Who was John of Damascus and what is a himation?
John of Damascus (John Damascene) (A.D. 676 - 749), was a priest and monk who served as an advisor to the Muslim Caliph of Damascus. From the relative safety of the Caliph’s court, he was able to criticize the emperor Leo III and iconoclasm. In 730, he wrote Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images. This was the same year that the pope in Rome excommunicated Leo.
Though it wasn’t the main thrust of his work, the Edessa Image was mentioned. He retells the legend of Abgar. Abgar, he tells us, sent envoys to Christ to obtain his likeness, a painting if possible. Christ, who is “all knowing and all powerful" took a himation and pressed it to his face so that his likeness might be impressed onto the cloth.
The Greek word himation refers to a long rectangular cloth worn as sleeveless garment in ancient Greece and well into the middle Byzantine era. Similar to a toga, but shorter, the himation was often used as a garment in iconographic representation of Christ, saints and biblical figures. This seems to be the first mention, among known documents, of the Image of Edessa being such a large cloth.
We get a sense that the Image of Edessa—or at least that an image of Jesus in Edessa—is large, perhaps the size of a burial cloth. The words tetradiplon and himation are important clues. It will not be until the cloth arrives in Constantinople in 944 that we get a clear indication that it indeed has a full body image.
It won’t be until the advent of modern science that we learn how extraordinary that image of a face and the entire body is or until we discover new evidence that links the Turin shroud to Edessa and even the environs of Jerusalem.