St. Pat’s “Miracle,” 1697
March 16, 2015
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1697, a painting known as the “Irish Madonna of Hungary” began to weep tears and blood—a “miracle” that has remained unexplained, if not unexplainable, to this day more than three centuries later.
The story is told by Joan Carroll Cruz in her Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Portraits and Statues (1993, 133–135). The seventeenth-century painting of the Madonna praying over the Infant Christ, at the cathedral at Clonfert, was spirited out of Ireland in 1649 when Protestant Oliver Cromwell invaded the country. The painting was taken to Hungary by Bishop Walter Lynch. On his deathbed Bishop Lynch bequeathed it to the Bishop of Gyor, where it was lovingly adopted by the faithful—especially after it was credited with victories over the Turks and the prevention of various disasters (Aradi 1954, 102–106).
Then in 1697 while Hungarians enjoyed prosperity and peace, Irish Catholics suffered hardships and persecution. On that March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, the Madonna’s eyes began to shed both tears and blood. The phenomenon reportedly lasted for three hours—attested as a miracle in a document signed by Catholic priests, bishops, and officials, and even by Protestant ministers (Calvinist and Lutheran), plus a rabbi. In studying the phenomenon, priests wiped the substances with a linen cloth. (However, although this is reportedly “still preserved in the Cathedral” at Gyor, it has apparently never been subjected to forensic tests.) We are told that the priests also took the canvas painting out of its frame without discovering any explanation (Aradi 1954, 105–106; Cruz 1993, 134–135).
No such weeping/bleeding effigy has ever been authenticated by mainstream science, and many modern cases have been exposed as pious frauds. For example, “salty tears” on a plaster bas-relief in Pavia, Italy, were explained when the owner was secretly observed using a water pistol! A bleeding statue in Quebec bore blood mixed with animal fat (which liquefied and flowed realistically when pilgrims’ body heat warmed the room). Some “miracles” relied on a nondrying oil, often used because it can remain fresh looking for long periods; in one instance in which the oil was scented, tests revealed the inclusion of a telltale synthetic substance (a glycol ether used as a fixative by the perfume industry). In a case in Sardinia, DNA tests showed that the blood belonged to the statue’s owner. And so on (Nickell 1993, 45–72; 2013, 57–81).
Effigies often “weep” in apparent response to troubling events. For example, a Greek Orthodox icon in Chicago began to cry immediately following a service for peace in the Persian Gulf, October 17, 1990, but the tears dried up after the Gulf War ended (Nickell 1993, 54). Again, a statue of the Virgin that has wept over fifty times did so on such occasions as the attempted assassinations of Pope John Paul II and President Reagan. Statues have also wept when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision allowing abortion, as well as on various other occasions (Hebert 1991, 9, 17, 23, 41). These modern weepings look for all the world like staged events. (Interestingly, in the fourteenth chapter of Daniel, found in Catholic but not Protestant bibles, the idolatry implicit in the veneration of all such supposedly animated effigies is condemned with a story.)
Looked at from today’s vantage point, the mixed tears and blood of the “Irish Madonna of Hungary”—which ran from her eyes down the canvas to the sleeping infant Jesus—were almost certainly faked. Such a trick could easily be pulled off in front of the worshippers. Suitable substances (say oil and real blood) could have been applied before the congregants arrived, with attention later being called to the phenomenon. (Additional bloody tears could even have been secretly applied under cover of the previously mentioned wiping cloth.) Besides, there were probably no outspoken skeptics in attendance.
Why would such trickery be staged? Circumstances at the time provide the obvious answer. Popular sentiment against the abhorrent religious persecution then rampant in Ireland could have suggested dramatizing godly displeasure by causing an Irish painting to appear to weep bloody tears on St. Patrick’s Day. The ecumenical group of local religious leaders might well have been willing to sign the miracle-affirming document—even if they suspected the miracle a fake, regarding it as a harmless and pious deception in the service of an important cause: solidarity against the outrage in Ireland.
Aradi, Zsolt. 1954. Shrines to Our Lady Around the World. New York: Ferrar, Straus and Young.
Cruz, Joan Carroll. 1993. Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Portraits and Statues. Reprinted Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2012.
Hebert, Albert J. 1991. Mary, Why Do You Cry? Paulina, LA: Privately printed.
Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
———. 2013. The Science of Miracles. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.