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Does God manifest through photographs? Pictures? Statues? When does life imitate art, and art imitate life? Can art come to life?

Years ago, we took two photographs of a Blessed Mother statue at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Youngstown, New York, and when they were developed, one showed her as we had seen her (a grayish-white statue and a somewhat gray day) but the second picture showed a face on the statue that seemed alive (particularly the eyes) and a bright blue sky as backdrop. It wasn't a matter of a different angle or setting. It didn't seem like the same statue nor the same day. We receive photographs from many who have had the same experience (a statue that seemed to have turned, or smiled, or frowned, or bent ever so slightly, at poignant moments), and back in the 1990s, hundreds upon hundreds at more than a dozen roadside grottos across Ireland claimed something similar: statues of the Blessed Mother, Saint Joseph, Saint Padre Pio, and Therese the Little Flower that were coming to "life" before their very eyes, with motion and even veils that ruffled, that fluttered, in a breeze; at times, many claimed, ethereal forms -- apparitions -- seemed to come from the lifeless representations. Hallucination? Mass hysteria? The "silly season" (as the press called it)? Many are those who have taken photographs of statues at holy places and watched as the developed pictures showed the statue's head slightly tilted, or now frowning, or now smiling, perhaps a difference in color or texture (send us yours). We are not as quick to dismiss it. Heaven can do what it wants and can be subtle (never out to convince the skeptics) with its signs. It was an angel or the Lord coming out of a Crucifix that gave Saint Padre Pio the wounds of stigmata. It was a Crucifix that "spoke" to Saint Francis at Assisi.

420965_1We bring this up because of the true curiosity and perhaps phenomenon of what might be called the "Jesus at the Jordan" photograph [left] that has circulated around the internet for years (and in private settings for perhaps six decades, including at the home of renowned -- and authentic -- mystic Maria Esperanza, who obviously thought it was special). The question: how did this photograph, which does have a special quality, originate, and how is it related to a tremendously similar painting by a German artist named Johannes Raphael Wehle (circa. 1990, right)? The first reaction is that it is simply a photograph of the painting -- a remarkable, anointed painting, an inspired painting, but a painting. Or is it?

Close-ups show subtle but key differences (especially in the faces). We have some feedback from viewers at the end of this article. [See previous article.] Whether or not in this instance, the supernatural, it seems, can inflect itself onto a camera as a picture is taken (although the precise origin of the photo remains a mystery).

Below to the left, we see an obvious sketching and below it a painting (this time with Mary holding the Child). Note how similar they are to the "photographs" (actually, probably the same photograph) to the right and below that. Some accounts have the ones that look like photographs as originating from Medjugorje, while another has it from the Church-approved site of Betania. No one really knows: accounts change and take on a life of their own. For instance, one story has it that the painting-like one below the sketching (again, to the left) occurred at Medjugorje on Easter 1985 when a French pilgrim took a photo of the sky and the Virgin Mary and Jesus appeared on the film; as for the more life-like version, another account states that "during an apparition, a friend of mine took a picture of the children. Later, when the film was developed, the Blessed Mother was present hovering over the children. This photo has been enlarged so you could see the detail of Our Lady. I am told she was made completely of light which is why you see so much glow in this photo. It is authentic and was given to me by the woman who took it. It is said that this photo can heal those who devoutly pray in front of it."

A third version of the origin goes like this:

"On a day in 1986 a pretty exhausted pilgrim to Medjugorje heard suddenly a call back. He turned around, but only looked at some distance above the Cross on the mountain. When after three calls nothing changed, but he impulsively got the idea to take a photograph. That he did, too. After developing the film, he was not a little surprised when instead of the Cross of Medjugorje he saw the effigy of Mother Mary with Child in her arms before him." Meanwhile the one attributed to Betania comes with an account of it being taken at the hillside there (after the woman who took it had a vision of Mary the night before).

The question again: which came first -- the sketch or the photographic likeness? It seems obvious that the art was first. But with the photographs, there are not only the lifelike qualities but in one what seem like other, smaller images embedded in the "Blessed Mother's" clothes -- unlike the artwork; surreal (and not always pleasant) faces.  Do we have to be cautious? Yes: the devil can mimic. And, yes, there are tales told.

The same has been true of the Madonna's face (left and right below).

This has appeared innumerable times, particularly at apparition sites and particularly at the famous reputed one of Medjugorje (currently under Vatican investigation).

The one to the right  supposedly appeared when a man developed a print of a photo of the clear horizon and sky at Padre Pio's Shrine an alleged (but rejected) site of apparitions in San Damiano, Italy. It is more art-like but strikingly similar to the one at the left which reportedly comes from Medjugorje, where there are various accounts of it (according to one, an unidentified photographer snapped a picture of the wall where the alleged apparition was taking place and discovered the picture when the film was developed.

Is one a rendition of the other -- somehow. Or are they alike simply because with so many versions of Mary, there are bound to be similarities?

Noted another account: "I was walking across a field to a phone to find a tow company that handled motorcycles, when I saw a white square on the ground. I am in the habit of investigating finds that seem to call to me, so I picked up the paper, turned it over, and looked into the face. It immediately struck me as Mary, though the image is out of focus and it's not objectively possible for me to tell if this is a picture of a young woman, of a painting, of a statue, or something else. It certainly looks lifelike to me, and I chose to guess that this is a living woman. I suppose an imaging specialist could analyze it and discover whether the subject was flat or three dimensional. In any case, I felt I'd been touched, warmed. I have read much about Marian apparitions around the world throughout history and in present times, and some of the photos resemble this one. I am not particularly concerned whether or not it's materialization was miraculous -- it happens to be printed on Kodak paper, so if it is indeed a miracle, it would make quite an advertisement! I am simply struck by the image itself and the feeling it inspires."

Perhaps we should leave it at that.

While on earth, there will always be enigmas. Definition of "mystery": a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand.

So too is the beautiful -- and anointed -- picture of Jesus' Face somewhat of a conundrum. It widely circulated in the early 1990s after a Pennsylvania woman found it on a roll of film on return, again, from the Holy Land (she did not recall seeing anything like it in Israel). When she duplicated the photo, many claimed to see the image move, change hue, or to otherwise present itself unusually, with a blessing. Versions of it seemed indeed to have a mystical quality. It was reproduced thousands of times. Yet, the "photo" (in some reproductions, truly lifelike, from a Minolta 110 instamatic) was traced to a painting [right] that hangs at the Grotto of the Milk in Bethlehem (and also at the Mother Cabrini Shrine in Denver). It was painted by Austrian artist Hans Zatzka, who went under the pseudonym of H. Zabateri -- and also painted one of the most famous depictions of the Last Supper. The likeness of Jesus was used by the Altar Society during the 1940s and 1950s, but the photos from the Holy Land show a Face with unusual, supra-artistic aspect (and sometimes far more humanlike) aspects.

That brings us back to the "Jesus on the Jordan" photo (or as the painting is known, "Christ in the Grain Fields"). It might be the most mysterious we have seen. In the age of "photo-shopping" and other digital legerdemain, it would be far readily dismissed. But like other "photos," it dates from before the digital revolution. By one account, it was taken in the 1950s by a woman who had a companion point a camera over the Jordan; another account says it was shot in the 1970s at the Western Wall. It is not known what Esperanza, who was the height of prudence, believed or did not believe, just that she liked the "photo" (which is enough for us, for she had visions of the Lord).

And so it goes that we get from them what we pray with them, as Heaven touches where Heaven wills.

[Feedback from the mail, Linda Dunlap of Superior, Wisconsin: "I was fascinated by the articles on the mysterious picture that Maria Esperanza had kept in a frame . I've been involved in professional photography all of my adult life, and I couldn't get over the picture having been dated to the Fifties, when, to me, it looks extremely old, having qualities one would find in much earlier days of primitive photography. I tried to find out if the painter of the famous painting, Johannes Raphael Wehle, painted it during the days of early photography.  I found no real helpful information on him, except that he died in 1936 (so his painting years would, indeed, fit early photography), so my intellectual guess is that possibly the story got mixed up as it was passed down, and the painter had actually set up this scene with models for him to paint from -- artists do it all the time, and looking at his other paintings, I expect he could have done that. Time-wise, I can imagine this making perfect sense. But if the story is more spiritual than that, I'm open to that, too.  If it was a moment caught out of time, wouldn't we love to know? It struck me that the Jesus figure there does rather resemble the man in the Shroud, doesn't He? Fascinating in any case.  Finding out if the painter had a habit of using model photographs for his figures would help a lot.  And then, look for any record of who actually shot them, and what their circumstances were. It's definitely a photograph."

Noted another viewer: "After reading the article regarding the analysis of the miraculous photo I found this and thought it was quite interesting; you can see the marks of the crown of thorns on Christ's Head in the photo, and not in the paintings, quite amazing!"

"My take on all this is the painter was divinely inspired to paint 'Christ in the Wheat Fields' and Maria Esperanza recognized this.," wrote Joan Tedesco of Windermere, Florida.

From Joe Spadaford: "I have worked in the Christian art world for years now. The gentleman whose points are very accurate about the photo/painting need to be applauded [see article]. I had for years believed this perhaps was a miracle photo...heck I had it as a screen saver for a long time.  Until I saw the painting years later. Now while I agree with all the character-posing points of view and the difference in style to make one look like a photo and one like painting; I feel it is very easily explained.  When this painting was painted it was very very common to take photos (as it still is today) as a reference for a painting.  You tell your models to do simple things like move you head, hand, etc. to get the pose just right.  I do it, Norman Rockwell did, before the camera was even around DaVinci did with a tool called the camera obscura. You even take a little from one photo and combine it with another. This is illustration 101 stuff, and totally explains the differences in painting to photo.  The artist painted from the photo he took.  This is also relevant in the look of the photo itself.  Look at what a photo in 1955 would look like versus on from the late 1890's as the picture must have been taken before the painting was complete.  The one from the 1890s looks exactly like the quality of the photo taken of this  'anointed' photo that is being examined.  Note the wear and tear fading on the edges, the exposure, and overall lack of clear focus. This is why the artist had to take liberties and you get that painted/ invented look. As we still do today.  Next we look at a photo taken by a black and white camera from 1955. The edges and exposure are more clear and offer up a much more realistic image.  The artist would have used all that stuff to make a clear picture because you choose models that best look like what you want to paint.  As for time of day changes, it's simple: these kind of photo-shoots, especially in the late 1890s, took a lot of time.  The camera needed time to adjust for focus and the actors held the poses. It is my humble opinion as a professional working artist and photographer highly skilled in Photoshop that we are looking at the artist's reference for his painting. And a very nice painting it is. If you want real look at the Shroud:  That cannot be explained, that is as real it can come."

Differed Robert Kauffmann of Cinnaminson, New Jersey: "A brief observation about the allegedly miraculous photo versus the painting by Wehle: It may be that the artist received in his minds eye the same image by the same Divine Illumination that produced the 50's/70's photograph."

Asks Richard Mackin, Jr. Maine: "There's so much contemporary  info available about miraculous images etal and near-death experiences which seem to inevitably produce a book about someone's personal near death experience: it is interesting but sometimes tedious/ what else is new. However, with the photo of  the Jordan River showing Jesus in comparison with a painting of similar image it is necessary to ask in this age of computer technology sophistication: cannot a computer analysis determine an actual photo of real persons from a painting? Is it an actual photo of Jesus or a manipulated image? Are you familiar with the Christ In the Clouds newspaper published image (WWll 1940's)? It looks real but the report is that it was manipulated. Info is available on the internet. Photo software is remarkable at altering a poor photo image. Sincerely, it would be something though if the photo image were an actual photo of Jesus Himself. It has been two thousand years since He was last on earth in Person. Time for contemporary mankind to witness  The Real Deal."

Lastly, from a viewer named Melina: "While the paintings are wonderful, the photograph seems to capture a seriousness on the faces of the Lord and His companions. There is a look there which is missing on the paintings. And the paintings are witnesses for the photograph not the other way around; by the witness of two or three a thing is established (Deuteronomy 19:15)."

[resources: Michael Brown Minneapolis retreat, November 3 and  pilgrimage, Medjugorje, May-June]

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