Christ's face which is represented, providing the unadorned object of veneration for Christian meditation and devotion.
Maria Luisa Caturla has described Zurbarán's various versions of Veronica's Veil as 'trompe-l'oeil on a divine theme', in which, against a stark, black background, 'the tactile values of a white cloth stand out boldly, the cloth being caught up in complicated folds, as if to frame the Divine Face' (M.L. Caturla, 'La Santa Faz de Zurbarán trompe l'oeil a lo divino,' Goya, nos. 64-65, 1965, p. 202). As in Zurbarán's numerous variations of the Crucifixion, the blackness of the background is a foil for either the white silhouette of the crucified body of Christ, or as here, the sudarium, thus accentuating the sculptural effect that was one of the artist's aims, and a principal attraction of these paintings. As Claudie Ressort has observed, 'Zurbarán always maintained his taste for full, simple and monumental forms, a desire to express the inner life of objects and the beauty of texture, as well as an ability to integrate powerful contours and sculptural forms into a simple geometric format. It is for these qualities that his art profoundly moves modern sensibilities.'
According to Odile Delenda, the present painting is one of five early autograph versions of the subject from c. 1630-1635, a group which also includes the previously mentioned canvas dated 1631 (perhaps the prototype), a version in the Blaffer Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and another in the Inglesia Parroquial de San Pedro, Hermanandad Sacremental. In the present lot, as in most of the various versions, Delenda recognizes Zurbarán's hand, but believes the artist was assisted by members of his workshop. Among the seven later versions of the subject also accepted by Delenda as having been executed principally by Zurbarán, are paintings in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (dated to c. 1635-1640); the Museo de Bellas Artes de Asturias, Oviedo; Valladolid (1658); and the Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao (around 1658-1660).