WEEPING ICONS — IT'S A CRYING SHAME
(Investigator 147, 2012
years there have been many media reports of statues and images
— usually of the Virgin Mary — that bleed, weep tears or exude oil. The
most recent example at the time of writing (September 2004) occurred in
The Vietnamese Community Church, in the Queensland suburb of Inala,
witnessing these events many of the faithful come to believe they
have seen a miracle — a supernatural manifestation wrought by the hand
purpose of this essay is to inquire as to the probability
of this conclusion being true.
the possibility of miracles (in my opinion) can't be ruled out
completely, I would like my readers to consider the following advice
from David Hume, an eighteenth century philosopher: "A wise man
proportions his belief to the evidence."
By this he
meant that in order to maximize our chances of arriving at a
correct conclusion we must examine the evidence, assess probabilities
and base our deductions on reason and experience. Using these criteria
Hume considered the following explanations for alleged miracles more
probable than supernatural causes:
fraud, possibly committed to strengthen faith.
Some people may
ask why bother to investigate — what harm can there be
in believing in miracles? There are two basic reasons:
Error and credulity
caused by a strong desire to believe.
accretions — the account changed with the telling.
question of intellectual integrity — the truth matters. I for one would
rather know an unpleasant fact than believe a comforting delusion.
belief in miracles can make people vulnerable to exploitation
— believers may donate large sums of money better spent on their
family's needs to a church where miracles are alleged to have occurred.
Alternatively, supernatural cures may come to be attributed to the
icon, and belief in its healing powers may delay some from seeking
proper medical attention. A skeptical attitude helps protect people
from these and other pitfalls.
a statue be made to weep?
possible method is to take a
hollow statue made of porous material (plaster or ceramic) that has
been either glazed or coated with an impermeable paint, and very
carefully scrape away the glaze from a small area on or around the eyes
liquid such as oil is injected into the statue via a concealed
hole, the porous body will absorb the fluid, which will ooze out as
tear-like drops only at the eyes where the glazing has been removed.
version of the hoax appears to have been used in the Inala
incident. As part of the investigation commissioned by Archbishop John
Bathersby of Brisbane, the statue was x-rayed, and the oil and a red
substance (alleged to be blood) were analyzed using gas chromatography
and mass spectroscopy to determine their chemical composition. Dr
Adrian Farrelly, a retired professor of chemistry and head of the
inquiry, arrived at the following conclusions based on the test
That the rose-scented oil was similar to ones commercially
available, and human hands probably applied it.
In September 1996
Joe Nickell investigated a weeping photographic print
of the Virgin Mary displayed in a Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto's
East York district, and exposed another method of deceiving the
— simply put non-drying oil, such as olive oil, on the eyes of the
image and allow it to run down the cheeks. This oil can stay fresh for
days, weeks and even months. Under the right lighting conditions,
flickering candlelight for example, the oil may look as if it's
flowing. In addition, the illusion can be heightened by the power of
suggestion and expectation in an emotionally charged atmosphere.
That the red substance was not blood.
That two small holes had been drilled through the statue into
which liquids could have been injected.
icon in Quebec was also exposed as a hoax in 1985. When the
statue was subjected to scientific tests, the investigators found that
the blood on it had been mixed with pig fat, so that when the room in
which it was displayed was warmed by the congregation's body heat, the
mixture liquefied and ran like tears.
often attempt to counter these criticisms by pointing out
that no one has been caught applying any of these substances to the
statue, and therefore the phenomena must be genuine. This defense,
however, is inadequate — if a magician has never been caught with the
rabbit already hidden in his hat, should we believe that he employs
occult powers to make it appear?
defense offered is the alleged miracle cures obtained from
using the statue's tears, an example of which is the statue of St
Philomena originally housed in a Sterling Heights gift shop (USA) whose
exudations are claimed to cure illness. Cures alleged to be miraculous,
however, may have entirely natural explanations.
diseases, even serious ones such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, are
of a cyclical nature — there will be occasions when the illness will go
into remission of its own accord.
our bodies have the ability
to self-heal, so even if no efficacious medicine is taken the
individual may recover anyway.
thirdly, there is the placebo effect
where a treatment with no therapeutic value can have a dramatic effect
on the patient solely because the patient believes the treatment to be
University Professor Colin Blakemore relates a fascinating
story about the power of the mind over cancer. The story is about a
patient back in the 1950s who was suffering from terminal cancer. As
treatment, the man was receiving a drug called Krebiozen. Remarkably,
he responded well to this treatment and underwent an amazing remission.
Not much later, reports appeared saying Krebiozen was useless in the
fight against cancer, that it had no therapeutic effect whatsoever.
Suddenly the man relapsed into serious illness. In a desperate attempt
to rectify the situation his doctor gave him distilled water, telling
him it was a very pure form of Krebiozen, known to be effective. Once
again the man made a remarkable recovery. However, two months later a
particularly scathing report on Krebiozen was released. The man died
within a few days." (G. Phillips: Secrets of Science, page 12)
Of course this is not to
say that the man would have made a complete
recovery had he not read any of the damning reports. However, it does
illustrate the dramatic effect belief can have on health.
Statues in Antiquity
may be interested to know that contemporary weeping statues
are nothing new — St Augustine in his City of God (Chapter II)
relates how the statue of Apollo at Cumae was said to have wept tears,
and that the soothsayers considered this as a sign the god was
bewailing a Roman victory over the Greeks.
the statue of Apollo actually wept remains uncertain, however,
we do know of pious frauds that were designed to deceive and awe the
gullible masses. The Greeks and Romans had temples containing the
following ingenious device whose effects were passed off as a genuine
miracle and sign of divine favor:
was a heavy pedestal, surmounted by the statue of a goddess.
Worshippers would kindle a fire on the altar to pay tribute to the
goddess. Although it was customary to pour wine upon such a sacrificial
fire as a libation to the gods, in this case the worshippers were told
to desist. Then, after a breathless wait, the statue itself poured the
libation from a vase held in its extended hands." (W. Gibson: Secrets
of the Great Magicians, page 18.)
The pouring of the
libation was accomplished by natural, rather than
supernatural means: A hollow airtight cavity was concealed within the
pedestal, which was separated by a thin metallic partition from the
fire bowl above it. Beneath this cavity was a wine-filled reservoir
connected to the statue's vase by a hidden pipe.
flames began to heat the air in the cavity the air expanded
and, at the height of the fire, generated sufficient pressure to force
the wine from the reservoir up through the pipe and out of the mouth of
slight digression shows that human nature hasn't changed all that
greatly over the centuries — there still exist those who seek to
deceive, and others whose faith makes them vulnerable to religious
Possible or Impossible?
prove a negative — we can't prove that miracles are
impossible. The only thing that can be done is to try and assess the
probability that they do occur.
statues cry? In human beings tears are produced by the eyes'
lacrimal apparatus, which includes the main and accessory lacrimal
glands and the nasolacrimal drainage ducts. Obviously, statues, being
inorganic non-living objects, can't possess these glands. How, then,
could they possibly cry without fraud or delusion being involved?
How do the
tears materialize out of thin air or stone? No one can
explain this supernaturally, all believers can do is say that the will
of God becomes manifest in the world. This, however, is not an
explanation; it is an assumption, unproven.
It is no
use merely saying that it (the weeping statue) is a miracle,
for this explains nothing. Rather, I think it is merely an admission of
our lack of understanding when confronted by the strange, the
mysterious, and the unknown. Like the credulous pagans of old, when our
minds can't conceive of a natural explanation, there is the temptation
to assume that the answer must lie in a realm beyond nature. Indeed,
when faced with unaccountable phenomena, the human mind seems
predisposed to posit supernatural/paranormal causes.
assessing the probability that weeping icons are manifestations of
the supernatural, reason suggests we apply Occam's razor — the least
speculative theory that best fits the known facts is the one most
likely to be true.
On the one
hand we have the supernatural assumption with its unknown
mechanisms, mysterious motives of its assumed causative agencies, and
lack of evidence that supports the existence of these agencies. On the
other hand we know that fraud, motivated by religious fervor, monetary
gain, and a desire for fame have occurred, as well as the techniques
used to perpetrate these deceptions.
addition it is also clear that people can deceive themselves; they
can misapprehend events and construe the mundane as miraculous,
especially when there is a desire to believe.
known facts it is my conclusion that weeping icons and related
manifestations are more likely to be delusions and/or hoaxes than a
manifestation of the Divine.
Church Artifacts With
Miraculous Powers: Weeping and Bleeding Statues
City of God (Chapter II)
Faith or Deception?
How to Get Blood from a
Miracles and Faith Healing
— a Sceptical Perspective
The Joe Nickell Files:
Weeping Statue of St
Gibson, Walter Secrets of
the Great Magicians, William Collins Sons
& Co. London, 1967.
Phillips, Graham Secrets of
Science, ABC Books, Sydney, 1993.
On this website we
examine the evidence!