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Eye of the Beholder: Religious Miracle or Myth & Pareidolia?

One Sunday morning in December of 1531, an Aztec Indian by the name of Juan Diego – he had converted to Catholicism some years earlier and had taken the Spanish name upon his baptism – was making his way to church when a heavenly voice called to him from atop a nearby hill. On running up the hill, Juan Diego was met by the sight of a beautiful young, dark-skinned woman resembling an Aztec princess. She was bathed in a soft light. Speaking in Diego’s native tongue, the light-bathed vision implored him to go to the Mexican bishop and ask that he build a shrine in her honour on the very spot on which she now appeared.


Recognising the vision as the Virgin Mary, Juan Diego dutifully went to the bishop and recounted his amazing story. The bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, was left unconvinced, however, and told Diego that he would first need a miracle as proof of his encounter with the Holy Mother.

According to the story, shortly thereafter, Diego again met with the Virgin Mary, and Zumárraga soon got his miracle.

Miracle of the Roses

To convince the bishop of her miraculous appearance, Mary instructed Diego to again go to the top of the hill on which she first appeared and pick some flowers for the Franciscan bishop. Again, Diego dutifully did as instructed and, despite it being winter and ordinarily too cold for flowers to be in bloom, climbed the hill. On reaching the hilltop, Diego found a mass of roses in bloom. But, these were not flowers recognised by Diego. They were Castilian roses, native to the Spanish hometown of Bishop Zumárraga.

This would become known as the Miracle of the Roses. But the true miracle was yet to occur.


After Diego had picked the roses, the Virgin Mary again appeared and arranged the flowers in Diego’s tilma (a coarse cloak) so that he could carry them to the bishop. When Diego was again before the bishop, he opened his tilma and the Castilian roses, instantly recognisable to the bishop, fell to the ground. The bishop was impressed. But it was what happened next that would lead him to believe Diego and immediately order a shrine be built in honour of the Holy Mother.

As Diego opened his tilma, an image of the Virgin Mary, just as Diego had described her, suddenly appeared on the course fabric cloak. This miracle brought Bishop Zumárraga and his household to their knees.

The bishop ordered that a church be built in honour of the Virgin of Guadalupe – just as the vision had instructed through Diego. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe today stands on that very hill, located on the outskirts of Mexico City.

The Miraculous Tilma

virgin-of-guadalupeThe tilma on which the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared some 480 years ago is still intact today and is now protected behind a glass case in the Basilica. For much of its existence, however, the tilma had been left to the mercy of the elements – dust, smoke from nearby candles, humid air, ultraviolet light, and of course, the constant handling and kisses of devoted followers of the Virgin Mother. But despite this, the tilma remains in what is considered “perfect condition” to this day.

Ordinarily, a tilma of Diego’s day would last no more than 10 years.

While the pristine condition of the tilma bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is considered a miracle in itself, the tilma had another surprise in store.

Images Within Mary’s Eyes

In 1929, Alfonse Marcue, the Basilica’s official photographer, discovered something unusual within the right eye of the Image of Mary. After carefully examining many photographs of the image, Marcue discovered what he thought was the image of a bearded man reflected in the right eye. After going to church authorities with his amazing discovery, he was told to keep quiet. Marcue’s discovery would remain a secret for two decades.


Then, in 1951, Jose Carlos Salinas Chavez, while examining another photograph of the image, rediscovered the image of the bearded man. This time, reflected in both the left and right eye. In 1956, ophthalmologist, Dr. Javier Torroella Bueno, after studying the images reflected in the eyes, found that they displayed characteristics that could be expected from images reflected in human eyes, including distortion from the curvature of the cornea. Other ophthalmologists also agreed with these findings. Among them, Dr. Rafael Torrija Lavoignet, who declared that the Virgin’s eyes in the image appeared “strangely alive”.

And then, in 1979, Dr. Jose Aste Tonsmann, while working at IBM, scanned yet another photograph of the image and discovered what he believed were further human figures reflected in the eyes.

The implications, if correct, are astounding. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appears to record the scene of Bishop Zumárraga and his household’s witnessing of the miracle, through the reflection in the Virgin of Guadalupe’s eyes.

But not everyone is convinced.

Myth & Pareidolia?

Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, wrote in April 2010, that: “Much has been made of the claim that figures can be seen reflected in Mary’s eyes, with some even identifying these figures as Zumárraga or Juan Diego or other characters from the legend…

Photos taken by another ophthalmologist in 1979 have been released, and it’s quite obvious that it’s simply random noise. I see a dozen or so speckles; if you want to make them into Aztecs, Franciscans, bananas, or Bozo the Clown, then you’ll probably also be great at spotting dozens of Bigfoots hiding in any given photograph of a forest.”

Dunning believes the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe is myth rather than fact. But he also believes that the image on the tilma, although “painted by a native Aztec artist,” has played an important historical role nonetheless.

“The Virgin of Guadalupe is yet one more mythical story whose believers are missing out on true facts that are actually more respectful and confer more credit upon them than the myth. The image on the Virgin tilma was painted by a native Aztec artist; and the painting had not only an important role in Mexico’s early history as a nation, but also a staggering impact upon its culture ever since.”

Whatever the truth behind the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, perhaps the real miracle is that after nearly 500 years, a simple cloak continues to inspire millions across South America and throughout the world.

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  • M.W.L. Gwynplaine

    Read Jacques Vallee’s “Dimensions” for a neat little chart comparing standard UFO phenomenon with the “Marian” visions and encounters. It’s been a while since I read up on all these visions, but if I remember correctly, none of the “Ladies” ever stated they were the Virgin Mary. The visionaries and Catholic Church made that assumption.

  • While we’re at it, also read Heavenly Lights by Joaquim Fernandez & Fina D’Armada. IMO the best book about the Marian apparitions in Fátima.

    There are some things I dislike about the Guadalupean cult –and I’m not using the term in a derogatory way– like the people who offer penance by traveling to the Basilica on their knees, as a way to repay for a favor received –all part of the Christian apology of pain. But I can’t deny that the figure of ‘la Morenita’ has offered a lot of comfort to countless people in Latin America.

  • Hey RPJ,
    What are your thoughts on the actual tilma and the image?


  • Hmmmm….

    That’s a tough question to answer, Andrew. There’s so many tangents you could go into, this reply could turn into a blog post!

    On the one hand there are the skeptics who think the tilma was a hoax perpetrated by the church, to ease up the evangelization of the Aztecs. But then one has to point out the fact that the cloth of this crude garment has been preserved for CENTURIES, as you pointed out.

    Then there’s the fact that even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs already revered a deity the called Tonantzin (“Our Revered Mother”), which is identified by some researchers as Cihuacóatl, the goddess of childbirth. Note the powerful symbology here: The woman portrayed in the ayate is clearly with child, and that particular historical moment experienced the birth of a new nation: the merger of two races & 2 different worldviews –that’s why the image of La Guadalupana became the 1st banner of the Independentist army, when in the XIXth they fought to free themselves from the yoke of Spain.

    There are also those who say the stars in the ayate represent the position of the constellations on that exact December day.

    Also, the story is just so typical of the Marian phenomena, you know? The entities ALWAYS appearing to children, or people of low social status who are sent as envoys to deliver a message. You always think “why not cut the middleman & appear directly before bishop Zumárraga?”, but I think the initial skepticism & the willingness to follow the Virgin’s request IS the point of all this.

    It’s a test of faith.

    So, I’m willing to entertain the idea there’s something behind all this.

    I hope that answers your question 🙂

  • Michael S. Tancredi

    Dear Guest… Your assertion that the “Ladies” never identified themselves as the Virgin Mary is incorrect. At Lourdes she stated ” I am the Immaculate Conception” a dogma already believed but not made an article of Faith until 1854 by Pope Pius IX. This was proof to the parish priest of validity of the vision since it was a newly proclaimed tenant of Faith (although a longstanding belief dating back to the second century AD) and the children were not yet taught the belief and the verbiage of the statement was a unique identifier of who this Lady was. At Fatima she identified herself as “the Lady of the Rosary”. Both references could only be linked to Catholic titles of the Virgin Mary.