of the 'comforting veil'
(Schweisstuch) from the Easter-oratory of J.S. Bach (BWV 249)
[written around Easter 2002 for the bach-cantata
with many thanks to the contributing members]> it was a bold
interpretation, which I now partly retract/revoke.].
If you are in a hurry, this is the summary conclusion: the comforting and
healing power ascribed in ancient tradition to Veronica's veil is transferred to
a biblical parallel: seeing the veil in Jesus' grave. As such the veil is
a sign of Christ's resurrection, the ultimate source of salvation.
- At the end I added a
video (embedded from youtube) - Here is a link to the text of the
aria juxtaposed with the original text from the secular pastoral cantata (which is a straightforward shepherd's
lullaby for his sheep)
I have to start with a confession: I
am not particularly fond of BWV 249 as a whole. But there is one exception (and
that 's a full compensation) aria Mvt. 7 always touches me. I heard several
versions of it but am still an advocate of the first version I ever heard:
Herreweghe with his beautiful sound:
How well do the violins and recorders blend,
what a un-earthly atmosphere he creates and then Mark Padmore
(a little tense, you can see it on the video, you can hear
but that's good, it gives the performance that little
'extra') begins to sing: What music can do!
NB on the Herreweghe CD Mark Padmore is replaced by James
Taylor, don't know why. (TVrecording 1994/5 ? BRTN) The first time I
hadn't the faintest idea what he was singing about. I heard the words but could
not make a whole sentence of it, let alone make sense of it. But the message was
clear (in musical language) and reached me: deeply felt joy, comfort in and
against death and suffering. While the music continues streaming, this comfort
is poured out over the listener like the ointment over
Jesus' feet. This is Bach at his best. [the fact that the original text was
about 'sheep', a pastoral first shocked me, but later reminded me of psalm 23.
So]. Later on I started to listen more carefully at the text (the videotape was
not subtitled, so I had to reconstruct it by myself) and I remember that even
when I was pretty sure that I had every word, I still was not able to make much
sense of it. The things I understood were: Jesus 'Schweisstuch' is crucial. It
is mentioned in the account of St. John. The recitativo (nr. 6) ends with
pointing to this 'Schweisstuch'.
But how the
'Schweisstuch' could spread so much joy and comfort to Peter [but at that time I
didn't know it was Peter, I thought it was 'the Christian believer in general'
(which of course also is true)]. And how on earth -or better in heaven - did he
get the idea of wiping off his tears with that 'Schweisstuch'.
How did the 'Schweisstuch' of death become a
Some free associations
(= the bulk of my 2002 contribution) link it with another very famous
'Schweisstuch', namely Veronica's. It seems
important. In English
Veronica's napkin is referred to
German and Dutch there is no problem: Schweisstuch/zweetdoek is used both for
the 'piece of cloth' lying apart of the other linen clothes in Jesus' grave AND
for the 'piece of cloth' Veronica is said to have given to Jesus at the via
to wipe of his face.The Greek word used in John 20: 7 is
‘soudarion’, which is the Latin word: sudarium, which is the French word
Veronica's veil in Latin also is called 'sudarium'. I think that the linguistic
chaos now is complete, because the French word 'suaire' is also used for
the shroud of Turin... This linguistic chaos reflects the chaos
around the pseudo-historical adventures of both Veronica's veil and Jesus'
shroud. Art-historians, esp. the realm of painting, have a hard job here!
association be of importance? Because by
linking the 'veil' of the grave with
the 'veil' of Veronica together to one 'veil' a whole history of healing and
comforting power of a 'veil' becomes apparent. In the legend of Veronica [6th
stage of the 'Way of the Cross'] and her 'veil' already two legends are blended
into one story.
1. In the [apocryphal] Acta Pilati
there is a anonymous woman who offers the suffering Jesus a cloth to wipe of
his face... later she gets a name: Veronica. 2. In another legend
King Abgar of
is cured from an illness because he looked at Jesus' portrait, which was
send to him - on request - by Jesus himself (painted by Abgar’s court
painter 'to life' (with Jesus as a model) yes legends dare to tread where
The last story had many local
variants... In the end every self-respecting Christian city had its own portrait
of Jesus because of the illness of a king. In one version even Tiberius plays
the part of the ill king. It is this version that ended up in the Legenda
Aurea of Jac. de Voragine, the medieval source book of legends. In the
Middle Ages (full of specialists in blending stories!) both the woman and the
veil are called Veronica... Perhaps because Veronica can be read as
vera-eikoon, the true image. In the 6th century the 'eikonoi
acheiropoieta' (the images of Christ, not made by man) appear > the famous
face of Jesus of the orthodox paintings. Jesus' face on a piece of cloth or a
real portrait, sometimes with, sometimes without the marks of his suffering
became a widespread object of veneration.
At the 6th Stage of the Way of
the Cross Veronica's gentleness was remembered. But more important for our
subject: Veronica (and her veil) became the comforter of suffering people. She was called upon
in pain and agony:DIE ZÄHREN MEINER PEIN,
TODESKUMMER. Her 'veil' (sudarium) became one of the 'arma
Christi', with which Christ healed and saved his people. It is often
depicted together with the crown of thorns, the nails, the wips etc... They were
considered powerful in itself, because they could be linked immediately to
Christ in his suffering. My hypothesis-
in 2002 - is that in the Lutheran tradition at
Bach's times (at least in the mind of the scenarist of the Oster-Oratorium)
there still was a living tradition which had on the one side banned out the
'superstitio' around the 'arma Christi' as objects, but at the same time had
transferred the contents of that faith and devotion to the 'verbal' images of
the same. [I hope my English is clear enough to make you understand my point].
The same procedure can be seen in the devotion of the cross. F.i. the famous
song: O haupt voll Blut und Wunden is the Protestant transcription of the
medieval devotion of the 'wounds of Jesus'. The 12th century Latin hymn "Salve,
mundi salutare" (last part: Salve caput cruentatum)
and Gerhard'ts poem can be easily compared. Exaggerating, but perhaps
there is something in it: In the RC tradition the
devotion for the crucified Lord materialised in the Lutheran tradition it
verbalised. Both traditions join hands in hymns (where body and
mind meet, emotion and contemplation).
Conclusion 2002: the comforting and healing power of Veronica's veil is
transferred to a biblical parallel: the seeing of the veil in Jesus' grave. 2019 addition: A more direct meaning, derived from contemporary
sermons and exegesis: The linen (incl. the veil, the head-kerchief) in the tomb
are signs that Christ is 'not there', but is risen. His resurrection is our
salvation. Proleptically our resurrection is told in the story of Lazarus,
leaving his tomb... with the veil still around his head. And in the Apocalyps we
hear about God who 'will wipe off' all our tears...
Enjoy life at Easter!
Nick Kaufmanadded a usefull remark about
Jewish burial customs: The customs are observed much
as they were in Christ's time up until this day with burial in Jerusalem taking
place (by law) on the very same day as death (due to the sanctity of the Holy
City). Ritual purification (anointment) and the wrapping of the deceased in a
number of white shrouds occurs before burial. For an interesting explanation of
the ritual - the following site might be useful:
//jhom.com/topics/color/shrouds.htm. It would appear therefore that
the "Schweisstuch" is more likely to be the separate white hood which is placed
over the deceased's head prior to being buried.