The Legend of King Abgar Ukkāmā: the Syriac Icon that Inspired all Iconography in the East and the West

By Fr. Alberto Meouchi Priest of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch 

The Legend of King Abgar the Black is an ancestral legend initially narrated in two ancient documents which both refer to an Edessan manuscript written in Syriac (Aramaic) containing the letter written by Jesus Christ to King Abgar. It is narrated in the following two documents:

  • The Doctrine of Addai from the third or fourth century. The first testimonies to the doctrine are from the fifth or sixth centuries; and
  • The History of the Church by Eusebius of Caesarea – third to fourth century AD – Ἐκκλησιαστικὴ ἱστορία [HE I, 13; II, 6-7].


King Abgar is a historical figure from the first century. He ruled the Kingdom of Osroene with Edessa as its capital from 4 BC to 7 AD and from 13 AD to 50 AD. He was known by the Syriac nickname Ukkāmā or “The Black”, possibly referring to the skin disease he suffered from.

Christianity is known to have established itself in Edessa towards the end of the second century, but it is difficult to prove that this king was indeed Christian. The Legend of King Abgar Ukkāmā seems more like an attempt to show that both Christianity and the Icon were very old in Edessa (see Guscin, 2003).

The legend deals with a linen cloth depicting the image of Christ. According to this legend, King Abgar V of Edessa, suffering from leprosy and having heard of the miracles performed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, sent Him an embassy to request health accompanied with an invitation to reign his kingdom together with him. King Abgar promised to take care of Him against the threat of the Jews. The grateful Lord Jesus promises to send him one of his 72 disciples (Luke 10: 1), called Addai – or Thaddeus of Edessa – once His mission on earth is over.

Icon of King Abgar Ukkāmā. Maronite Parish of St. Sharbel (Chihuahua, Mexico). Made by Abdo Bawdi, olm. 21st C.

In the meantime, Christ sends him a cloth with the miraculous impression of His face, after drying his face with it. This cloth with the image of Christ shows the face of the Lord before the Passion, i.e. without signs of blood or wounds – the printed cloth during the Passion is that of the “Veil of Veronica”, and the one printed after the Passion, is that of the “Holy Shroud”, both with signs of violence.

According to the Legend of King Abgar, this image was “not made by human hand” (άχειροποίητος [ajeiropoiētoz]), but an “icon made by God” (θεότευχτος εἰκών [theoteujtoz eikōn]). It was folded into four parts (τετραδιπλόν or Tetradiplon) according to the Apocryphal Acts of Thaddeus, a Greek document from the seventh century.

Another name for the Edessan cloth is Mandylion (μανδύλιον), a Greek word that comes from the Syriac word for cloth, handkerchief, towel, shroud, or apron: ܡܰܢܕܺܝܠܴܐ or mandylo. This term Mandylion has been used exclusively to refer to the cloth that depicts the face of Christ.

Mandylion Icon. Vatican Papal Private Chapel, ca. 4th C.

Some authors argue that the religious and political contexts over time in which this legend was told should be taken into account since the demystification of it depends on this diachronic analysis. According to these authors, this legend would seek two objectives (see Cataldo, 2018):

  1. The desire to affirm the apostolic affiliation of the Church of Edessa. This apostolic affiliation and dependence would guarantee orthodoxy and fidelity to the Christian doctrine transmitted directly by the Apostles, and, evidently, it would give authority against other Christian currents of thought;
  2. To have an argument against the Christological heresies that were emerging at the time, such as that of the Bardaisan (154 – 222 AD) – gnostics who denied the resurrection of Christ– or that of the Manicheans – dualists who despised the incarnation and all the corporeal as coming from evil. It is symptomatic that founder Mani (third century), just as Jesus did, also wrote a letter to the city of Edessa, and that Mani’s followers venerated his painted portrait, emulating in this way the legend of King Abgar, to give solidity to his doctrine (see Gonnet, 2005).

At the end of the fourth century, the Hispano-Roman Egeria made a trip to Edessa who recorded it in a manuscript written in vulgar Latin, the Itinerarium Peregrinatio, and speaks of the Letter of Christ to Abgar, which, she claims, she read in the bishopric of Edessa in the year 385.

At the beginning of the fifth century an addition appears in the manuscript Doctrina de Addai (Tixeront, 1888), where a portrait of Christ is noted. The addition says that a certain John (or Hannan) was not only an archivist but also the painter of King Abgar. When he presented to the king the portrait of Christ that he had made with chosen paintings (sic), Abgar was so impressed that he had it placed with great honor in one of the rooms of the palace. It would be, by the expression of “chosen paintings”, of a portrait showing a Christ without wounds, with his eyes open. This addition would try to confirm the dogma of the two natures of Christ, particularly his human nature (see Cataldo, 2018).

However, it seems to be a supported addition to the legend since in this same century Bishop Yacoub of Sarug, in one of his writings, refers that Daniel of Galas (d. 439 AD) went to Edessa in the company of the monk Mar Mari to receive the blessing of the image of Christ that was there (see Assemani, Bibliotheca Orientalis, I, c. XXVII).

At the end of the 6th century, the Syriac historian of Latin imprint Evagrio Scholastica, in his book Ecclesiastical History, is the first to state that the portrait of Christ, the icon of Edessa, was not made by the hand of man but that miracles were done with this image, e.g. the victory in 544 AD of Edessa against King Chosroes I of the Persians. This can be seen as an attempt to guarantee the divine protection given to the city by Christ. A particular event that happened during the battle – with this image – was when the enemy wanted to put out fire with water but the water rekindled the fire with greater force than with any other substance (see Procopius of Caesarea, Persian War II, 12; from the year 552).

Indeed, the icon of Edessa was specifically described as “made by a miracle, and without the artistic intervention of embroiderers or painters” (Teofilacto Simocatta, Historiae II, 3; ca. 628). This was what generated the precedent of considering the icon as a work άχειροποίητος [ajeiropoiētoz], i.e. not made by human hand), but as θεότευχτος εἰκών [theoteujtoz eikōn], an icon made by God.

In the 7th century a document in Greek called the Acts of the Holy Apostle Thaddeus, one of the twelve Apostles, was written in which it is told how the image was made: Abgar sent with Ananias a letter to Christ, and asked him to record with his exact physical appearance, his height, his horse, in other words everything. When Ananias arrived and delivered the letter, he did not take his gaze from Christ to memorize all His appearance, but his memory betrayed him. The Lord Jesus Christ, knowing the inner heart of Ananias, washed his face in front of him and wiped it with a cloth on which his face was immediately imprinted. He gave that cloth to Ananias and told him to take it to Abgar with the following message:

“Peace to you and your city! I have come to suffer for the world, and to rise again, and to raise up all generations. And after having ascended to heaven, I will send you my disciple Thaddeus who will enlighten you and lead you to the truth, both you and your city”;

Having received the cloth that Ananias brought, King Abgar fell to the ground to worship the image and was cured of his illness even before Thaddeus arrived.

Apostle Thaddeus and rex Abgar Icon. St. Catherine monastery (Sinai) Byzantine. Empire, 10th C.

Some translations of this legend are made between the 8th-10th century. One of them is collected in the Codex Vossiamus Latinus Q69 (10th century), in which a variation is introduced to the narrative stating that the cloth that Christ sent to King Abgar contained not only his face imprinted but also his entire body. However, this variation looks very artificial; perhaps its purpose was to defend the Church against iconoclastic attacks (see Cataldo, 2018). Folios 6r and 6v of this tenth century manuscript containing this different version of the correspondence between Jesus Christ and King Abgar read:

“Si vero corporaliter faciem meam cernere desideras hunc tibi directs linteum, in quo non solum faciei mee figuram, sed totius corporis mei cernere poteris statum divinitus transformatum”

“If you want to see my face, I am sending you this cloth, in which you will be able to see not only my face but also my entire body, divinely transformed.” (see Guscin, 2003).

Other places where the Edessan cloth is said to be of full-length are those mentioned by Ordericus Vitales (ca. 1075-ca. 1143) and by Gervase of Tilbury (ca. 1150-ca. 1228).

Despite the fact that the Legend of King Abgar Ukkāmā carries a highly mythological load, the Christianity of Edessa is very old and well founded. This legend influenced the Syriac Maronites to confirm their unshakable faith in the two natures of Christ and in the development of His iconography.

Father Alberto Meouchi is priest of the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch in Chihuahua, Mexico.

Disclaimer: translated from the original Spanish. For the article in Spanish: Here


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How to Cite:

Meouchi, Alberto, «Abgar, Leyenda del», en Diccionario Enciclopedico Maronita. Chihuahua, Mexico: iCharbel.editorial (2019) 121-122. Website: https://www.maronitas.org