Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Happy Holidaze!

For this Holidaze post, I bring you a Jesus banana and His mother as a cascading waterfall. Who needs a manger?

According to this Daily Telegraph report, Lisa Swinton went to her fruit bowl for a healthy snack and chose this slightly bruised banana, found at the bottom of the bowl. Everyone knows that the brown spots equal sweetness, but Swinton was shocked when she noticed the face: ‘‘I was like ‘Oh my God! It’s Jesus on a banana!’’ I guess Swinton was really hungry because she snapped some pics and then peeled this sucker, later posting images on her Facebook page. For Swinton and her crowd, such visual manifestations, apparently, are no big thing; she tells the Daily Telegraph that her friends have seen Mary in mold and on a door. But have they seen Mary in a waterfall?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You cannot step twice in the same river.” And that goes for waterfalls, too, meaning photographer Carl Silverstein was in the right place at the right time when he shot this photograph. Titled “Falls of Foyer – Woman Holding Child,” Silverstein emailed me the image as he thought I would appreciate it, which I do. The patterns and rhythms of nature inform everything about life, no matter how far-removed we are from those patterns and rhythms; their echoes influence how people recognize these forms in the most unexpected places, even if the people don’t realize it.

See you in 2010, people. If you miss me, Madonna of the Toast can keep you company.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Canned Religion

Spend enough time squinting and deciphering stains and burns thought to resemble iconic faces and forms and the stories start to get a bit humdrum. Such is the case with this recent Virgin Mary pancake from Glendale, Arizona, made by Bianca Lopez the day before Thanksgiving, according to this ABC 15 report. Short story made shorter: Lopez made a batch of flapjacks for her family and the last one featured a shape that she recognized immediately. This visual manifestation has delivered to Lopez the requisite “peace and comfort” and it is now in her freezer for the sake of posterity. End of story.

But for me the real revelation has been learning about the existence of Batter Blaster. Apparently, folks, including Lopez, spray pancake batter from a can. I guess this really shouldn’t come as a surprise because if you can squeeze cheese (or some semblance thereof) from a can squeeze pretty much anything from a can, right? Cheese is a bit more complex to make than pancakes, however. I’ve always been appalled by the idea of pancake mix, so this pressurized version of the stuff really puts me off, even if it is organic.

Of course, there isn't a boring story in Madonna of the Toast, which does include a papal pancake!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Man in the Ultrasound

In the sad but true category, Michael Jackson’s death resurrected his reputation. In the wake of the untimely and bizarre passing the world has forgotten about the questionable dalliances and eccentricities, remembering the hits and solidifying his legacy as one of the world’s all-time great entertainers. The release of This Is It, the albums and rumors insure that MJ’s image has been everywhere; the world has MJ on the mind.

Even Dawn Kelley and William Hickman, according to this Telegraph report: Kelley, pregnant with her seventh child, received an ultrasound from a particularly “powerful scanner . . . normally used to examine internal organs” and while looking at the images, the two saw Jackson’s face, as did their six children. The family aren’t mad-capped Jackson fans but they all see this image. Kelley knows her next child will be a girl, so no naming it Michael, but she says, “It is my seventh child, and they say seven is a mythical number.”

There is an aura of myth that surrounds Jackson, especially now so I’m sure this won’t be the last instance of MJ pareidolia. And for you regulars, you know it isn’t the first.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Been There, Done That

Being the first on the block has its perks, though most of them come along after the fact, once the rest of the world has caught up with you (or me). Now, I certainly cannot claim to be the the first one to take an interest in the unexpected visual manifestations of religious and secular icons, but I'm certainly the first one to write a book about the subject, and attach to these stories ideas ranging from Plato and Marshall McLuhan to changing the U.S. Constitution.

For you long-time readers, you'll of course remember how the New York Times ran an article right around when Madonna of the Toast was released. For a couple of days I received emails and phone calls asking, Why no mention of your book? Good question, especially since the Times claimed they could not contact Diana Duyser, someone I had been in regular contact with for the book.

Well, today, to just further prove that these sorts of stories remain culturally relevant, The Huffington Post has posted a slideshow of famous faces showing up in foodstuffs and foliage. Many of the examples appear in the book, and those that don't either surfaced after publication or could not be used for print (like the image above of Liverpudlian Keith Andrews and his John Lennon face); there are only a few I've never seen before. The images are fun to look at, but there's no real context for them and that's what I find so intriguing about this subject. Thing is, I think most people are more than happy to just gape and move on.

Maybe I'm just over thinking this stuff - is that so wrong?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Buy That Man a Beer!

The photograph accompanies this Johnson City Press article makes me like Jim Stevens of Jonesborough, Tennessee. It makes me want to buy him a beer. There he is, looking at the window of his Isuzu and the image of Jesus rendered by morning dew with some regularity. He is casually nonplussed and probably ready to talk about something else. It is an admittedly recognizable face of Christ and it apparently keeps appearing most mornings. The window has even been rolled down (though Stevens isn’t going to wash it). But Stevens isn’t religious and it doesn’t seem like this will convert him: “[H]e believes strange things happen and that he has no explanation for the image on his truck’s window.”

These Madonna of the Toast tales usually grace the faithful, or those who’ve been looking for an excuse to roll holy. The image has definitely surprised Stevens but he isn’t trying to impose meaning or latch it to some aspect of his life, even with his “bum shoulder.” Stevens knows the image will stir up different emotions in different people and he’s happy to let everyone see whatever it is they want to see. Referring to employees at a market who went and took a gander at the truck when Stevens was shopping, he said, “There was no doubt when they came out they saw what they saw.”

Ain’t that the truth!

Monday, November 2, 2009

We're Only Human

Larry David has pissed some people off because of his namesake character’s latest awkward social fiasco on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not familiar with the show? All you have to know is that episodes consist of David, co-creator of Seinfeld, muddling through an imbroglio that he has stirred up through some misunderstanding, and hilarity ensues.

In this case, David’s urine splatters approximations of tears onto a picture of Jesus. Others notice the droplets and think the image is weeping. The Week offers some different perspectives on the (non)controversy. As usual, the loudest and angriest pundits railing against David have neglected to really assess the facts, claiming David would never make fun of Jews or Muslims. Fact is, Curb Your Enthusiasm has always been equal opportunity when it comes to mocking organized religion. So, why all of the fuss?

The easy answer, unsurprisingly: the media. Once it, with its oh so many tentacles of dissemination, gets a hold on a story it doesn’t like to relent until all of the life has been squeezed out of the story. In the US, outlets like Fox News are prolific when it comes to this sort of inflation to the point of popping.

Sure, with the exception of bathrooms and choice plots of open ground, urine can be quite offensive should it land on you or your property. But David accidentally peeing on a towel that someone will inevitably dry their face with would not become international news. Yes, he’s having a laugh at the expense of religion. But on a Madonna of the Toast level the core criticism is of the human tendency to invest importance in the idea of a painting of Christ or Mary crying, or a Star of David bubbling up in oatmeal. Maybe it’s not even a criticism but more of a revealing of this tendency, and that’s what really rubbed people the wrong way.

No one wants to admit that they find meaning in a stain or wood grain but they are quick to congregate where Jesus has appeared in an oil stain or Mary in a panel of siding. Those inclined to act upon such visual manifestations don’t discern between the object and the image (and they sure don’t get into the semantics of worshipping, or belittling, an image of an image). David isn’t desecrating Jesus, but the way in which some people view not just Jesus but the whole of Christianity.

Of course, people who find the topic repulsive don’t have to watch the episode, the same as the people who ridicule the surprising appearance of an iconic form don’t have to pay it any attention. But in both cases, they(we) do, and that’s the point.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cultural Dependence

Have you missed me? It’s been a busy few weeks. I went to Germany and even had an email account hacked. And how about the whole Balloon Boy fiasco? Richard and Mayumi Heene are awful but the media did not help the matter. Why report on real news when there’s live footage of a boy hurtling through the sky in a UFO-esque contraption, most likely on the way to his death? Veracity is secondary, it’s the story, what we think we see or want to see. Do we really want to see a tragedy involving a kid? What do you see?

In Oakdale, California, David Nunez’s father excavated a “football-sized rock” ornamented with what the two men saw as an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, according to this Boston Herald story. Of course, “the caramel-brown and chalkboard black hunk of gneiss, a banded metamorphic rock that started out as sandstone and shale” dates back millions and millions of years. This shape was created around the same time as the Sierra Nevada Mountains, way before humans and human stories spawned. Merced College humanities professor Max Hallman gets it: "Culturally, people in India may have seen a Hindu goddess on it. If you’ve never heard of the Virgin of Guadalupe, you wouldn’t have seen it. Visions are culturally dependent.”

What then, Professor, can we deduce about the culture of Braehead, Scotland, where the purported image of Christ has been spotted on the bathroom door of an Ikea? According to this Telegraph UK report, visitors to the men’s room see Jesus and Gandolf. As such Madonna of the Toast stories go all of this is pretty standard. Here comes the curveball: the Ikea claims that the face is intentional, and meant to portray Benny Anderson of ABBA. As a spokeswoman said: “Swedishness is engrained in every part of our stores."

I love it when corporate branding and national identity mingle, especially when some late 1970s pop music joins the mix . . .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama, Letterman, Potatoes!

It won’t go down as one of television’s funniest moments like when Myrtle Young and her collection of pareidolia potato chips appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (Letterman makes no secret of his idol worship for Carson as the master of television tomfoolery). But President Obama’s appearance last night on The Late Show certainly caught my attention for the heart-shaped potato tossed to Letterman by a woman in the audience. Do you think Obama heard about this potato rendition of him?

The video is below and if you want to read more about Myrtle Young check out Madonna of the Toast.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Samoa: More Than A Reality Television Location

Did you know that Apia is the capital of Samoa? I didn’t, until an image of the Virgin Mary showed up there on the John Williams Building. According to these Samoa Live and News.com.au reports the image results from many years of dripping water and mold. But even with that explanation floating around as many as 500 people have gathered at one time to admire and discuss the form. And for good reason, Samoa just made a big change, a change so significant that the country prayed in unison to help the transition happen smoothly. In Samoa, they now drive on the left, like here in the United States.

Many interpret this visual manifestation as evidence that God has been looking down on the paradisal Pacific nation (though there has already been one report of a maimed pedestrian who forgot to look both ways when crossing the street). Others think the shape better resembles a bottle of Coke than the Virgin Mary.

Father Spartz Silva, Secretary of the Archbishop, had this to say: “It is creating curiosity, which is a good thing, it has triggered us to ask ourselves the basic question of who we are, and our purpose in life.”

I guess hosting a season of Survivor doesn’t count as “purpose.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

999 Is The New 666

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped some photographs recently and, surprise surprise, some folks see a robed Jesus basking on the planet’s surface. This Telegraph UK report says it all: “If looked at from the right angle – and with disbelief suspended – this photo released by NASA can appear to show the face and robed body of Christ.” On display once again the human proclivity for seeing what we want to see where we want to see it.

I couldn’t help but think of this while reading news of the half-hearted hijacking attempt by Jose Marc Flores Pereira a k a Josmar Flores. About an hour after an Aeromexico flight departed from Cancun on its way to Mexico City, Flores got the attention of the crew when he threatened to blow up the plane, brandishing a fake bomb, according to this Bloomberg report (apparently passengers had no clue what was going on until the plane landed in Mexico City and was surrounded by emergency vehicles). His demands? A visit with Mexican president Felipe Calderon to discuss a pending earthquake.

Originally from Bolivia, Flores has lived in Mexico for 17 years, has spent time in jail, was a drug addict and is a born-again Christian. According to Public Safety Minister Garcia Luna, Flores also “is a reverend . . . He said it was a divine revelation that drove him to this action.” The revelation? The date – an inverted 666, the Mark of the Beast a la the Book of Revelation.

No two people see the world the same. Some look at images from space, from places where humans have never set foot, and impose human mythology in the name of meaning; others see a calendar, isolate a single day in a certain month in a single year and see divinity.

As always, I ask: What do you see?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Be My Friend

Sometimes, these Madonna of the Toast images really grab your attention because the resemblance to an iconic face is quite striking. Other times the images are mind boggling because they resemble nothing at all, no matter how much you squint. Such is the case with this Virgin Mary agate. According to this Northland’s News Center report, Jesse Bradshaw, a devoted agate hunter, found this beauty in Northern Minnesota, though months passed before he identified the holy form.

In Bradshaw’s words: "Right here you see a face and a shadow of her eye and a nose and a mouth and a hood around her head there. . . I was kinda having a struggle and I woke up one morning and she was sitting on top of my other agates and staring me right in the face and I knew right away what it represented and I got so emotional; I just wanted to cry right away."

I see something that looks more like an extoskeletal alien. But maybe that’s just me. Bradshaw, however, is convinced that his discovery has blessed him, filling him with positive energy. Offers to purchase the agate have been made but Bradshaw won’t have any of it: “[T]he feeling it's given me is just incredible.”

For those of you keeping score at home, this is the second divine agate of the year. The first one hailed from Montana and possessed, to these well-trained eyes, a better semblance of the Mary. But hey, who am I to chide one’s happiness?

In other news, Madonna of the Toast is now on Facebook! Want to be my friend?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kudzu Jesus

If you recall from my last post, I’m from Philadelphia. I didn’t learn of kudzu, a tenacious climbing vine, until I had friends living in Asheville, North Carolina, where the stuff runs roughshod. It should come as no surprise then that a kudzu Jesus has been discovered in Raleigh, North Carolina, visible from the Boylan Avenue Bridge, close to train tracks.

What’s really interesting about this story is how it originated on the blog Goodnight, Raleigh! and then became a news item, thanks to the North Raleigh News.

Goodnight, Raleigh! is “a look at the art, architecture, history, and people of the city at night.” John Morris, one of the blog’s regular contributors, was out on the bridge one night talking trains with friends when a pub patron ambled by and pointed out how the kudzu running along wires takes on the appearance of outstretched arms, a la the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

Morris writes of the form that it is “merely a coincidental growth formation on power lines, but can still be an interesting topic of conversation.”

One man’s coincidence is another man’s human interest story, however. Writing for the North Raleigh News, Josh Shaffer came at the overgrowth from a slightly different angle: “He snakes up a utility pole, forming a majestic trunk and a head seemingly bowed in prayer or agony. A pair of arms appears to spread along the wires in each direction, inviting the world into a leafy embrace.” Shaffer even discussed the topic with Pete Surrette, who happened to walk “past with ketchup-stained pants and a Ziploc bag full of toiletries.” Says Surrette: "He's got the outstretched arms and everything. I walk these tracks and never noticed it. It was just a bush to me."

Isn’t that what Moses said?

Here’s more on Surrette as reported by Shaffer:

As he muses on its resemblance to the Lamb of God, Surrette mentions that he spent nine years behind bars for attacking a man with a garden rake. If the Kudzu Jesus turned around, he could see the window of the very cell in Central Prison where Surrette served his sentence.

But the mysterious bush keeps its gaze fixed straight ahead, vine-made eyes on the path where Surrette is strolling away, offering shelter from a hard world.

If only that rake were still around, I bet Surrette could get himself a landscaping gig down there by the tracks.

Friday, August 14, 2009

What's In Your Heart?

Philadelphia – place of my birth, the hometown, the punch line for many jokes (this Michael Vick development won't help) and a city I wish I knew better. Sure, I can navigate the streets no problem – William Penn’s street grids help – but I have no idea what’s going on along those streets. My periodic visits these days make clear that there is plenty going on, but I’m not the one to tout these changes.

But if there is a subject that I can claim authority and expertise it’s the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons. So let's set our sights on the greater Philadelphia region, Levittown to be exact – a place with some history of its own. According to this Fox 29 report, a woman discovered everybody’s favorite longhaired spokesman for peace and love in this MRI. The oft-recognized facial form can be seen in the area of her heart.

Even by Madonna of the Toast standards the information provided by the media regarding this latest Jesus appearance is sketchy at best. But that’s how the news functions these days I suppose: find the story and worry about facts never. If some unnamed person said it happen, than it did.

This item has been picked up by Fox News affiliates across the country. I guess Jesus in the heart is a nice break from false reports of “death panels.”

Monday, August 10, 2009

Toliet Seat Bumper Sticker

Bumper stickers: the excuse to espouse your beliefs and let others know what you think without ever having to engage in a dialogue. People brag about their kids, claim something or someplace as the best and get political, philosophical and just plain silly.

Of course, most people place these adhesive announcements on their cars but Las Vegas resident Magdalena Nelson loves her hometown so much that she’s affixed an “I Love [expressed with a heart] Las Vegas” sticker on her toilet seat. And, according to this KTNV report, the face of Jesus has appeared in that red heart of love. Nelson’s boyfriend sees the face too, and it’s given the couple “a positive feeling after they almost lost their home to foreclosure.”

If you’re going to be in Vegas and want to take a gander at this bumper sticker, or just need to use the bathroom, you can email Nelson to arrange a visit.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ukraine Jesus Wall

To western Ukraine we go, to “a metallically reinforced factory wall at the Velyky Berezny township” to be exact. The wall belongs to a lumber factory, according to this Russia Today report, and it features an image of Jesus, prompting locals to pay their respects. Though, the police have also been paying close attention to the wall because “debates on the divinity of the image are often and heated, and in the multi-ethnic region – apart from Ukrainians the township is also inhabited by Rusyns, Hungarians and Slovaks – tensions may easily flare.”

It doesn’t really sound like Texas, California or Florida, does it? But fear not, technology makes the foreign familiar for all of us anymore, and this area of the Ukraine, for all of its ethnic conflicts, is no different. According to the article, many of the onlookers capture the image using, you guessed it, their mobile phones.

We all speak different languages, adhere to myriad traditions and beliefs, but in this day and age we all, no matter where in the world we reside, are accustomed to, dare I say rely on, the ability to memorialize a moment and then disseminate it using phones and other such hand-held gadgetry. I’m not complaining, too much, since my phone doesn’t have a camera. Plus, these phones definitely provide lots of Madonna of the Toast fodder. But isn’t is amazing just how these technologies level barriers of space and time, accelerating the power of the image?

Friday, July 17, 2009

It Came From Above, Part II

Animal defecation and the Virgin Mary in the same sentence? Blasphemy you say? Well, according to this KWTX report, the Pachuca family of Bryan, Texas, calls it a blessing, and “more than a coincidence.”

Cristal Pachuca says the old truck doesn’t get much use, “but last weekend her husband decided to take it out of their garage and wash it . . . A few moments later the image appeared.”

While the Pachucas don’t use the word “miracle” to describe this bird bowel movement, the gawkers don’t hesitate: “Onlookers say the image is a miracle because the distinct colors and outline of the image on the truck match the image of Virgin Guadalupe.”

I guess an ornithologist familiar with the local flora, fauna, earthworms and such would be able to explain the coloration, but until I find a resident bird expert we’ll defer to the locals.

Of course, Texans know a thing or two about sacred fecal forms. Who remembers this post from May 2007 about a bird poop Jesus? How can you really forget such a thing?

And since we’re strolling down memory lane, don’t forget about the book. Maybe if you leave it out on your windowsill it will collect its very own divine doo-doo . . .

Friday, July 10, 2009

Another Tree, Another Country

This Virgin Mary tree stump marks Madonna of the Toast’s first trip to Ireland! According to this RTE report, workers chopping down trees at the Holy Mary Parish Church in Rathkeale, County Limerick, saw Mary in this cross section of one of the trees.

Upon being made public, nightly vigils have attracted hundreds of visitors and apparently thousands of people have signed a petition “to keep the stump in the grounds permanently.”

The church is not so cheery about the discovery. Father Willie Russell, a local priest, said, “It’s only a tree”; Father Paul Finnerty said, “While we do not wish in any way to detract from devotion to Our Lady, we would also wish to avoid anything which might lead to superstition.”

Probably not the best word choice on the part of Father Finnerty, what with Christianity being built around rites and rituals followed on blind faith.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Reader Response

The ultimate long summer weekend looms so why do my own research when I can rely on a reader of this here blog? I was made aware of this Jesus tree by Helot over at Maniac Annex. Dubbed as “Jesus in the Maple Tree” the facial form, as pointed out on the blog, does bear an eerie resemblance to South Park’s version of Jesus.

Thanks for the lead Helot!

If any other readers have their own personal pareidolia feel free to share in the comments.

Keep any eye out for iconic forms in your fireworks . . .

Friday, June 26, 2009

RIP MJ, We'll Always Have Pareidolia

I know, I know this is just adding flame to the raging fire that is the media coverage devouring the death of Michael Jackson. Regardless what you think of his music and/or his eccentric behavior no one can deny he will go down as one of the most famous human beings of all time. His image, as varied as it has been over the decades, has disseminated across the globe with the same verve, reaching the same point of saturation, as the images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

So it should come as no surprise that an example of Michael Jackson pareidolia exists. The first mention of this strange facial apparition appeared back in April at Forgetomori. A reader who had been watching the legendary 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman noticed what looked to him like the face of MJ (circa 1990s) suddenly appearing in the crowd.

The motion GIF above isolates the apparition’s appearance. Hoax or genuine pareidolia – what say you?

On a personal note, as someone in his mid-thirties my sense of self and my own quirky tastes had just started to take shape when Thriller came out. I’ll never forget kneeling on the floor with my brother, a little tape deck between us, as we listened to the title track over and over again, grinning with demented delight at Vincent Price’s voice and then dancing around the room like zombies. Hearing the choice tracks from Thriller and Off the Wall, along with such Jackson 5 classics as “Never Can Say Goodbye” over the past 24 hours or so, the soul and energy of these songs hold up against the test of time.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Another Virgin Mary Tortilla

The manifestations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary on tortillas is so common new instances start to sound like the start of a bad joke. But here we are again, this time in Harlingen, Texas, where, according to this KRGV report, a couple discovered this image of the Virgin Mary on a freshly made tortilla. The unnamed devout couple considers the form a blessing and have since enshrined the tortilla and taken it to a local church to be blessed.

Roadside America has a great description of the original Jesus tortilla: “No one realized at the time, but the 1977 appearance of Jesus Christ on a flour tortilla set the international standard for miracle sightings . . . the Miracle Tortilla was the first to fully wrap around the collective pop subconscious.” Discovered in New Mexico, the tortilla remained a point of interest until 2005, when the granddaughter of its creator took it to school for show and tell where it broke after being dropped.

Maybe this new one will take the place of the original Miracle Tortilla or inspire another movie, though I doubt it since more are bound to come along . . .

Friday, June 12, 2009

Holy Mamma!

What does the image above look like to you? Pretty womanly, right? Estimated to be approximately 35,000 years old, the discovery of this ivory female figure was made public a few weeks ago in the journal Nature, according to this New York Times article (which is also a few weeks old).

Found in a cave in southwestern Germany, the explicit form stands apart from other extant examples of Paleolithic art. The emphasis on the breasts and vulva makes it clear that the person who carved this object was celebrating the role of women in reproduction.

There have been several similar discoveries in the same region over the past 70 years. Archaeologist Paul Mellars, as quoted by The Times, said of the region and the artifacts it has yielded, it is “a veritable art gallery of early ‘modern’ human art . . . [which] must be seen as the birthplace of true sculpture in the European — maybe global — artistic tradition.”

This dovetails with my review of Miri Rubin's Mother of God, which you can read over at The Rumpus. Rubin’s fascinating book elucidates how images of Mary were used to spread Christianity, very much based on her unique status as a human vessel for the divine. I approached the book from the Madonna of the Toast perspective. The tropes and trends Rubin identifies as the major factors in establishing Mary’s allure fit with the stories I relay here. How? Because no matter what you believe, these are human stories, all of which can be distilled to archetypes, like this curvy carving.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Wonders of Yeast

According to this Daily Telegraph report, Claire Allen of Ystrad, Rhondda, Wales, opened a jar of Marmite so she could spread some on her son’s toast. The face of Jesus was staring at her from the back of the lid. She showed her husband Gareth: "When I first looked at it I wasn't sure, but when I moved it away from me it started coming out. I thought Christ, yeah, she's right - that's the image of Jesus.”

This is the first Madonna of the Toast story where “Christ” is used as an exclamation to emphasize the presence of Jesus’s face in an unexpected place. This is not, however, the first time that Marmite has been an aspect of these stories. If you haven’t read the book you wouldn’t know. But way back in 2006 as I was wrapping up the book, British artist Dermot Flynn made quite a splash in the UK media with his Marmite art – “Marmart” – images of which appear in Madonna of the Toast. (Interestingly enough, Flynn is represented by Dutch Uncle Agency, which also represents my buddy Noma Bar.)

Surprised that yeast extract could be so dynamic?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cheesus Redux

The story of Dan and Sara Bell’s Cheesus has been making the media rounds of late. According to this CBS 11 report the Texas couple bought a bag of Cheetos and Sara got to eating them: "I was putting them in my hand and I had eaten most of the ones in my hand, and one was left lying there. And I said, 'Oh my gosh, look at this. It really looks like a person in a robe praying.'"

The Bells have joked about trying to sell their find on eBay, though for now it’s just being stored in a plastic box: “They say it is a reminder of their blessings from God; but primarily they think it's a funny Cheeto.”

The couple dubbed the 2-inch tall snack “Cheesus” but they should not be credited with coining the term. If you remember, back in March of 2008 the original Cheesus was made public – how quickly the media and its minions forget. The Week, a magazine that distills the most newsworthy stories of the previous week, really demonstrates the media’s lack of any memory. In the magazine’s gloss of this story, which I’m shocked they bothered to pick up, there is no mention of the original Cheesus. Furthermore, they cite an article from the Houston Chronicle written by a rabbi who wonders, “Why don’t Jews see things in our food?”

Obviously not enough people have read Madonna of the Toast or kept up with the blog. Who can forget the Star of David oatmeal?!?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Iceman Did Not Keep His Cool

Remember back in 1997 when the Virgin Mary/Our Lady of Guadalupe was spotted on a tree in Salt Lake City? Neither do I. But news of Leslie Iceman’s attempt to burn down the tree offers us an excuse to stroll down memory lane. According to this ABC 4 story, Iceman, a homeless man, “used matches and cardboard to try and burn the platform that leads up to the spot where the image was.”

Apparently the Virgin’s form is no longer, thanks to a previous incident during which the “image was gouged out.” People still congregate at the tree, however, and the shrine remains. Facing charges of public intoxication and arson, there’s no speculation about why Iceman did what he did.

Above, the image as it once appeared and the image superimposed with an actual painting of Mary.

Here is a history of the tree written on the occasion of the visual manifestation’s tenth anniversary. The author, Richelle Hawks, was the evening manager of the New Age and paranormal section at a Salt Lake City Barnes & Noble back in 1997. One night a customer informed her that the form of Mary had appeared on this tree and after closing that night she and a friend went to check it out: “There was a ladder up against a tree as the woman described . . . The only light in this rundown, crack-house-infested neighborhood was a lone, flickering streetlamp. But, there did seem to be a darker, detailed oval figure in the smooth stump-which could pass even in the bad lighting for the traditional Virgin of Guadalupe. And it was wet – 'crying', as the woman described.”

Hawks relays the vague details of the initial discovery, credited to an anonymous city official “who was attending to or cutting the tree's broken limb, which had been damaged by lightning.” Of course, Salt Lake City’s Catholics are a minority, but an organized one that is predominately Latino and the shrine came to be. The piece goes on to draw parallel’s between these events and the story of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe. A bit of a stretch, but Hawks also posits that the tree actually led to the neighborhood’s gentrification.


How long before someone comes along and sees Mary in the charred residual of Leslie Iceman’s failed effort?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Speaking Words of Wisdom

If you haven’t noticed, newspapers and magazines have been dropping like flies, leaving reporters and freelance writers with fewer and fewer outlets to hawk their written wares. Just ask Jonathan Tilove, a long-time Washington DC beat reporter who has been hustling between bureaus for the last several months. According to this email he sent to Poynter Online, it was all of his shuttling around the capital going from cubicle to cubicle that resulted in him discovering this likeness of the Virgin Mary. In his words: “On Monday evening, May 4, I went back to the Cox office to pack the rest of my boxes and clean out my cubicle. And there it was, on my desk, a coffee stain in the image of the Virgin Mary. I was a little surprised. Why me? I'm Jewish.”

Tilove answers his own question: religion aside, this guy has a lot of Mary in his life. He and his wife honeymooned in Fatima, Portugal, location of a very famous Mary visitation in 1917; Tilove also admits that he and his wife have lots of Mary art in their home.

Leave it to a hard-nosed journalist, however, to push speculation aside and stick with the facts:

Perhaps, most crucially, I provided the medium for the appearance of the coffee-stain Madonna by allowing the remains of a cup of coffee to slowly leak out of a paper cup and then only casually blotting up the spill with an old notebook. I am still not sure what it means, but I confess that amid all the layoffs and furloughs and forced relocations, seeing the image comforted me. As it has been written, "When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me ..."

Let it be, Jonathan, let it be . . .

The form actually looks more like a mushroom-capped fairy. But it's not about what I see.

What do you see?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Viva Our Lady of Guadalupe y Lucha Libre

Hilda Maciel was cleaning the griddle at the Las Palmas restaurant in Calexico, California, when she discovered this Our Lady of Guadalupe image, according to this Imperial Valley Press article. A border town, it is no surprise that in Calexico the image elicited thoughts of Our Lady of Guadalupe and not the Virgin Mary, though of course the two are more or less the same. Even the local priest that “confirmed the image was a true likeness of the Virgin” hails from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

The form really struck Maciel because just two days before seeing it her brother had died of a heart attack and this was her first day back at work: “I believe that for me it’s to give me the strength to continue on.”

While the visual manifestation of this iconic form is pretty standard by Madonna of the Toast standards, the story seems to be making the media rounds by virtue of the fact that the Las Palmas Swap Meet had brought some Lucha Libre wrestlers in from Mexico. The visit made by Renegado and Mr. Tempest to the newly erected shrine provided a unique photo-op. Said Mr. Tempest: “I follow Our Lady of Guadalupe . . . This is amazing. It’s a true miracle.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Many Hands of God

Here’s a new one: an attempt to sell a rockslide rendered Hand of God on eBay.

The term “Hand of God” can have very different meanings. Michelangelo’s version from the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Adam” is without a doubt the most famous.

But, if you know more about World Cup soccer than art history, Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God goal” from the 1986 Argentina/England World Cup Quarter-Final match probably comes to mind. One of the sport’s most lauded athletes scored two goals on that day, one that he hit in with his hand but was never penalized for, the other a result of Maradona dribbling around 6 British players to score what has since been dubbed “Goal of the Century.” (Argentina won the game, and the World Cup that year.)

If you know about symbolism in antiquity and world religions, “Hand of God” signifies khamsa, or hamsa. The five-fingered figure is believed to have Phoenician origins though it is most commonly associated with Judaism and Islam. Not only do our hands have five fingers, but the Jewish Torah comprises the first five books of the Bible and Islam has its Five Pillars.

According to this CNN report, if you ask Paul Grayhek what the Hand of God looks like, he’ll show you the photograph above, and then try to sell it to you. The Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, resident lost his job and during Lent had been praying. Then on March 8 within a stone’s throw of his home the rocks tumbled, leaving this form, which is about nine feet tall and four feet wide.

Excavating this mass would be expensive, but no worries, you aren’t getting anything material. Says the report: “The buyer will ‘basically be buying the rights, complete and exclusive rights’ to the rock, including literary and movie rights, according to Grayhek.”

He goes on to say: “People think I'm some holier-than-thou person trying to get rich. I'm not . . . The purpose is to spread the story of God and eBay is just a vehicle.”

Well, in this instance eBay is a bit of a jalopy because as of writing this post the item has been removed. Maybe God thought there were better ways to spread His story. Or maybe God’s agent got in touch with Grayhek and explained that literary and movie rights to all rocks and stones have already been sold . . .

Monday, April 20, 2009

Kit Kat Kitsch

Greetings from London, folks. Keeping with the European theme of my current location, the Kit Kat Jesus above was found on Good Friday by some Dutch guy. According to this little blurb (read a translation of the NU.nl letter to the editor here), the guy was on a break and, you guessed it, he broke off a piece of that Kit Kat bar, only to find Jesus.

A brilliant Nestle publicity stunt or a divine snack? Do you think that Kit Kat Easter sales went up in The Netherlands as a result?

More anon . . .

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Myth Makers

Utah Mary

I saw this Virgin Mary image during a recent trip to Colorado and Utah, where the dramatic and ancient landscapes hold many forms and faces. But, of course, what I recognize as a visual manifestation of a religious or secular icon in stone has existed since well before humans and religions. In many of the Madonna of the Toast stories, people see Jesus or the Virgin Mary in a tree or rock, but in the shadow of such grandeur of places like Natural Bridges, Valley of the Gods and Canyonlands I couldn’t help but ponder myth and how it is made visual, and recognizable.

Along with the spires of red rock stacked like totem poles (replete with human-esque faces) and towering canyon walls that reveal millions of years worth of geological history, screaming with Edvard Munch faces, myth cannot be ignored when you also consider the abundance of the region’s petroglyphs and pictographs, most of which were left by the Anasazi (a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones”). I first learned of the Anasazi years ago when I met photographer Nathan Troi Anderson, a very good friend of mine and the impetus for this trip. I had seen his photographs of these symbols, but had never had the chance to look at them in situ. While I’m no expert on the Anasazi, or the American Southwest for that matter, it wasn’t hard for me to put the two subjects within a Madonna of the Toast context.

The exact meanings of these ancient symbols are difficult to define, especially since the Anasazi more or less disappeared, leaving little more than these markings, some structures and various artifacts. But standing in these stunning canyons, looking at the natural contours of stone weathered by time, it is clear that the manmade images respond directly to these natural environments, for it is all these people knew. It was through their interactions with the land, the sky and the seasons that the meaning of life took shape. The shape of these meanings, whatever they might be, are seen in lightning bolt lines, dizzying circles and majestic shaman forms. This is the stuff of myth.

When I saw the Virgin Mary shape in Utah, it was myth speaking to me, though in this case the myth is not as old as the form. For its relative youth, on a geological scale as well as human scale, Christian mythology, particularly that of the Virgin Mary, has proliferated over time. When you consider that Mary is mentioned only 19 times in the Bible (she is mentioned 34 times in the Qu’ran) her popularity is astounding. What do we make of this?

No matter when they came into being or where they were located, all human cultures have their own creation stories in which a mother figure plays a central role. With the Anasazi, as one example, feminine forms are not hard to discern in the petroglyphs and pictographs. Their importance is also bolstered by the belief that the Anasazi held their most sacred ceremonies in manmade ritual caves, or kivas. These areas were built underground so participants would have to go down into them and then later emerge, much like a child exiting the womb.

From both the literal and figurative perspectives, the Christ story also possesses this maternal quality, which was recognized and elaborated as Christianity spread. In fact, Western interest in Mary did not flourish until the 12th century, though the power of her myth was recognized all along. According to this Maclean's article, “when nascent Christianity spread to Egypt and encountered the cult of Isis, mother of the god Horus, Mary’s status began to rise even higher. Isis was a powerful and kind-hearted deity, attributes Mary soon acquired.”

The article is essentially a review of Miri Rubin’s Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary, which apparently identifies the real power of the Mary myth:

[T]ension—poised between virgin and mother, human and divine—is the source of her endless variety of portrayals, all gracefully traced by Rubin, from the young, sometimes playful, virgin girl to the grief-stricken and empathetic mother at Calvary. The need to ground Mary explains why she did die, as befits a mortal, but was raised bodily to heaven, as befits the mother of God . . . But there was a Mary for everyone, not just motherless clerics, in the flowering of medieval Mariology. For every image of a heavenly queen commissioned by wealthy art patrons, there was a story of the humble carpenter’s wife, particularly gracious to the poor and those who suffered.

This dovetails perfectly with the Madonna of the Toast mantra: What do you see? Throughout time, whether in the form of ancient inscriptions or Biblical stories, the visual manifestations of mythic iconic forms have endured the tests of time because they can represent a range of meanings, depending on the viewers. And while interpretations of the images may vary, they all demonstrate the human need for asserting our presence in this mysterious world where answers are nowhere near as important as interpretations.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Found in 1972, Making News Today

Joan Reed Carter of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, found this spindly shell back in 1972, while shelling with friends. According to this South Florida Sun-Sentinel article, Carter’s shell has been associated with Jesus since she first picked it up. In fact, one of the friends she was with that day declared: “Well I can't take it home with me because my husband's an atheist.”

Discussing her own relationship with religion Carter said: “Every night my mother would give us a crucifix to kiss. But I like all religions. If I'm near a synagogue I'll go there. If there's a Catholic cathedral, then I'll go there. We all came from the same place and we're all going to end up in the same place."

Over the years anyone that’s seen the shell thinks Carter should do something with it and I guess the approach of Easter inspired her to contact the media. She claims that some people get nervous around the object, not even wanting to touch it. And once, Carter snapped a photo of it but it came out blank. Luckily, the image made itself visible for the newspaper’s photographer.

Worth noting that while the incidence of seeing Jesus and the Virgin Mary in unexpected places has skyrocketed since 1972, Carter claims that no one goes shelling anymore because there are no shells on the beaches.

Monday, March 30, 2009

BBQ Mary

If there’s one thing people take as seriously as religion, it’s barbeque, especially in Texas if these articles from Texas Monthly and The New Yorker serve as indicators. So there is synchronicity to this Virgin Mary image discovered in Odessa on the lid of a grill.

Employees at Reliable Transport Auto Shop first noticed the form a few weeks ago, and since then a shrine has been erected and regular Sunday services have occurred. No word on what these folks had been grilling to create this Mary shape but according to this News West 9 story the employees believe it to be a divine visual manifestation. But they also “say it's up to individuals to judge for themselves.”

Monsignor James Bridges suggests, however, that it is not “authentic,” seeming to care very little about what others think. He asks: “What does it lead people to . . . Does it lead people to be better people? Does it lead people to be deeper in their faith? If all of these things lead to what I would call the agenda of Christ, that would put them in a position of being more believable.”

The word “agenda” always puts me off, and for a priest to use the word in the context of Jesus strikes me as rather absurd. To answer Bridges’s question, it does seem that this image has led "people to be deeper in faith,” hence the weekly services, the candles, rosaries, prayers and hymns.

Madonna of the Toast
stories whip people into action, from the media to the faithful to dissenters. As I write in the book: “Whether on the level of sacrosanct devotion or pop culture kitsch, these forms become as relevant as the world’s finest art because they compel people to react; the objects in this book, emblazoned with faces and symbols recognized the world over, have been appraised at stunningly high sums, been toured around the globe and have inspired people to travel, pray and steal.”

What say you, Monsignor?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Jesus Needed a Haircut

In Greenock, Scotland, according to this Greenock Telegraph report, Karim Babaa was having lunch on a bench when he noticed the face of Jesus on a garden wall. Formed by weathered stone and moss, the image was immediately recognizable to Babaa, a barber and a Muslim. Babbaa works at the Cutting Room (get it?) and when he showed his boss Alan Stocks the wall, he too agreed that it resembled Jesus.

Both men often relax in the garden, which sits between apartment blocks and Westburn Church, but neither of them had noticed the face until recently. Stocks cites the approach of Easter as a possible explanation. I prefer an explanation that factors in the amount of time Babaa and Stocks spend dealing with facial hair.

A local minister had this to say: “I’ve seen the image and, if it amuses people, then that’s fair enough. It all comes down to imagination.”

He’s right. It’s imagination that resulted in Babaa, originally from Tunisia, seeing the face in the first place: “This really looks like the face of Jesus. I’m a Muslim but I read lots of books and that is Jesus.”

Think he’s read Madonna of the Toast?

And speaking of imagination, this story has yielded two of the best captions I’ve read in a while – leave it to those UK tabloid writers:

“Christ-Moss Present” (Greenock Telegraph)

“It moss be him . . .” (The Scottish Sun)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Thoughts About News Covering the News of the News

Since being made public by Everything is Terrible, the video in the post below has received more than 140,000 views – in just over a week! Furthermore, said video was aired by one of the featured network affiliates that covered one of 2008’s Jesus sighting stories: news covering news of the news.

The tendency for media outlets to cover these stories comes full circle in the news covering news of the news, and it is within this cycle that the real power of these visual manifestations summons its bewildering cultural strength.

What we see is relative, right? Looking at a Jackson Pollock canvas, some see sheer genius, others quip that their child could make the same kind of chaotic mess and still others examine the tangle of lines and detect algorithmic patterns. How we interpret what we see is a direct result of what we have been taught, shown and exposed to during our lives. Various combinations of parents, friends, schools, religions, philosophies, television, movies, books and individual perspicacity influence our individual views. That’s why I’m so inclined to ask, What do you see? This is what matters because it is the collection of all our individual views that comprises this grander phenomenon, which is so acutely documented in the video montage.

Human beings share the need to explain what they see. That’s the function of language – to communicate internal thoughts externally. An intrinsic human trait, in this day and age of internet immediacy such explanations, whether on a blog or the news, swirl all around the world, are re-posted and re-appropriated, all in the name of explaining what someone sees, or claims to see.

The authenticity of these images is often called into question, but never by the news (as I’ve blogged about before). Sometimes reporters will include a quotation from a bystander with a different opinion (Jane Doe sees Jesus, John Doe sees Charles Manson) but they never really track down the facts about how the image in question came to be. There is often speculation, but very rarely is anything proven.

Of course, proving that a divine hand caused an image to appear would be tough, but these stories – human interest stories – rely on what the individuals saw and what they told reporters, not what actually happened.

So what’s really happening? That’s the big question. There isn’t a definitive answer, but if you weed through enough of my older posts, I think some answers begin to take shape, though they might be as hard to decipher as some of the images. There is no doubt that technology and its acceleration plays a role. How else could the frequency of these sightings explained in light of reports of religion being less and less popular?

Technological advances also permit us to know more and more about the world (for better or worse) so as more and more about science is revealed, we tend to think that EVERYTHING can be explained, can be given meaning.

Take this recent story from The Scottish Sun about a woman who claims to see her dead father in this ultrasound. She claims that her father is holding the baby, a sign that he will always be with them, looking out for them. Yes, ultrasounds provide invaluable information about a baby’s natal development, but they also are yet another image for people to stare at and look for meaning that may or may not be there.

It is this speculative quality of these stories that draws people to them and the reason why the media never shies away from such stories, no matter how little news the news might contain.

Want to read more about this? There’s always the book!