Friday, December 21, 2007

Jesus, George Washington and a Meteorite!

Okay, I couldn’t resist a quick post, because it’s not every day, even in these parts, where I can mention Jesus, George Washington and a meteorite in one fell swoop.

What you see here is a rock, a “two faced rock,” according to this KVOA report. Rae Oliver was walking along the Santa Cruz River in Tucson, Arizona, when she found this rock, which to her looked like Jesus. As she examined it in more detail, she discovered the stately countenance of George Washington, as in the first president of the United States. Like so many of the examples here in Madonna of the Toast land, it only takes a specific visual cue in order for viewers to make these associations. Jesus has some facial hair, perhaps a gaunt face; the Virgin Mary wears a robe that bells out at the bottom. I guess if American history has taught us anything is that statesmen of the era wore wigs. (Although this Mount Vernon website debunks several George Washington myths, including one about him wearing a wig: “Even though wigs were fashionable, Washington kept his own hair, which he wore long and tied in a pony tail or queue in the back. He did powder his hair, which was the custom of the day.” I don’t think Rae is too concerned about Washington’s hair, though she is happy to have found the rock: “She says it’s a gift from God coming just in time for Christmas.”

From the terrestrial to the extraterrestrial: according to this NBC 5 report, the object above is a meteorite with the face of Jesus on it. About one year ago, Terrance Cotton was out in his yard in Abilene, Texas, when he wished on what he thought was a falling star. The star turned out to be a meteorite, which crashed in his yard. In Cotton’s words: “I heard a voice, and it said, ‘Look and see if you can see a face’ . . . And I looked, and I saw an image of Jesus Christ.” Scientists have confirmed that the object is indeed a meteorite. Apparently, people have offered Cotton thousands of dollars for it, but he is content to keep it and let people check it out (which is why I guess it made news this past week).

This is a very difficult Jesus to see, even with all of His features identified, but no matter, because Cotton is more at peace with the world, and the world can use all of the peace it can get!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Madonna of the Toast: One of 2007's Best Underground Books!

The past year has been a great one, and a big part of that is due to all the fun I’ve had with Madonna of the Toast. I’ve read all over the country, been interviewed by newspapers and radio-show hosts, met all sorts of interesting folks and, of course, maintained this blog with a degree of regularity that I had never intended. But, as is evident in the myriad visual manifestations of religious and secular icons posted here, the stories are endless – inspired by myth, marketing, the media and the malleable and evolving physical world we inhabit. From the deeply devout to the caustically skeptical, these stories resonate with pretty much everyone because they are, at their cores, reflections of this shared world and how we interpret and weather it. Through both the book and blog, I have been able to discuss Plato’s myth of the cave, pareidolia, the war in Iraq, Marshall McLuhan, the US Constitution, reality television, Johnny Carson and cell-phone cameras, as they all relate, one way or another, to these phenomena.

In an article in this week’s The New Statesman, writer Sukhdev Sandhu equates the contents of Madonna of the Toast to “unusual or elusive texts.” I really like this description. No, I love it; it is spot on. Even more interesting, and exciting, is the fact that he writes about this in an article called “Notes from the underground: Madonna of the Toast and poems from Guantanamo” a piece, I am deeply honored to write, that comprises a short list of 2007’s best underground books. Pretty incredible.

Thanks go out to all of the people who have bought a book, visited this blog or told a friend about the project. While I will be keeping up with these stories (I think I’ve developed an addiction), I am going to take a blog break between now and the New Year. I wish you all the best in what remains of 2007 and hope that 2008 begins the way you want. I have a feeling that next year will be another busy one for me . . .

But we're not quite there yet, so relax and enjoy this famous bit of television history: Myrtle Young, potato chips and Johnny Carson.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Aside from the high-profile instances of pareidolia that swell to international proportions thanks to swarming media interest, most of the stories I pass along to you here are passing news items that most people forget about by the end of the week, or until the next commonly occurring unusual happening cries out from the small-town newspaper or a scrappy affiliate television newscast.

That’s what drew me to this piece from The Salinas Californian about the one-year anniversary of then 14-year-old Deanna Jimenez, along with her sister and mother, spotting the image of the Virgin Mary on a sycamore tree in Soledad, California. The image appears mostly due to how a bulge on the trunk casts a shadow; between the form and texture of the wood and the play of shadow and light, Her image appeared, and has appeared over and over again for the past year (though the image is emboldened when there are no leaves on the branches). It’s a familiar tale of one person’s vision infecting hundreds of others, even the Catholic Church who had sent out an official to examine the tree, "cautioning the public to refrain from calling it a miracle."

According to the article published a few days ago, while the crowds of the faithful have diminished, the prayer candles, rosaries and flowers continue to be placed around the tree. For the truly faithful, media attention and gawking passersby matter not, especially since the anniversary of this discovery is today – December 12 – the same day as the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

For the record, all of these pics are from one year ago. I guess now the scene is more tranquil, which seems appropriate. One of these days, I hope to be in the vicinity of one of these events so I can gawk at the gawkers and their cell-phone cameras. But that's another rant for another time . . .

Amazingly enough, for all of the Jesus and Virgin Mary trees that I've blogged about, there is nary a tree in Madonna of the Toast. Curious.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Doctor's Orders

According to this report from NBC 6 in South Florida, Reynaldo Farinas spotted the image of Jesus in this x-ray. Complaining of chest pains, Farinas went to Homestead Hospital where a doctor ordered the x-ray. The image in question can be seen on the right-hand side of Farinas’s chest, one of those elongated Jesus faces. According to the report, the doctor and x-ray technician both admit seeing the face, though neither of them can account for why the image showed up on film.

Modern medicine may not have an explanation for the face’s appearance, but modern faith is more than happy to let Farinas relish the moment: “I was surprised . . . (It’s) unbelievable.”

You can click here to check out the slideshow of Farinas and his family examining the x-ray in the parking lot.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Thought About the Virgin of Guadalupe

When I first started kicking around the idea of writing Madonna of the Toast, about three years ago, one of the things that really got me jazzed was the fact that people see secular icons as well as religious ones. It really drove home for me the power of the image to influence people and their interpretations of the physical world that we all inhabit. With that said, and as regular visitors to this blog know, most of the iconography spotted on trees and foodstuffs is religious, and most of these sightings are of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The creation and dissemination of the visual representations of both of these figures over time canvases the world and while variations of how they looked exist, both icons can be recognized by shapes and shadings that echo the most common aspects of the images, like a flowing gown and facial hair.

Many people think these phenomena are new, resulting from our digital, screen-dependent culture, and this is just plain wrong. Our high-speed technological landscape certainly helps promote these sightings and spread the word about them, but such visual manifestations have surfaced for centuries. As I mention in the book, references to the Man in the Moon can be found in texts from Europe and Asia that date back at least 500 years.

December 12 marks the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is inspired by the story of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin’s walk up a hill called Tepeyac in 1531, not too far from Mexico City. The story states that the Virgin appeared before Juan Diego, telling him to build an abbey on the hill. Juan Diego relayed the message to a Spanish bishop who needed to observe a miracle to be convinced. In response to the bishop’s request, the Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers, although it was winter and nothing was in bloom. However, atop Tepeyac, Juan Diego found roses, which he gathered and presented to the bishop, after which the Virgin’s form appeared on the cloth of Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak). This story is believed to be an amalgamation of Catholic ideology and indigenous Mexican lure, particularly that of the goddess Tonantzin. Since the 16th century, the Virgin of Guadalupe has been used as a symbol of Mexican independence.

I couldn’t help consider the roots of this myth after reading this article in the Los Angeles Times about the appeal of the Virgin of Guadalupe to people with cultural and religious heritages that span the globe. According to the article, “An estimated 10,000 devotees turned out Sunday [December 2] for a procession in honor of the Virgin, among them ethnic Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Tongan and Vietnamese worshipers.” The story of this visual manifestation compels people from all walks of life in a way that seems more about sharing a personal touchstone, as opposed to dogma, allowing these people to celebrate diversity and individuality under the guise of a single iconic image.

It's true that people may look a little too hard for these images, or try too hard to convince others that a holy sign is embedded somewhere surprising (like in this eBay item claiming to display the images of Mary and Jesus wound into Mother Teresa's fingerprint). But by the very virtue of these stories and ideas existing, they are important and worth examining, because they reveal a great deal about the culture at large: our tendencies, weaknesses and desires. And in considering what so many others claim to see, it really boils down to this: What do you see?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Virgin Mary Workbench

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This latest spotting of the Virgin Mary comes to us from Coweta, Georgia. According to this The Times-Herald report, the image appeared on a workbench that had been used earlier in the day by Mark Jersey. Mark’s hobby is car restoration, but he also does temporary tattoos at parties. After using the workbench for his supplies so he could apply temporary tattoos at a birthday party, he left it in the back of his pickup truck once he was home. Later, it began to rain so “Mark got the paint-spattered work table out of his pickup and propped it against a glass-paned French door.” Julie, his wife, didn’t know this, so when she walked past the door, the house’s lights and the dark of night outside created the effect of a face peering in through the glass. Julie screamed for her husband.

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There’s no doubt about it, the rain caused the paint to run and dry like a face, which does have a very feminine quality, especially in the lips. Both Mark and Julie have Christian backgrounds, so associating the image with the Virgin Mary isn’t a great leap, though Julie conceded that “You hear about these things, but never expect it to happen to you . . . We’re not sure what it is, but it’s really been fun to have it around.” So fun, in fact, the couple have invited friends over to take a look and the workbench will be next to the Christmas tree this year.

Thanks to reporter Alex McRae for the pics!