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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Modern acheiropoieta : the Veil of Veronica in the age of the Jacquard loom Woolley, Heather Lauren


The removal of the human hand from the creation of images was a concomitant feature of industrial modernity. In the first years of the nineteenth century, textile production entered this new phase with the invention of the Jacquard loom. The proliferation of the Jacquard technique was virtually synonymous with technological innovation and the acceleration of industrial capitalism; and yet, this quintessentially modern development was echoed—somewhat paradoxically—by the multiplication of a consummately premodern textile image, also generated without a craftsperson’s labor. The Veil of Veronica, a Christian relic bearing a miraculous image of Christ’s face, became a focus of popular devotion in France through the revival of the medieval cult of the Holy Face. The Veronica relic is one of the Christian acheiropoieta, meaning “not made by human hand.” Engravings depicting the relic were printed on cloth and circulated throughout France, where they were believed to strengthen the Catholic Church, particularly in its confrontations with communism. The disavowal of human mediation therefore took two very different, though similarly mobilizing, forms in the 1800s. The foundational premise of this thesis is that there are registers of similarity, interaction, and negation between the premodern miraculous and modern mechanical paradigms. These operative and tectonic connections are the ground against which the actual historical interactions between the religious and industrial spheres in nineteenth-century France must be understood. My objective is to examine how the reemergence of the cult of the Veil of Veronica and its material culture operated within this particular historical moment to mediate the relations with communism and capitalism, and ultimately to reinforce the power of the Catholic Church. While the Church and industrial capitalism similarly negated human handiwork to engender and normalize their power, communism challenged the strategies of abstraction and mystification inherent in both systems. What is ultimately at stake in this analysis is a more nuanced understanding of the critical issues of the nineteenth century: the interplay between materiality and abstraction, mediation and immediacy, and copies and models—problems that vexed the economic, social, political, and artistic spheres of industrial modernity.

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