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Home : Skeptical Inquirer magazine : November 2004 : Buy back issue


Investigative Files

Rorschach Icons

Joe Nickell

People arrive in droves to view them: holy images that appear—many believe miraculously—in the most unlikely places. They include the figure of the Virgin Mary formed by a stain on a store’s bathroom floor, the face of Jesus in a giant forkful of spaghetti illustrated on a billboard, and the likeness of Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun served in a coffee shop (Nickell 1997, 1998).


Such images are frequently reported. If the depictions are of religious figures, they are sometimes popularly termed “apparitions” or “religious visions” (e.g., Virgin Mary 2003). However, they are quite different from the internalized viewings by “visionaries” which typically are unseen by ordinary folk. Rather, they are more or less visible to everyone, representing simply the ink-blot or picture-in-the-clouds effect: the mind’s tendency to “recognize” pictures in random patterns.

This tendency is known as pareidolia, a neurological/psychological phenomenon by which the brain interprets vague images as specific ones. These are known as simulacra (DeAngelis 1999; Novella 2001). Often the discerned image is a face because—as Carl Sagan (1995, 47) explained, “As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired to our brains.” As Sagan observed (1995, 46):

The most common image is the Man in the Moon. Of course, it doesn’t really look like a man. Its features are lopsided, warped, drooping. There’s a beefsteak or something over the left eye. And what expression does the mouth convey? An “O” of surprise? A hint of sadness, even lamentation? Doleful recognition of the traits of life on Earth? Certainly the face is too round. The ears are missing. I guess he’s bald on top. Nevertheless, every time I look at it, I see a human face.

Other secular simulacra include the “Face on Mars” (see Morrison 1988), as well as various shapes—a camel, butterfly, and a portrait of comedian Bob Hope—in a woman’s potato chip collection (Nickell 1998, 137). One famous granite formation, New Hampshire’s the Old Man of the Mountains profile, was a 700-ton, 1,200-foot-high simulacrum until it collapsed into rubble (Laughlin 2003).

Of course, simulacra can be faked. For example, suspect, crudely artistic images appeared repeatedly on the floor of a peasant woman’s home in Belmez de la Moraleda, Spain, in 1972 (Nickell 1998, 39). A large Christ portrait—looking amateurishly airbrushed, complete with a neat, oval-ringed halo— supposedly formed “miraculously” in 2000 on the wall of Palma Sola Presbyterian Church in Bradenton, Florida (Christ 2000). It appeared after workers used pressurized jets of water to clean the bricks. Deliberate simulacra hoaxing, however, seems rare.

Pious Imagination

Not surprisingly, a great number of reported simulacra are religious. For example, a Moslem girl in England reportedly found an Arabic message, “There is only one God” in the seed pattern of a sliced tomato (Message 1997).

Religious simulacra are perhaps most often associated with Catholic or Orthodox tradition, wherein there is a special emphasis on icons and other holy images. (Historically, what were perceived as excesses of image veneration were felt to represent idolatry, a violation of the commandment against graven images. Such objections led to the iconoclastic crisis in the Byzantine empire, 724–843 a.d., and were among the issues of the Protestant Reformation.) (Eliade 1995; Nickell 1997)

Today, theologians and clerics are usually quick to dismiss such images, one priest wisely attributing them to “pious imagination” (Nickell 1998, 34). However, they remain intensely popular among the superstitious faithful, and another priest, while warning against image worship, says more hopefully that simulacra created by nature “can provide us with a mirror into the transcendence of something larger than ourselves” (Cox 2001).

Images of Mary are especially prevalent, appearing in a splotch of tree fungus in Los Angeles, a fence post in Sydney, Australia, a tree stump and a refrigerator door in New Jersey, a mottled rust stain on a water heater in Arizona, a bedroom wall in Nova Scotia, the bark of an elm tree in Texas, and so on—as shown by clippings in my bulging “simulacra” file (e.g., Virgin Mary 2003). One of my favorites is the form of the Virgin of Guadalupe in spilled ice cream (Stack 2000).

Images of Jesus are also frequently perceived—for example, in the foliage of a vine-covered tree in West Virginia, in rust stains on a 40-foot-high soybean oil tank in Ohio, a grimy window in an Italian village, and in the discoloration of a San Antonio living-room ceiling, among numerous such examples. In 1995, television viewers saw the face of Jesus in a photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, showing stars being born in a gas cloud some six trillion miles long (Nickell 1997, 5). A Sacred-Heart figure of Jesus (as well as an Easter bunny) is outlined in the woodgrain pattern of my office door.

St. Bartholomew’s

Religious simulacra have been sighted since at least the third century a.d. (Rogo 1982, 113). In 1932, one “suddenly appeared” on a wall inside St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan (Hauck 1996).

Figure 1. In the sanctuary of St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan, a figure of Jesus emerging from his tomb has been divined in the patterned marble.

Actually it was suddenly discerned. The rector of the Episcopal church, the Reverend Dr. Robert Norwood, had just concluded a Lenten sermon, titled “The Mystery of Incarnation.” As he stated:

. . . I happened to glance at the sanctuary wall and was amazed to see this lovely figure of Christ in the marble. I had never noticed it before. As it seemed to me to be an actual expression on the face of the marble of what I was preaching, “His Glorious Body,” I consider it a curious and beautiful happening. (Calkins 1982)

The figure was described as about one and a half feet tall, delineated in the variegations of the sepia marble directly above the door of the sanctuary. Armed with Rev. Norwood’s description, colleague Austin Dacey and I visited St. Bart’s in search of the image. Few there had heard of it except Becca Earley, who trains the church’s tour guides. She did not know the exact location, but over the years had discovered multiple simulacra—various faces and figures—in the sanctuary’s expanse of marble. She termed it “one enormous slab of Rorschachs” (Earley 2003).

Using the published description, we quickly found the image which—to the imagination—could seem to be that of a white-robed figure emerging from a tomb (figure 1). Seemingly unaware of the simulacra phenomenon, Rev. Norwood had told The New York Times (February 24, 1932): “How this Christ-like figure came to be there, of course, I don’t know. It is an illusion that grows before the vision. Has thought the power of life? People can scoff but the figure is there.”

Holy Tortilla

A classic of the simulacra genre was reported in 1978 at Lake Arthur, New Mexico. While Mrs. Maria Rubio was making burritos, she noticed the pattern of skillet burns on the tortilla. “It is Jesus Christ!” exclaimed the pious woman, and other family members agreed. After a priest reluctantly blessed the tortilla, she built a shrine for it, and thousands flocked from across the United States to witness the purported miracle and pray for divine assistance in curing ailments (Nickell 1998, 37).

In 1993, I appeared with Mrs. Rubio’s daughter (among others) on an Oprah program about miracles. The audience did not seem to take the young woman seriously and later she sat in the show’s green room looking, I thought, somewhat dejected. She brightened when I showed interest in her photos and invited me to visit her mother’s shrine.

A decade later, with colleague Vaughn Rees I did. The supposedly sacred object is displayed in a small outbuilding in Mrs. Rubio’s back yard. Alas, it is at best a former miracle, the image no longer being recognizable.

The Clearwater Virgin

Among the simulacra to get widespread and repeated media attention was one that appeared in late 1996 on the glass façade of a finance building in Clearwater, Florida. Composed of flowing lines that suggested the veiled head and shoulders of a faceless woman, the image was believed by the faithful to depict the Virgin Mary. It was curiously iridescent, its “rainbow colors” adding to the effect (Cox 2001).

Although never sanctioned by the local diocese, the image drew an estimated one million visitors over the next several years. The building was purchased by Shepherds of Christ Ministries—an Ohio-based Catholic revivalism group—and dubbed the Virgin Mary Building (Cox 2001). On March 1, 2004, the three uppermost panes of the window were discovered to have been broken by a vandal.1 Shortly thereafter (on March 20), while in the area to give a talk, I was able to visit the site with Dr. Gary Posner. He had investigated and tracked the Clearwater “miracle” claims and written a definitive article about them (Posner 1997).

A local chemist, Charles Roberts, had examined the window and drew on his forty years of experience in analyzing glass. He explained that the iridescent stain had been produced by water deposits combined with weathering, yielding a chemical reaction like that often seen on old bottles. “The culprit seems to be the sprinkler,” Roberts concluded (Norton 1996; Posner 1997).

Indeed, as I walked around the glass-faced building with Dr. Posner and another local skeptic, astronomy professor Jack H. Robinson, we could see that there were other iridescent flow patterns on windows, each at a sprinkler location. One, on the west wall, had been dubbed the “Buddha” (Posner 1997).

The Milton Madonna

In June 2003, thousands of pilgrims and sightseers were drawn to a hospital at Milton, Massachusetts, where an image appeared on a second-floor window. Most people envisioned it as Mary cradling the infant Jesus, but some thought she was standing among clouds while others saw her astride a globe or atop a mountain (Virgin vision 2003).

Figure 2. A "Madonna" appearing on the window of a hospital at Milton, Massachusetts, in June 2003 drew some 25,000 faithful in a single weekend. (Photos by Joe Nickell)

I briefly commented on the phenomenon on CNN (July 13). Before appearing on Boston television, and later on BBC radio (together with a church spokesman), I traveled to Milton to conduct an on-site investigation. I interviewed a hospital information officer (Schepici 2003), took photographs (figure 2), and talked with various pilgrims. I had seen no need to disguise my identity and indeed was soon recognized by one of the Catholic evangelicals with whom I discussed the phenomenon.

Various claims and rumors about the “Milton Madonna” were untrue. The discoloration did not suddenly appear; rather, it began five years earlier when the seal of the double-paned window broke, allowing moisture from the brickwork to mix with a moisture-absorbing sealant. (The window is behind a permanent partition and so could not be reached from the inside.) Nor was this the only such discolored window on the premises; one on the end of the building, bearing a cloudy shape some saw as a “fetus,” had earlier been replaced. A rumor that the replacement window cracked (as if in divine protest) was untrue. So was the notion—spread by anti-abortion zealots—that the “Madonna” image appeared in order to warn the hospital not to perform abortions; the facility actually lacks even an obstetrics unit (Heuer 2003; Schepici 2003).

Nevertheless, after an estimated 25,000 persons visited the site the first weekend, hospital officials issued a statement noting, “. . . a substantial safety issue has arisen that jeopardizes the ability of the Hospital to do its charitable work, to treat the sick and infirm” (Milton 2003). When devotees refused to heed the hospital’s request to limit viewing between 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., officials responded by covering the window with a tarp and only removing it during that period (Redd 2003). Subsequently, a “cross” was discovered on the hospital’s chimney, and other images were divined in nearby tree foliage.

Soon, however, attendance began to diminish, and a spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, concluded that the phenomenon was neither a mystery nor a miracle (Heuer 2003). Indeed, that is true for all simulacra.

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