The ‘new’ idolatry

The ‘new’ idolatry

Joe Nickell

For a live, prime-time television program, I was asked to evaluate claims that a statue in Sacramento streamed tears of blood. The case prompted me to take a retrospective look at a wide variety of related phenomena, ranging from weeping icons to perambulating statues, many of which I personally investigated over the years.


Belief that an effigy is in some way animated (from anima, “breath”) not only challenges science’s natural-world view, but it also crosses a theological line. It moves from veneration (reverence toward an image) to idolatry (or image worship) in which the image is regarded as the “tenement or vehicle of the god and fraught with divine influence” (Idolatry 1960).

Religious prohibitions of idolatry are ancient. In the Old Testament, the second commandment is an injunction against “graven images,” but only those that were to be adored or served (Exodus 20: 4-5); others were explicitly allowed (Exodus 25:18). Influenced by Islam and Judaism, a movement of iconoclasts (Greek “image-breakers”) from about 723-842 sought to carry out the injunction, destroying countless religious works and persecuting those who made and venerated them. In the ninth century, iconoclasm was declared a heresy.

Images proliferated, being widely used for ornamental, instructional, and devotional purposes. In the Orthodox Church image veneration largely focused on icons (wood panels painted in the Byzantine tradition) and was generally more elaborate than the veneration in Roman Catholicism, which tended to favor statues (Images 1993).

A new iconoclasm arose during tile Protestant Reformation in sixteenth-century Europe. Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin listed image worship among the Church’s excesses.

Ironically, Catholic bibles (unlike Protestant ones) contain an extra, fourteenth chapter of Daniel that condemns idolatry with a story. It involves the Babylonian idol of Bel (or Baal) which consumed vast quantities of food and wine–or so it seemed. The apparent miracle won over King Cyrus to worship of the idol. However, Daniel sifted ashes on the floor of the sealed temple and so recorded the footprints of the priests and their families who used “secret doors” to enter and devour the offerings.

As Daniel had reasoned to the king, the idol consisted only of brass-covered clay and “never ate or drank anything.” Neither, he might have added by way of extrapolation, do statues move, weep, bleed, or otherwise become animated. Or was Daniel wrong?

Animated Statues

In September 1995, reminiscent of the Idol of Bel, statues of Lord Ganesh and other Indian deities throughout the Hindu world began to sip spoonfuls of milk offered to them. Some observers did notice milk pooling at the bottoms of the statues, but they could not explain how it was getting there.

The secret was discovered by government scientists who offered a statue milk mixed with red dye and noted that, while the liquid disappeared from the spoon, it coated the statue due to surface tension. (This is the same principle that causes two drops of liquid that are brought together to form a single drop.) The spoon being naturally tilted a bit, the milk was imperceptibly drawn over the wet (ritually washed) idol. (I was able to study the phenomenon when Indian skeptic Vikas Gora visited my paranormal-investigation lab in May 2001. He had witnessed the original “miracle” and taught me how to make statues and figurines seem to drink.) (Nickell 2001, 312-315)

In contrast to this singular Hindu case, Roman Catholicism yielded several modern instances of allegedly animated statues. In 1981, for example, in a church at Thornton, California, a sculpted Virgin Mary not only altered the angle of her eyes and the tilt of her chin, churchgoers reported, but also wept and even strolled about the church at night. Although no one ever actually witnessed the latter, the statue was frequently found several feet from its usual location, standing at the altar.

A bishop’s investigation, however, failed to support the miracle claims. Investigating clerics determined that the purported movement of the statue’s eyes and chin were merely due to variations in photographic angles. Worse, they branded the weeping and perambulations a probable hoax. For their efforts, the investigators were denounced by some believers, even being called “a bunch of devils” (Nickell 1998, 67).

In 1985 came reports that a figure of the Virgin in a grotto at Ballinspittle, Ireland, began to sway gently. Thousands of pilgrims, eager to witness the phenomenon flocked to the village to view the statue, which was adorned with a halo of blue lights.

It remained for a group of scientists from University College, Cork, to discover the truth about the statue. They, too, saw the figure sway, yet a motion-picture camera revealed that no such movement had occurred. They soon determined that the effect was an illusion. According to the science magazine Discover (Those 1985, 19):

It is induced when people rock gently

back and forth while looking at the

statue. At dusk, when the sky is grey

and landmarks are obscured, the eye

has no point of reference except the

halo of blue lights. Therefore, say the

scientists, the eye is unable to detect

the fact that one’s head and body are

unconsciously moving. The viewer

who sways is likely to get the impression

that not he but the statue is


Other phenomena were reported in Pennsylvania in 1989. The case began on Good Friday at the Holy Trinity Church in Ambridge, a quiet Ohio River mill town fifteen miles northwest of Pittsburgh. During the service a luminous, life-sized crucifixion figure of Christ reportedly closed its eyes. At first, no one claimed to have seen the eyelids actually moving, only that the eyes had been about one-third open when the statue was relocated in January, and that during the special three-hour prayer meeting the eyes were observed to be shut. However, the pastor of the church was soon reporting additional claims: “At times the eyes seem to be opening and a little later seem to close again.”

Soon, an investigation was launched by the Diocese, with a commission appointed to examine the evidence and report on the astonishing phenomena. After careful study of the before-and-after videotapes, the commission found “no convincing evidence” that the statue closed its eyes during the Good Friday service. When close-up views of the face from each videotape showed the eyes in a similar, partially open position, the commission rejected claims that a miracle had occurred. Commission members stated that they felt the witnesses were sincere but could have been deceived by the church’s lighting and by the angles of viewing. In the wake of the commission’s report, the pastor was barred from celebrating Mass, and he responded by resigning (Nickell 1998, 65-66).

But if that statue’s eyes did not close, what about another’s that allegedly opened? They belonged to a “sleeping” figure of Jesus that a Hoboken, New Jersey, street “preacher” had once rescued from a garbage bin. He claimed in July 2005 that while he was cleaning the figurine it opened its right eye. Stories soon spread of the statue “blinking” its right eye, turning its head, and performing other unverifiable feats.

Actually the statue’s eyes were never closed. I studied high-resolution photos of the figure and determined that it had glass eyes and that portions of its upper and lower right eyelids had been broken of L the explanation for the opening-eye effect (Nickell 2005).

Yet other statues–a pair representing Jesus and Mary on a church’s bell tower in Campbell, Ohio–had eyes that “glowed.” Their halos and Sacred Hearts glowed too, parishioners claimed in 2003. Soon thousands of pilgrims and curiosity seekers had flocked to the site.

I was one of them. However, I soon determined that the statues were not glowing at all. Gold leaf on the areas in question was merely shining, due to sunlight during the day and other sources (e.g., street and security lights) at night. Using a flashlight, I demonstrated that the gilded areas were merely reflecting light, not transmitting it. Other statues on the grounds–all lacking gold leaf–failed to shine. The local priest and a monsignor of the diocese had reached the same conclusion, but one parishioner told me, “I prefer not to believe that” (Nickell 2003, 6).

Other statue animations have been reported, including chameleonesque effects. For example, the previously mentioned 1989 eye-closing statue at Ambridge, Pennsylvania, also reportedly changed color–from vivid tones on Good Friday to dull ones after. However, these were attributed to the lighting and to pious imagination.

Similar explanations applied to a thirty-inch figure of Mary in a church at Patterson, New Jersey, that reportedly changed color in 1992. One witness saw the base of the statue turn a “dark, dark pink,” while another said the figure once “turned the brightest blue.” The statue was actually white with pink and blue tones, and the effect appeared to correlate with the emotive force of the believers. Not surprisingly, therefore, many people were unable to witness the color change and went away disappointed (Nickell 1998, 66-67).

Still other statues were supposedly even more remarkably alive: they were said to have heartbeats! The statues were at a Marian apparition site in Conyers, Georgia. Asked by an Atlanta television station to investigate the claims (and others), I found that there were no heartbeats detectable by stethoscope (figure 1). In fact, people were reaching up to feel the throbbings and were instead either feeling the pulse in their own thumbs or once again suffering the effects of pious imagination (Nickell 1996).


Exuding Effigies

Not only statues but icons and other images may seemingly become animated. (Icons are common in Orthodox churches.) According to D. Scott Rogo, in his Miracles. A Parascientific Inquiry into Wondrous Phenomena (1982, 161):

Cases of religious statues, paintings,

icons, and other effigies that suddenly

begin to bleed or weep have been documented

throughout history. Before

Rome was sacked in 1527, for

instance, a statue of Christ housed in

a local monastery wept for several

days. When the city of Syracuse in

Sicily lay trader Spanish siege in

1719, a marble statue of St. Lucy in

the city cried continually.

Similar manifestations have been increasingly reported in modern times. Interestingly, Syracuse was the site of another “weeping” statue in 1953. It was reported that tile liquid was consistent with real tears, although doubts were raised about the scientific competency and impartiality of the investigators. The woman who owned the original statue had received it as a wedding gift in March, and it began to weep in her presence in late August, the culmination of several weeks of upheaval in her household. She was pregnant, and for several weeks had been suffering “seizures,” fainting spells, and attacks of blindness. Local doctors were unable to diagnose her condition, and she may have been seeking attention. The case was followed by an epidemic of similar manifestations across Roman Catholic Italy. Rogo (1982, 178) remarked that they were “no doubt spawned by wide press coverage of the Syracuse miracle.”

Two other Italian cases arc especially instructive, lit one that took place in Pavia in 1980, no one witnessed the initial weeping, and soon, the woman who owned the plaster bas-relief was caught surreptitiously applying “tears” with a water pistol! In 1995 an epidemic of crying effigies followed one that began weeping in Sardinia. However, tests on the blood were clinically analyzed and the DNA was shown to be that of the statue’s owner. Her attorney explained, “Well, the Virgin Mary had to get that blood from somewhere” (Nickell 1997a).

Another instructive case transpired in 1985 when a statue of the Virgin began first weeping then bleeding in the home of a Quebec railroad worker. Soon the phenomenon spread to other nearby icons, statues, and crucifixes. Thousands of pilgrims waited in the brutal winter cold to view the “miracle”–as many as 12,000 in a single week. The local bishop went largely ignored as he implied the affair was a false miracle. Then, suddenly, the Associated Press reported that the affair was “all a hoax–not even a very clever hoax.” Newsmen from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had been permitted to borrow an icon and had it examined. The blood had been mixed with animal fat so that, when the room warmed from the body heat of pilgrims, the substance would liquefy and flow realistically. The owner confessed he had used his own blood to produce the effects (Nickell 1998, 58).

There are not always such definitive results. An icon I investigated in Astoria, Queens, New York, May 11, 1991, was no longer weeping and my stereomicroscopic examination showed little. However, a videotape of the earlier weeping revealed that the “tear” rivulets flowed from outside the eyes and were greatly disproportionate to the diminutive size of the saint’s face, observations that suggested a rather crude hoax (Nickell 1998, 54).

Later, the priest who had presided over the Astoria church when it was visited by the weeping phenomenon was presiding over a Toronto church with an icon that had also begun to weep. I was called in on the case twice: first by the Toronto Sun newspaper and later by attorneys for the parent church. It turned out that the priest had previously been defrocked and excommunicated for working in a brothel in Athens!

With a fraud-squad detective standing by, I took samples of the oily “tears” for analysis by the Ontario Center of Forensic Sciences. The substance proved to be a nondrying oil, as I had thought it to be on inspection; its use is an effective trick, since one application remains flesh-looking indefinitely. Because no one could prove how the oil got on the icon, the legal case went nowhere, but the church’s North American head pronounced it a hoax (Nickell 1997b).

An interesting feature of the exuding icons is the variety of substances involved, together with some apparent trends. In Catholicism the images tended to yield watery tears or blood, until relatively recently when–seeming to tap the Greek Orthodox tradition which has received media attention–there has been an occasional shift to oil. And in the Russian Orthodox tradition, the icons tend to exude myrrh (a fragrant resin) or myrrh-scented oil–as in a case I investigated in Moscow. The “myrrhing” involved an icon of the assassinated Czar Nicholas II and occurred at a time when there was a campaign to bestow sainthood on him and his family (Nickell 2002).

Investigative Approach

As these examples show, more and more frequently we are seeing news reports of “weeping” and other animated effigies. Not one has ever been authenticated by science. However, rather than simply dismiss such claims, I actually investigate them–whenever possible.

It is not unusual for me to be refused access. For example, for a TV documentary about a comatose “miracle” girl, Audrey Santo, near whom icons and figurines dripped oil–producers requested I be permitted to visit the Worcester, Massachusetts, home. The girl’s mother at first agreed, but then, on advice from a priest closely associated with the case, she withdrew permission for my visit. I could only comment on the very suspicious circumstances of the case, including the fact that one test of the oil revealed it to be 20 percent chicken fat (Nickell 1999).

One weeping icon was brought to me from Syria by a BBC producer. Suspiciously, it ceased to stream oil as soon as it left its owner, a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Alas, nothing, apparently–neither pleas nor insults, not even slicing onions before it–seems able to make it cry again, although I keep it as part of my paranormal collection (Nickell 2004).

Sometimes, I am contacted on short notice, as when CNN asked me to assess the case of the Sacramento statue that appeared to be crying blood. Fortunately, I had been able to see photos and videos of the supposed weeping. I observed that the streams of “blood” came only from Mary’s left eye, and that one of the rivulets in fact began above and outside the eye itself. Moreover, the streams were not flowing but rather remained static, as if there had merely been an application of the red substance. These observations led me to tell Paula Zahn when I appeared on her show (Paula Zahn Now, CNN, December 2, 2005) that I had good news and bad news: The bad news was that the weeping was fake; the good news was that few of the faithful would believe me.

I told the Sacramento Bee (Kollars and Fletcher 2005) that the weeping was a “clumsy, obvious hoax.” When a church spokesperson, the Rev. James Murphy, said there were no plans to investigate the incident, I responded: “If a statue is a fraud or a hoax, or even just a mistake, it should be determined and that should be that. If it’s a fake, then it should be repudiated.”

However, the Rev. Murphy expressed an all-too-typical attitude, stating, “If people view this as a miracle and it brings them closer to God, then that’s a good thing” (Milbourn 2005). But such an end-justifies-the-means approach is untenable–especially given the seriousness of the matter: an affront to science, religion, ethics, and good sense, as well as truth, all in one.


Idolatry. 1960. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Images. 1993. Collier’s Encyclopedia.

Kollars, Deb, and Ed Fletcher. 2005. Weeping or not, Mary is a magnet. Sacramento Bee, December 7.

Milbourn, Todd. 2005. No probe is planned of “weeping” statue. Sacramento Bee, November 29.

Nickell, Joe. 1996. Examining miracle claims. Deolog, March 4-5, 14, 23.

–. 1997a. Those tearful icons. Free Inquiry 17:2 (Spring), 5, 7, 61.

–. 1997b. Something to cry about: The case of the weeping icon. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 21:2 (March/April), 19-20.

–. 1998. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books. See this source for additional cases and sources.

–. 1999. Miracles or deception? The pathetic case of Audrey Santo. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 23:5 (Sept./Oct.), 16-18.

–. 2001. Real-Life X-Files. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky.

–. 2002. Moscow mysteries. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 26:4 (July/Aug.), 17-20, 24.

–. 2003. Riddle of the glowing statues. Skeptical Briefs 13:4 (December), 5-6.

–. 2004. Gewezen wenend icoon (formerly weeping icon). Skepter (Dutch skeptic’s journal), March, 41.

–. 2005. “Winking Jesus” statue: Mystery solved! SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, November/ December, 7-8.

Rogo, Scott D. 1982. Miracles: A Parascientific Inquiry into Wondrous Phenomena. New York: Dial Press.

Those Who Sway Together Pray Together. 1985. Discover, October, 19.

Joe Nickell is CSICOP’s Senior Research Fellow. His Web site is

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