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Painted by a Heavenly Hand

Like the posthumous impression of Christ’s body on the Shroud of Turin, the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe remains an insoluble riddle to modern science. The chronicles report that during her apparitions of 1531 Our Blessed Mother left her impress on the tilma of the Mexican Indian Juan Diego.

The tilma is an outer garment worn by the Mexican Indians. It is a sort of broad cloak woven out of the thick, coarse fibers of the agava plant (cactus ayate). Its color is like that of raw linen. Materials made from these fibers undergo total disintegration within twenty years. Owing to its coarse and uneven surface and loose weave, the fabric is entirely unsuited as a canvas for a painting. Scientific studies made on the Guadalupe tilma in 1976 confirm that the material is woven from the fibers of the agava plant. That the fabric serves as a canvas for a pictorial masterpiece, and that it has survived in its pristine state for 470 years without showing the slightest sign of decay is an astounding fact — not least to the realm of science.

The enduring freshness of color of this incredible image is truly astonishing. Equally striking is the absence of any sign of spoilage, this despite the fact that the image has hung unprotected for over a hundred years, and has been exposed directly to various pollutants such as incense smoke, perfumes, soot and the burning wax of countless votive candles. The renowned Mexican painter Miguel Cabrera reports that for a period of two hours in 1753 he witnessed pilgrims touching the image at least 500 times with various objects that they had brought with them. Under similar conditions any other image would soon have suffered damage and been blackened to the point of being rendered unrecognizable. And yet the image from Guadalupe remains intact. Scientific studies have shown that for some unexplainable reason the material bearing the image of the Blessed Mother is resistant to dust, insects, bacteria and mold.

Dr. Phillip Callahan of the University of Florida, who studied the Guadalupe image in 1979, observed in his report that one lighted votive candle emits over 600 microwatts of light. Given the enclosed premises in which the image is displayed and the presence of hundreds of burning candles and thousands of pilgrims, one would expect the colors to undergo complete fading and the image itself to suffer irreparable damage. Nevertheless, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appears to be immune to any kind of harmful agent.

The perfect preservation of the fabric and its delicate colors in all their vivid freshness has evoked genuine wonder among experts and art specialists. Many skeptics and rationalists confronted with the facts resulting from their studies of the holy image have put aside their skepticism and unbelief and bowed before the mystery of an invisible God. In 1975, the famous Mexican architect Ramirez Vasguez, having been charged with the design of the new Basilica in Guadalupe, received permission to subject the image of Our Blessed Mother to rigorous scrutiny. The results of his study were such a shock to him, both intellectually and spiritually, that he renounced his agnosticism and became an ardent Catholic.

Testifying equally powerfully to the image’s supernatural origins is its miraculous preservation in the face of numerous unfortunate circumstances and events throughout its centuries-old history. In 1791, while cleaning the image’s silver frame, a worker accidentally spilled an entire bottle of nitric acid over the image. To his great surprise and enormous relief the acid did not leave the slightest trace. In the 1920s, during the bloody persecutions of the Church under Plutarco Calles, thousands of priests were condemned to death merely for carrying out their priestly duties. The atheist Masonic regime closed down all the churches in Mexico except for the Basilica in Guadalupe. Nevertheless, the enemies of the Church devised a diabolic plan to destroy the image of Our Lady and kill most of the members of the hierarchy. On 14 November 1921 government agents hid a powerful time bomb in a flower vase under the miraculous image. The bomb exploded at 10:30 in the midst of a Pontifical Mass. The powerful explosion rocked the entire Basilica, destroying the floor, marble altar and stained glass windows. Miraculously no one was killed. A few people suffered minor wounds only. When the dust settled after the explosion, it turned out that the image had emerged untouched. A massive metal crucifix — bent out of shape — had shielded it from the force of the explosion.

The Guadalupe image has been subjected to careful examination several times in the course of its long history. Numerous scientists and art experts have sought to determine if it was possible to account for the image in natural terms. All the studies carried out on it with the help of electron microscopes, infrared irradiation and other state-of-the-art methods lead to the same conclusion, namely, that a human hand could not have painted the image.

In 1936, Nobel Prize laureate Dr. Richard Kuhn, a German chemist at the University of Heidelbeg, subjected fibers of the tilma to meticulous study. He concluded that the dyes used to produce the image were unknown to science. They were neither of animal nor plant nor mineral origin. He also ruled out the use of synthetic colors. Microscopic studies conducted in 1946 indicate that the Guadalupe image bears no trace of brushstrokes, preliminary sketches or an artist’s signature. Similar studies conducted in 1954 and 1966 by another group of scientists headed by Dr. F. Camps Ribera corroborated these findings. Experts in the field agree that not even the greatest artist could have painted the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In 1929, after enlarging Our Lady’s face many times, professional photographer Alfonso Gonzales discovered that her eyes contained the clear reflection of a bearded man’s face. This discovery led to a whole series of detailed studies of the Blessed Mother’s eyes conducted in the years spanning 1950 and 1990. All the researchers agree that Mary’s eyes are like those of a living person, possessing extraordinary depth. They exhibit the phenomenon of reflection, which occurs only in living persons. Not even the best painting techniques can replicate this phenomenon. Scientists have enlarged Mary’s eyes to up to 2500 times. This has enabled them to discover that, in all, 12 persons are reflected in her eyes. Immortalized in those eyes is the scene of Juan Diego’s meeting with Archbishop Zumarraga and his associates when the miraculous imprinting of the image on the Aztec Indian’s tilma took place. The scene is so perfect that one can make out details such as tears of emotion, earrings, Indian sandal laces, a bald man with a white beard, an Indian with an aquiline nose, beard, and whiskers adhering to his cheeks, etc. The stunning detail of this microscopic image rules out any possibility that a human hand might have painted it. Scientists agree that no other image or photograph could produce such a phenomenon. Among the experts conducting these studies were some of the world’s leading scientists in the fields of optics and ophthalmology: Dr. Charles Wahling, Dr. Francis T. Avignone, Columbia University’s Dr. H.G. Noyes, NBC’s Edward Gebhardt, eye surgeon Dr. Alexander Wahling, Dr. Italo Mannelli of the University of Pisa, and others. 

Detailed studies of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe point to a mysterious source of origin that is inaccessible to scientific inquiry. Only faith can tell us that the author of this image was God Himself. The image of the Immaculate Virgin of Guadalupe is a sign calling all people to conversion. It is a sign that every day, through prayer and effort, they may undertake the task of living according to the demands of the Gospel. Gazing on the miraculous picture from Guadalupe we can palpably experience the maternal love of the Mother of the Redeemer, who is also our own mother — a mother who cares about the eternal salvation of all her children. She seeks to awaken our faith and, for this reason, gives us extraordinary signs, so that we may understand that true happiness is found in God alone.

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