Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena sometimes glossed simulacrae amongst a suite of other terms are sightings of images with spiritual or religious themes or import to the perceiver. That which is perceived, for cultural sensitivity may be given the term 'icon'. 'Icon' in this usage holds no bias to any particular spiritual worldview, belief system or religious faith and partakes of the richness of the English term. The iconographic simulacrae discerned for example, whether iconic or aniconic, may be the faces of religious notables or the manifestation of spiritual symbols in the natural, organic media or phenomena of the natural world. The occurrence or event of perception may be transient or fleeting or may be more enduring and monumental. The phenomenon appears to approach a cultural universal and may often accompany nature worship, animism and fetishism whether overt, covert or but vestiges and traces of nature worship by implication.
Many instances within the Christian traditions reported involve images of Jesus or other Christian figures seen in food; in the Muslim world, structures in food and other natural objects may be perceived as religious text in Arabic script, particularly the word Allah or verses from the Qur'an. Many religious believers view them as real manifestations of miraculous origin; the predominant scientific view is that such perceptions are examples of pareidolia.
The original phenomena of this type were acheropites; images of major Christian icons such as Jesus and the Virgin Mary which were believed to have been created by supernatural means. The word acheropite comes from the Greek ảχειροποίητος, meaning "not created by human hands", and the term was first applied to the Turin Shroud and the Veil of Veronica. Later, the term came to apply more generally to simulacra of a religious or spiritual nature occurring in natural phenomena, particularly those seen by believers as being of miraculous origin.
Perceiver as cultural filter, as mediator of the experience of perception
From an etic perspective, perception of an image, icon or sign of religious or spiritual import to the perceiver is indelibly mediated or filtered through culture, politics and worldview. As Grieve (2005: p. 2) states:
What you see is not always what you get. Instead, what we see depends on mediation. That is, because our descriptions of religious images are culturally located, our “naïve” descriptions are neither innocent nor objective. Rather, all social objects are mediated by intervening socially grounded, culturally generated, and historically particular mechanisms. Moreover, these intervening mechanisms are not only by necessity material, but are marbled through and through with power relations.
Psychology of the sacred taking stock of the human condition, conveys people construct meaning from that which is without meaning or stated differently, culture gives context to lived-experience. Therefore, both meaning and absence of meaning may be perceived as being co-existents. Cultural context as constructed meaning and memetic transmission engenders social, existential and spiritual comfort in a tenuous and arbitrary lived experience and millieu: perception as a participatory event parsing experience into meaningful units. The crossroads or intersections of Evolutionary psychology of religion, pattern recognition, Neuroaesthetics and symbolic communication lend to the construction of meanings as group cohesion and bond-forming in human society.
Pareidolia characterizes such imagery as a form of false perception due to what is theorized as the human mind's over-sensitivity to perceiving patterns, particularly the pattern of a human face, in otherwise random phenomena.
It is suggested that a tendency of religious imagery in Islam to be perceived as Arabic words is made more likely by the general simplicity of letter forms in the Arabic alphabet (especially in the everyday Riq'a); a tradition of massive typographical flexibility in Islamic calligraphy; and the particular shape of the word Allah (الله). These factors make the word easy to read into many structures with parallel lines or lobes on a common base.
C. S. Lewis
The author C. S. Lewis wrote about the implications of perception of religious imagery in questionable circumstances on issues of religious belief and faith. He argued that people's ready ability to perceive human-like forms around them reflects a religious reality that human existence is immersed in a world containing such beings. The principal reason he believed in religion was because he believed himself was wired to believe it, just as he believed human beings are wired to perceive inference (if ... then) and other mental logical phenomena as representing truths about the external world that can be learned from, rather than representing purely internal phenomena to be characterized as error. He chose to believe in his wiring for religious perception in the same way and for the same reasons that he chose to believe in his wiring for logic, choosing to use and rely on both as guides to learning about the world rather than regarding them as purely random in origin and discarding them. People continue to have faith in the phenomenon of logic, despite the fact that they sometimes make demonstrably mistaken inferences.
The Virgin Mary accounts for a substantial number of sightings of this type. A typical example is the "Clearwater Virgin", where an image of Mary was reported to have appeared in the glass façade of a finance building in Clearwater, Florida, and attracted widespread media attention. The building drew an estimated one million visitors over the next several years and was purchased by an Ohio Catholic revivalism group. A local chemist examined the windows and suggested the stain was produced by water deposits combined with weathering, yielding a chemical reaction like that often seen on old bottles, perhaps due to the action of the water sprinkler. On March 1, 2004, the three uppermost panes of the window were broken by a vandal. Other examples of Marian apparitions of this type that have received substantial press coverage include a fence in Coogee, Australia in 2003; a hospital in Milton, Massachusetts in June 2003.; and a felled tree in Passaic, New Jersey in 2003;. Images of the Virgin have also been reported on a rock in Ghana, an underpass in Chicago, a lump of firewood in Janesville, Wisconsin; a chocolate factory in Fountain Valley, California; and a pizza pan in Houston, Texas.. A grilled cheese sandwich, a pretzel and a pebble said to resemble images of the Virgin Mary have been offered for sale on internet auction sites, the former being purchased by Internet casino GoldenPalace.com, which is known for its publicity stunts..
Another image regularly reported is that of Jesus Christ. Sightings of this type have been reported in such varied media as cloud photos, Marmite, chapatis, shadows, Cheetos, tortillas, trees, dental x-rays, cooking utensils, windows, rocks and stones, painted and plastered walls. Again, some of these items have been offered for sale on internet auction sites, and a number have been bought by the Golden Palace casino. When such images receive publicity, people frequently come considerable distances to see them, and to venerate them.
On April 30, 2002 the Hubble Space Science Institute released new photographs of the Cone Nebula, also known as the Space Mountain, to showcase a new extremely high resolution camera.Cone Nebula. Shortly afterwards people, believing they could see Jesus's face in it, began to call it the "Jesus Nebula". The new camera was installed on Hubble by astronauts during a space shuttle mission in March 2002. The Cone Nebula, located in the constellation Monoceros, is a region that contains cones, pillars, and majestic flowing shapes that abound in stellar nurseries where natal clouds of gas and dust are buffeted by energetic winds from nurseries of newborn stars.
One controversial incident that received considerable publicity was when the face of Mother Teresa was claimed to have been identified in a cinnamon bun at Bongo Java in Nashville, Tennessee on 15 October 1996. Dubbed the "NunBun" by the press, it was turned into an enterprise by the company, selling T-shirts and mugs, which led to an exchange of letters between the company and Mother Teresa's representatives. On 25 December 2005 the bun was stolen during a break-in at the coffee house.
In at least two instances, the images of deceased Anglican clergymen allegedly appeared on the walls of their church. In 1902, the image of a Dean Vaughan appeared on the walls of Llandaf cathedral, while the image of Dean Henry Liddell appeared on the walls of Christ Church, Oxford in 1923.
Examples in Islam
In the Muslim community, a frequently-reported religious perception is the image of the word "Allah" in Arabic on natural objects. Again, the discovery of such an object may attract considerable interest among believers who visit the object for the purpose of prayer or veneration. Examples of this phenomenon have been reported on fish, fruit and vegetables, plants and clouds, eggs, and on the markings on animals' coats.
The Arabic script for the name of Allah is purported to be visible in a satellite photograph of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. This was taken as evidence by some Muslims that Allah had sent the tsunami as punishment, as humans had neglected His ways.
It has been suggested by some Shia Muslims that the first name of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (Ali) can be seen on the moon. Other Shia Muslims, however, reject this claim, or dismiss it as a coincidence.
In Jurong West New Town, Singapore in September 2007, the discovery of calluses on a tree which look like the Monkey God a deity from Chinese mythology, or Hanuman, the monkey deity in the Hindu pantheon, created a social phenomenon. There are two nearby trees which also resemble deities. One features an apparent outline of Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy, and another resembles the Hindu elephant god Ganesha.
In some cases, apparent religious images have been deliberately created from natural materials as part of an artistic endeavor or investigation into the phenomenon of perceptions of religious imagery. The "Pope Tart" was a hoax apparition created by Karen Stollznow in 2005 as part of an investigation into pareidolia for The Skeptic in Australia (PDF (209 KiB). In other cases these deliberate images have been mere commercial ventures. The Jesus Toaster and The Virgin Mary Toaster were created by Galen Dively in 2010. These toasters toast images of Jesus and Mary on bread.
In popular culture
- In Carl Hiassen's novel Lucky You a resident of Florida in the United States makes a tourist attraction out of "Road-Stain Jesus" on the road surface.
- In the 1984 miniseries Celebrity, T.J. Luther sees an image of Jesus on a prison wall and is inspired to become a televangelist.
- In the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode "Gee Whiz," Meatwad sees what he thinks is the face of Jesus (referred to as 'Gee Whiz' in the episode because they were not allowed to say 'Jesus' by the network) in a spaghetti billboard.
- In the Father Ted episode "Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse," Bishop Brennan is lured to the parochial house by a hoax story about an image of his own face that has appeared on a skirting board there.
- John Abruzzi, a character from the TV series Prison Break, perceives an image of Jesus in a water stain on his cell wall.
- In the one act play Breaking the Chain by Michael Bigelow Dixon and Val Smith, the character Chuck is amazed to see the face of baby Jesus upon slicing open an orange.
- The Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode "Signs from Heaven" (Season 3, Episode 12) shows numerous examples of this and debunks them as partly being people seeing something the way they want to see it and partly people seeing things where there is nothing.
- Grieve, Gregory Price (2005). 'One and Three Bhairavas: The Hypocrisy of Iconographic Mediation'; cited in: Revista de Estudos da Religião, No.4, 2005, pp. 63-79. ISSN 1677-1222.
- Lewis, C. S.. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. ISBN 978-0802808684.
- C.S. Lewis made a more detailed exposition of the underlying argument with respect to general problems of futility in his essay "De Futilitate in The Seeing Eye And Other Selected Essays in Christian Reflections, ISBN 978-0345328663
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- "Faithful: Pizza pan delivers message from God". KHOU.com. http://www.khou.com/news/local/stories/khou070223_mh_virginmarypizza.7b275aa.html.
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- "Image in the clouds: 'Grandma's picture' tells remarkable story". PittsburghLIVE.com. http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/valleyindependent/jubilation/s_663.html.
- "Family see Jesus image in Marmite". BBC News. 2009-05-28. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/wales/8071865.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- "India marvels at 'miracle chapati'". BBC News. 2002-11-16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2484195.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- "Caravan park 'Christ' draws the faithful". BBC News. 2000-10-11. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/967421.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- "Dallas couple sees Jesus inside cheese snack". CBS 11 News. http://cbs11tv.com/local/Cheesus.jesus.inside.2.1011719.html.
- "JS Online: Woman feels blessed that image of Jesus appears in her tree". http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=15687.
- "Jesus Appears in Dental X-Ray". Firstcoastnews.com. http://www.firstcoastnews.com/news/usworld/news-article.aspx?storyid=28783.
- "Man sees image of Jesus in frying pan". wkyc.com. http://www.wkyc.com/dotcom3/weblinks_fullstory.asp?id=29714.
- "Pilgrims See Jesus' Face In Apartment Window". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/4541162/detail.html.
- "'Jesus Window' Cracks During Move To Church". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/4603180/detail.html.
- "FarShores.org ParaDimensions News: Woman Claims 'Jesus' Rock". http://farshores.org/p05im6.htm.
- "Jesus Rock Draws Hundreds Of Pilgrims". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/9192288/detail.html.
- "Sisters See Image Of Jesus In Paint On Wall". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/4566317/detail.html.
- "Jesus Found Plastered In Man's Bathroom". GoldenPalaceEvents.com. http://www.goldenpalaceevents.com/auctions/jesuswall01.php.
- "Man Sells 'Jesus' Brick - Orlando News Story". WKMG Orlando. http://www.local6.com/news/4170720/detail.html.
- "Workers See Jesus Image In Nacho Pan". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/5625986/detail.html.
- "Couple Says Fish Bone Bears Jesus Image". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/5190133/detail.html.
- "Baby Jesus Snail Shell". http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&ssPageName=STRK:MESEX:IT&item=140187947899&_trksid=p3984.cSELL.m315.l.
- "Sellers See Jesus In Sheet Metal". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/7539127/detail.html.
- "Murphy Brown". http://boogeylights.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=692239%3ABlogPost%3A604.
- "eBay item 6186339869 (Ends Jun-21-05 23:04:09 PDT) - Jesus Christ Image Icon Materializes in Plaster Wall". http://www.goldenpalaceevents.com/ebay_archives/jesuswall01.html.
- "WTOL-TV Toledo, OH: Point Place Family Sees Image of Jesus on Pie". http://www.wtol.com/Global/story.asp?S=3703786.
- "Some See Jesus On Truck Tailgate". WMAQ Chicago. http://www.nbc5.com/news/5380739/detail.html.
- "HubbleSite - NewsCenter - Hubble's New Camera Delivers Breathtaking Views of the Universe (04/30/2002) - Release Text". http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/archive/releases/2002/11/text/.
- Spring, Tom "In Pictures: The Most Spectacular Sights in Google Sky - what Galileo saw and more" PC World October 2007 
- "The Jesus Nebula - Hubble Space Telescope Images the Face of Jesus Christ". http://www.prweb.com/releases/2004/4/prweb122020.htm.
- "Portail d'informations Ce site est en vente!". http://xai.com/jnebula/.
- "Bongo Java: The NunBun?". http://www.bongojava.com/nunbun.html.
- "NunBun Stolen". http://www.slashfood.com/2005/12/26/nunbun-stolen/.
- Wild Talents by Charles Fort via Google Books, p. 193-195. http://books.google.com/books?id=LdcoVZrG36MC&printsec=frontcover&dq=wild+talents#v=onepage&q=&f=false.
- "Tropical fish 'has Allah marking'". 2006-01-31. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/lancashire/4667610.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- "A fish called Allah". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1700465,00.html.
- "Pathfinder Hosting Client Site". http://www.allahfish.com.
- "New Statesman - Food of the gods". http://www.newstatesman.com/Life/200606050009.
- "Message from Allah 'in tomato'". BBC News. 1999-09-09. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/443173.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- "Family Blessed By Allah In Tomato (from Oxford Mail)". http://www.oxfordmail.net/display.var.1442800.0.family_blessed_by_allah_in_tomato.php.
- Jaafar, Jaafar (2008-05-10). "Strange cloud causes panic in Kano". Weekly Trust (Media Trust Ltd., Abuja/Nigeria). http://www.dailytrust.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10613&Itemid=30. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
- "article". scotsman.com. http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=1021712006.
- "Hordes flocking to 'miracle' lamb". BBC NEWS. 2004-03-26. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3572325.stm. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- "Signs of The Creator". http://www.al-imam.net/miraclesali.htm.
- "eBay item 6171209997 (Ends Apr-22-05 00:42:47 PDT) - Pope Tart". http://www.bad-language.com/files/ebaypagepopetart.html.
- "Jesus Toasters". http://www.burntimpressions.com.
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