A paranormal phenomenon enjoying favor in the new glasnost of Russia is that of “miraculous” icons-notably one that was reported to be weeping in a Moscow church in 1998.
The Russian Orthodox Church has a tradition of venerating icons (from the Greek eikon, “image”), which are painted on varnished wood panels and over time acquire a dark patina from candle smoke. Russian icons were produced in greatest number at Kiev, where Christianity took root in 988 (Richardson 1998, 222). Perhaps because they naturally depicted holy subjects and miraculous events-such as the imprinting of Jesus’ face on Veronica’s veil, shown in a fourteenth-century icon that I viewed in the Tretyakov Gallery-they seemingly began to work miracles themselves.
The claim that an effigy is in some way animated (from anima, “breath”) crosses a theological line from veneration (reverence toward an image) to idolatry (or image worship) in which the image itself is regarded as the “tenement or vehicle of the god and fraught with divine influence” (Encyclopedia Britannica 1960). Nevertheless, reports of weeping, bleeding, and otherwise animated figures continue. In one modern case, in Sardinia, in which a small statue wept blood, samples were analyzed; the DNA proved to be that of the statue’s owner. Yet her attorney reasoned, “Well, the Virgin Mary had to get that blood from somewhere” (Nickell, l997).
“Salty tears” were said to flow from another image in Pavia, Italy, in 1980. No one witnessed the initial weeping, only the flows in progress, and the owner seemed to be alone with the figure (a small plaster bas-relief) whenever it wept. Soon, suspicious persons, peeking through the windows and a hidden hole in an adjacent apartment, saw the owner apply water to the bas-relief with a water pistol (Nickell 1997)!
In 1996, in Toronto, pilgrims were charged $ 2.50 at a Greek Orthodox Church to view an icon that “wept” oil. As it happened, the priest had once presided over another “weeping” icon in New York, and had even been defrocked for working in a brothel in Athens. I was involved in the case twice, the second time at the request of the parent church. With a fraud-squad detective standing by, I took samples of the oily “tears” for the Center of Forensic Sciences. The substance proved to be non-drying oil, as expected; its use is an effective trick, since one application remains fresh-looking indefinitely. Because no one could prove who perpetrated the deception the case fizzled, but the church’s North American head pronounced it a hoax (Nickell 1997, Hendry 1997).
One interesting feature of the exuding icons is the variety of substances involved (blood, salt water, oil, etc.), as well as the different effects (e.g., weeping tears, sweating blood, exuding oil). When the cases are collected and compared, some trends become apparent. In Catholicism, the images tended to yield blood or watery tears until relatively recently, when-more in line with the Greek Orthodox tradition (possibly due to a number of oil-weeping or -exuding icons at such churches that received media attention)-there has been a shift to oil (see, e.g., Nickell 1999).
For instance, among the reputed miracles that attended a comatose girl at a Catholic family’s home in Massachusetts in the 1990s were oil-dripping statues and images. Analysis of one sample of oil found that it was 80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent chicken fat, according to The Washington Post, which ordered the test. Such a concoction would have been readily available in a home kitchen (Nickell 1999).
Interestingly, icons in the Russian Orthodox tradition seem, rather uniquely, to exude myrrh-or rather, apparently, myrrh-scented oil. Myrrh is a fragrant gum resin used in making incense, perfume, and herbal medicines, and in ancient times it was also employed in embalming. (For instance, it was one of the spices used in Jesus ‘ burial, interspersed with his linen wrappings [John 19:39-40].) Indeed, in St. Petersburg in 1998, when an unidentified mummy began to exude a myrrh-like substance, it was regarded as a miracle that helped identify the remains as the lost relics of a sixteenth-century saint, Alexander of Svira. His relics had disappeared in 1919 when Bolsheviks seized them during repressive actions against the church. “According to Orthodox tradition,” explains one source, “the appearance of fragrant liquids on relics is a miracle and means they belong to a saint” (Laguado 1998). Although forensic experts cautioned against a rush to judgment, priests were satisfied that droplets of the substance between the mummified toes were myrrh and therefore evidence of a miracle. They seem to have ignored the possibility that myrrh could simply have been used in the embalming.
Given this cultural backdrop, it is not surprising to find that Russian Orthodox icons—when they are in a reputedly miraculous mode—tend to yield myrrh as the substance of choice. This is true even of icons at Russian Orthodox monasteries in the United States. In 1985, an icon in Blanco, Texas, was discovered “weeping Myrrh.” The Christ of the Hills Monastery subsequently produced a brochure advertising itself as a “Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” claiming “She weeps tears for all mankind.” Anointment with the tears from this icon had produced “great miracles,” including “cures of cancer, leukemia, blindness, mental illness” and so on (“Shrine” n.d.).
Similarly, in 1991, an icon that now reposes in a Russian Orthodox monastery in Resaca, Georgia, commenced to “exude myrrh.” It welled in the eyes of the Virgin Mary and was held to be “the external tears of the Mother of God, revealed in the Weeping Ikon”-according to an advertising brochure circulated by the monastery (“All-Holy” n.d.).
In 1998, in Moscow, an icon portraying the last czar, Nicholas II, reportedly produced myrrh almost daily after a parishioner brought it to the church on 7 November, the date of the Russian revolution in 1917. Nicholas-along with the czarina, their children, servants, and a personal physician-was assassinated on the night of 1 6 June 1 9 1 8. (Eventually their remains were discovered, identified through DNA and given a funeral in 1998.) (“Church” 1999).
When I learned I was going to Moscow, I resolved to try to track down the lachrymose icon of Czar Nicholas. Subsequently, friend and colleague Valerii Kuvakin and I made our way by bus and Moscow’s excellent subway system to one of the oldest districts in the city, where we soon found the onion-domed church called the Church of Nikola in Pyzhakh. There, as we looked around the interior, we observed the usual proliferation of icons, displayed on the iconastasis (a high screen that separates the sanctuary from the nave) and elsewhere. At least one depicted a weeping female saint, and I wondered if such depictions might have sparked the idea of “actual” weeping icons. On making inquiry about taking photographs, we learned that they were prohibited, although a few rubles later we had permission to take a single picture. We also obtained a devotional card featuring the icon of the czar (FIGURE 39-1).
We were surprised to learn, according to the text on the reverse of the card, that the miraculous icon was only a color photocopy. The original was painted by an American artist commissioned to glorify “the suffering czar.” In 1987 a monk brought it to Russia, where photocopies were made, and one of those photocopies was received in Moscow in 1 998. After prayers were made on the czar’s behalf, the picture became fragrant on 6 September and began weeping on 7 November. Actually, the word used translates as “myrrhing”—that is, “yielding myrrh.”
The picture went on tour in Russia, Belorussia, and Serbia, and more than a dozen “healing miracles” were attributed to “the myrrhing image of our last czar,” and thousands of believers who prayed to him supposedly received help and support.
Unfortunately, when we visited the church the icon was no longer weeping. Nevertheless, people were coming into the sanctuary every few minutes to view the icon: typically they kissed the glass that covered it and prayed, though a few even prostrated themselves before it. When I was able to get a look at the icon myself, I could see that, indeed, it was merely a cheap facsimile. I sought to learn more about the circumstances of the previous “myrrhing,” but Valerif s questions to the church staff were met with obvious suspicion (because, Valerii concluded, we were not showing devotion) . We therefore learned little apart from press reports and the text of the devotional card.
The staffs’ reaction made me suspicious in turn, as I have more than once found a wary attitude masking pious fraud. Further suspicions are raised by the fact that, as we have seen, other “weeping” icons have been proven or suspected to be fakes; that Russian Orthodox icons exhibit a culturally distinct form of the “miracle” (“myrrhing”); and that the phenomenon occurred at a time when there was a campaign to bestow sainthood on Czar Nicholas II and his family. The patriarch of the church, Alexy II, opposed the canonization, stating that the imperial family were undeserving because of their poor leadership of both church and state (“Church” 1999). The “miracle” seems an attempt to counter that view by faking a semblance of divine approval .
- “The All-Holy Theotokos.” N.d. Brochure of the [Russian] Orthodox Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, Resaca, Georgia.
- Church to test Moscow icon. 1999. AOL News (AP), 30 January.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1960. s.v. “Idolatry.”
- Hendry, Luke. 1997. “Weeping” icon called a fake. Toronto Star, 28 August.
- Laguado, Alice. 1998. Orthodox Church sanctifies mummy. Arizona Republic, 22 August.
- Nickell, Joe. 1997. Those tearful icons. Free Inquiry 17, no. 2 (Spring): 5, 7, 61.
- —. 1999. Miracles or deception? The pathetic case of Audrey Santo. Skeptical Inquirer 23, no. 5 (September/October): 16 – 18.
- Richardson, Dan. 1998. Moscow: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, Ltd.
- “Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” N.d. Brochure of the Christ of the Hills Monastery, Blanco, Texas.