A Teachable Moment

During her recent trip to Mexico, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently visited the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and asked who painted it? The rector of the basilica Msgr. Diego Monroy immediately replied: God!

The image of Our Lady first appeared on the tilma or cloak made of coarse fabric belonging to a 16th century Indian peasant, St. Juan Diego. The Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 and instructed him to have the local bishop build a church on the spot where she appeared.

Needless to say, Bishop Zumárraga and the Church authorities didn’t believe the illiterate peasant Juan Diego’s preposterous claims that he met the Virgin Mary and that she wanted a church built on the spot where she appeared. They asked Juan to bring them a sign. Juan Diego returned to the place where he encountered Our Lady, who showed him a spot with white roses impossibly growing in full bloom in the middle of winter. St. Juan Diego carefully gathered up the roses in his tilma to show the Bishop. When he opened the tilma, the skeptical Bishop and Spanish clerics and soldiers dropped to their knees in astonishment and reverence, not upon seeing the roses, but the miraculous image on the tilma. They had their sign.

According to one report, 16 million were converted and baptized over the next four years. Our Lady of Guadalupe completed the work that Cortez and the Church began, and the conversions continue to this day.

According to recent studies, the tilma itself and the luminescent image are both inexplicable by natural means. Made of coarse ayate fibers, these garments typically deteriorate after 20 years, yet St. Juan Diegos tilma is none the worse for wear 480 years later, despite several attempts to destroy it, including a bombing which destroyed much of the church, but left the tilma unscathed.

The image on the tilma is also inexplicable. Richard Kuhn, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, and other scientists have confirmed that the image contains no natural, animal or mineral colorings. Synthetic colors did not exist in 1531. In any event, there are no traces of paint or evidence that the fabric was treated in any way. The image itself is iridescent, changing colors slightly according to the viewing angle, an effect that not even contemporary artists can achieve. The image was not created by human hands.

Most remarkable are the images of Our Lady’s eyes:

Digital technology is giving new leads in understanding a phenomenon that continues to puzzle science: the mysterious eyes of the image of Virgin of Guadalupe.

The image, imprinted on the tilma of a 16th-century peasant, led millions of indigenous Indians in Mexico to convert to the Catholic faith. Last week in Rome, results of research into the famed image were discussed by engineer José Aste Tonsmann of the Mexican Center of Guadalupan Studies during a conference at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum.

For over 20 years, this graduate of environmental systems engineering of Cornell University has studied the image of the Virgin left on the rough maguey fiber fabric of Juan Diego´s tilma. What intrigued Tonsmann the most were the eyes of the Virgin.

Though the dimensions are microscopic, the iris and the pupils of the image´s eyes have imprinted on them a highly detailed picture of at least 13 people, Tonsmann said. The same people are present in both the left and right eyes, in different proportions, as would happen when human eyes reflect the objects before them.

Tonsmann says he believes the reflection transmitted by the eyes of the Virgin of Guadalupe is the scene on Dec. 9, 1531, during which Juan Diego showed his tilma, with the image, to Bishop Juan de Zumárraga and others present in the room.

Dr. Tonsmann, who has a PhD from Cornell University, used computers and high resolution photography to study the face on the tilma in close detail. After filtering and processing the digitized images of the eyes to eliminate “noise” and enhance them, here is the magnified image of the family:
Our Lady of Guadalupe's Eyes

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note what appears to be the figure of a woman carrying a baby on her back in a manner typical of the 16th Century.

When Dr. Tonsmann first published his findings, Protestant skeptics likened the images on the tilma to people claiming to see Jesus or Mary in peanuts, moldy bread and such. They apparently do not realize that the Catholic Church carefull investigates miraculous claims and debunks most of them. The Church does so precisely in order to debunk fraudulent claims and other occurences that can be explained by natural means.

A skeptical mind will never be convinced by signs any more than the Pharisees who asked Jesus for signs immediately after he fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. It is certainly easier to lump all inexplicable phenomena into the same category and dismiss them with the broad brush of contempt and ridicule. But the incredible luminescent painting on Juan Diego’s tilma cannot be replicated with the broad brush and primitive pigments available in 1531 or today.

We are not limited to choosing between blind acceptance of every claim, no matter how farfetched on the one hand, and dogmatic rejection of every claim, no matter how persuasive on the other.

Sherlock Holmes said “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The credulous and the skeptical both theorize before they examine the data. Thus, as Holmes warned, they twist facts to fit their preconceived notions, instead of their notions to fit the facts.

When I hear accounts of bleeding or crying statues, my initial reaction is one of skepticism because they are easily faked, but one should be mindful of the Great Detective’s admonition. People are often credulous and believe all sorts of silly things. One of the silly things some people believe is that all claims of miracles can be explained away.

For me, the truly astonishing part of this story is that Almighty God in the 16th century apparently used this artifact, which should not exist 480 years later, as a sign not only for skeptical 16th Century clerics, but for unbelieving 21st Century scientists as well.

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