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Our Lady of WatsonvilleOur Lady of Watsonville

Our Lady of Watsonville is a foot-high image of the Virgin Mary seen in the bark of an oak tree in Watsonville, California. Anita Contreras was the first to see Our Lady of Watsonville. On June 17, 1993, the Virgin appeared while Contreras knelt to pray for her children. Since then, thousands of pilgrims have flocked to the site, hoping for a miracle.

Mary is venerated by many Roman Catholics as thethe real thing - photo by Bob Carroll Mother of a god. Mexicans have been especially fond of her since her apparent apparition in 1531 to Cuauhtlatoatzin, a Nahuan peasant and Christian convert who took on the name of Juan Diego. (Watsonville is about 62% Mexican-American.)

The story of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a bit more dramatic than that of Our Lady of Watsonville. Legend has it that Juan Diego was a bit of an ascetic mystic, who frequently walked barefoot the 14 miles from his village to church in Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). It was on these walks that he had several visions of the Virgin Mary. He allegedly brought to the bishop his cloak on which an image of the Virgin had been painted (Our Lady of Guadalupe, shown here, is the centerpiece of the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City). (Legend has it that the image was accompanied by roses, which were out of season and which skeptics had asked Juan to have the Virgin produce as proof of his claim thatOur Lady of Guadalupe - Sacramento California - photo by Bob Carroll she had appeared to him several times.) Many believe that the painting is of heavenly origin. Skeptics believe it was done by a human artist and passed off as being of miraculous origin in order to win more converts to Christianity.

The name "Guadalupe" is Spanish and is a bit mysterious, since there was no town or shrine near Cuauhtitlan, Juan's village, by that name when the legend began. It is thought that the word derives from a Nahuatl word, coatlaxopeuh, which supposedly sounds like Guadalupe in Spanish and means something like "one who crushes the serpent." (The serpent can be identified with Satan or with the Aztec serpent-god Quetzalcoatl.) It is also possible that the legend has Juan saying that the Virgin was to be called Our Lady of Guadalupe because the one who invented it was Spanish. The creator of the name may have been intrigued by a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Estremadura, Spain. In any case, it is easy to understand how a mystical Indian could become enchanted with Christianity. Not only did the new religion abound in stories of the miraculous, but the Spanish Christians had put an end to the Aztec empire. The Aztecs had conquered the Nahuatl and perhaps had even sacrificed a few of Juan's relatives to the hungry gods.

In 1556, a formal investigation found that the image was painted by an Aztec artist, "Marcos" [Cipas de Aquino].* Examinations of the image have found good evidence that the image was painted on the cloth. For example:

...infrared photographs show that the hands have been modified, and close-up photography shows that pigment has been applied to the highlight areas of the face sufficiently heavily so as to obscure the texture of the cloth. There is also obvious cracking and flaking of paint all along a vertical seam, and the infrared photos reveal in the robe's fold what appear to be sketch lines, suggesting that an artist roughed out the figure before painting it. Portrait artist Glenn Taylor has pointed out that the part in the Virgin's hair is off-center; that her eyes, including the irises, have outlines, as they often do in paintings, but not in nature, and that these outlines appear to have been done with a brush; and that much other evidence suggests the picture was probably copied by an inexpert artist from an expertly done original. (Nickell 2002)

In 2002, a report on a secret study of the Image of Guadalupe was published. José Sol Rosales, an art restoration expert, found that the cloth "appeared to be a mixture of linen and hemp or cactus fiber" that had been primed with calcium sulfate. The paint used to produce the image consisted of the rather earthly combination of pigment, water, and a binding medium (Nickell 2002).

The improbability of the story of Juan Diego (some doubt he even existed), his visions, and the miraculous painting has not deterred the faithful from belief. In fact, only a deep religious faith could account for the continued popularity of Virgin Mary sightings. The skeptic understands the desire to have a powerful ally in heaven, one who will protect and guide, console, and love you no matter what troubles you have here on Earth. The skeptic also understands how easy it is to find confirmation for almost any belief, if one is very selective in one's thinking and perception. We understand how easy it is to see things that others do not see. Having visions also makes one feel special. Thus, it is not difficult to understand how many people see the Virgin Mary in the clouds, in a tortilla, in a dish of spaghetti, in patterns of light, and in the bark of a tree.

The cult of the Virgin Mary probably has its roots in goddess worship, which has its roots in the desire for a Good Mother, one who loves and nourishes, protects and guides, comforts and encourages. The Virgin is pure, clean, generous with her time, infinitely patient, unlike so many people one meets. She is often the harbinger of peace. The Mother gives birth and through sympathetic magic brings fertility to the crops and the tribe. The Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus who is believed by many to be a god, making her the mother of a god, even though this god is eternal and has no beginning. She is also said to have been impregnated by the holy spirit, rather than by her husband, Joseph. She is not divine, according to the Catholic Church, but her devotees certainly seem to view the Virgin Mary as a goddess.

A shrine to Our Lady of Watsonville has been set up near the soccer fields and playgrounds of Pinto Lake County Park. Father Roman Bunda celebrated Mass at the site on the 6th anniversary of the Contreras's discovery of the image in the bark. "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary," said Fr. Bunda. "For those who don't believe, no explanation is possible." He's right about the first part.

See also confirmation bias, faith, pareidolia, saint, selective thinking, victim soul, and wishful thinking.

further reading

books and articles

Callahan, Philip Serna. (1981). The tilma under infra-red radiation: An infrared and artistic analysis of the image of the Virgin Mary in the Basilica of Guadalupe. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. (1985). "The Image of Guadalupe: A folkloristic and iconographic investigation." Skeptical Inquirer. Spring.

Nickell, Joe. (1997). "Image of Guadalupe: myth- perception." Skeptical Inquirer. January/February.


'Miraculous' Image of Guadalupe by Joe Nickell Skeptical Briefs 2002

Retired abbot casts doubt on Mexico's revered Catholic figure

Appearances of the Virgin Mary in the 20th century

Myth Versus Miracle - Debate Rages Over Likely Canonization [of Juan Diego] by Kevin Sullivan


Surfing Madonna

Leucadia artist Mark Patterson put up the mosaic "Surfing Madonna" on a building in Encinitas, California, in the middle of the day on April 22. Now he faces possible criminal charges for doing religious art without a permit (or something like that).



Last updated 22-Oct-2015

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