Episode 4: The Case of the Tilma of St. Juan Diego
Some of the miracles we ponder today are ongoing because they involve miraculous artifacts. Such is the case of the tilma (or poncho) worn by St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin (1474-1548). In 1531, this indigenous native of what is today Mexico reported experiencing four separate apparitions of a mysterious and radiant girl on or around an area known as Tepeyac. Today that “girl” is better known under the title “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and the Church has come to recognize Juan Diego’s experience as an authentic Marian apparition to the New World. As part of the concluding miracle of these events, Juan Diego was instructed by the girl to pick some roses that seemed to supernaturally appear on Tepeyac hill (not native to Mexico at the time and miraculous in their own right) to show to the local Bishop Juan Zumarraga. The bishop was something of a rose expert and their strange appearance would have gained his attention, perhaps adding credibility to Juan Diego’s claims and, by extension, the mysterious lady’s request that a chapel be built on the apparition site. Juan Diego thought the roses were “the message” he was to deliver but, instead, as the roses fell to the ground before Zumarraga and Juan Diego’s tilma opened up the true sign became immediately apparent. The tilma was now miraculously imprinted with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Nearly 500 years later, this tilma is still in existence and is on display, viewed by over 20,000,000 people annually in the Tepeyac area outside Mexico City. I am told it is the 2nd most studied human artifact in history after the Shroud of Turin. Here are some scientific anomalies related to the tilma that science can still not answer:
1. The tilma was made of simple cactus fiber that even in its day was considered peasant’s wear of the poorest quality. The best examples of this fabric, exposed to the elements and worn with regularity have lasted only a maximum of 15 years. The tilma is nearly 500 years old and has shown no signs of loss of structural or chemical integrity. This, even though Juan Diego wore the tilma in humid jungle conditions for the rest of his life and afterward, for at least 115 years more, no special protection was provided for its public display. It was exposed to the open air, weather, soot, candle wax, incense and human touch yet it remains in perfect condition.
2. It is known that some of the detail of the image was later added by devotees including the angels, the moon under her feet and the rays of light. Those items were hand painted onto the cloth and are degrading. Shockingly, in contrast, there is no degradation of the original image at all. Dr. Philip Callahan of NASA has stated, after extensive testing of the cloth, that the original image reveals no brush strokes or signs of human design such as under-sketches. He believes evidence points to the original image being created in a single moment.
3. Nobel Prize winning biochemist Richard Kuhn has stated that the pigments from the original image are not from any known natural source on earth, whether animal, mineral or vegetable. There were no synthetic pigments in use anywhere in the world in 1531 so science has no explanation for this. The fact that the original image has neither cracked nor faded is also an unsolved mystery and many say the colors exhibit an iridescent quality similar to certain tropical bird feathers. Again, there is no natural explanation as to what might cause that effect.
4. The pupils of the virgin’s eyes exhibit three miraculous characteristics impossible to produce artificially with techniques available in 1531 and even extremely difficult to attempt with modern technology. What is more, the presence of these same anomalies would not have been detectible in the 1500s.
a. Engineer Jose Tonsmann magnified the pupil’s image 2500 fold and discovered on the pupil the image of Bishop Zumarraga and all the others who were reported to have been in the room when Juan Diego opened his tilma to them. It is exactly how a human eye would reflect back an image and is as though a very human Mary was looking at the bishop’s entourage and that moment was freeze-frame captured as the tilma was opened.
b. The eye displays, with perfect accuracy, the triple reflection known as the Samson-Pirkinje effect as the image is taken in, reversed and then reflected onto the retina…again just as one would see in a living human eye.
c. The distortion of the image is perfectly accurate to the natural curvature of the eyeball. These effects were studied by multiple eye doctors and all agree that under a microscope, the eyes appear to be human rather than a created artistic image.
All of these anomalies defy scientific explanation. The image, had it been natural and manmade, should have rotted away, faded away, peeled away or been destroyed in any number of other ways. The fact of its very existence is, in the proper sense of the word, a miracle. There are many other curious anomalies as well. The stars of her garment accurately reflect the night sky of the night the apparition took place in 1531 in that part of the world. The various flowers and symbols on her garment accurately reflect the story of the Incarnation/Nativity of Christ in ways that the native peoples could understand when they gazed upon it. The girl appears to be a Mestizo (blend between Spanish and Indigenous blood) just as these two cultures have come together in the New World. And every day Juan Diego traveled showing the tilma to all who would see it, about 3000 new believers were baptized (i.e. one Pentecost per day). In total, around 8,000,000 people came to be Catholic in less than a half generation, which is astounding considering that after some decades of work by missionaries, they were still measuring converts in terms of hundreds of people. That is some kind of amazing postcard from Heaven!