Painting of Christ in New Mexico said to glow and change dimensions



February 2, 2003 - Reported in [Spirit] online newspaper. - Rancho De Taos, N.M. In northern New Mexico, there are not many miles separating mysteries. 'The Shadow of the Cross' hangs in [San Francisco de Asis Church] in Rancho de Taos, N.M. In total darkness, the painting of Jesus appears to glow, and some see a cross and boat.

One person's mystery is another's miracle. One such phenomenon dwells in the small town of Rancho de Taos, not quite an hour north of Santa Fe. The parish of San Francisco de Asis is home to a goose-bump-raising work of art called "The Shadow of the Cross." The painting brings some people to their knees. Others turn away tearfully disappointed or angry because they cannot see what most can, the images that emerge only with darkness in this 1896 work by a little- known French-Canadian artist, Henri Ault.

A donation of $3 is suggested for tourists who wish to view the painting. They number in the tens of thousands each year. They traipse in small groups into a small, plain room of the parish hall furnished only with a few dozen folding chairs and a TV with VCR that play a short, taped introduction to the parish. The painting can make a sullen, snickering teenager, dragged to the parish hall by his parents, suddenly go slack-jawed and wide-eyed with wonder, the parish archivist and ladies in the gift shop report.

The lights go out. 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 wer 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.

"He looks so ... solid. Let's get out of here," a young woman says to her boyfriend, and they hurry out. But Kyle Thomas, a 24-year-old waiter from Fairfax, Va., says it is "the coolest thing" he has seen in a long time. The Catholic Church takes pains not to call the 8-foot painting of Jesus miraculous or to make any claim about it other than to say it is a phenomenon not perfectly understood. Many assume the painting's strange effects, which last indefinitely in darkness, result from the painter's clever trickery. You can see contempt in some expressions, archivist Corina Santistevan says.

After five years leading the parish, the Rev. Timothy Martinez says he still gets chills from the painting at times, but he personally lacks curiosity about it. It just does not matter what the scientific truth is, he says. It has never been necessary for him to delve further. "It's a mystery because we don't know why it does what it does. What's more important is an individual's perception of something and how it works in his life," Martinez says. "This painting might bring a miracle into a life. Miracles are things that happen in people's hearts."

The church rarely attests to supernatural occurrences and only after decades, if not centuries, of investigation, Archdiocese of Santa Fe Chancellor Bennett Voorhies says. The church is content to let a span of centuries reveal the truth about objects or events, Voorhies says, unless something has garnered so much notoriety or created such clamoring among people that it can no longer be ignored. "The church is very, very cautious ... and patient," he says. There is no push for investigations here or at El Santuario de Chimayo just to the south, where faithful pilgrims have claimed for more than a hundred years that they have been cured of many ailments by the tierra bendita, or holy dirt, around the church.

Ault always denied that he was responsible for the painting's surreal features, according to several short histories and Santistevan. He never duplicated the effects in other works, she says, which were mostly landscapes. Ault was only moderately successful as an artist. "It is said that he was very surprised when he walked into his studio one night and saw the painting glowing in the dark," Santistevan says. Ault's "The Shadow of the Cross" was the sensation of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, according to old newspaper clippings unearthed by Santistevan. It was exhibited for years at the Dore Galleries of London and also shown around other European cities.

In 1948, a wealthy Texan from Wichita Falls, Mrs. Herbert Sidney Griffin, bought the painting for an undisclosed price and donated it to the church in her second, chosen hometown of Rancho de Taos. Although parish records are incomplete, Martinez and Santistevan say that years ago, scientists from the national laboratory at nearby Los Alamos tested the painting for radioactivity and perhaps even for the presence of some phosphorescent minerals. The Geiger counter results were negative, and other tests were inconclusive, they say.

"We know the painting is a mystery but not a miracle," Santistevan says. "As far as I know the painting has not been responsible for any healing. Grant you, it is very moving. People have an emotional response to it, and that is something the church neither approves or disapproves of."

Some additional tests would require destruction of part of the painting. However, chemists say that a check for minerals that are thermoluminescent, those which release radiation when moderate heat is applied, could be done merely by cooling the painting. "If we were to find a scientific reason for why the painting was glowing, or for the Shroud of Turin, would it change the experience or the faith of the people?" Martinez asks. "God uses human hands to make miracles too. Is the Sistine Chapel any less of a miracle because it was painted by human hands.

"The wonder and power of God shows through us ... and sometimes even through the sinful. Our minds can never wrap around the whole mystery of God." Santistevan is polite but bristles a little at any attempt to sensationalize "The Shadow of the Cross" painting. She believes the power of the painting is eclipsed by a greater wonder in the parish. She is far more proud of the architecture of the San Francisco de Asis Church, one of the most painted and photographed in the world.The church, finished around 1815, is most famous for its backside. The way its massive, smoothly curving adobe buttresses cleave the azure sky is nothing short of divine. Perhaps only the flying buttresses of the Parisian cathedral of Notre Dame are more iconic than those of San Francisco de Asis in tiny Rancho de Taos.

Every June here, hundreds of hands smooth clay mud, water and straw over the church to resurface its tens of thousands of adobe bricks. "It is so beautiful when we finish in June. It sparkles like a jewel," Santistevan says. A hundred families, at times besieged by Indians, had to haul materials from great distances to build this church almost 200 years ago. "That they did so is the greatest miracle," she says. About 250,000 to 400,000 people visit the church each year. Roughly 45,000 view the mysterious painting across the courtyard.

Visitors cost the parish $80,000 a year, mostly in staff time. The gift shop and donations usually just cover that and sometimes provide a small surplus, Martinez says. Tourists do not help pay for the $1.2 million needed to repair the roof and other parts of the church. "That would be a miracle," Martinez says.