Mystery of Belgium’s Glowing Virgin

April 2, 2014

On two trips to Belgium (in 1998 and 2006), I investigated several “miracle” claims, including a healing shrine, known as the “Belgian Lourdes”; the “Holy Blood of Christ” at Bruges; and a wonderworking statue at Belgium’s most-frequented pilgrimage site. (See my The Science of Miracles, 2013, pp. 23–25, 101–103, 187–190.) Now, another remarkable statue there—one that glows!—has come to light (so to speak); however, its mystery was quickly solved by scientists. (Belinda Robinson, We have seen the light! MailOnline []; March 26, 2014.)

At issue was a Madonna figurine, about a foot tall, that was observed glowing in the dark in the kitchen of an elderly couple in the village of Jalhay (near Liege). It represented “The Virgin of Banneaux.” A nearby village, Banneaux was the site where, in 1933, a girl named Mariette Beco claimed the Virgin Mary made a series of appearances to her and gave her two “prophecies.” Hers were imitative of other children’s Marian apparition claims that began at LaSalette, France (1846), and were repeated at Lourdes (1858), Pontmain (1871), and Fatima, Portugal (1917). Indeed, Beco’s claims seemed to copy those that immediately preceded hers at the Belgian village of Beauraing (1932–33). (See Sandra L. Zimdars-Swartz, Encountering Mary, 1991, 11, 220–225).

Whether they were the imaginings of fantasy-prone children (as seems clear in some cases) or copycatting, or both, these Marian apparitions were all “investigated,” approved by local bishops, and given international attention—including the alleged appearances of the Virgin of Banneaux. Thus, when a statue of her was reported to inexplicably glow, the faithful came to the site by the thousands—as many as 500 in one day.

I have seen such credulous, excitable pilgrims throughout my 45-year career as a miracle detective, and so I am not surprised that four individuals came to believe the statue had healed them of certain debilities. What passes for miraculous healing is typically due either to misdiagnosis or misreporting, psychosomatic illness, spontaneous remission, the effects of suggestion, and/or similar factors.

I am personally familiar with two other cases of “glowing” effigies, having investigated them on site in 2003. The first actually consisted of a pair of statues—of Jesus and Mary—on opposite sides of a church’s bell tower in Campbell, Ohio. My research observations, and actual experimentation revealed, however, that the statues were not glowing; instead, the gilded eyes, haloes, and Sacred Hearts were simply shining in the day due to the sunlight and at night from streetlights, church security lights, and significant ambient light.

The other case, more like the Belgian phenomenon, involved actual glowing in the dark, featuring a painting called “The Shadow of the Cross” at a church at Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. It depicts Jesus standing by the Sea of Galilee; yet when the lights are extinguished the background luminesces, as if in moonlight, and the figure becomes silhouetted, even carrying a cross and wearing a halo. Although I could not test the paint, I concluded from observations of the painting’s surface and other factors that the effect was due to phosphorescent (glow-in-the-dark) paint. (For details of these two cases, see my The Science of Miracles, 2013, 35–40 and 83–87.)

As it happens, the mystery of the glowing statue of Jalhay was soon solved: A scientific team from Liege University led by Dr. Rudi Cloots discovered that the phosphorescence was due to the Madonna having been coated with paint containing zinc sulfide (ZnS), a compound “used as a pigment and phosphor” (John Daintith, ed., A Dictionary of Chemistry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 520). Or as Dr. Cloots explained, “This chemical has a luminous effect and is the reason for the strange light. It’s no miracle.”