Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where Graffiti and Religion Meet

For the most part, Madonna of the Toast stories end in one of two ways: they drop off the media’s radar, fading into obscurity or they get sold on eBay, making the attention last a bit longer (but not that much longer). But there is a third, less common possibility: defacement.

Above, a devil graffiti painted atop the Virgin Mary. The image in question is in Chicago, underneath the Kennedy Expressway. A hospital worker first spotted the image back in 2005 and since then people have wandered through litter and homeless encampments to leave a memento and say a prayer. The city’s department of transportation attributes the belled image to road salt, but that has not dissuaded the faithful, or the detractors.

This is not the first time the image has been vandalized. According to this article from Medill Reports (a creation of Northwestern University’s graduate journalism program), the image has been the victim of two previous attacks. Once, the words “big lie” were scrawled across the shape; the second time someone riffed on Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

In the past, the city has scrubbed away the paint, but not this time, so they just used one of the classic methods of graffiti abatement: a rectilinear paint over.

I like graffiti. It can be artful, political, smart, cute and funny. I think there is a lot to be said for the public reclaiming certain spaces and surfaces. Hitting someone’s home should never be done, unless requested. Yes, much of what gets tagged, stenciled or painted in urban settings is private or government property, making it a fine line (at least from a legal perspective).

So, what do we make of someone painting over an image that some people find important? The articles say that no one has complained about Mary being painted over by the city, but that doesn’t answer the question. Thoughts?

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Stony Jesus

"I ain't no rock scientist, but call Dr. Dre ...” So uttered Erik "Smoke" Jones. According to this Contra Costa Times article, Jones discovered the face of Jesus on this stone, one of many that comprises the counter at the store Cali Style in Redlands, California. Jones told his boss Jonathan Hernandez about the discovery, and presumably Hernandez told the media. The counter has been in the shop for years, but Jones only noticed the image a couple of months ago.

The writer reports that from different angles the face better resembles Che Guevara or just a black splotch. Whatever it is you see, however, Jones adamantly denies having painted the stone, and while neither a geologist nor Dr. Dre were consulted, the reporter does make it a point to say that the form seems to be a natural occurrence.

According to the article, “the image is viewed more as a curiosity than a sign of divine presence.” In fact, Hernandez hopes the visual manifestation doesn’t attract too many of the devout. I guess lots of folks praying and lighting candles could interfere with the business, and if really large groups began to congregate they could also get in the way of Hernandez’s business next door: THC Smoke Shop. Makes for a new interpretation of this phrase from the article: “stony store counter.”

Without incriminating myself too much, I can say that several years of living in California did prove to me that the state’s pot culture is something truly um, err, uhh . . .

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Montana in the Mix

Jeff Wahl found this agate on the bank of the Yellowstone River, seeing what looked to him like a kneeling figure. According to this Billings Gazette article, when Wahl got home “he cut the agate on his rock saw and revealed what he says is a resemblance of the Virgin Mary kneeling while cradling her baby Jesus. An aura seems to enshroud Mary's head. He calls it the Prayer Agate.”

Once again, the image in question is difficult to discern. It looks more like an ultrasound of a fetus than the typical Virgin Mary shape. I will say that it echoes the lava lamp image from the previous post. No matter what you or I see, however, the story was reported and now I’m relaying it.

To his credit, Wahl made his find public with the hope that he could raise money to help his friend, who is very ill and awaiting a liver transplant. Cash is tight for the friend and Wahl wants to help.

Also worth noting that this is the first time that a Madonna of the Toast story has hailed from Montana. This brings the grand total of states where these stories have originated to 29, with 16 countries and two planets also representing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lava Lamp Vision

For this most recent report of Mary and Jesus appearing unexpectedly we head down under, to Sydney, Australia, where one John Smith – at least that’s what he’s calling himself – has made public his psychedelic discovery: “I turned on my brand new lava lamp and watched in awe as the unmistakable image of the Holy Mary cradling the Baby Jesus appeared.” According to this Herald Sun article, Smith has kept this visual manifestation private for over a year, during which he has kept the lamp unplugged and his life has gone from ho-hum to dandy – including lucrative job offers and a woman. Now it’s time to share this “miracle” with the world, hence

The article, dated January 16, reports that at the time of writing the site’s visitor counter read 251, but as of writing this, also on January 16, the ticker reads over 54,000! Never ceases to amaze me how folks love looking at these images (or love to hate looking at them).

For those of you keeping score at home, this is the first time a lava lamp has been the vessel for such a vision, which is kind of surprising really. There have been plenty of foodstuffs, plastic bags, stones, driftwood and chipping paint but no lava lamps. These colorful novelty items have been around since the 1960s, becoming a critical accoutrement to any hippie hideaway. I bet John Smith isn’t the first person to turn on a lava lamp and see Jesus, but he’s certainly the first guy to dedicate a website to his vision.

Not that lava lamps are underrepresented in today’s culture, as this Obama lava lamp proves.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Vatican Gag Order

This is a bit off topic, but relevant nonetheless. According to this UPI report: “The Vatican plans to release a handbook to help Roman Catholic bishops investigate claims of heavenly visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.” Regular readers know that Madonna of the Toast is only about the visual manifestations of Jesus and the Virgin Mary (among other recognizable icons), and while they happen frequently enough to keep this blog somewhat lively, if I relayed every story about “heavenly visions” – like statues crying blood and individuals channeling Jesus – it would be a full-time job.

Some of the news stories about this pending Vatican report tread on being sensationalistic, but I did find an even keeled analysis of this development by John L. Allen Jr. on the National Catholic Reporter. All of the perspectives seem to agree that this is a power play. In Allen’s words: “[I]n the Catholic system the only ‘licensed’ spokespersons for God, so to speak, are the ordained. The eruption of alternative channels of revelation, especially among laity, thus has the potential to make officialdom nervous.”

I’ll say, according to these articles, upon any report of such a vision, the seer will be thoroughly investigated and vetted by church officials. Psychiatrists, theologians, spiritual experts and even exorcists will examine the individual in question. During the examination he or she must stay out of the limelight, since seeking publicity comes off as dubious. The person must also turn over their computer in order for investigators to see if the “suspect” – though this really sounds like guilty until proven innocent – had been researching suspicious topics.

In talking to people and reading quite a bit about people seeing Jesus -- whether as an animated apparition or an oil stain -- the general consensus about them is that they are just having a bit of fun, a crafty entrepreneur looking to make a quick buck on eBay or a crackpot. What then does the church have to worry about?

That there is what you call one of them rhetorical questions. If you find spiritual solace outside of a church, then you won’t go to a church, and this is what worries the Vatican. Allen dubs it “quality control” which strikes me as incredibly impersonal, mechanical even. But I guess dogma is kind of like a conveyor belt, it keeps coming and there’s not much you can do about it . . .

Okay, maybe not like a conveyor belt exactly, but the spiritual should be personal. If a visit to the woman speaking to Mary puts your mind at ease, or lighting a candle for a shrine set up by a telephone poll resembling Jesus on the cross slakes your worries, do it. If the faithful were jumping ship to worship American Idol winners, I could kind of understand this, but what the Vatican is reacting to is a result of its proselytizing -- the church has taught people to look for Jesus for help. Lots of people need help so it should come as no surprise that Jesus and Mary get seen all over the place.

This isn’t new actually. Allen explains that this report is more of an update of a 1978 document compiled by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that was sent to bishop’s all over the world “outlining the procedure to be followed in cases of reports of supernatural happenings.” Then there was the Vatican’s 2003 condemnation of New Age, urging people not to seek spiritual fulfillment in pursuits like yoga and feng shui and shamanism (though all three are quite a bit older than Christianity). (This is the Vatican’s official stance on New Age.) The Vatican's goal is to keep Catholics in line with Catholic doctrine and these personalized spiritual beliefs can’t be contained because they are different for everyone.

As more and more people react to seeing Jesus and Mary in ordinary places I guess the Vatican will dedicate lots of time to digging through people’s internet search histories. Maybe they’ll stumble across this blog!

Update: Speaking of holy visions and the pilgrimages they inspire, The Economist’s January 15 “Correspondent’s Diary”: “Pilgrims in Rhineland” describes a journey through Catholic pilgrimage sites in Germany and the author sites Madonna of the Toast as a “lively book” that documents these stories. How about that!

Thursday, January 8, 2009


According to this Bremerton Patriot report, Allen Kuckuck of Poulsbo, Washington, bought a handful of “novelty rocks” before Christmas and when he got them home and examined them “one rock spun around, revealing a new perspective on the crisscross pattern of its surface . . . depicting Jesus toting a cross on his back.”

Sure, the photograph doesn’t reveal much, if anything, about the image, but haven’t we learned after all of these visual manifestations that the actual image is less important than the story created around it?

In the story, Kuckuck jokes about selling the rock on eBay, though he doesn’t own a computer: “I’m going to sell it if I can get $20 million.” Kuckuck identifies himself as religious, and as a painter, so he has an eye for these things, and apparently a decent sense of humor about them.

How about the surname? I’m pretty sure it is of German heritage. Some Googling around also suggests that it is what Germans call the bird cuculus canorus, otherwise known as the cuckoo. What a great onomatopoeia! Apparently, the kuckucks that migrate to Germany have the bad reputation of laying eggs in preexisting nests. The female will lay her egg, eat one of the eggs already in the nest and then fly off, leaving her egg to be cared for by the other female bird. I discovered this tidbit here, but be warned, the writer uses this example of nature’s ways to present a screed on human morality. Kuckuck, kuckuck, kuckuck.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A New Year

A new year: a new president about to be sworn in, a dismal economy, the end of the Holidaze, winter and, of course, more stories about recognizable forms and faces appearing in unexpected places. I think it is safe to say that every year is the year of Madonna of the Toast!

This story from the Las Vegas Sun does provide a twist on the standard story, however. Antonia Baker of West Valley claims that every tile in her kitchen carries on it an image of Jesus. The 13 x 13 inch ceramic tiles were put down in the kitchen eight years ago, but Baker only noticed them three years ago “during the Christmas season while she was recovering from surgery for an eye injury. Doctors said she had to keep her head down to allow her retina to heal. She wasn't allowed to read or use the computer, so she had to stare at the floor for three weeks.” Sounds like that would make for a sore neck.

I know the image above is less than ideal, but if you really want to take a look at the tile, click here for a slideshow. Thing is, the Jesus part of the pattern is pretty tough to see. What’s most interesting about this story is that the form Baker claims to be that of Jesus is replicated on all of the tiles. Most of these instances are one-off examples of pareidolia. As the article points out, there could be many kitchen floors in the greater Las Vegas area with the same Jesus tiles.

Baker has tried to sell a few of her tiles on eBay, but to no avail, so she is happy to keep walking all over Jesus.

With a new year also comes the obligatory year-end retrospective of the previous year. California’s Porterville Recorder did one such nostalgic romp of 2008’s most popular stories and at the top of the list, above murders, fatal car accidents and the presidential election, a story about this angel image. Seen on the window of a local business, the image drew thousands of visitors and even got a shout-out from Keith Olbermann. And then, a couple of weeks later an image of Jesus on the cross appeared on a palm tree next to the window that initially got all of the attention.

The past two years have been pretty good for this ongoing project. Maybe this year the book will get Olbermann's attention -- remember, every year is the Year of Madonna of the Toast!