The Music of a 17th-Century Line

The Hammer Museum’s small exhibition “Imitation of Christ,” curated by artist-filmmaker William E. Jones, is showing this 1649 engraving by Claude Mellan, The Sudarium of Saint Veronica. Christ’s face is rendered as a single spiral line of varying width.

The print’s Ripley’s Believe-It-or-Not quality has kept it popular through the centuries. Impressions were pulled for many years after Mellan’s death, and this one image overshadows everything else the painter-printmaker did. The Sudarium continues to inspire artists today. In 2007 Swedish artist-composer Leif Elggren managed to record the sound of “playing” the engraving like an LP. Explains the liner notes of the Sudarium of St. Veronica CD:

“The basic sound source for this CD is the copper engraving ‘The Sudarium of St Veronica’, cut by the French artist Claude Mellan (1598-1688) in Paris 1649. A portrait of Christ engraved through a continuous spiral line that starts at the tip of his nose. An old heliogravure (a 19th Century reproduction of one of the original prints) was used to make a photo etching in copper to get a replica as close as possible to the original plate. This plate was played back with a specially constructed record player and recorded at Firework Edition, Stockholm, July 17, 2007.”

Below is the CD cover art, a limited-edition LP, and a photo of Elggren’s studio with the reproduction copper plate on a turntable. Mellan is given equal credit with Elggren on the CD cover, meaning that he is the only 17th-century French printmaker with a mixtape.

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