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painting of JesusIs it a mystery or a miracle?

If you ask Father Francis Malley, pastor of Saint Fráncěsco de Asís Church in Rancos de Taos, New Mexico, about an hour north of Santa Fe, it's a "mystery."

"We deliberately call it that," he said the other day. "It's a mystery painting. Nobody seems to be able to explain what's going on."

But -- he quickly adds -- it is not "miraculous."

"I don't know how to explain it, but I'm loathe to call it a miracle," said this amiable priest when we contacted him, echoing the perspective of many clergy.

The "mystery" is this: an eight-foot painting donated in 1948 and now hanging in a hall connected to the parish shows Jesus at the Sea of Galilee. So far, so normal; at first, it seems like nothing very striking. It was painted by a Canadian artist named Henry Ault in 1896.

The phenomenon -- if it is a true phenomenon -- begins when the lights go out and -- as one report says -- "the life-size image of Jesus standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee fades to a shadow as the wispy white clouds in pale blue sky and green water begin to glow around Him, as if all were bathed in moonlight. Soon the silhouette of Jesus grows three-dimensional and appears more like a dark statue than flat image. His robes seem to billow in a breeze. Over his left shoulder the shadow of a Cross is distinct to most. Some can see a halo over his head and the bow of a small fishing boat on the shore."

The effect -- of a luminous silhouette -- is not the only oddity. The Cross and boat are not seen -- in daylight -- in the painting. A Lenten mystery!

It's called (appropriately) "The Shadow of the Cross," and not everyone sees the same things. "The mystery is that when you view it in dark versus light, in the dark all you see in His shadow and a Cross appears above His left shoulder," adds the parish's business manager, Angela Valerio. "Some also see the boat in His hip area, and there is nothing like that in the painting. Everybody sees different things. It's a very individualistic thing. The background becomes luminous. If nothing else, the painting just itself is remarkable."

Reported the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Denver:

"In plain light the painting is a life-size portrait of Jesus Christ standing on a rock near some water. One hand lies close to his heart and the other by his side. However, in the darkness the painting emits a glow and becomes luminescent with the Lord appearing in silhouette. According to one observer, the figure of Christ seems to move or flicker slowly as if the figure is walking or moving. A black band or shadow in the shape of a cross appears over his right shoulder and the dark outline of what appears to be the bow of a boat also appears. A very faint, nearly imperceptible halo appears above his head and, according to some, faint white letters can be found near the top of the painting, near the head.

"According to a host who presents the painting to visitors, scientists have examined the chemical properties of the paint and have confirmed that no radium or other luminescent chemicals or materials are present to produce the eerie glow.

"About five or six years ago the halo started fading," said church secretary Ruby Martinez. "We don't have any explanation for any of it. 'Some people say, `What's the trick?'" [one source] said. 'Some people are all excited about it and say "It's a miracle!" We tell them it's not a miracle, it's a mystery that we can't explain. We're really not claiming anything, but some people are really affected by it."

Some are brought to their knees; others turn away in disappointment (or even anger).

Meanwhile, the 200-year-old church itself is more of a draw than the painting -- attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and, due to its unique old adobe features, one of the most photographed churches in the U.S. (including by Ansel Adams) and painted (including by Georgia O'Keeffe), if not the most photographed.

And so it goes. As for the picture: there are no images we could find that will reproduce and show the "mystery miracle."

Just as well. It is a lesson, perhaps, in prayer: Those who simply brush in and out of a mystical place often feel nothing (although not feeling anything can also happen to the holy) while prayer seems to unlock the potency of a place -- as it also can in our own homes, including the nightstand, where, hopefully, this Lenten season, the Bible has the predominant place.

[see also: Holy places in New Mexico rival classic shrines]

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[Feedback from one blogger: "Talk about incredible. When the lights are turned off on this painting, an eerie luminescence gradually emerges, making the painting appear 3D.  A cross appears over the left shoulder of Jesus.  All of this was a surprise to the painter and modern science hasn't come up with a conclusive explanation (it was painted before radium was discovered and when tested with Geiger counters the results have been negative).  Once my date and I left the site, we both confessed that it looked like his cloak was blowing in the wind. I'm not an overly religious person but seeing this in person truly sent chills down my spine and brought a sense of wonder to my heart.  There have been some theories on why the painting exhibits the attributes that it does but in my mind it was still a very incredible thing to witness. So is it a well-crafted optical illusion or something more?  I would recommend for anyone in the Taos area to go to San Francisco de Asis Church so you can make up your own mind!"

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