Kirk Straughen

(Investigator 147, 2012 November)


Over the years there have been many media reports of statues and images — usually of the Virgin Mary — that bleed, weep tears or exude oil. The most recent example at the time of writing (September 2004) occurred in The Vietnamese Community Church, in the Queensland suburb of Inala, Australia.

When witnessing these events many of the faithful come to believe they have seen a miracle — a supernatural manifestation wrought by the hand of God.

The purpose of this essay is to inquire as to the probability of this conclusion being true.

Why Be Skeptical?

Although the possibility of miracles (in my opinion) can't be ruled out completely, I would like my readers to consider the following advice from David Hume, an eighteenth century philosopher: "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence."

By this he meant that in order to maximize our chances of arriving at a correct conclusion we must examine the evidence, assess probabilities and base our deductions on reason and experience. Using these criteria Hume considered the following explanations for alleged miracles more probable than supernatural causes:
1 Lying or fraud, possibly committed to strengthen faith.

2 Error and credulity caused by a strong desire to believe.

3 Distortions and accretions — the account changed with the telling.
Some people may ask why bother to investigate — what harm can there be in believing in miracles? There are two basic reasons:

Firstly, it's a question of intellectual integrity — the truth matters. I for one would rather know an unpleasant fact than believe a comforting delusion.

Secondly, belief in miracles can make people vulnerable to exploitation — believers may donate large sums of money better spent on their family's needs to a church where miracles are alleged to have occurred. Alternatively, supernatural cures may come to be attributed to the icon, and belief in its healing powers may delay some from seeking proper medical attention. A skeptical attitude helps protect people from these and other pitfalls.

Natural Explanations

How could a statue be made to weep?

One possible method is to take a hollow statue made of porous material (plaster or ceramic) that has been either glazed or coated with an impermeable paint, and very carefully scrape away the glaze from a small area on or around the eyes
When a liquid such as oil is injected into the statue via a concealed hole, the porous body will absorb the fluid, which will ooze out as tear-like drops only at the eyes where the glazing has been removed.

This version of the hoax appears to have been used in the Inala incident. As part of the investigation commissioned by Archbishop John Bathersby of Brisbane, the statue was x-rayed, and the oil and a red substance (alleged to be blood) were analyzed using gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy to determine their chemical composition. Dr Adrian Farrelly, a retired professor of chemistry and head of the inquiry, arrived at the following conclusions based on the test results:
1.    That the rose-scented oil was similar to ones commercially available, and human hands probably applied it.

2.    That the red substance was not blood.

3.    That two small holes had been drilled through the statue into which liquids could have been injected.
In September 1996 Joe Nickell investigated a weeping photographic print of the Virgin Mary displayed in a Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto's East York district, and exposed another method of deceiving the gullible — simply put non-drying oil, such as olive oil, on the eyes of the image and allow it to run down the cheeks. This oil can stay fresh for days, weeks and even months. Under the right lighting conditions, flickering candlelight for example, the oil may look as if it's flowing. In addition, the illusion can be heightened by the power of suggestion and expectation in an emotionally charged atmosphere.

A bleeding icon in Quebec was also exposed as a hoax in 1985. When the statue was subjected to scientific tests, the investigators found that the blood on it had been mixed with pig fat, so that when the room in which it was displayed was warmed by the congregation's body heat, the mixture liquefied and ran like tears.

Believers often attempt to counter these criticisms by pointing out that no one has been caught applying any of these substances to the statue, and therefore the phenomena must be genuine. This defense, however, is inadequate — if a magician has never been caught with the rabbit already hidden in his hat, should we believe that he employs occult powers to make it appear?

Another defense offered is the alleged miracle cures obtained from using the statue's tears, an example of which is the statue of St Philomena originally housed in a Sterling Heights gift shop (USA) whose exudations are claimed to cure illness. Cures alleged to be miraculous, however, may have entirely natural explanations.

Firstly, many diseases, even serious ones such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, are of a cyclical nature — there will be occasions when the illness will go into remission of its own accord.

Secondly, our bodies have the ability to self-heal, so even if no efficacious medicine is taken the individual may recover anyway.

And thirdly, there is the placebo effect where a treatment with no therapeutic value can have a dramatic effect on the patient solely because the patient believes the treatment to be effective:
"Oxford University Professor Colin Blakemore relates a fascinating story about the power of the mind over cancer. The story is about a patient back in the 1950s who was suffering from terminal cancer. As treatment, the man was receiving a drug called Krebiozen. Remarkably, he responded well to this treatment and underwent an amazing remission. Not much later, reports appeared saying Krebiozen was useless in the fight against cancer, that it had no therapeutic effect whatsoever. Suddenly the man relapsed into serious illness. In a desperate attempt to rectify the situation his doctor gave him distilled water, telling him it was a very pure form of Krebiozen, known to be effective. Once again the man made a remarkable recovery. However, two months later a particularly scathing report on Krebiozen was released. The man died within a few days." (G. Phillips: Secrets of Science, page 12)
Of course this is not to say that the man would have made a complete recovery had he not read any of the damning reports. However, it does illustrate the dramatic effect belief can have on health.

Miraculous Statues in Antiquity

My readers may be interested to know that contemporary weeping statues are nothing new — St Augustine in his City of God (Chapter II) relates how the statue of Apollo at Cumae was said to have wept tears, and that the soothsayers considered this as a sign the god was bewailing a Roman victory over the Greeks.

Whether the statue of Apollo actually wept remains uncertain, however, we do know of pious frauds that were designed to deceive and awe the gullible masses. The Greeks and Romans had temples containing the following ingenious device whose effects were passed off as a genuine miracle and sign of divine favor:
"The altar was a heavy pedestal, surmounted by the statue of a goddess. Worshippers would kindle a fire on the altar to pay tribute to the goddess. Although it was customary to pour wine upon such a sacrificial fire as a libation to the gods, in this case the worshippers were told to desist. Then, after a breathless wait, the statue itself poured the libation from a vase held in its extended hands." (W. Gibson: Secrets of the Great Magicians, page 18.)
The pouring of the libation was accomplished by natural, rather than supernatural means: A hollow airtight cavity was concealed within the pedestal, which was separated by a thin metallic partition from the fire bowl above it. Beneath this cavity was a wine-filled reservoir connected to the statue's vase by a hidden pipe.

When the flames began to heat the air in the cavity the air expanded and, at the height of the fire, generated sufficient pressure to force the wine from the reservoir up through the pipe and out of the mouth of the vase.

This slight digression shows that human nature hasn't changed all that greatly over the centuries — there still exist those who seek to deceive, and others whose faith makes them vulnerable to religious frauds.

Miracles: Possible or Impossible?

We can't prove a negative — we can't prove that miracles are impossible. The only thing that can be done is to try and assess the probability that they do occur.

Can statues cry? In human beings tears are produced by the eyes' lacrimal apparatus, which includes the main and accessory lacrimal glands and the nasolacrimal drainage ducts. Obviously, statues, being inorganic non-living objects, can't possess these glands. How, then, could they possibly cry without fraud or delusion being involved?

How do the tears materialize out of thin air or stone? No one can explain this supernaturally, all believers can do is say that the will of God becomes manifest in the world. This, however, is not an explanation; it is an assumption, unproven.

It is no use merely saying that it (the weeping statue) is a miracle, for this explains nothing. Rather, I think it is merely an admission of our lack of understanding when confronted by the strange, the mysterious, and the unknown. Like the credulous pagans of old, when our minds can't conceive of a natural explanation, there is the temptation to assume that the answer must lie in a realm beyond nature. Indeed, when faced with unaccountable phenomena, the human mind seems predisposed to posit supernatural/paranormal causes.


When assessing the probability that weeping icons are manifestations of the supernatural, reason suggests we apply Occam's razor — the least speculative theory that best fits the known facts is the one most likely to be true.

On the one hand we have the supernatural assumption with its unknown mechanisms, mysterious motives of its assumed causative agencies, and lack of evidence that supports the existence of these agencies. On the other hand we know that fraud, motivated by religious fervor, monetary gain, and a desire for fame have occurred, as well as the techniques used to perpetrate these deceptions.

In addition it is also clear that people can deceive themselves; they can misapprehend events and construe the mundane as miraculous, especially when there is a desire to believe.

Based on known facts it is my conclusion that weeping icons and related manifestations are more likely to be delusions and/or hoaxes than a manifestation of the Divine.


Church Artifacts With Miraculous Powers: Weeping and Bleeding Statues

City of God (Chapter II)

Faith or Deception? 

How to Get Blood from a Stone 

Miracles and Faith Healing — a Sceptical Perspective
www.humanism.org.uk/site/cms/contentViewArticle.asp?article =1210

The Joe Nickell Files: Miracles

Weeping Statue of St Philomena

Gibson, Walter Secrets of the Great Magicians, William Collins Sons & Co. London, 1967.

Phillips, Graham Secrets of Science, ABC Books, Sydney, 1993.

On this website we examine the evidence!