“Miracle” of “Jesus” in Mud

April 9, 2015

Caused by heavy rain, a mudslide on a remote Colombian hillside has revealed an apparent image of a face many believe is that of Jesus. Appearing on Saturday, March 21 (a week and a half before Palm Sunday), the mud Christ drew the attention of media (ah) muckrakers who mostly treated it with amusement.

Unfortunately they muddled matters somewhat by confusing the visage with a vision, calling it an “apparition” (i.e., a ghostly figure). It is actually what is known as a simulacrum—a perception due to pareidolia, the mind’s tendency to “recognize” images (especially faces) in random patterns. The most famous simulacrum is the Man in the Moon. Simulacra are often held to represent paranormal entities, like ghosts and angels.

Religious simulacra are especially common in Catholicism (the dominant religion in Colombia). Some famous examples I have personally examined are the face of Jesus in skillet burns on a tortilla, and the risen Christ emerging from his tomb in a church’s patterned marble, as well as the figure of Mary in iridescent water deposits on a window, and the Madonna with Child in another window stain.

I once had custody of the Holy Grilled Cheese Sandwich—with its supposed face of Mary (although it more resembled Greta Garbo)—for a day’s forensic examination. (See my The Science of Miracles 2013, 51–56; “Rorschach Icons,” Skeptical Inquirer, Nov./Dec. 2004, 15–17.)

Nevertheless, the superstitious faithful congregated by the hundreds at the impromptu mudslide shrine, while social media helped stir up debate. One Twitter user reported, “I just see a mountain of earth surrounded by trees.” When the Daily Mail reported a nurse’s discovery of a Jesus image in a home drainpipe, a wag dubbed it “the Second Plumbing” ( https://www.examiner.com/article/christ-apparition-landslide-reveals-the-face-of-christ-miracle-mudslide; accessed March 25, 2015).

Although some might attempt to further muddy the waters or mislead the muddleheaded, I hope the debate is not long mired in controversy and does not degenerate into mudslinging.