Great works: The Holy Face (14th century), Anon

Church of St Bartholomew of the Armenians, Genoa

A mask reveals. When a face is partially hidden, it becomes a show. A full and simple disclosure is no disclosure at all. But when something is obscured, it is like a curtained theatre. The burqa, the balaclava, the Venetian masquerade bauta, all these coverings are also forms of openings. The eyes or the mouth are a spectacle.

And this can be any frame, applied to any image, just so long as we feel that something extends further beyond the frame, something out of view, off picture. It's an aperture, a peepshow, a keyhole, a visor. Our sight is in some way blocked, and therefore what we can see is particularly focused.

Or that's one effect of a frame. But it can perform a different function. It can be seen as a surrounding container. It is like a rim, an encasement, a mount, a setting for a jewel. And now the object doesn't spread outside the limits of the frame, partly glimpsed and partly masked. It is held entirely within the edges of its close embrace. It's an image outlined and shaped by its stencil. It is enclosed and moulded.

So there are these opposing framing effects. One is an aperture. One is an enclosure. One is viewed through; the other is held tight. Each one has its distinct power. One is a mysterious revelation, something lurking behind the frame. And one is a defining template, something grasped within the frame. Both effects can work together.

Look at the Holy Face of Genoa. It is already a magical image, of course. It is known as a "Mandylion", a hand towel, believed to carry the face of Jesus. It is one of those pictures called "acheiropoieton": miraculously not made by human hands. But it's not in fact a "Veronica", where Jesus's likeness was printed in his sweat on a cloth, which St Veronica pressed on to his face, as he was carrying his cross to his crucifixion. This Holy Face is derived from an even less authentic legend (if that's possible), though if the legend were true, it would get even closer to Jesus's body.

For this is an image made of and by Jesus himself. The pious story tells that Abgar, King of Edessa (Urfa, in modern Turkey) sent a message to Jesus, asking to be cured by letter. By return of post, Jesus went one better. "The saviour then washed his face in water, wiped off the moisture that was left on the towel that was given to him, and in some divine and inexpressible manner had his own likeness impressed on it." It's a unique self-portrait by God himself.

The actual dating of this cloth, with its compassionate, morose and hypnotic likeness, is unknown. (There are two other versions.) This one was donated to Genoa by a Byzantine Emperor in the 14th century, when it acquired its outer silver-gilt frame with a head-shaped cut-out. It bears 10 embossed scenes, telling the story around the edge of its rectangle. It is a protective armour for this vulnerable cloth. It is an adornment of this precious icon.

But there is more than that in the frame, and also more in the magical look of this transfixing face. Or rather, there is a crucial relationship between this frame and this face, and their twofold power. Both an aperture and an enclosure are at work.

The Holy Face is masked. It is peeping and peering out of a world that is behind and beyond this keyhole. Its gaze focuses our gaze, its eyes are the centre of our attention, and the rest of it fades out into darkness and into the unknown. We can't tell what more of it there may be, but this face is looking at us from an unseen realm.

Equally, the Holy Face is stencilled. It is made into a defined and compact entity. Far from being an unformed face, it can be seen as a visibly stamped contour. This head, with its low brow, and its three curled points of hair and beard, and nothing else, no neck or shoulders, becomes a strange and self-sufficient thing. It resembles some kind of polyp or jellyfish. It is floating within this frame.

So there are two ways in which Jesus's presence is framed. One way, it is almost a pure gaze, looming, lurking, appearing out of nowhere. The other way, it's a face that is sharply shaped, a tangible object, but shaped like a living creature, held and encased within a hard carapace. Two realities: a look; a body.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?