The Tilma: Defying Science for Over 450 Years

Standing at a height of fifty-six inches, with her head inclined modestly to the right, the pristine image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, impressed upon the fibers of a Mexican peasant’s cloak in 1531, remains a mystery to modern science. In an age when technology can clone humans, it cannot explain how the effigy was made, or how it has remained intact for more than 450 years.

“We may never be able to understand the cloak,” admits Professor Jody Smith of the University of Florida in Francis Johnston’s book, The Wonder of Guadalupe, “but the way to try is to do what research we can.”

And they have. The sacred image has been subjected to a battery of tests by scientists and art experts using computer enhanced photography, high-powered microscopes, and infra-red radiation. To date, every test has come to the same conclusion: the origin of the image is unknown.

The Tilma

A tilma is a type of cloak made of a coarsely woven fabric derived from threads taken from the maguey cactus plant. It is the color of unbleached linen and has a natural life span of twenty years at most. The fact that the tilma survived without the slightest sign of decay for more than 450 years is in itself a miracle.

Not only did it hang unprotected for 100 years in a damp open-windowed chapel, it has been subject to the polluting affects of thousands of burning candles over the years. A workman accidentally spilled nitric acid on the image while cleaning the gilded frame, but not a trace of damage was done to the fabric or image. In the past century, during those tragic years under the despotic rule of Calles, innumerable attempts to destroy the people’s religion were made. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, so cherished by the Mexican population, was one of the first targets. A bomb was hidden in a flower arrangement under the image. The explosion resulted in tremendous damage to everything but the tilma.

The Image

Intensive study has been made of the image itself, in particular, what causes the color to appear on the fabric. As Johnston details, Richard Kuhn, Nobel Prize winner and director of the chemistry department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Heidelberg, examined two fibers from the image – one red and one yellow. Kuhn subjected them to his usual thorough tests and made an unbelievable announcement. There was no paint of any kind on the fibers. Whatever materials were used to produce the color are unknown to science, being neither animal, vegetable or mineral dye.

In addition, infra-red photography confirmed that the image was not painted; there are no signs of brush strokes or an under-drawing.

One of the most uncanny aspects of the image is how the fabric’s natural imperfections and crude weaving actually create a 3-D effect, adding dimension to the image.

For example, the indentation between the upper lip and the nose, the shading at the brow line, some of the creases in the gown, are made by the fabric itself, not the color. This is done with such a brilliant precision that one scientist called the phenomenon “fantastic.”

It is utterly impossible for a painter to have selected a tilma with the imperfections of its weave so perfectly positioned so as to accentuate the natural highlights and features of a human being. Only a superhuman intelligence could have rendered such a feat.

The Eyes

In 1955, a draftsman by the name of J. Carlos Chavaz was examining the image with a high-powered magnifying glass when he discovered the reflection of a bearded man in the pupil of the right eye, similar to what is seen in the eyes of photographed subjects. He reported it to the Archbishop of Mexico City, Luis Marie Martinez, who immediately set up a special investigating commission.

Two ophthalmologists, Javior Torroello Buene and Rafael Torifa Lavoignet, undertook a meticulous examination with an ophthalmoscope. “In the corner of the eyes, a human bust can be seen. The distortion and place of the optical image are identical with what is produced in a normal eye, “Dr. Lavoignet stated.

This human bust, which is a man, has his head turned three-quarters toward the Virgin and is slightly bent forward. The arms appear to be going forward as though showing something. The image of the bearded man in the Virgin’s eyes bears a striking resemblance to an old painting of Juan Diego, a painting that is considered to be the most accurate likeness of the saint in existence.

Not long after this, in 1962, Dr. C. Wahlig enlarged the image twenty-five times and found two more images in the eyes. These people appeared to be standing near the bearded man with one person looking over his shoulder. The new-found images were compared to a sketch of the scene of Juan Diego presenting the tilma to Bishop Zumarraga which was drawn in 1533 and found behind the altar during the 1960 restoration of the old church. The people in the sketch were standing in the exact position as the images in Our Lady’s eyes. One appeared to look very much like Bishop Ramirez y Fuenleal who was known for certain to have been in the room at the time of the miracle. The other was Juan Gonzales, the interpreter who, according to the sketch, was standing beside Juan Diego when he unfolded the tilma in front of the bishop.

Dr. Wahlig concluded that in order for the images to appear as they did in the eyes of the image, the tilma must have acted as a kind of camera that photographed Our Lady at the exact moment the cloak was opened. This could only mean one thing: Our Lady was present in the room, although invisible, and standing directly behind Bishop Zumarraga who was facing the three men who stood before him. Dr. Wahlig could find no other explanation for how the image, with the figures reflected as they were in her eyes, could have been made.

As one scientist said after working on the tilma: “Studying the image was the most moving experience of my life. I believe in logical explanations up to a point.

However, the tilma of Guadalupe goes beyond the point of logical explanation. It’s mysteries belong to God, and to all who look upon the image with the eyes of faith.


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