Weeping Icons (Joe Nickell, 2004)

NOTE: The following article is the 39th Chapter from The Mystery Chronicles: More Real Life X-Files,

The Mystery Chronicles - More Real Life X-Files,

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 Veronicas 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).

The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.
The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.

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.

St. Alexander of Svir was reported to have myrrh exude from between his toes.
St. Alexander of Svir was reported to have myrrh exude from between his toes.

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.).

The “Myrrh Weeping Icon” of Our Lady of New Sarov
The “Myrrh Weeping Icon” of Our Lady of New Sarov

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).

Joe Nickell fig. 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 .

An icon of the czar has reportedly been oozing myrrh


  • “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.
  • maryoutoforder

“Weeping” Icon in Toronto Greek Schismatic Church Exposed as Fraud (Joe Nickell, 1996)

On September 1, 1996, an icon in a non-canonical, schismatic Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto[1], Ontario, Canada, began to “weep.” CSICOP paranormal investigator Joe Nickell was invited by the Toronto Sun to the site for a promised opportunity to examine the “miracle.” However, permission to conduct an examination was subsequently withdrawn, but Nickell’s observation of the icon (actually a color photographic print) persuaded him that the substance was probably a non-drying oil (e.g., olive oil) applied to the surface. It was not freshly flowing and did not emanate from the eyes.

The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.
The icon of the Virgin Mary which had been “weeping” from the crown area of the head since September 1996.

As it happened, the priest had formerly preached at a church in Queens, New York (St. Irene Chrysovalantou Greek Orthodox Church), which had also been embroiled in a controversy over a weeping icon[2]. Worse, he had been defrocked for having worked in a brothel in Athens, Greece[3].

Subsequently, Nickell was re-invited to Toronto— this time by the Greek Orthodox parent church authorities who had regained control of the church. With a police fraud squad detective standing by, and two constables posted outside, Nickell examined the picture and took samples for the lab to analyze. He told the media, “There is nothing that distinguishes this icon from a fraud.” (See Joe Nickell, “Something to Cry About: The Case of the Weeping Icon,” Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1997, pp.19-20.)

This display shows photographs from that event. At the left is a votive candle and at right some oil-soaked cotton recovered by Nickell from the site.




1. The Holy Synod in Resistance, of which this parish was a part (under the Archdiocese of Etna (California)), united itself to the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece and formally ceased to exist.

2. An icon of St. Irene began crying and drawing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, some as far away as India and Japan. More than a year later, after that icon had been investigated by NY Area Skeptics who concluded that the phenomenon was bogus, the icon was stolen at gunpoint. Supposedly, Fr. Ieronymos Katseas refused to cooperate in producing the key to the Plexiglas case that housed it and was pistol-whipped, after which the bandits broke the lock and made off with the “miraculous” icon. It was subsequently returned— minus $800,000 in gems and golden jewelry that decorated it—under conditions that still remain controversial (Christopoulos 1996).

3. Fr. Ieronymos Katseas was also defrocked in 1993 when it was learned he had previously worked in a brothel in Athens. A church document on the priest’s excommunication states that a New York ecclesiastical court found him guilty of slander, perjury, and defamation, as well as being “in the employ of a house of prostitution” (Goldhar 1996). In fact, in 1987 sworn testimony before a Greek judge, Fr. Ieronymos Katseas admitted he had been so employed (Magnish et al. 1996).

Also,  shortly after this 1993 excommunication, he refused to leave the parish in Toronto to which he had later been assigned. This parish was in the midst of financial difficulties when the icon began to weep as well, and was also attacked by Greek Orthodox leaders. Fr. Ieronymos Katseas also owed C$95,000 in back taxes and mortgage payments.

Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Martyrs Raphael, Nicholas, & Irene in Toronto, Canada.
Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Martyrs Raphael, Nicholas, & Irene in Toronto, Canada.

Also see:

Connie Hargrave, Visit to the Weeping Madonna Icon in Toronto, (March 1997) http://www.share-international.org/archives/appearances/ap_chvis.htm



Figure 10.1


Saint Irene Chrysovalantou Icon in Queens, NY (Joe Nickell)

Joe Nickell is an expert in exposing and debunking "paranormal" and religious frauds.
Joe Nickell is an expert in exposing and debunking “paranormal” and religious frauds.

Another Greek Orthodox icon seems to have caught the weeping condition while on loan to the Chicago Greek Church of St. Athanasios and John the Baptist. This began on October 17, 1990, when the icon of St. Irene Chrysovalantou, patron saint of the sick and of peace, supposedly began to cry immediately after a service for peace in the Persian Gulf. Returned to its home (the church of a breakaway Orthodox faction) in Astoria, Queens, New York, on October 23, the icon attracted additional thousands of pilgrims over the following days as it was reputed to continue weeping.However, the tears dried after the Gulf War ended.


Although an investigation was refused at the time, on May 11, 1991, I was able to examine the icon, under rather limited conditions, in company with members of the New York Area Skeptics (NYASk). A previous NYASk ultra-violet examination had revealed only some streaks and markings that were clearly not the result of weeping. Our examination included stereo-microscopic viewing which also failed to show traces of any tearstains.Subsequently, forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I obtained a videotape of the earlier, October 1990, phenomenon. At first we regarded the evidence as too ambiguous to assess, but further study indicated that there were wet-looking streaks that seemed to have been on the painted panel rather than the clear plexiglass cover. It appeared to us that the two “rivulets” flowed down the face just to the outside of the eyes and that the scale of the “tears” was greatly disproportionate to the diminutive size of St. Irene’s face. These observations suggested to us a rather crude hoax.4


A curious sequel to the story of the St. Irene icon came just before Christmas 1991. On December 23, three armed men and a woman burst into the church, forced two priests and four others to lie on the front altar, pried the icon from its case, and fled. Whether they sought the icon for its alleged powers, or for the estimated $800,000 value of its gold frame encrusted with jewels, could only be speculated upon. Said Bishop Vikentios:

Only we need the icon back, we don’t care for the gold of the jewels. It is a holy icon, it is a miracle icon. She is the patron saint of peace. We don’t know why the Lord allowed this to happen.6

Within a few days, however, the icon was returned—although missing the frame and most of its jewels—anonymously through the mail.

A final (?) episode in the icon saga came when representatives of the mainstream church—the traditional Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America (mentioned earlier in the stonewalling of the 1986 Chicago weeping-icon case)—suggested that the breakaway faction that owns the icon might have staged the theft as a hoax. “We have doubts about the tears and so on,” added the archdiocese’s press officer. To what appeared as a case of the pot calling the kettle black, members of the breakaway Greek Orthodox Christians of North and South America, responded that the other church was simply envious of the icon.7

…I witnessed a different illusion when I examined the St. Irene icon in Queens, New York. The glistening varnish and certain surface irregularities created a play of light that produced the appearance of weeping. A religious supplicant predisposed to see tears could, especially if carrying a candle, see in the resultant glimmering in the tiny eyes, aided by vertical cracks and other streaks, the effect of tears.Aided in part by the sad expression of St. Irene, we easily experienced the illusion of seeing tears welling up in the saint’s eyes, although a low-power stereo microscope showed us the true state of affairs.9



Nickell, Joe, “Magical Icons.” Chapter 3 of Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures, 1993, pp. 54-55, 57.

Mireya Navarro, “Saint’s Weeping Portrait Draws Curious and the Faithful,” New York Times, November 5, 1990.

See Joe Nickell, “Weeping Icon Revisited—Still Dry-Eyed,” The New York Skeptic (Newsletter of the New York Area Skeptics), Summer 1991, pp. 6-7.

Examination of St. Irene videotape, conducted at Gotha, Florida, by Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer, August 6, 1991.

“Congregation Prays for Return of Stolen Icon,” Newark Star-Ledger, December 24, 1991.

“Greek Factions Duel over Theft of the Icon,” Newark Star-Ledger, January 2, 1992.

Nickell, “Weeping Icon Revisited,” p. 7.



"Looking for a Miracle" exposes religious frauds mainly in the Catholic Church, though it has a section on Orthodox icons mainly from Old Calendarist factions.
“Looking for a Miracle” exposes religious frauds mainly in the Catholic Church, though it has a section on Orthodox icons mainly from Old Calendarist factions.

See also:

November 20, 1990: N.Y.’s weeping icon draws area faithful http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1990-11-20/news/1990324110_1_greek-orthodox-church-weeping-icon-irene

October 31, 1990: St. Irene: Looking For A Miracle http://www.qgazette.com/news/2007-06-27/features/089.html

December 24, 1991: Queens Church Robbed of ‘Weeping’ Icon http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/24/nyregion/queens-church-robbed-of-weeping-icon.html

1991 Dec. 24, St Irene Icon

December 25, 1991: Faithful Pray for New Miracle To Aid Stolen ‘Weeping’ Icon http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/25/nyregion/faithful-pray-for-new-miracle-to-aid-stolen-weeping-icon.html

December 28, 1991: Church Robbed of Icon Gets Prank Calls http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/28/nyregion/church-robbed-of-icon-gets-prank-calls.html

December 29, 1991: Astoria Sings Joyful Praises as a Lost Symbol is Found http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/29/nyregion/astoria-sings-joyful-praises-as-a-lost-symbol-is-found.html

December 29, 1991: ’Weeping’ Icon Returned to New York City Church http://www.nytimes.com/1991/12/29/nyregion/weeping-icon-returned-to-new-york-city-church.html

1991 - St Irene Icon

December 30, 1991: ’Weeping’ Icon Returns To Prayers of Celebration http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-07-17/news/9407170365_1_icon-church-sanctuary-cigna

January 1, 1992: Story of the Weeping Icon Divides Greek Orthodoxy http://www.nytimes.com/1992/01/01/nyregion/story-of-the-weeping-icon-divides-greek-orthodoxy.html

January 1, 1992: Doubt Cast On Story Of `Weeping Icon` http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1992-01-01/news/9201010099_1_st-irene-chrysovalantou-bishop-vikentios-greek-orthodox-archdiocese

July 15, 1994: Questions of Belief Arise Once Again Over `Weeping Icon’ (WSJ) http://www.skepticfiles.org/skep2/iconstol.htm

July 17, 1994: `Weeping Icon’ Goes To Court, Church Sues Insurer For Refusing Its Claim http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-07-17/news/9407170365_1_icon-church-sanctuary-cigna

December 23, 1996: Relic Brings Clout and Miracle Seekers to a Queens Church http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/23/nyregion/relic-brings-clout-and-miracle-seekers-to-a-queens-church.html

August 12, 1998: Church Says Burglar Sought Saint’s Icon http://www.nytimes.com/1998/08/12/nyregion/church-says-burglar-sought-saint-s-icon.html


February 1, 2001: Astoria Greek church’s icon recovered after theft http://www.timesledger.com/stories/2001/5/20010201-archive65.html

November 9, 2010: Sister Christonymphi Speaks to Police Regarding St. Irene Chrysovalantou Monastery in Astoria http://www.monomakhos.com/sister-christonymphi-speaks-to-police-regarding-st-irene-chrysovalantou-monastery-in-astoria/

November 16, 2011: Burglary at St. Irene Chrysovalantou Church in Astoria http://ocl.org/burglary-at-st-irene-chrysovalantou-church-in-astoria/