The belief that images of gods, goddesses, and saints might become imbued with divine force and acquire movement is an ancient one, and such miracles have been reported of both Christian and nonChristian images. In the 1980s, the belief was revived in Ireland, where a statue of the Virgin Mary at Ballin-spittle, County Cork, attracted nationwide interest after claims by many witnesses that they had seen it move.
Moving Statues in Ancient History
Many reports of miraculous statues in pagan times were undoubtedly fraudulent, just as there are known cases of moving statue hoaxes in modern times. It is well known that ancient peoples constructed lifelike images of their gods and goddesses.
Plato and Aristotle stated that the Greek Daedalus was said to have made statues that not only walked but also needed to be tethered at night to prevent them from walking away. Aristotle described a wooden statue of Venus that moved as a result of quicksilver being poured into the interior. Pliny reported that the architect Timochares began using loadstone (magnetized ore) to construct the vaulting in the temple of Arsinoê at Alexandria, to suspended in midair an iron statue inside. Such a levitating statue would have been a great wonder if the plan had succeeded. Procopius described a complex clock that the engineers for the ancient Romans were responsible for having figures of gods and heroes that moved on the hour.
Lucian related how a certain Alexander caused a statue of Aesculapius to speak by using the gullet of a crane to transmit a voice through the mouth of the statue. In the fourth century, Bishop Theophilus described statues at Alexandria that he broke open and discovered to be hollow; they were placed against a wall in such a position that priests could slip behind them and speak.
It was believed that in ancient Egypt there were numerous statues of gods, said to deliver oracles. The Pymander Asclepios (attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) asserted the Egyptians "knew how to make gods," i.e., to install deities, angels, or demons in statues, with the power to do good or evil. Although such statues have not survived, it seems probable that they were animated by priests. The archaeologist Gaston Maspéro (1846-1916) stated (Journal des Debats, December 21, 1898):
"There were thus obtained genuine terrestrial gods, exact counterparts of the celestial gods, and, as their ambassadors here below, capable of protecting, punishing and instructing men, of sending them dreams and delivering oracles.
"When these idols were addressed, they replied either by gesture or by voice. They would speak and utter the right verdict on any particular questions. They moved their arms and shook their heads to an invariable rhythm…. And as they as suredly did nothing of all this by themselves, someone had to do it for them. Indeed, there were priests in the temples whose business it was to attend to these things. Their functions, being anything but secret, were carried out openly, in the sight and to the knowledge of all. They had their appointed places in ceremonies, in processions and the sacerdotal hierarchy; each individual knew that they were the voice or the hand of the god, and that they pulled the string to set his head wagging at the right moment. Consequently this was not one of those pious frauds which the moderns always suspect in like circumstances; no one was ignorant that the divine consultation was brought about by this purely human agency.
"Things being so, one wonders how not only the people but the kings, nobles, and scribes could have confidence in advice thus proffered…. The testimony afforded by monuments compels us to acknowledge that it was taken seriously until paganism died a natural death, and that all who played any part in it did so with the utmost respect. They had been brought up from childhood to believe that divine souls animated the statues, to approach these living statues only in the most respectful dread and awe…. Their mental attitude was that of the modern-day priest who ascends the altar. No sooner has he donned the sacerdotal garb and repeated the first few sacramental words than he no longer belongs to himself but to the sacrifice he is about to consummate; he knows that at this voice and gesture the elements will change into precious blood and flesh, and he continues unperturbed the work which he is certain he can accomplish."
Such a reverential attitude to manipulating statues, if true, offers an alternative theory to views of either miracle or fraud. Similarly, in some societies, shamans may invoke divine inspiration by initial trickery, acting out a miraculous situation by conjuring tricks as a preliminary to creating the emotional atmosphere in which heightened consciousness and genuine phenomena may arise.
However, there are also many claims in both ancient and modern times that statues have actually moved independently of humans. In some cases, rival religions did not deny the miracles but asserted that they were demonic, not divine. In analyzing a passage from Hermes Trismegistus concerned with "statues animated by divine association, which do great things, foretell the future and heal diseases," St. Augustine did not dispute the claims, but commented that "this art of binding genii to statues is an ungodly art … Instead of serving men, these would-be gods can do nothing, except as devils" (Civitas Dei, book 8, chapters 23, 24). The Synod of Laodicea defined idolatry as "the art of invoking demons and incorporating them in statues."
Moving Statues in Modern History
Throughout history, moving statues have tended to be reported at times of civil, political, or religious crisis, in which a breakdown of morale or the imminence of national disaster seemed beyond human aid, inviting divine intervention. In 1524, Italy was overrun by French armies and coping with floods, famine, and plague. During this time, when Rome itself seemed threatened, a statue of the Virgin Mary at Brescia was reported to open and close its eyes and to move its hands, bringing them together and separating them in a gesture of sympathy. Thousands of witnesses attested to the phenomenon, and similar moving statues were reported in other towns. After the crisis, such miracles ceased.
A similar event took place in 1716, when Turkish forces threatened war on Venice. One man claimed that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him in a vision and stated that if enough prayers for souls in purgatory were offered up, the infidels would be defeated. A crowd assembled in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, and some of those present later declared that the statue opened and closed its eyes to confirm what the visionary had stated. The senate of the city and the local bishop affirmed their belief in the reality of the phenomenon.
Eighty years later, when the French revolutionary forces threatened the Papal States during 1796-97 there were numerous reports of Virgin Mary statues opening and closing their eyes or shedding tears. These miracles were claimed in many churches in Rome and also all over the country. A papal commission examined over nine hundred witnesses and reported favorably on the reality of the phenomena. The manifestations subsided when Napoleon Bonaparte entered the Italian seaport town of Ancona and ordered the statue of the Virgin Mary, which had been one of those reported to move, to be covered up.
In 1870, at Soriano, Calabria, Spain, there were reports of a statue that appeared to move its hand and arm. In 1919, at Limpias, Santander, Spain, pictures of saints were reported to move their eyes or drip blood, some even stepping out of their panels. Hundreds of sworn statements attesting to such miracles were obtained. Many similar incidents were reported in Spain, in 1893 at Campocavallo and on five separate occasions at Rimini between 1850 and 1905. In the latter cases, paintings of saints were said to shed tears.
The reports from Limpias, Spain, were investigated by Professor A. Encinas of Santander University, who compared notes with the scientist E. R. Jaensch. These and similar cases were ascribed to collective hallucination, specifically arising from the psychological phenomenon of eidetic imagery.
In his book The Mechanism of Thought, Imagery and Hallucination (1939), J. Rosett commented: "The reports of mystics and of devotees about pictures and statues which moved and spoke like living persons and performed miracles are … not necessarily fraudulent. An understanding of the mechanism of attention and its relation to the state of falling asleep, and of the hallucinations associated with that state, offers a rational explanation of such reports."
According to Jaensch in his important study Eidetic Imagery (1930):
"Topical perceptual (or eidetic) images are phenomena that take up an intermediate position between sensations and images. Like ordinary physiological after-images, they are always seen in the literal sense. They have this property of necessity and under all conditions, and share it with sensations. In other respects they can also exhibit the properties of images (Vorstellungen ). In those cases in which the imagination has little influence, they are merely modified after-images, deviating from the norm in a definite way, and when that influence is nearly, or completely zero, we can look upon them as slightly intensified after-images. In the other limiting case, when the influence of the imagination is at its maximum, they are ideas that, like after-images, are projected outward and literally seen. "
Eidetic imagery has relevance to the visual faculty of artists, who can "see" their subject on the blank paper or canvas. It may also have relevance to the phenomenon of crystal gazing. The existence of various explanations for moving statues— deliberate fraud, sacramental or ritualistic manipulation, hallucination through eidetic imagery—offers a number of explanations that must be discarded before any claims of paranormal phenomena can be considered.
It would be wrong to assume that moving statues belong only to earlier history. In 1985, there were numerous reports of statues moving, bleeding, or weeping throughout Ireland. Cases were reported from over thirty localities during a few months of that year. Interestingly enough, no cases were reported from Northern Ireland during this period, although there is a large Catholic population there.
Characteristically, the period was one of cultural, political, and religious unrest. The cultural unease was focused around a 1983 referendum on amending the constitution to protect the rights of unborn children. New legislation liberalizing the availability of contraceptives and the promise of a referendum on the issue of divorce (not permitted by the constitution) had excited conservative protests. All this came to a head with the 1985 judicial inquiry into the case of an infant corpse discovered with stab wounds in Chirciveen.
It was against this background that statues of the Virgin Mary were reported as moving throughout Ireland. It began on February 14, when several children in Asdee, County Kerry, claimed to have seen a statue of the Madonna and child at the parish church of St. Mary open its eyes and move its hands. An eighty-year-old farmer also stated that he saw the Madonna blink three times. Thousands of people visited the church, but there were no further reports.
A few weeks later, children at Ballydesmond, County Cork, stated that they saw a statue move in the local church, but parents ascribed this to their imaginations. A group of tourists at Courtmacsharry, County Cork, claimed to have seen a statue near the town move, but no other movements were reported and the affair died down.
In July, two teenage girls reported seeing movement in a statue of the Virgin Mary in a grotto some 20 feet up on the side of a hill at Ballinspittle. Soon other people reported seeing the statue change expression or move, and large crowds gathered regularly to watch and recite the rosary. Many people claimed to have seen the Virgin's eyes or hands move, or the statue to move back and forth or sway from side to side. Thousands of pilgrims visited the shrine, which became the central focus for stories of statues that moved. Pilgrimages and reports of moving statues persisted for over three months and subsided at the end of October, when vandals smashed the hands and face of the statue with an axe and a hammer.
Meanwhile, throughout August and September, further reports of phenomena associated with the Virgin Mary came from all over the Ireland. In Mitchelstown, County Cork, children stated they had seen black blood flowing from a statue of the Virgin Mary and an apparition of the devil had appeared behind the statue. Many pilgrims gathered, and other young people claimed they saw the statue move. Four teenage girls said a statue at the local Marian shrine spoke to them and called for peace.
In Dunkitt, County Waterford, a statue of the Virgin Mary in a grotto on the main Waterford to Kilkenny road was reported to have been seen moving. Some people claimed the statue breathed and the hands moved from center to right. A local publican and his wife stated the statue shimmered. Thousands of pilgrims visited the grotto.
In Waterford, two young boys stated a statue of the Virgin Mary outside the Mercy Convent School moved its eyes, which were full of tears, and spoke of Pope John Paul II being assassinated. Hundreds of people kept vigil around the statue. At Mooncoin, County Waterford, several youths stated they saw a statue move, and a girl said she saw a tear fall from the right eye of the statue and the left eye open and close. Local people gathered at the site.
In the scores of cases reported from all over the country, it seems the statues appeared to move, rather than physically shifting position. Psychologists pointed out that staring at statues in dim light, especially with a glare from an illuminated halo, could result in optical illusions. However, the essential and more elusive aspect of the phenomenon was the religious fervor associated with it, and the feelings of spiritual grace experienced by many individuals.