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!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Mona Mary

Hard to believe Thanksgiving has come and gone. Mine was good but rushed. I had to travel to London last weekend for book biz, but even when I don’t blog for a few days, these events don’t stop . . .

After attending her mother’s funeral, Shunattee Lewis flew back to her home in Sacramento, California, on Thanksgiving, according to this News 10 report. That night, still reeling from her mother’s loss to bone cancer, Lewis, for no particular reason, pulled a muffin pan out from a kitchen drawer. Having sat unused for years, the pattern in the pan “could have been rust, it could have been dried food, but whatever it is, Lewis and her family say the apparition resembles a matronly woman wearing a shroud.”

Seems hard to believe that the substance that created this image remains unidentifiable, but no matter what it is, Lewis believes it is a miracle, one linked directly to her mother’s death. Lewis’s husband first thought that it looked more like the Mona Lisa, which I can see, especially the high forehead. Their 8-year-old son had this to say: “It looks like she has a happy face and then don’t that look like a baby.”

No matter what you see, Lewis is convinced of the miracle because she is a believer. In fact, she believes in the form’s power so much that she has invited anyone interested in seeing the pan to come over to her home to take a look and share in its glory. Should you be in the Sacramento area, follow the link to the News 10 story and you’ll find a phone number.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

For After the Food

The Holidaze hovers. Friday, Black Friday as they call it here in the US, serves as a consumer ritual replete with massive sales, hordes of bargain shoppers and excessive media coverage of those who shop until they drop. What better way to mark the occasion than with a quick look at what eBay has to offer to those looking to stay home but still get some shopping done? Best thing about this stuff is that you won’t find these items in any of the chain stores near you.

This 18-inch oak log was split and revealed, to the hatchet man, “The distinct image of the Blessed Mother with the Baby Jesus on her rght shoulder as she looks down at Him.” Spelling and grammatical consistency aside, the seller is forthright about the reason for the high starting price of $5,000: “[T]his will alleviate some of my debt load which will in turn answer my prayers.” I can certainly appreciate that.

And then there is this tongue-in-cheek Jesus banana, or is it Ron Jeremy? Insert lewd joke here.

And I guess if you are shopping online, Madonna of the Toast can be your one-stop shop for all matter of iconography.

Gobble, gobble everyone!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Holy Pancake!

Just before Marilyn Smith was about to sprinkle chocolate chips on top of this pancake, she noticed “a faint image resembling Jesus and Mary.” According to this WPBF News 25 report, Smith was a bit skeptical about the image: “I saw what looked like, possibly, what people may imagine Jesus would look like, or Moses.” Dana Okane, Smith’s daughter, however, had no doubt, as she recognized the shapes immediately because she is a self-proclaimed spiritual person. When asked what it signifies, Okane said, “I think the message is extremely clear that the world bad better clean up its act.” So sure was Okane of this breakfast’s holiness, she decided to sell the pancake on eBay, starting the bidding at $35. Guess what – it sold, for $338.

What strikes me most about this little story is how matters of faith and belief are so individualized that a mother and daughter can hold two very different views about a discolored pancake. Okane read it as a message from God, and doubtless the sale bolstered her opinion. Smith on the other hand seemed to have a more “glass half empty” attitude about the object and what it may or may not mean to others: “Do I think that any nut will come along and pay a fortune for it like they did with the cheesecake or cheese sandwich? No, I hope not, because it really will eventually get really smelly and deteriorate.”

No word as of yet about the “nut” that shelled out the $338, or if the pancake has begun to rot. The folks with the Pope John Paul II pancake, from Madonna of the Toast, preserved theirs in the freezer. Diana Duyser’s grilled cheese sandwich has kept for over a decade with nothing more than some cotton swabbing to hold it in place. As they say, only time will tell.

I wonder if Okane is going to share any of the money with her mom. Seems like it would be the Christian thing to do. Either way, in Smith’s words, the two have a new exclamation to kick around: “We used to say, ‘Holy Cow,’ like everybody else, and after this happened, our new expression is, ‘Holy pancake!’”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

From the News to NASA, These Stories Can Cover Some Ground

As I mentioned in my last post, what continues to fascinate me about many of these visual manifestations and the stories borne out of the objects is how they resonate and extend through the news and culture at large. Take this charred California sycamore tree for example. For about two years, the faithful and curious alike have stopped to pay homage to what locals call “The Mary Tree.” According to this Daily News Los Angeles report, however, interest in the tree has grown lately because it survived the Buckweed fire, one of several large forest fires that razed portions of Southern California a few weeks ago. The Buckweed fire has been in the news quite a bit because it burned over 38,000 acres, forced the evacuation of 15,000 people and destroyed 21 homes; it is also the fire that a 10-year-old boy has admitted starting accidentally. Prosecutors and various state officials are mulling over whether or not to file criminal charges against the child, who by all accounts is a nice kid who made a BIG mistake, though his confession apparently makes it clear that arson was not on his agenda.

And from smoking swaths of such destruction, large enough to be seen from NASA satellites, emerges this singed shell of a tree on the side of the Sierra Highway in Agua Dulce. A pen dangles from a ribbon tied to the tree that people use to leave their prayers and wishes. Among the expected notes about health, healing, love and life, one can also find pleas for help with immigration issues. Talk about a topic right out of the national headlines!

So, in one blog post we have evoked iconography, ecology, immigration, belief and NASA -- and that's what Madonna of the Toast is all about!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Neal Pollack Sees Virgin Mary in Pumpkin Beer

Hyperbole: a writer’s greatest tool. This is wort (the stage of brewing beer that creates flavor) simmering away, just out of a pumpkin. And yes, Neal Pollack wrote this post on claiming, “if you stare long enough into the pot, you'll see the Virgin Mary.” So, Pollack didn’t actually see Mary in the pumpkin, he wasn’t even the one making the beer. And, being the caustic wordsmith that he is, the reference is, presumably, made firmly with tongue in cheek (though there is a hint of a veil in the upper right-hand portion of the pot).

Thanks to the wonders of Google News, however, I read this acerbic aside and couldn’t help but throw it up here, because like so many of these stories, it relays the extent to which these happenings have permeated culture. From brewing beer to reality television to Constitutional law (as posited in Madonna of the Toast) the human tendency to recognize iconic forms serves as a wonderful point of entry into the human condition: humorous, somber, absurd, and all of it important.

Virgin Mary or not, I bet that’s some great beer.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Sunrise Seashell

Nancy Kelly McCabe of Wellington, Florida, has had a tough run of it, according to this Palm Beach Post report. In late August, she went to the beach at sunrise: “Until that day, the universe seemed to have a grudge against the 51-year-old: she's agoraphobic, and her mind is bipolar; she was on the verge of divorce and taking too many prescription pills to function with ease. The law firm she worked at had fired her.”

On the beach, however, McCabe found a seashell that while holding it up against the new morning light looked like the “Virgin Mary in her robes, head tilted and hands in prayer.” This sighting alone didn’t change McCabe’s outlook on life, as the following week she was evicted, her only option that of residing in the cabana behind her estranged husband’s house.

There’s a great line from the song “Born Under a Bad Sign” written by Booker T Jones and William Bell for Albert King's first album of the same name: “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.” This sentiment seems to be at the heart of this story, as a spate of bad luck resulted in a run of good luck, and a happier life for McCabe. Her and her husband reconciled and she found a holistic healer that was able to wean her off some of her pharmaceutical regiment, which improved how she felt physically and how she slept.

McCabe admits that she was depressed and looking for a sign; she also new about her fellow Floridians that had found recognizable religious icons in unexpected places, and she admits that she was skeptical about seeing Mary in this shell. But, in the final analysis, McCabe’s life has taken a turn for the better. In her words: "Be it the placebo effect, I don't know . . . It worked."

Who knows if anyone else in the world would have picked up that very shell and seen the Virgin Mary? Chances are slim; I would have walked down to the water and seen how many times I could get it to skip. Again, and as I posit in Madonna of the Toast, it comes down to what each and every one of us sees. Rarely will our vision be the same, though it is all valid, and that’s what makes it interesting.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Like Getting Lots of Different Candies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, October 26, 2007

From Dust to Dusting to Jesus

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Stand Corrected

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kiwi Mary Pebble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Dead Insects and the Virgin Mary

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Burn of Memory

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Stone's Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

More anon . . .

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

An eBay Excursion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not Much to See, but Something to Read

Last week I passed along the story out of Miami, Florida, about the Holy Family shadow in the church. Well, it’s gone. Vanished. But the people still come, according to this Miami Herald article. The faithful seemed impressed just to be in St. Brendan Catholic Church, the fleeting manifestation some sort of holy-status booster.

The article closes with an image I can’t help but relay to you: a crowd of 12 gathered around a woman’s cell phone looking at the image of the image from a few days earlier. Apparently, Julie Verdeja saw the shadow last weekend and captured it on her phone, which she had with her last Tuesday. Didn’t they know that could see a perfectly good image of the image right here?!?

Father Fernando Heria, the church's priest, has it right, though, what matters is the "impact the image had on its believers."

Across the pond, in Bilston, in the middle of the United Kingdom, factory worker and born-again Christian Malcolm Jones discovered what he perceives at the face of Jesus on his workbench, the very workbench where he reads his bibles during breaks. I haven’t been able to grab a still-shot anywhere, but if you read this Express and Star report, you can also watch a quick video that shows the face.

In Madonna of the Toast, I included a couple of stories from the UK, including this Michelin Man carrot. Where there is faith, there is the potential for an iconographic face to show up unexpectedly, even if you can’t see it.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

“M” is for Mary and the Places She Appears

Last Wednesday in Miami, Florida, a flash of light caught the attention of parishioners at the St. Brendan Catholic Church’s Adoration Chapel. What happened after the flash is what’s made the news, however. According to this Miami Herald article, a shadow cast by a candle “unmistakenly formed the silhouette of the Holy Family – Joseph and the Virgin Mary standing over the baby Jesus.”

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two holy shadows in as many weeks. There was the Minersville Mary (not to be confused with the Milford Mary) and now this Miami Mary. The article doesn’t account for what happened other than the “flash of light” that can explain why the shadow appeared. Does it really matter? Lines form daily of those eager to see the cloth and its sacred shadow; typically, people queue up around supper-time during the week. With rosary beads in hand, people pray, contemplate, cry and, of course, take pictures . . .

. . . with their cell phones.

I’d be more impressed by the image if it remained visible on the cloth if someone moved the candle. I doubt anyone is going to move the candle. This manifestation pushes it more than most in terms of the “What’s everyone getting so excited about?” factor, but the fact is, the Miami Herald ran a piece on it, as has local TV. Once the story breaks, people flock. Some find the shadow inspirational, while others are just out to take a gander.

Here is another “M”: Media.

Oh, and one more: Madonna (of the Toast)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rind, Pith, Mary

Sam Nance’s son Marty was slicing lemons at Texas Billiards in Watauga, Texas, when he noticed the face of Mary across the pith and rind of this lemon. According to this Star Telegram report, when Marty brought it home, Sam claims the face didn’t really show itself to him until he snapped a photograph, but then he saw Her.

This is interesting since certain of these examples of pareidolia, both in Madonna of the Toast and on this blog, strike the people that first see the recognizable forms, but often leave viewers of photographs squinting, saying, “What is it supposed to be?” Without straying too far afield with a discussion of mimesis, pareidolia is linked intimately to the difference between an object and an image. Looking at this lemon, we are of course not really looking at the lemon, but a representation of the lemon. The idea becomes even more complex when it comes to religious iconography since the images of Jesus and Mary spotted on all sorts of unusual surfaces are based on images, created and recreated over and over again. All of the stories collected here and in the book are about images of images.

For Sam Nance, however, the proof is in the lemon. He’s a member of the Watauga police force; in his words, “I’m a detective, and I believe in facts.” It would be hard to argue the fact that Marty and Sam Nance claim to see the Virgin Mary here. The reddish discoloring can't be missed, and it does have that semblance of a face so common here on the Toast.

Nance and his wife are religious, though not regular churchgoers. The lemon is in the freezer though, ready to be showed off this weekend. What do you think the congregation will see?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blinded by the Light

This is Adrian Datte; he’s nine and has this to say about the splotch of light above: “It’s like, like it’s weird that it’s here . . . Like it’s really interesting to see. I think it’s something like a ghost or a spirit of Jesus.”

Light has always intrigued me: it’s ability to alter moods, indicate the change of seasons, illuminate or obscure a scene, provide warmth, serve as the counterpoint to shadow. Light does it all, and now it has projected a Virgin Mary image on a garage door in Minersville, Pennsylvania. Reported by The Morning Call on August 31, this Mary has been appearing every day around 6:00 p.m. since August 15, the day of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. This day marks the ascension of Mary’s body to Heaven, her body and soul united.

Seems that this Earthly appearance has been drawing around 400 people every day, from believers to the curious to journalists, and even Tim Heckman, founder of the Coal Region Ghost Hunters. Heckman confirmed “spikes in electromagnetic fields and energy that spirits use to manifest themselves.” That may very well be, though the article does not indicate how such spikes are documented.

Many are skeptical about this particular Mary manifestation, especially since a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in the second-floor window of a house across the street! So it’s just a shadow, right? The hundreds of people congregating every day obviously think it’s something more than an easily explained shadow of a statue. One 11th-grader answered his phone saying, “Yeah, we’re waiting for Jesus.” Joan Bettinger was not as hyperbolic in her assessment of the situation: “It makes you think about your faith.” I guess it’s made more than just one person think about faith.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


As I’ve mentioned here before, I don’t live with cable television. For the most part, this is a good thing, as I am one that succumbs easily to many lost hours on the couch channel surfing, watching everything and absolutely nothing all at once. With that said, I do miss keeping up with some of our most revered televised cultural critics and polemicists, like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Another personality that fits this category is Bill Maher. Whether talking about war, politics, sex or just about anything else you can imagine, he champions, as far as I can tell, the importance of staunch critics, even if that means not fitting neatly into a category, or at times being contradictory. You can imagine how my curiosity was piqued when I caught wind of this forthcoming documentary called Religulous, a collaboration between Maher and writer/producer, funny-man Larry Charles.

After a twenty-minute screening this past weekend at the Toronto Film Festival, the two filmmakers discussed the unfinished project, which clearly is meant to poke fun at the current religious climates of the world (especially in Judaism, Islam and Christianity). The YouTube clip below pretty much sums up the movie’s approach.

In my explorations of the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons, both in Madonna of the Toast and on this here blog, I have never sought to discredit these phenomena or the people that make them public. I have been critical of certain of their ramifications and I do think the prevalence of 21st century media (cell phone cameras, eBay, etc.) in many of these stories says quite a bit about culture at large. In the above clip, Maher tells Larry King that he cannot stomach people telling him what happens when we die. And of course, no one truly has this answer, regardless of religion or lack thereof. Maher takes issue with the proselytizers and zealots that try to convert everyone in their path to agree with a specific doctrine. I take issue with this, too. What I don’t agree with is how Maher isolates a specific breed of believer in order to mock all believers. It strikes me as too easy, a distraction from the more relevant issues at hand, like how we as individuals understand our respective places in this shared world.

Belief, the same as how people decipher the shape of a water stain, is subjective. The real questions are these: What do you see? What do you believe? The emphasis must be placed on the individual so the “you” does not get crammed unfairly into the “them.”

Perhaps I’ll get the chance to discuss this with Bill Maher one of these days, as I have reported on the visual manifestations of icons from Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Doubtless, the frequency of such events plays into the film’s assessment of contemporary religion being Religulous, if the poster is any indicator.

Friday, September 7, 2007

I Told You There Would be a Forest

I didn’t know it would be in the Ukraine, though. According to this Interfax report, near the village of Dobryany two poplar trees (one of them split by a bolt of lightning) feature the likenesses of Jesus and Mary respectively. The two trees stand about 100 meters away from one another and were first discovered by a first-grade schoolgirl. News of the trees spread quickly after the girl’s father documented them with his cell phone’s camera.

Apparently, the images become more visible during the golden hour, when the light slices through the stand of trees: “At sunset, the head of Christ is clearly seen at a certain angle, the faithful maintain. The other poplar shows clearly at its trunk clear of dry bark a figure with the bent head and hands folded in a prayer.”

Since the discovery, the village’s church choir has paid a visit, as have priests from the city of Lvov. It sounds like the priests from the city are a bit more skeptical than their rural brethren, as they photographed the trees but refused to comment.

There’s definitely something to be said for country living, although I don't know if you're truly in the country if there is cell phone reception.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Milford Mary

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This is the upstairs bathroom in my girlfriend’s childhood home. It was a suburban Massachusetts open-window summer night loud with crickets. “Buzz, come see this,” she shouted from the stairs. Crawling out of the couch, I heeded her call. On the stairs she stood, pointing at the bathroom. “It’s a Virgin Mary,” she said, devilishly. “Where?” “On the screen.”

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Sure enough, the belled shape I have seen on all sorts of substrates stood before me on the screen in the bathroom window. News of the discovery ran rampant through the house and the image’s story emerged. My lady’s sister’s fiancĂ© had killed an insect with some sort of laundry spray, out of spite I suppose. This Mary’s head is where the close-proximity spray hit, her body the stain left in the wake of the chemical drip. Appropriate, if you consider that Mary bore a son whose purpose was to die.

An eternal story, really, one that gets reinterpreted time and again. Another type of story that gets told over and over, especially over the last 20 years or so, is the story of the unexpected visual manifestation of a religious or secular icon. On this very blog and in Madonna of the Toast you can find mentions of The Simpsons, films about a Jesus screen door and a tortilla, and a play about a Jesus hickey!

Of late, two new fictional homages to these phenomena have come to my attention. The first is older but totally new to me: the Seinfeld episode “The Merv Griffin Show.” A new sidling co-worker of Elaine’s startles her and she spills coffee on her sleeve. Another co-worker thinks it looks like Fidel Castro. When she shows up at Monk’s and scooches into the booth next to George, he sees Art Garfunkel. I laughed my ass off watching this one. Leave it to the Seinfeld writing crew to identify a surprisingly relevant, if not oft ignored, cultural topic with great significance, even if its impact may be lost on most.

The second riff comes in book form, Jesus in the Mist by Paul Ruffin. I have not read this book. I don’t even own it. I stumbled upon it here in the cyber ether. Apparently the title story “tells of a man who leaves his wife and home because he sees Jesus' image in the foggy mirror of a Holiday Inn. He's able to re-create the image with a vaporizer in the back of his truck and travels the South collecting monetary tributes for the miraculous vision,” according to this review from the South Bend Tribune. I can’t say anything about Ruffin’s writerly chops, but I give him props for shaping a story around this topic. I’ve often thought about blending a few of the people and objects I’ve encountered in these parts into a short story, if not a novel.

No one has ever accused Madonna of the Toast of being a bad idea. Because it involves faith, belief and identity, some folks feel differently about it than others, but on the whole, most people have a frame of reference for the subject. That alone validates it, but all of these echoes created by writers, filmmakers and visual artists really drive home for me the extent to which these stories have cultural traction. We read about them and think about them, are reminded of them when we walk home and stare up at the clouds. When it comes across in a self-aware form (a short story, a screenplay, a cast iron pan) it works because it doesn’t come off an unbelievable. These things happen all the time.