Crying Game

A nod is as a good as a wink to a blind horse
-old adage

The trappings of religion are its key selling points.  The ritual, the ceremony, the pomp-and-circumstance of gathering in an opulent place of worship, feasting one’s peasant eyes on great artworks, filling one’s peasant nostrils with the intoxicating scent of burning incense (a far cry from the usual “bouquet” of squalor, body odor, and ordure), the voices raised on high in song – these elements are the basis of religion, a feast for the senses of the benumbed, insensate masses.

Intellectual gratification, philosophical musings, questions of truth, and similar loftier pursuits were not the concerns of any early organized religion. No, the most important thing for a budding organization, and the thing that allowed it to thrive, was not the chosen god, but the god of Mammon.

Then, as now, money is what is needed to keep the institution alive, and to get money, a smart church needs to keep its pews filled.

Suicide Angel (digital revamp)Credit: SYoshiko, 2012
Tears of Sadness
In order for the human eye to function it needs a lubricant.  Conveniently, this is supplied by tear glands (or the lachrymal glands).  This is an almond-shaped organ in the upper eye socket near the outer edge of the eye beneath the upper eyelid.  The saline solution secreted  by the gland moistensTear glands (transparency cross-section)Credit: American Peoples Encyclopedia, 1963 it, allowing for suppleness and preventing the eyelids from sticking to the surface of the eye.
Under normal conditions the tears secreted by the gland do not spill over the lower lid.  There are sebaceous glands that secrete an oil that lines the lids, keeping the tears in place.  Once having flushed over the eye, tears gather in the lower inside corners where they enter a very tiny opening leading to a tear duct.  This, in turn, drains into the nasal cavities.

The damming capabilities of the eyelid’s sebaceous oils are put to the test (and fail) when a human cries.  This is a good thing – excess tear flow could be caused by a foreign object the eye is attempting to wash out, and it is certainly better for it to be completely flushed from the eye by overflowing tears than to merely find its way to the tear duct opening to become lodged and possibly infected.

Other natural stimuli that might cause excess tears are sudden exposure to bright light (as in looking into the Sun), histamine reactions from allergies, or as a reaction to spicy foods. 

Unnatural tear production can be caused by an overly emotional person.  In those cases, tears flow from an internal sense of sadness, loss, grieving, and in other cases, joy.  Interestingly enough, chemical analyses of tears secreted under the various emotional conditions that cause them have slightly different chemical compositions (in terms of ratios of salts to liquids).  Most fascinating is that the so-called “tears of joy” are really tears of sadness chemically. 

Emotionally, it has been determined that tears of joy (say, at a celebrated event such as a wedding) are not shed for the guests of honor at such a function, but are instead a self-pitying, subconscious mourning by the crier.  He or she is either reminiscing or crying over regrets or over opportunities lost in his or her lifetimes.  Tears of joy, in other words, are selfish tears and not expressed for the occasion at hand.

Heavy or uncontrolled laughter can cause excessive tear flow as well.  The reason is that it is a response to the body’s reaction to overproduction of certain hormones when one laughs (similar to the response to allergies). 

Tears are benign.  However, the image of anyone, especially people known to have suffered greatly during his or her lifetime, is more emotionally moving if tears are present on the face. And if that image can be shown to actively shed such tears the miraculous nature of the event is guaranteed to bring the curious, the convinced, and the crackpots alike.  

A Clockwork Jesus
In Medieval times, day-to-day survival was a literal struggle, and Death lurked always in the shadows.  There was never enough food (famines great and small dotted Europe). Pestilence and diseases claimed millions.  Infant mortality was so high that many dead offspring ended up in a rubbish barrow as common as any other cast-off.  Wolves, in greater numbers then, routinely attacked humans.  Rats, fleas, and lice lived as casual reminders of the general wretchedness of existing.  [And lice were such a common part of anyone’s daily life that a tale gathered by the Brothers Grimm references a woman placating an ogre-like brute by placing his head in her lap and de-lousing him as a soothing activity until he fell asleep!]

The misery attendant upon merely being alive was unrequited.  There was, however, one small sanctuary of relief from the grinding poverty of the peasantry. That was church services.  At least once a week the locals could gather in a place in which they could forget their earthly troubles for a few hours.  This entertainment palace (certainly a palace by any peasant standards) might use grand architecture to inspire a sense of awe upon approach.  Walking in the door, the average peasant would see artworks the like of which were not accessible otherwise.  They reveled in the glory of their community, singing songs, inhaling the sweetened, incensed air, and feeling an overload of sensual stimulation

That was the pageantry of the Catholic Church and it was specifically designed to appeal to the masses in that way.  The incentive to go there, to take part in the celebrations, the sacraments – the headiness of the environment was purposefully built into the structure. 

Churches vied for religious relics.  Such relics were usually slivers of wood “from the true cross” (one early Catholic saint wryly observed there were enough such “true cross” slivers in the world during his day to build a fleet of wooden ships!).  Other churches had bones or other artifacts from saints.  Anything possessed by the church considered a crowd pleaser was publicized both by the church itself and the congregants. 

Churches specifically sought great artistic works – statues, paintings, panels, stained glass works.  A church with a particularly fine tapestry, for example, might attract out-of-towners to see the work.  These people, of course, left offerings that benefited the church, so it was in any venue’s interest – particularly in a small hamlet or village – to have at least one “sideshow attraction” to guarantee a full house (and a full offering plate). 

One particular Old World church had a miracle beneath its roof beams.  Hanging high above its altar hung a skillfully crafted crucifix with a detailed Jesus suspended from it.  Word got around, however, that this was no ordinary icon – when the spirit so moved it, the Jesus incline its head downward in a benevolent, approving gesture to the peasants in the pews.  Sometimes the eyes blinked or the body shifted on its cross.

This miraculously moving Jesus reached the ears of many outside that church’s area.  People thronged to it to witness the miracle.  The church’s coffers filled with the grateful who had seen Jesus give him or her an approving nod or two.  Years later, when a major renovation was done, a worker discovered a secret compartment behind the hanging Jesus.  Inside were mechanics – rods and pulleys – used by a secreted monk during services to make Jesus squirm or nod. 

No one speaks of this “miracle” these days.  Yet, it is a prime example of just how far a religion will go to insure its continued success.

Plaster Caster
Plaster is a humble material, and it dates back to antiquity.  It is made of gypsum, lime, and other bonding agents that help form a durable and smooth surface.  Its earliest use was as a building material.  It could be applied over walls, on ceiling beams, and on other surfaces as a protective coating and also gave a surface a “finished” look.

As early as 1500 BCE, Minoan craftsman and painters learned by applying pigments directly to a wet surface of thinly spread plaster they could create very vibrant and lasting works.  This process, fresco, was particularly popular with mural makers in history.  The ensuing BathersCredit: stock imageworks are not subject to light variations as canvas is – the plaster absorbs and reflects light uniformly, giving the artist’s “vision” something as close to “true” as possible when viewed.  

The process is painstaking and requires a great degree of skill and patience.  Plaster, in the thinness with which it is applied, dries very quickly.  Artists had to always keep the surface wet and work in small sections to keep ahead of the drying.  Also, the pigments used had to be inorganic (usually of metals or salts).  Any organic pigment would be destroyed over time by the lime in the materials.

Plaster was refined into another material, though, that had greater artistic merits.  Gypsum, the primary mineral used in plaster, when heated (to remove roughly 75% of its water content) makes a very fine powder.  This powder with some other binders forms what is called “plaster of Paris”. Plaster of Paris was a boon to sculptors and the crafts industry.  In its liquid form it was easily poured into breakaway molds or cast into slabs for scrivening or carving work.  Its soft surface allowed great detail to enhance sculpture.  Furthermore, it held glazes and pigments very well, soaking the colors into the surface for a vibrant, almost permanent, cast.

Like its relative cement, plaster’s hardening process is exothermic.  That means heat is released as the material sets.  Anyone who has ever had a plaster cast put on a broken limb, or worked making poured plaster sculptures has felt the heat generated by the drying.  This exothermic reaction also expels most of the water in the material as well.  What remains is a very porous white surface. 

Today, plaster of Paris is not seen as a fine-art medium.  It is thought of as cheap and shoddy – children use it in school crafts projects.  However, there was a time in the last centuries when plaster of Paris was the height of technology in materials for artistry.  It was considered exotic; while it was easier to manipulate than stone, it was expensive.  For anyone walking into any church and seeing old statuary made of plaster (glazed and painted) and thinking the material used is substandard keeping in perspective that the plaster statues were once the more costly artworks in there might help understand why they are so proliferate.  The Catholic Church does not do things by half measures. 

Plaster Mary Miracles
Over the decades since plaster was introduced as a mainstream statuary material, certainly where it could be seen often and publicly, anomalous stories appeared about weeping and bleeding religious statues

Not surprisingly, these miracles usually involved a statue of The Blessed Virgin Mary (herself probably the subject of more mystical visions and claims of miraculous interventions than any other figure in history, including her son, Jesus).  Reports of Mary statues crying tears (of a clear liquid) or the more macabre (and frightening) crying blood are common enough they seem almost routine.  Nearly all are quickly proven as frauds, and the ones that cannot be (by casual inspection) written off as such can be anatomically discounted as fakes.

As known, plaster is exothermic and highly porous.  With a glazed surface, water or other liquids trapped inside the hollow body of a plaster religious statue has no chance of escape.  A small, almost invisible scratch through the glazed or painted surface, however, changes the dynamics of the static fluid.  Suddenly, capillary action can draw the liquid through the porous plaster, causing it to well up at the surface scratch and shed.  Thus, “tears” are formed.

Many times this is happenstance.  The statue is not purposefully tampered with or manipulated but the correct humidity conditions combined with atmospheric pressure, temperature, and imperfections in the sealed painted surface give rise to “sweating”.  Like the church that housed the clockwork Jesus, though, there remain those unscrupulous enough to fake a miracle.  It is not only easily done, but it is also still acceptable to make the claim of a bleeding or weeping statue without any inquiry.  The sheeple will come and blindly lay their money down with no regard for veracity of the claim.

In the images below, simple anatomy discounts any claims of truth.  Recalling that the human eye (and these statues represent humans who once walked the earth, whether it is Mary of Nazareth or her son) one would expect the tear flow pattern to emulate that of a real person.  They do not.  In the images below, detailed from weeping statues around the world, it is clear they are fakes.  The tears do not emanate from the proper spot in the upper outside edge under the eyelid. (In some cases they are clearly coming out of the side of the nose and above an eyebrow). The tear tracks in width are also unnaturally disproportionate to the face size.

Three Bloody MarysCredit: photobucket; tumblr; wordpress

Often, the icon in question is not allowed to be examined.  Proprietors will say the holiness of the object or the miraculous nature of the bleeding would be disturbed by such scrutiny.  of Mary at the Carmelite Mary Immaculate (CMI) Bhavan in Marianagar, Ghaziabad (India)Credit: newsneteast.comSome of these claims have, however, been thoroughly investigated by the Catholic Church and others.    One bleeding Virgin Mary was found to coincidentally have the same blood type as the very male church custodian.  In Italy in 2008, the statue’s blood was found to be a DNA match to this custodian.  He was put on trial for fraud (the sensation of the bleeding statue led to cash offerings from believers, obtained under obviously false pretenses).

Other statues have been discovered with tiny holes in the top and had been filled with animal blood or colored water or other liquids that leaks from contrived scratches in the lower eyelids. In 2004, a large plaster statue of the Virgin Mary at a Vietnamese Catholic church in Brisbane, Australia, seeped scented oil from its eyes, nose, forehead and fingers. A crucifix on the church’s altar and other religious figurines reportedly bled. Thousands of believers thronged to view these artifacts. 

A very wise archbishop, John Bathersby, spearheaded an investigation of the phenomena.  The leaky Mary statue was X-rayed.  Blood samples from it were subjected to gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy. The scientific conclusions were clear indicators of intentional fraud.   The rose-scented oil on the statue was common and widely commercially available; it appeared to have been spread on the statue by hand.  The red liquid from the other artifacts was not blood.  Finally, two very small holes had been found drilled into the statue through which liquids could easily be injected. The Church’s position on this was clear: “Not satisfied the phenomenon was, within the proper meaning of the word, a miracle”. Archbishop Bathersby took the further steps of apologizing publicly for the hoax, required the statue’s removal, and he demanded the cash windfall the church enjoyed from its sudden celebrity be subjected to a full forensic accounting investigation.

A bloody-teared statue of St. Padre Pio in Sicily in 2002 was investigated – its blood was that of a woman.  A bleeding Mary in the 2012 was shown to have a blood type not in the expected blood group of Jews of her time. Another bleeding Mary (in 1995) was proven to have male blood.  Her keeper (a male) refused to take a DNA test to compare the secretions from the statue to him, a clear sign of fraud by default. 

The Catholic Church has never accepted any one of these statues as miraculous, nor has it given its imprimatur to any current claims (including what is falsely reported as a Church-approved miracle in the weeping statue of Our Lady of Akita in Japan).  The Catholic Church, in fact, looks askance at these; invariably it proves the fake or investigative results skew toward fraud. 

Personal Jesus
Jesus, too, comes in for his share of bleeding and crying when on display as an icon.  The clockwork nodding Jesus was but one clear fraud.  Here are two more examples that, again, by anatomical positioning alone and tear track width (disproportionate) can be readily dismissed as fakes (although the Jesus with the crown of thorns is apparently “bleeding” from his head wounds, these also do not seem to follow expected fluid dynamics).
Bleeding Jesus statues (boy & man)Credit:

The Jesus of the thorny crown also opens the door to yet another explanation for “bleeding” statues.  Considering that many of these have been tampered with at some point or even have had real blood on or in them, a particular bacteria living in residual organic material can be Serratia marcescens (excreta)Credit: wordpress.comshown in the lab to leave an excretory trail of “blood” pigment.  Serratia marcescens produces a red pigment called “prodigiosin”.  Because the bacteria thrives in dirty, damp areas, it can appear on statuary that is not routinely cleaned (and in cases of weeping or bleeding statues, caretakers do not want to remove the residue as it is a selling feature of the attraction).

This bacterium was first taken as a scientific subject of serious interest when it was found oozing out of damp statues in Italy and also appearing on communion wafers in churches.  These bloody manifestations to the peasantry of 1819 would have been written off merely as divine miracles.  It was when the bacteria spread to a common foodstuff – polenta – that an inquisitive pharmacist named Bartolomeo Bizio took interest in the phenomenon.   It was his belief that what peasants perceived fearfully as diabolically cursed polenta was probably the result of microorganism action instead.  He cultured some of the material from tainted polenta.  His lab work showed that a byproduct of this bacteria’s ingestion was an excretory substance that looks very much like blood.

Our Unsanctioned Lady of Akita
False understanding of what is required for the Catholic Church to declare a phenomenon truly miraculous has led to the erroneous belief that the weeping statue in Our Lady of AkitaAkita, Japan (and environs)Credit: American People's Encyclopedia, map 1963 in Japan has been officially proclaimed by the Church as a genuine miracle.

It has not been sanctioned, and it is not miraculous.  The false Chuirch-sanction belief stems from a 1984 letter describing the proposed acceptance of the statue as miraculous.  Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) had advised caution, but accepted the contents of a letter from a clearly biased bishop of Akita in 1988 as a record of the events surrounding the statue.  That is all.

This “miracle” first manifested in 1973.  As with nearly every Marian sighting or vision the Our Lady of Akita the manifestation appeared in a remote church with little publicity. These “miracles” never occur in large venues or in major cathedrals – they invariably find homes in nondescript, impoverished, or otherwise unremarkable places.  True to form, Akita (though large in population) is roughly 300 miles due north of Tokyo on the coast of the Sea of Japan.  

Such places need to be remarkable to survive, though, and Our Lady of Akita had in its possession one very remarkable phenomenon already.  This was the acolyte, Sister Agnes Katsuko Sasagawa.  This nun had been sickly most of her Sister Agnes Katsuko SasagawaCredit: ainglkiss.comlife.  A badly performed appendectomy had left her crippled for more than ten years.  Drinking water from the Grotto at Lourdes allegedly improved her health.  She had lost her hearing while working as a catechist at a church in Myoko-kogen.  Her handicap kept her from performing her functions – after a time in a hospital in Joetsu (where her hearing loss was declared incurable) she retired to the peace of the remote and sequestered area of Yuzawadai, Japan, (overseen by the Akita prefecture).

The church housed a roughly 3-foot tall Marian carving.  It was from a single piece of katsura wood.  On June 12, 1973, Sister Agnes reportedly saw spectral lighting coming from the tabernacle.  She experienced a stigmata formation in her left palm on June 28.  This manifested as a cross-shaped wound that gave her great pain (neither the shape nor the pain experienced are hallmarks of stigmata but are completely in-line with a self-inflicted cut).  About a week later (July 6), she heard the statue calling to her (as she was deaf it is unknown how she heard anything).  On the third visitation she brought other sisters with her, but during her ecstasy none of those present reported seeing or hearing anything unusual.  Afterward, other nuns reported seeing blood dripping from Mary’s right hand.

The statue gave Sister Agnes a message – typically oblique and generic – about the need for the world to repent its sins.  This was followed by two more personal messages (the second on August 3 and the last on October 13, 1973) delivered to her, both of which relay nothing special or arcane, just the repeated stressing of the need to repent (with some embellishments). Of particular interest is the statue’s claim that Sister Agnes would be cured of her deafness.  [Her hearing returned to her 9 years later, a very slow miracle indeed, and one that tends to suggest her deafness originally resulted from mental trauma].

This blood flow was seen on four more occasions, the last on September 28.  That day, it was noted the Mary statue had begun “sweating” most noticeably on its forehead and neck.Our Lady of Akito statue (weeping)Credit: Directed to wipe this perspiration away from the icon, the liquid reportedly had a pleasant smell to it. The fragrance in the chapel ceased on October 15.

On January 4, 1975, the statue wept for the first time.  This weeping was recorded for 100 more occasions, the last on September 15, 1981. The statue also produced stigmata; claimed to be a harbinger of crying, the stigmata disappeared after the weeping stopped. During one of its weeping sessions a television crew captured the event and broadcast it to a national audience. 

Samples of the tears, the blood, and the sweat from the statue were submitted for forensic examination at the University of Akita. Test results proved little – the perspiration and tears were human (not of supernatural origin) and belonged to the AB blood group.  The blood itself was also human (not supernatural or divine) and it tested out in the B blood group.

This crying phenomenon became enough of a sensation to attract pilgrims from around the world, loading up the church’s treasury with cash.  The Bishop of Niigata (Japan), John Pope Benedict XVI (Jan 20, 2006)Shojiro Ito, drafted a letter in April 1984 detailing the phenomena.  He called for Our Lady of Akita’s Marian events to be accepted as genuine by the Catholic Church. 

It was the future pope (Cardinal Ratzinger) who perhaps confused the matter in 1988 by stating that the record of the event as reported by Bishop Ito should be accepted.  He did not say the statue’s manifestations were accepted by the Catholic Church (as pope today he has not taken that final step of validation, either).

Another Vatican representative attempted to clarify the Church’s non-acceptance of what can only be called a non-miracle in April 1990.  An apostolic nuncio (a papal legate of the highest rank permanently accredited to a civil government) in Japan in an interview with a Catholic Magazine, noted of Cardinal Ratzinger’s pronouncement:

 “His Eminence did not give any judgment on the reliability or credibility of the ‘messages of the Virgin.’ According to the transcription of the meeting, he simply affirmed that ‘there are no objections to the conclusions of the pastoral letter.’”

This should have settled the Church’s position on this.  Yea-sayers, however, will continue toOur Lady of Akita statue (detail)Credit: believe.  They will point to the film showing the statue in action.  Broadcasting on television proves nothing except that the alleged phenomenon was broadcast on television.  It is not proof that the crying Mary shed legitimately miraculous tears. And, perhaps also not so miraculous, today the statue of Our Lady of Akita is dry-eyed.


Author’s note:  Another extra special “thank you” to artist SYoshiko for permission to use a revised work for this article, Suicide Angel.  [This is the same artist who so graciously gave permission the use of her painting, Slums of the Deep, in Eco-Disaster of the Pacific Plastic Reef as a frontispiece.]


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