Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thinking Beyond the Visible

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first scientific examination of the Shroud of Turin, which took place in 1978 in Turin, Italy. Photographer Barrie Schwortz, editor of, has spent the better part of the past 30 years talking about his experiences in relation to photographing the Shroud back in 1978 and the ongoing mystery of how it came into being, and exactly what it is. The Savannah Morning News ran a piece about him last week, and it got me thinking.

According to Schwortz’s website: “Modern science has completed hundreds of thousands of hours of detailed study and intense research on the Shroud. It is, in fact, the single most studied artifact in human history, and we know more about it today than we ever have before. And yet, the controversy still rages.”

While the image seems to have been present for quite some time, in May of 1898, photographer Secondo Pia first captured the striking black and white image on a reverse photographic plate back at the advent of photographic technology. The face appears to be that of Jesus, and the story is that this is the cloth provided by Joseph of Arimathea to cover His body when He was entombed. One set of carbon dating data suggests that the Shroud dates back to the 13th or 14 centuries, debunking the Jesus theory, though subsequent studies claim that the portion of the cloth used for testing was not an original swatch of the material. The mystery remains unsolved.

The Shroud of Turin debate isn’t a typical Madonna of the Toast story in that this visual manifestation was caused by one of two things: people creating a hoax, or the face of Jesus. But, it does drive home the persuasive power of such imagery. This object in particular seems to have transcended the physical question of what it actually is, now representing a divine, mystical example of how the visual inspires faith and intrigue.

As Schwortz says in the article, “You can't be involved in something like this without confronting your own religious beliefs.” Even if you don’t have religious beliefs, these stories catch your attention and can get your imagination going, and that is, after all, the point.

Friday, January 25, 2008

It May Be Mars, But It's Still Earth's Perspective

If you are reading this blog, I'm willing to bet that you, like me and the rest of us, have seen this image of what looks to many like a human, or Bigfoot, out for a stroll on Mars, taken by NASA’s Spirit Rover in 2004. Of course, there is no greater icon of our existence than the humanoid, because humans, as one kind of humanoid, define this world, for better or worse. Speculation about exactly what this is an image of runs rampant on the internet, from the proof of life on Mars to shadows and camera angle to a disfigured rock.

Like I say time and again, most of these stories are not so much about what others claim to see, but what you see, and how that collective vision generates media attention and actions. You might be sick of me saying it, though, so I decided to provide this clip from WABC here in New York. The reporter knows what I’m talking about: “Whatever you want to think it is . . . We show, you decide.”

That’s the Madonna of the Toast way . . .

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

A Potato and James Joyce: Surprised?

Not even a month into 2008, and I think I have found a story that is sure to count among my year’s favorites, all because of my respect and admiration for, you guessed it . . . potato salad. From WOFL Fox 35 in Orlando, Florida: Pastor Renee Brewster “says she had been looking for an excuse to get out of making potato salad. ‘I was hesitant about making the potato salad because Sister Frankie makes the potato salad at church and I said lord if it’s not for me to make potato salad then send me a sign.’” Sister Frankie must make damn fine potato salad for Brewster to be so intimidated that she asked for a sign from on high. I guess no one really likes peeling potatoes; must be why it’s what prisoners always have to do in the movies. Brewster got the sign she was looking for on the first tater that she halved, but tossed it aside because it looked rotten. Her granddaughter pointed out, however, that it wasn’t rotten. It was an image of Jesus on the Cross.

This form is kind of a hybrid icon. The cross is unmistakable. The Jesus looks like He is in a robe, and the beard stands out in the right-hand side half, but it is a very different look from the bleeding, head lolling figure so familiar to us through art. To me, this Jesus looks more like the teacher, not the tortured.

Renee Brewster is married to Bishop Winston Brewster, so you have to figure that they’re pretty religious folk, but I don’t know if dodging kitchen duties merits a prayer. The potato has been put in the freezer. Brewster did end up making the potato salad – so much for her sign from the Lord. According to her husband, it was “the best [she] ever was almost as good as Sister Frankie's.”

Certain of these stories involve a person actively looking for a sign, but most of these visual manifestations are stumbled upon. A tree, a section of wall, the wood grain on a closet door – everyday it looks the same, but then one day it displays a difference, or the viewer possesses a different vision. I couldn’t help but think of Madonna of the Toast after reading this: “Every morning he hallowed himself anew in the presence of some holy image or mystery.” That’s James Joyce, from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m rereading it. It is our contemplative protagonist (and Joyce alter ego) Stephen Dedalus in the presence of “some holy image or mystery” on a daily basis. It is true to say that in this scene he is contemplating something far greater than potato salad, but it is just as true to say that these visions, no matter what sets them off, come from the same place: that place of the human need for answers, wherever they may hide.

P.S. Want to make the best potato salad? Use a couple of teaspoons of sweet gherkin pickle juice.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Natural Image

Out of Tampa, Florida, via Brazil, comes this 400-pound hunk of granite. Purchased two years ago by a Pinellas County granite distributor, the slab will soon be auctioned on eBay. According to this news story from Fox 13, the 7-by-7 foot piece of polished granite is worth about $4,000, but John Finkbiner (the guy who will sell the granite because the owner wants to remain anonymous) believes it could fetch a much larger sum because many people see the image of Jesus on the Cross embedded in the rock. Says the news report, the granite’s source “is near the town of Espirito Santo – translated, it means ‘holy spirit.’” So it has that going for it.

Like any good vendor of subjective memorabilia trying to cash in on an eBay sale, Finkbiner cites Diana Duyser’s $28,000 windfall (documented in Madonna of the Toast), “and that was just a sandwich.” But, Finkbiner is hedging his bets, reminding people that no matter what, “It is a very interesting natural image.”

It looks more like a Texas Longhorn to me, or a bolo tie, especially when compared to past examples of Christ on the Cross. This form is too much like a knot: all torso and no hips or legs.

What do you see?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Roof Cross

This story from Rochester, Minnesota, as reported by KTTC, is slightly confusing in terms of details, though they all revolve around Rob Lloyd’s sick mother and the image of a cross on a house’s roof. Lloyd’s mother was admitted to a room on the sixth floor of Saint Mary’s Hospital for a throat infection that has rendered her unable to speak. Lloyd flew from Oregon to Minnesota to visit his mom, thinking about family, life and death. The article insinuates that Lloyd has made the decision to move back home to be close to his family; it also suggests that he needed to buy a house and from his mother’s room he spotted this roof, "And seeing that frosted cross, it just spoke to me." Adding to the sway of unexpected sights and happenstance, it also turns out that Lloyd’s aunt was also in the hospital, on a different floor, unbeknownst to the family.

As I mentioned a few post ago, details seem to matter less and less when it comes to these stories. People just want to know that these images appear, providing them with the ability to soldier through whatever challenges they must confront.

But there it is, a cross. Worth noting that for all of the Jesus and Virgin Mary images that have sprouted up since I got into the Madonna of the Toast project, this is only the second sighting of a cross (here's the first), which is surprising since it is a common shape. Goes to show you that what we see has plenty to do with what’s going on in our lives.

Nick Cave must have been considering higher powers and the unknown when he penned the song “The Mercy Seat.” I’ve been a fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for a while, especially the album Tender Prey. It was only today, however, listening through headphones that I noticed these lyrics:

I began to warm and chill
To objects and their fields,
A ragged cup, a twisted mop
The face of Jesus in my soup

Short of asking Rob Lloyd what he was thinking about when he spotted the cross, we can’t really know what was on his mind, but whatever it was, it drew his attention to this image that carries an incredible amount of significance for many, many people. Same is true for Nick Cave’s lyrics, though it seems safe to speculate that he was wrestling with how to react to his surroundings.

As for me, I knew I was going to chime in on here today, and voila!

Here’s a video of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds performing “The Mercy Seat.”

Friday, January 11, 2008

Da Vinci’s Darth Vader

Perhaps this is a bit out of the box, but can you really expect me to resist being able to mention Leonardo Da Vinci and Darth Vader in the same post? According to this story from the Discovery Channel, a theory has emerged from the organization The Mirror of The Sacred Scriptures and Paintings. Headed up by “self-taught” Argentine historian Hugo Conti, the society claims that when a mirror is held up to certain of Da Vinci’s works that Biblical references appear, from the Holy Grail (in the image above) to the face of the Old Testament God Javeh, or what to others resembles Darth Vader.

Conti claims that he has discovered these hidden images by deciphering aspects of Da Vinci’s paintings as signposts for where a mirror needs to be placed. So, in “The Last Supper,” Conti contends, “The glance of the apostle James is not directed to Judas, but to where the Holy Grail, only viewable through a mirror, is overturned on the table, just between Jesus’s hand.”

The Javeh/Darth Vader face appears, when mirrored, on the painting “Saint Anne, the Virgin and Child,” which hangs in London’s National Gallery. A similar face is also visible on the right shoulder of the “Mona Lisa.”

Conti claims that Da Vinci, like many of his peers, believed in Biblical allegory. From the article:

According to Conti, Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance artists had knowledge of the allegories mentioned in many biblical references and in the treaties of Philo of Alexandria, a 1st century philosopher and theologian.

"All the images are related to explanations given by Philo, who reveals that the Bible is a symbolic representation of the history of the human intelligence," Conti said. "Adam is the intelligence that resides in the mind of every human, while Eve is the corporal sensibility. The hidden images in the paintings tell this story and can only be seen with a mirror by those with sharp vision.

In a response to this theory, a writer in the Italian journal Il Giornale dismissed the claim as pareidolia: “Our brain tries to give a coherent meaning when faced with ambiguous figures, such as when we look at the clouds in the sky . . . If we apply the mirror technique to a picture of Marilyn Monroe, we obtain a disquieting face with a chalice. Right, there is the Holy Grail on Marilyn's forehead.”

While these images require a bit of work to see, they definitely speak to the stories in Madonna of the Toast. Whether someone sees the Virgin Mary in a tree, or the face of God in a mirror placed against a painting, people want to find meaning anywhere they can find it. Both images are the result of this quest, no matter how outlandish it may seem. Clearly, Conti believes in his theory, the same as those who pray at these unexpected shrines believe in them as touchstones of faith in something that cannot be tucked neatly into a explanation.

Who knows, maybe you really can see the Holy Grail in a photograph of Marilyn Monroe.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Noteworthy News, or Not Worthy?

I understand people’s skepticism about these visual manifestations of religious icons. Many of them, like this Virgin Mary tree in Jacksboro, Texas, are pretty tough to see, even for those with saintly vision. But as I have written in Madonna of the Toast, and time and time again here (and believe wholeheartedly) the real power of these events is that people do see these figures, and take the time to react to them: traveling across town or the country, taking photos, bringing the kids, erecting shrines of candles and rosaries.

And of course, these actions attract media attention, but what blows my mind is that these stories, as presented by journalistic outlets, often have little to no information about the object in question. So, I found out about this story from Philadelphia's NBC 10, and it is the same very brief clip that is picked up by NBC affiliates all over the country, but details are sparse, to say the least. We know that the tree can be found in a state park and that people are leaving flowers and praying. The faithful can see Mary somewhere in the exposed trunk. And that’s it.

It hardly seems that the details matter at all; rather what the media likes to keep at the forefront of people’s minds is the fact that these sacred shapes appear all over the place, and quite frequently. It certainly says something about the relationship between the people that create the news and those who try to keep up with it. Do any of you have any thoughts about this?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Cloudy With a Chance of Iconic Imagery

Welcome to 2008 and the start of this blog’s second year. There’s not a doubt in my mind that there will be ample grist for the Madonna of the Toast mill, like the following meteorological visual manifestation of the oft spotted Jesus Christ.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, Sean McCree was taking pics of clouds with his cell phone, finding one that looked like Jesus. This Christian condensation was viewed on Christmas Day, according to this WDSU 6 report. The article contains hardly any detail, but as you may know, I’m a sucker for cell-phone photographs and the stories behind them. More and more, people possess the whole of existence, even its spiritual and enigmatic aspects, in the palms of their hands. For McCree, it seems that either on a religious or commercial level, he had Jesus on his mind this past Christmas.

Seems like Alan Blacklock of Wellington, New Zealand, was thinking more about Santa Claus than the Bible when he spotted this Rudolph the Reindeer cloud prancing through the sky above his home. Sydney, Australia’s The Daily Telegraph reported the story in early December, describing the above image thusly: “With his head thrown back, and his antlers held high, Rudolph is captured in full flight, charging across a vivid expanse of blue.” Although the article does not name Blacklock’s job title, he does work for New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research; presumably the guy spends lots of time studying clouds, in a secular-scientific way.

May 2008 be as dynamic as the clouds in the sky!