Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena

Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena are sightings of images with religious themes, especially the faces of religious figures, in ordinary phenomena. Many instances that are reported involve images of Jesus or other Christian figures seen in food, but it has an equivalent in the Muslim world where structures in food and other natural objects are perceived as religious text in Arabic, particularly the word Allah or verses from the Qur'an. Many religious believers view them as real depictions of miraculous origin; the predominant scientific view is that such perceptions are examples of pareidolia.

The original phenomena of this type were acheropites; images of major Christian icons such as Jesus and the Virgin Mary which were believed to have been created by supernatural means. The word acheropite comes from the Greek ảχειροποίητος, meaning "not created by human hands", and the term was first applied to the Turin Shroud and the Veil of Veronica. Later, the term came to apply more generally to simulacra of a religious or spiritual nature occuring in natural phenomena, particularly those seen by believers as being of miraculous origin.



Pareidolia characterizes such imagery as a form of pareidolia. This is a false perception of imagery due to what is theorized as the human mind's over-sensitivity to perceiving patterns, particularly the pattern of a human face, in otherwise random phenomena.

It is suggested that a tendency of religious imagery in Islam to be perceived as Arabic words is made more likely by the general simplicity of letter forms in the Arabic alphabet (especially in the everyday Riq'a); a tradition of massive typographical flexibility in Islamic calligraphy; and the particular shape of the word Allah (الله). These factors make the word easy to read into many structures with parallel lines or lobes on a common base.

C. S. Lewis

The author C. S. Lewis wrote about the implications of perception of religious imagery in questionable circumstances on issues of religious belief and faith. He argued that people's ready ability to perceive human-like forms around them reflects a religious reality that human existence is immersed in a world containing such beings. The principal reason he believed in religion was because he believed himself as wired to believe it, just as he believed human beings are wired to perceive inference (if..then) and other mental logical phenomena as representing truths about the external world that can be learned from, rather than representing purely internal phenomena to be characterized as error. He chose to believe in his wiring for religious perception in the same way and for the same reasons that he chose to believe in his wiring for logic, choosing to use and rely on both as guides to learning about the world rather than regarding them as purely random in origin and discarding them. People continue to have faith in the phenomenon of logic despite the fact that they sometimes make demonstrably mistaken inferences.

Christian examples

The Virgin Mary accounts for a substantial number of sightings of this type. A typical example is the "Clearwater Virgin", where an image of Mary was reported to have appeared in the glass facade of a finance building in Clearwater, Florida, and attracted widespread media attention. The building drew an estimated one million visitors over the next several years and was purchased by an Ohio Catholic revivalism group. A local chemist examined the windows and suggested the stain was produced by water deposits combined with weathering, yielding a chemical reaction like that often seen on old bottles, perhaps due to the action of the water sprinkler. On March 1, 2004, the three uppermost panes of the window were broken by a vandal. Other examples of Marian apparitions of this type that have received substantial press coverage include a fence in Coogee, Australia in 2003; a hospital in Milton, Massachusetts in June 2003.; and a felled tree in Passaic, New Jersey in 2003;. Images of the Virgin have also been reported on a rock in Ghana, an underpass in Chicago, a lump of firewood in Janesville, Wisconsin; a chocolate factory in Fountain Valley, California;and a pizza pan in Houston, Texas.. A grilled cheese sandwich, a pretzel and a pebble said to resemble images of the Virgin Mary have been offered for sale on internet auction sites, the former being purchased by Internet casino, which is known for its publicity stunts..

Another image regularly reported is that of Jesus Christ. Sightings of this type have been reported in such varied media as cloud photos,tortillas, trees, dental x-rays, cooking utensils, windows, rocks and stones, painted and plastered walls. Again, some of these items have been offered for sale on internet auction sites, and a number have been bought by the Golden Palace casino. When such images receive publicity, people frequently come considerable distances to see them, and to venerate them.

In April 2004, a sudden rush in interest for images of the Cone Nebula occurred because Christian groups felt they could see the face of Jesus in the nebula's pillars. Images of the Jesus Nebula, known by its actual name as the Cone Nebula, was released by the Hubble Space Science Institute on April 30, 2002 to showcase a new extremely high resolution camera. The new camera was installed on Hubble by astronauts during a space shuttle mission in March 2002. The Cone Nebula, located in the constellation Monoceros, is a region that contains cones, pillars, and majestic flowing shapes that abound in stellar nurseries where natal clouds of gas and dust are buffeted by energetic winds from nurseries of newborn stars.

One controversial incidence that received considerable publicity was when the face of Mother Teresa was claimed to have been identified in a cinnamon bun at Bongo Java in Nashville, Tennessee on 15 October 1996. Dubbed the "NunBun" by the press, it was turned into an enterprise by the company, selling T-shirts and mugs, which led to an exchange of letters between the company and Mother Teresa's representatives. On 25 December 2005 the bun was stolen during a break-in at the coffee house.

Examples in Islam

In the Muslim community, a frequently-reported religious perception is the image of the word "Allah" in Arabic on natural objects. Again, the discovery of such an object may attract considerable interest among believers who visit the object for the purpose of prayer or veneration. Examples of this phenomenon have been reported on fish, fruit and vegetables, plants and clouds., eggs, and on the markings on animals' coats.

It has been suggested by some Shia Muslims that the first name of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (Ali) can be seen on the Moon. Other Shia Muslims, however, reject this claim, or dismiss it as a coincidence.


Monkey tree

In Jurong West New Town, Singapore in September 2007, the discovery of calluses on a tree which look like the Monkey God a deity from Chinese mythology, or Hanuman, the monkey deity in the Hindu pantheon, created a social phenomenon. There are two nearby trees which also resemble deities. One features an apparent outline of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, and another resembles the Hindu elephant god Ganesha.

Created depictions

In some cases, apparent religious images have been deliberately created from natural materials as part of an artistic endeavor or investigation into the phenomenon of perceptions of religious imagery. The "Pope Tart" was a hoax apparition created by Karen Stollznow in 2005 as part of an investigation into pareidolia for The Skeptic in Australia (.

In popular culture

  • In Carl Hiassen's novel Lucky You a resident of Florida in the United States makes a tourist attraction out of "Road-Stain Jesus" on the road surface.
  • In the 1984 miniseries Celebrity, T.J. Luther sees an image of Jesus on a prison wall and is inspired to become a televangelist.
  • In the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Gee Whiz," Meatwad sees what he thinks is the face of Jesus (referred to as 'Gee Whiz' in the episode because they weren't allowed to say 'Jesus' by the network) in a spaghetti billboard.
  • In the Father Ted episode "Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse," Bishop Brennan is lured to the parochial house by a hoax story about an image of his own face that has appeared on a skirting board there.

See also



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