Weeping Images

Sometimes a statue, painting, or other representation of a human figure will appear to weep real tears, blood, or some other liquid. For example, in 1953 a plaster statue of the Virgin Mary in Syracuse, Italy, “cried” for more than a month, and in 1971 a painting of the Virgin Mary apparently began weeping blood. (Other parts of the painting bled as well.) The owner of the painting, an attorney in Italy, called the police, who removed the painting from his home and put it in a box. The painting continued to bleed in the box. Experts subsequently declared that the blood was genuine and human. In another case, one in which a Virgin Mary statue seemed to shed tears, a subsequent examination of the liquid suggested that it consisted of human teardrops.

The Virgin Mary is the most common image associated with this phenomenon. Many Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, believe that such a phenomenon is a miracle sent from God, and in some cases the tears are thought to have healing powers. The Catholic Church’s leaders, however, often express skepticism when such a case of weeping comes to light. Indeed in the early years of the church, weeping icons were typically associated with paganism, or demonic influence. More recently, church officials have made a practice of largely ignoring claims of such phenomena.

Scientists attribute the apparent weeping to hoaxes or, in the case of statues, to an ordinary by-product of the fact that the statues exhibiting the phenomenon are usually fashioned from a porous material like plaster or ceramic, which can soak up liquids, which happened before they were coated in a thin glaze. When this glaze is scratched, scientists say, liquid can leak or ooze out through the scratch. In fact, the scientist who developed this theory, Italian chemist Luigi Garlaschelli, discovered that one type of Virgin Mary statue common in Europe would easily weep when scratched near the eyes because of the way the area behind the eyes was shaped.

In other cases of weeping, skeptics have suggested that the cause is people who are seeking personal fame or towns that want to encourage tourism since incidents of “miracle weeping” usually draw media attention and large crowds. This was what happened in 1996, for example, after a twelfth-century painting of Jesus on a church pillar in the Palestinian village of Bethlehem began to weep tears of blood. According to witnesses, the tears were profuse and smelled like perfume. As crowds flocked to the church to see the miracle, some local religious leaders proclaimed it a message from God to stop the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in the area. Other religious leaders accused leaders of the church’s membership of creating the “miracle” in order to bring attention and money to their church, although this was not proven.

Some instances of weeping or bleeding images, however, seem very hard to fake. For example, in 1968 a three-hundredyear-old wooden cross in Pôrto Alegre, Brazil, began exuding a red substance that many believed was blood. Numerous people witnessed this, and according to scientists of the time, the tears and blood were real. Similarly, in 1920 in Ireland, thousands of people visited the home of Thomas Dwan, where a sixteen-year-old named James Walsh was staying. Any religious pictures and statues that Walsh owned or that he had been near experienced periods of bleeding, and an indentation in the floor of his room was always full of water no matter how much was removed, yet it never overflowed. No one could find any hidden devices that might account for these phenomena.

Parapsychologists who have studied the Welsh case, however, have suggested that the phenomenon was due to a poltergeist—a mischievous spirit—rather than to a religious miracle. They base this theory on other strange events that were happening around Walsh at the time. In particular, furniture and objects would move great distances, seemingly on their own, whenever Walsh was present, a common feature of poltergeist activity. The mysterious appearance of water is also a common feature of hauntings, poltergeist or otherwise.


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The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning