Virgin's image reflects religious fervour in Clearwater

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Clearwater, Florida (AP) -Carrying rosary beads and cameras, thousands of worshippers are flocking to the wall of a black glass building where they believe they see the image of the Virgin Mary.

"It's quite amazing. It's very spiritual, very peaceful," said Patty Scharn, a receptionist at Seminole Finance, the two-storey building in central Clearwater where the rainbow-coloured image was first noticed on Tuesday. Some said they drove 200 miles from south Florida for a glimpse.

"People are making shrines, bringing gifts, candles, flowers, statues. Some have been overwhelmed and fainted," said police spokesman Wayne Shelor. "We have the infirm, the disabled in wheelchairs, the blind. They're coming 500 at a time."

The image, about 50 feet wide and 35 feet tall, bears a striking resemblance to a mantle-covered figure, head slightly bowed. It stretches across nine panes on the outside of the building. Shades of purple, blue, yellow and green wash across the mirrored surface like a stained glass window, swirling into a robe-draped figure with downcast head.

No one had an explanation, but glass experts planned an inspection to determine if chemicals or mineral deposits from sprinklers caused it.

Joe Mannion, a spokesman for the local Roman Catholic Diocese of St Petersburg, urged caution. "Everyone should exercise a great deal of healthy scepticism."

But believers needed no explanation. To them it's a Christmas miracle.

"It was like you're in an angel's arms and the light of Christ was above and around me," Barbara Boyer said of her experience.

Businesses nearby say the image has been developing since the Thanksgiving holiday in late November. But it was not until Tuesday that a customer asked if it had been painted on the glass.

"Nobody painted anything," Ms Scharn said.