Theosophical Acheiropoieta

Massimo Introvigne “Painting the Masters in Britain: From Schmiechen to Scott” in Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford (eds) The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947 Routledge, London, 2017: 206-226. For details of the book, see:

Occult Imagination

“The Victorian and post-Victorian British occult milieu was fascinated by occult hierarchies and mysterious adepts. Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), co-founder and leader of the Theosophical Society, brought from America the notion of the Masters. They were evolved adepts of immense knowledge, whose mission was to guide humanity and, more particularly, the Theosophical Society. Quite early in the movement’s history, Blavatsky conceived the idea of asking painters to portray the Masters as they really were, either by having the painter’s hand physically guided by a Master, or by impressing in the artist’s mind the image of the High Adepts through several different, clairvoyant means. Other portraits were miraculously produced without the intervention of human hands…..”

Master 1

“During the Byzantine iconoclastic riots, an apocryphal document claimed that a Church Council of 836 produced a list of “acheiropoieta”, i.e. paintings of Jesus, the Virgin or saints “not produced by human hands” that even the iconoclasts should respect.  “Acheiropoieta” appeared in many religious traditions in difficult times, including in the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, and in Hindu temples during the tragic partition between India and Pakistan.

We can consider the Theosophical portraits of the Masters as modern esoteric acheiropoieta. They are acheiropoieta, as they appeared in times especially difficult for the Theosophical Society and, according to Theosophists, were not “really” produced by human hands. They were, however, modern acheiropoieta: unlike the old acheiropoieta, which were invariably anonymous, in their Theosophical counterparts, the artist’s name and credentials reinforced the authority of the painting, a notion that first appeared in the fourteenth century in Italy but was utterly foreign to the early Middle Ages.

Finally, the Theosophical acheiropoieta were esoteric: Theosophists were reluctant to show them to the general public and the identity they wanted to reinforce was primarily that of the initiates.

Master 2

To this date, the portraits of the Masters remain sacred objects rather than simple works of art. Although some of the painters involved, including Schmiechen – and Roerich, if one wants to include him – were respected as artists well beyond Theosophical circles, they were regarded by Theosophists as instruments of the Masters. And the portraits were never used for purely decorative ends.”

From: Massimo Introvigne “Painting the Masters in Britain: From Schmiechen to Scott” in Christine Ferguson and Andrew Radford (eds) The Occult Imagination in Britain, 1875-1947 Routledge, London, 2017: 206-226.

“Acheiropoieta (Medieval Greek: ἀχειροποίητα, “made without hand”; singular acheiropoieton) — also called Icons Made Without Hands (and variants) — are Christian icons which are said to have come into existence miraculously, not created by a human. Invariably these are images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. The most notable examples that are credited by tradition among the faithful are, in the Eastern church the Mandylion, also known as the Image of Edessa, and the Hodegetria (depending on the version of their origin stories followed—in many versions both are painted by human painters of Jesus or Mary while alive), and several Russian icons, and in the West the Shroud of Turin, Veil of Veronica, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Manoppello Image.


The term is also used of icons that are only regarded as normal human copies of a miraculously created original archetype.

Although the most famous acheiropoieta today are mostly icons in paint on wood panel, they have been in several other types of technique, such as mosaics, painted tile, and cloth. Ernst Kitzinger distinguished two types: “Either they are images believed to have been made by hands other than those of ordinary mortals or else they are claimed to be mechanical, though miraculous, impressions of the original”.  The belief in such images becomes prominent only in the 6th century, by the end of which both the Mandylion and the Image of Camuliana were well known. The pilgrim Antoninus of Piacenza was shown a relic of the Veil of Veronica type in Memphis, Egypt in the 570s…

Such images functioned as powerful relics as well as icons, and their images were naturally seen as especially authoritative as to the true appearance of the subject. Like other icon types believed to be painted from the live subject, such as the Hodegetria (thought to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist), they therefore acted as important references for other images in the tradition. They therefore were copied on an enormous scale, and the belief that such images existed, and authenticated certain facial types, played an important role in the conservatism of iconographic traditions such as the Depiction of Jesus.  Beside, and conflated with, the developed legend of the Image of Edessa, was the tale of the Veil of Veronica, whose name was wrongly interpreted in a typical case of popular etymology to mean “true icon” or “true image”, the fear of a “false image” remaining strong.”


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