Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Like Getting Lots of Different Candies

Sue Canada, Bob Canada’s widow, buried Bob’s ashes on Sunday October 21. According to this Kane County Chronicle report, later that day the family noticed Jesus’s face stained “in a patch of damaged bark on a maple tree” in the front yard. Everyone in the family agrees that the image wasn’t there the day before. In the words of daughter-in-law Jackie Flynn: “I never thought we would be those kind of people with Jesus in the tree.” But apparently they are. The family very much links the appearance to the burial of the ashes, though the article spends most of its time consulting various experts.

Rev. Akan Simon of St. Patrick Catholic Church says: “If you look at the picture, it does appear to be the face of Jesus . . . I do not believe in accidents or coincidence. This affirms my Catholic faith that death is not the final answer. It is not the end. Death is a transition to another life, but the bonds we forge in this life do not end.”

Rev. Stephen Bevans of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago adds: “You don’t ‘prove’ things like life after death or the existence of God; you believe them on good evidence, but you still believe in them . . . You have to be sensitive to people’s faith. And Catholics believe that God does use the things of creation to manifest God’s self to us.”

The Canada homestead has been on the market for over a year, so real estate agent (and niece) Tina Flynn gets her say, too: “It’s fine. Most likely it would help . . . I don’t see it hurting the sale at all.” Must be those sub-prime mortgage rates.

Moving right along – I have noticed that when I relay these happenings to you, I have spent less and less time discussing the image in question. I suppose that the image matters very little in terms of accuracy, or even specific visual details. What materializes around the objects is what’s of interest.

Take the Virgin Mary pebble in New Zealand. After weeding out a few phony bids the auction did not meet the $30,000 reserve, so Lisa-Marie Corlet will not be parting with her pebble, word of which has traveled far and wide, like so many of these stories. Now, it needs to be said that hoaxes aside, the high, valid bid on the pebble was $27,000, but that wasn’t enough. For a beach pebble. According to this report, Corlet said, “I’ll take a break and move on to eBay.” The auction was taking place on a New Zealand equivalent of eBay; most of their auctions typically get about 650 visits, while this one attracted 180,000. Cortlet may be able to get more internet traffic on eBay, but if you read my first post about this, you know why I don’t think she’ll get the money she is looking for. If she does, however, it won’t be the first time I’ve been wrong about something.

And finally, if a high-profile internet auction doesn’t prove it, here is yet another example of how these objects are transformed into events, which become history, and heritage. It comes from Time Out New York, from my favorite section, “Public eye.” I am many things, but a fashion maven ain’t one of ‘em, making my mild addiction to this weekly show-and-tell humorous in that it usually spurs some rolling of the eyes and a snide comment about vapid consumerism. But this week the presumably gregarious columnist Kate Lowstein funnels her subject’s wanderlust, which has shuttled her through “about 80 countries,” into . . . the Nun Bun!

Yes, the self-proclaimed “gypsy girl” who hawks clothes on Astor Place here in New York four months of the year mentions working in Calcutta for Mother Theresa. Lowenstein quips back, “Really? Did she look like the cinnamon bun?” The gypsy laughs; she gets it, and answers: “That thing does look just like her! She was kind of shriveled and raisiny.”

Don’t know about the Nun Bun? Check out my book, Madonna of the Toast. Thing is, I bet you do know about the Nun Bun, most people do. It’s a famous pastry that was robbed one Christmas morning a couple of years ago.

People may not know the names of their Congressional representatives, or understand fully photosynthesis, but the Nun Bun can be batted about in spur of the moment conversation between two complete strangers (and though I have never met either of these women, I am willing to bet that they are two very different people). Point is, we know about the Nun Bun, and Diana Duyser’s Virgin Mary grilled cheese. The ones you don’t know about, I guess I try to let you know. Why? Because it’s worth paying attention. Because the stories don’t end, and they aren’t really about objects carrying the images of iconographic forms and faces. They are about us, no matter what we see . . .


Friday, October 26, 2007

From Dust to Dusting to Jesus

This is the towel that Lucille Lopez used to clean her air conditioner. According to this recent KTRK ABC 13 report, the Houston, Texas, woman believes the stain to be the face of Jesus. After using the towel on the air conditioner, “Lucille washed it. And bleached it. Twice. And then her granddaughter used the towel.” It was then that the face was first noticed. The towel is now installed in Lopez’s prayer room where it can be found among all matter of religious memorabilia like crosses, paintings, angels and candles. Unlike all of those, however, in Lopez’s mind this towel is a gift directly from God. In her words: "I say it's a miracle, a big miracle . . . He's showing that he sees us. That he's looking at us."

If that’s the case, I wonder what God thinks about when he sees the auction down in New Zealand for the Virgin Mary pebble. As of this posting, the current bid stands at $31,700.50, with over 70,000 people having visited the website.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Stand Corrected

Just yesterday I posited that Lisa-Marie Corlet would never come close to selling her Virgin Mary pebble for the $50,000 asking price. Read below for my reasoning, which I do stand by, though in this instance reason has gone out the window. Since yesterday, this online auction seems to be taking on Diana Duyser monetary proportions. Yesterday (or perhaps it was today, or tomorrow – I’ve never been able to understand the time zones in that part of the world) someone entered a $50,000 bid, but it turned out to be a hoax. Now, a new auction is on and runs until Wednesday. According to this new article from, the auction has “attracted nearly 10,000 viewers and 28 bids, the highest for $26,600.” View the auction here.

Yes, we’re talking about a pebble found on a beach, folks, but Corlet knew that people would be willing to pay. With a week to go, I suppose the bidding could really soar, but we’ll have to wait and see how high. Time will also tell us how firm Corlet’s declaration about taking no less than $50,000 remains. She clearly believes in her mission, however, so maybe she’ll get the money she wants, or a whole lot more. I will definitely be keeping an eye on this.

I’d also like to say hi to any folks reading from New Zealand. In light of this story, Reuben Schwarz, writing for one of the blogs, gave me a shout-out, naming this one of his favorite sites. Thanks Reuben!

Please, readers from all corners of the globe, leave some comments. Rant, rave, be witty or critical, share some stories. There’s no shortage of ways in which these phenomena can be deciphered, and I’m open to all thoughts.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kiwi Mary Pebble

From the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island comes a pebble bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary. According to this report from , Lisa-Marie Corlet found this stone on Kaikoura's South Beach last year.

Since then, Corlet has had “an awesome run of luck,” which I guess has ended, because now she is trying to sell the stone on, for 50,000 New Zealand Dollars (approximately $37,775).

Sound steep? It is, no matter what kind of money you spend, and doubtless this accounts for why the item has yet to receive any bids. Corlet stands by her asking price, however, saying that she won’t part with it for any less, making the inevitable allusion to Diana Duyser’s famous $28,000 eBay windfall for her Virgin Mary grilled cheese.

What most people don’t seem to realize when they try to sell a random object emblazoned with an iconographic shape, justifying the asking price by citing Duyser’s sale, is the fact that all of the largest sums of money paid out for these items were from the coffers of, an online casino. At the time, they were spending large amounts of money on these publicity stunts so they could, presumably, make HUGE amounts of money through their website. When President Bush signed the Safe Port Act in October 2006, however, online gambling was effectively shut down in the United States; tacked onto this act was an amendment that prohibited transactions between banks and online gaming websites. Guess what? hasn’t spent a dime in the US since then (much to the dismay of Duyser).

Will anyone now spend tens of thousands of dollars for a Jesus tree, Buddha frying pan or Mary mattress stain? It’s not impossible, but I don’t think it will happen like it used to, unless the law changes. People like Lisa-Marie Corlet should learn this and reassess their financial expectations. I do believe many people would be interested in having an object like Corlet’s, for a reasonable price, commensurate to what you would pay for any bauble.

There may not be big bucks to be made on these cultural signposts, but the media gaze will forever draw the public’s attention to them, and there is value in that. For the true believers, these events bolster faith. In neighborhoods, all of the attention seems to inspire community sensibilities. Naysayers and agnostics, fear not, as these stories provide you with ample ammunition to let fly your diatribes and acerbic one-liners.

And as for me, Madonna of the Toast will soldier on, encouraging one and all to consider these events as they exist on the surface and between the lines, because the fact that so many of us know about them makes them important, no matter what you see.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dead Insects and the Virgin Mary

It’s not too hard to believe that another Virgin Mary has appeared in Texas. Amazingly enough, however, this is the second Virgin-Mary image that I know of created from an attempt to eradicate unwanted visitors. ‘Tis true dear reader, the same as the Milford Mary emerged on a window screen after laundry spray took the life of a bug, this Mary in Del Rio emerged on the wall of John and Tina Zapata’s house, after John “sprinkled poison on the back wall of his home to kill some ants,” according to this KVUE report.

South Texas media glommed onto this story a few days ago and hundreds of people(from as far away as Minnesota) have come to see the manifestation, which Tina actually recognized as the Virgin of Guadalupe. Along with the requisite visitors eager to photograph the image and pray in its presence, the “Blessing of the Back Yard” has inspired the Matlachines, a mask and cape wearing group of Matachines. This Del Rio News Herald article reports that the “traditional religious dance group who typically performs during the Christmas holidays,” has come out to celebrate this event.

There seems to be some real potential for metaphors here: a holy figure formed by the desire to quash life. What can this say about the contemporary state of faith? It may mean that people are desperate for a stain of hope, no matter how it came about. It also may mean that people are more than happy to let their faith be bolstered in the company of others. I’d imagine that most of the people whom have paid their respects to this icon would say the latter.

What do you think? Is this hopeless hope? Is this yet another opportunity to be reminded of something greater? Is it the naysayer pessimist in me that questions how displays of faith can come out of taking life? Are, or were, they just ants? Can it be ignored that the Bible examines the value of sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac, God and Christ?

I can answer all of these questions at once, with another question: If so many heady issues can be extracted from this happening, doesn't that make it culturally valid?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Burn of Memory

Here’s a new medium for a recognizable face, or in this case form, to appear in: fire. According to this report from the UK’s Telegraph, that is a visual manifestation of Pope John Paul II. The bonfire was lit on April 2 in Beskid Zywiecki, Poland not far from the pontiff’s birthplace of Wadowice. Hundreds gathered to commemorate the second anniversary of this Pope’s death.

Gregorz Lukasik shot this photograph, but only realized the resemblance after looking at the prints. In his words: "I was so happy with the picture that I showed it to our local bishop who said that Pope John Paul had made many pilgrimages during his life and he was still making them in death."

Apparently an Italian website featuring this image crashed because of all the web traffic it attracted. Maybe some of those folks will come here and check out Madonna of the Toast, where the pilgrimages come to you!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stone's Stone

Did you miss me? I was in Frankfurt last week for the Book Fair. More on that soon, but in the meantime how about some new news about a recognizable face showing up unexpectedly? Reported by the Danbury, Connecticut, The News-Times, we have yet another rock chiseled by geology, and perhaps lawnmowers, to intimate the face of Jesus.

Allen Stone – quite the last name for a self-declared rock collector – found this rock while doing yard work at his Ridgefield, Connecticut, home. This was about a year ago, and at the time what impressed him about the object was its feel. He stowed it away for a while but then got a digital camera, and he snapped the stone. He showed the image to a friend and she declared, “Oh, my gosh, it's Jesus Christ!”

Brigitta, Stone's wife, likes the details that reference the Christ iconography: "The wreath at the image's head, the robe and the staff.”

Another friend, after seeing the object, asked Stone to drive the rock to a Greek Orthodox priest in New Rochelle, New York, for examination but in Stone’s words, "that's quite a distance to go." Steve’s skepticism isn’t surprising for a rock lover: "A lot of people believe in these things . . . Do I? I don't know. But I think this is interesting. This is a rock -- made by nature. It is unique and notable." Plate tectonics do outdate the Bible after all.

The article goes on to gloss the history of these phenomena, from Leonardo da Vinci to Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds, to the Chocolate Virgin Mary and Grilled Cheese Madonna (both of which appear in Madonna of the Toast).

Even when I go away, the faces and forms keep manifesting, the media never tires of these true human-interest stories and that’s what makes them worth examining time and again.

More anon . . .

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An eBay Excursion

Underprivileged kids being denied healthcare, rogue private armies, presidential fund raising: while it isn’t fair to say it’s been a slow news week, I can say that it has been a slow week for stories about the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons. Of course, if you REALLY want to read about these phenomena, you can buy Madonna of the Toast, or sift through this blog. In an effort to keep content as lively as possible around here, however, I am going to start dredging the eBay aisles (with the hope that such scouring can uncover enough material to merit a regular series about my findings). Think of it like the old If a tree falls in the woods quandary, except this one is: If the media doesn’t report it, does it really happen?

So, for the inaugural installment of eBay happenings, I share with you the following:

Wine seeped out of this 1967 pinot noir and left this stain on the crate. According to the seller’s explanation, “the wine should have turned to vinegar, however, the wine in this particular bottle has a very pleasant aroma.” We’ll never know though, because the item being sold is the photo collage of the stain, its crate and the bottle from whence the wine came. Want one? Better get bidding before October 11.

In 1977, 6-year-old Richard Graham found this rock along the banks of the Snoqualmie River in Washington, the state. Emblazoned on it, the image of Mary, holding Jesus. This item actually has a few bids.

And finally, the most difficult to see, and afford, a crucified-Jesus image in this door’s wood grain. The seller, asking $7,000 for the door, will give a portion of the sale to charity. The door is in the seller’s home, where she has been living for 7 years (and the house number is 7) although she only just noticed the image about one year ago. From the text that accompanies this item: “Salvation is a gift- believing is a choice... worldy goods are temporary-salvation is eternal-- choose wisely.” “Worldy” goods (“Worldly” for those of us with a dictionary) may be temporary, but is $7,000?

Hope you enjoyed this eBay excursion. Like beauty, matters of faith are in the eyes of the beholder, even (and perhaps especially) if it avoids the media gaze.