Wednesday, August 07, 2019

"'Cause in a sky full of stars, I think I saw you"

Bishop Robert Barron writes in his book Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, pp 108-111:

On December 9, 1531, just about ten years after the Spaniards had first brought the faith to Mexico, an Indian man named Juan Diego, a recent convert to Christianity, was making his way along the hill of Tepeyac, just outside the city of Tenochtitlan, which would later evolve into Mexico City. He was heading to morning Mass. He heard a burst of birdsong and turned to see where it was coming from. What he saw took his breath away, for standing before him was a woman clothed in celestial light. The Lady announced herself as the “Mother of the Most High God,” and she had a request for Juan Diego: “Would you ask the bishop to construct a temple here in my honor?” Being a simple man, Juan Diego obeyed. He was ushered into the presence of Bishop Juan Zumárraga, a Franciscan friar and a good man, the builder of the first hospital and university in the Americas, and a protector of the native population. Bishop Zumárraga listened patiently to Juan Diego’s story, but, understandably enough, he asked Juan Diego for a confirming sign from the heavenly Lady. On December 12, Juan Diego went once again to Tepeyac and found the Virgin there. She invited him to remove his tilma, the simple, coarse poncho-like garment he was wearing, and then, with her help, he gathered up a bunch of roses that were, despite the lateness of the year, in bloom. This, she said, would be a sign for the bishop. Juan Diego hurried with his bundle to the bishop’s office, but he was made to wait. It is said that officious aides of Zumárraga’s tried, without success, to find out what the Indian was carrying in his tilma. Finally Juan Diego was brought into the bishop’s presence. He opened his cloak and the roses spilled out, but then, to Juan Diego’s amazement, the bishop and his assistants were kneeling, for on the inside of the tilma was something extraordinary: an image of the woman clothed in light. On the spot, Zumárraga vowed to build the temple the Lady had asked for, and it still stands near the hill of Tepeyac.

One might be tempted to dismiss this as a charming story from a simpler, more credulous time, but the best contradiction to this kind of skepticism is the tilma itself, which is displayed in the massive basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Careful studies have shown that the tilma is indeed from the sixteenth century and woven from cactus fibers. This juxtaposition is itself puzzling, since that kind of garment, under the best of conditions, usually lasts for at most twenty or twenty-five years. And then there is the image, the strange and beautiful image, which has beguiled millions for the past five hundred years. Scientific analysis has revealed that no known pigmentation was involved and that no under-drawing is discernible. Therefore, just how those colors were transferred onto the tilma is mysterious. Moreover, the symbolic power of the image is extraordinary. The Virgin on the tilma is not a European or an Indian, but a mestiza, a blend of the two races. Mexicans today refer to her affectionately as La Virgen Morena (the brown-skinned Virgin). It is as though the Blessed Mother was humbly identifying herself with the new people who were emerging in that time and place. The cincture that she wears was an Aztec sign of pregnancy, and therefore it is clear that La Virgen Morena is bringing a new life and a new birth to the people of Mexico. She stands in front of the sun, whose rays can be seen behind her, her feet are on the moon, and her mantle is bedecked with stars. The sun, moon, and stars were all deities for the ancient Aztecs, and thus the Lady is declaring herself to be more powerful than the Indian gods. At the same time, she keeps her eyes down and her hands folded in an attitude of prayer, acknowledging that there is one still greater than she. In recent years astronomers have noted that the arrangement of the stars on her cloak corresponds precisely to the position of the constellations on December 12, 1531. And perhaps most astonishingly, through microscopic investigation ophthalmologists have discovered images of human figures in the eye of La Virgen Morena that correspond to the positions such images would have in a functioning eye, and these reflections are credibly of Zumárraga and his confreres at the moment of the unfolding of the tilma. Her name, “Guadalupe,” is probably a Spanish deformation of the Nuatl term coatlaxopeuh, (pronounced coat-la-soupay), which means “the one who crushes the serpent.” This name has a double sense, for the serpent was another chief divinity of the Aztecs, and, in the Christian context, the book of Genesis speaks of the serpent (the tempter) that would “strike at the heel” of the offspring of the archetypal woman.


1. Barron doesn't cite sources for his claims. That's an unfortunate omission.

2. As an aside, from what I've found, the first hospital in the Americas is Hospital San Nicolás de Bari and the first university is the Universidad Santo Tomás de Aquino. Neither of them appear to be linked to Bishop Juan Zumárraga. Perhaps I'm missing something?


1. Tilma or tilmàtli is the fabric or garment on which the image of the Lady of Guadalupe is preserved. Barron is gobsmacked: "that kind of garment, under the best of conditions, usually lasts for at most twenty or twenty-five years".

2. However, there's Native American garment, fabric, clothing, textile, and so on from the 1500s that's still extant. For example, the Met has a collection. Here are three examples of Peruvian tunics which date to the 16th century:




At least on the face of things, it doesn't seem particularly special that the tilma could have lasted till today either.

3. Perhaps the objection is other garments from the 1500s are made of more durable material than the tilma. Regarding that, here is a Catholic called Brother John M. Samaha, S.M. saying the tilma could have been made from hemp (rather than agave fiber which is what most other Catholics seem to claim):

John J. Chiment teaches in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He is a paleontologist who teaches a course about determining the age, materials, and place of origin of art works. Four years ago Dr. Gilberto Aquirre, a San Antonio, Texas, physician, requested him to join a team to examine St. Juan Diego's tilma portraying Our Lady of Guadalupe...Two fibers of the tilma were lent to Professor Chiment for testing. These fibers had been removed from the outer edge of the tilma when it was stored during the Mexican Revolution. The test results showed that the fibers did not come from native cactus plants, nor did they come from cotton, wool, or linen -- fibers that might have been used in Europe. Rather, the tilma seems to have been woven from hemp, a plant native to Mexico. Hemp is one of the strongest fibers known, and hempen cloth can last hundreds of years. This could explain the tilma's remarkable state of preservation.

In fairness, Catholics argue that's because the specimens were taken from the edge of the tilma, not the center of the tilma. They argue the center is not made of hemp but agave fiber, which shouldn't last so long. Have there been modern studies that have been allowed to take specimens from the center of the tilma? If not, why not? Surely there are ways to do so now without ruining the tilma.

4. Leoncio A. Garza-Valdes is a Catholic physician (pediatrician) as well as an archaeomicrobiologist. His book The DNA of God? argues the Shroud of Turin is from the 1st century, which in turn supports the fact that the Shroud of Turin could have Jesus' authentic image imprinted on it. His book was given to Pope John Paul II. Church officials from the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City asked Garza-Valdes to examine the Lady of Guadalupe. Here's what Garza-Valdes concludes:

“What I saw was not one image, but three different paintings—one on top of the other,” says Garza-Valdes. “The first image shows a small baby in the Virgin’s left arm. I believe this image was painted in 1556 by Marcos Aquino in Mexico. In other words, more than twenty years after Juan Diego supposedly saw his vision. The second and third paintings show changes in the Virgin’s face; in the final image, her eyes are half-closed, her skin is lighter, and her features are less Indian.” His conclusion? “This is a man-made painting, completely overpainted twice,” says Garza-Valdes.

To be fair, Garza-Valdes' physician colleague Gilberto Aguirre believes otherwise:

Aguirre disagrees. He says the photos taken in Mexico do reveal changes in the image—particularly changes in the Virgin’s facial features—but he says they don’t show any underpaintings at all and maintains that the photos can’t be relied upon because the Plexiglas blocked some of the light and created reflections. Besides, he says, ultraviolet photographs detect only the surface of paintings, not the subsurface painting. Scientists, as it turns out, have to have faith too—in their experiments. Aguirre has none. “This is a totally flawed scientific study,” he says. “It proves nothing.”


1. Here's the fabled image of the Lady of Guadalupe that Barron is talking about:

The following is from a Catholic website illustrating "the arrangement of the stars on her cloak correspond[ing] precisely to the position of the constellations on December 12, 1531":

2. I guess if I squint my eyes, then maybe I can see some vague connections between the stars on her cloak and the constellations. But honestly, it looks more like a kid playing connect the dots so that they get whatever pattern they want to get out of it. Especially for the stars outside her cloak.

3. I went to Stellarium to get an approximate map of what the night sky might look like in the Mexico City area on Dec 12, 1531. Anyone else can do the same. Here's a screenshot (which you can enlarge):

I'm no astronomer so perhaps I've made mistakes in my comparison here. If so, please feel free to correct me.

That said, I spot several differences. Not least of which is East and West are swapped, but I'll assume that's an innocent mistake in labeling.

More importantly, look at where each of the constellations lie in relation to the azimuths. Several of them don't seem to match at all. Just start with ursa major or the big dipper, then work your way to other constellations, all the while comparing them with how Catholics have depicted the constellations on the Lady of Guadalupe's cloak.

4. Of course, constellations don't exist on a flat plane in reality. But I'm playing along with how Catholics have depicted the constellations on the Lady of Guadalupe's cloak.


1. Let's move onto the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes. In 1979, a civil engineer named José Aste Tonsmann took images of the Lady of Guadalupe's right eye, where he claims there's a "bearded man" in the right eye. Here are the images:

(The "bearded man" in the right eye.)

(The "bearded man" magnified.)

(According to Dr. Tonsmann, from left to right, we see "the Indian", "Bishop Zumarraga", "the translator", "Juan Diego showing the tilma", and below "the family".)

2. I think you'd have to have a very creative imagination to see a "bearded man" in these images! I can't see anything like a bearded man. Although I think I might see a German shepherd. Anyway, it seems more like looking at inkblots. You see what you want to see.

3. As far as I could find, there were two ophthalmologists involved - Dr. Rafael Torrija Lavoignet and Dr. Javier Torroella Bueno. Both examined the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes in the year 1956. I can't find the names of more recent ophthalmologists who have examined the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes, though this website claims: "Since then [1956], many people had the opportunity to inspect closely the eyes of the Virgin on the tilma, including more than 20 physicians, ophthalmologists."

4. If Barron's statement is based on ophthalmologists examining the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes in 1956, then what kind of "microscopic investigation" could they have done? I doubt it would've been anything more than an optical microscope, and I doubt they could have seen the kind of detail Barron relates with an optical microscope in the 1950s. Electron microscopes (TEM, SEM) had been created in the early-to-mid 20th century, but they weren't in wide use until the mid-1960s, and I doubt ophthalmologists in 1950s Mexico would have had access to an electron microscope.

5. It's also been claimed: "The same year [1956] another ophthalmologist, Dr. Rafael Torrija Lavoignet, examined the eyes of the image with an ophthalmoscope in great detail. He observed the apparent human figure in the corneas of both eyes, with the location and distortion of a normal human eye and specially noted a unique appearance of the eyes: they look strangely 'alive' when examined."

For one thing, how are they able to tell "the location and distortion of a normal human eye" on a two dimensional image?

6. Why would they need to use an ophthalmoscope if it's just a two dimensional image? Why not just (say) a magnifying glass? In fact, would an ophthalmoscope even work very well on a two dimensional image?

7. How do they know the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes have corneas in the first place if she's a two dimensional image or painting? Not to mention her eyes are facing downward and half-closed. The cornea is normally transparent. It's a clear thin layer with a tear film that sits at the front of the eye. How can you tell these things without having her move her eyes around?

8. If she has a cornea, then does she have a fundus too (with retina, optic disc, macula, and fovea)? Here's what a normal fundus might look like:

If she doesn't have a fundus, then why does she have a cornea? Why one but not the other? Otherwise, how could her eyes "look strangely alive" if they're missing key components?

9. I presume ophthalmoscopes in 1956 were more primitive compared to our modern ophthalmoscopes. Plus ophthalmoscopes aren't slit lamps, phoropters, or other more sophisticated devices. Opthalmoscopes are simple and modest devices. Has modern ophthalmological equipment been used on the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes? I've only seen one example which I'll discuss shortly.

10. These ophthalmologists claimed to have seen groups of people imprinted onto the Lady of Guadalupe's cornea, viz. "the Indian", "Bishop Zumarraga", "the translator", "Juan Diego showing the tilma", and "the family". If so, then that would indeed be microscopic information imprinted in the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes. Perhaps that's even nanotech level (e.g. Feynman's "There's plenty of room at the bottom"). However, judging by the images, it seems very difficult to discern these figures. On the one hand, there's supposed to be sophisticated information imprinted on her eyes. On the other hand, the information is too imprecise, too hazy to discern. Wouldn't a mark of sophisticated information be its precision or clarity?

11. Perhaps the Catholic would respond the problem isn't the information, but our ability to detect the information. The images only seem imprecise or unclear due to our instruments being deficient in detecting the information well enough. If so, then the ophthalmologists should have made far more modest claims than the claims they did make!

12. The following image is a more modern image, though I'm not sure about its date, nor other important details like how it was made, if other experts were involved, if it was ever replicated, if the colorization scheme was present in the original or added after the fact, etc.:

The image is supposed to be: "The image of various human figures that seem to constitute a family, including various children and a baby carried in the woman's back as used in the 16th century, appears in the center of the pupil, as shown in this great image of the right eye highlighting the family, generously provided by Dr. Tonsmann."

Assuming for the sake of argument these are even people, how do they know it's a "family"? How do they know their genders and approximate ages? Maybe it's a king and his subjects. Maybe it's a teacher and his students. Maybe it's just a random group of people.

Of course, if it were people, it would be fascinating. However, I doubt that's the case. At best, this seems more akin to the phenomenon of people seeing shapes in the clouds. Or the famous "face on Mars":

Which on closer inspection turned out to be:

Why couldn't seeing people in the Lady of Guadalupe's eyes be an example of pareidolia?


  1. Added a section on the tilma.

    1. Added more material in the eyes section. Primarily the more modern-looking image.