THE ONLY weeping madonna officially accepted by the Roman Catholic Church has been exposed as a fake by an Italian scientist who used the logic of Mr Spock, the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes and a knowledge of capillary attraction.
There has been an sharp increase in the sightings of weeping madonnas, from Ireland to Croatia, but the only one recognised by the Church is a statue of the Virgin Mary in the town of Siracusa in Sicily. It first began weeping in 1953.
The "miracle" of a statue that appears to weep has even been caught on film. But Luigi Garlaschelli, a chemistry researcher at the University of Pavia, believes he has an explanation.
Dr Garlaschelli has made his own weeping madonna which baffled onlookers into believing the statue was able to shed tears without any mechanical or electronic aids or the deployment of water-absorbing chemicals.
The secret, he revealed, is to use a hollow statue made of thin plaster. If it is coated with an impermeable glazing and water poured into the hollow centre from a tiny hole in the head, the statue behaves quite normally.
The plaster absorbs the liquid but the glazing prevents it from pouring out. But if barely perceptible scratches are made in the glazing over the eyes, droplets of water appear as if by divine intervention - rather than by capillary attraction, the movement of water through sponge-like material.
Dr Garlaschelli said: ''I notice that, among these weeping madonna miracles, the only one accepted by the Catholic Church happened in Siracusa in 1953. This is the best documented case, with many witnesses to an actual case of weeping, and even a couple of amateur films showing watery tears appearing on the face out of the blue.
''Examination of a copy of this bas-relief from the same manufacturer as the original, however, proved it to be made of glazed plaster and to possess a cavity behind the face.''
Dr Garlaschelli said the actual madonna of Siracusa is kept behind a glass partition and he is unable to inspect its glazing for himself. ''I think permission won't be granted to examine it. Many of these relics are not allowed to be examined.''
Italy in particular is going through a craze of weeping madonna sightings. Last year there were only two or three, but this has risen to more than a dozen in the first few months of this year, Dr Garlaschelli said. One of the most famous is at Civitavecchia near Rome, which sheds tears of "blood". Dr Garlaschelli believes the bloody tears are more a fashion statement than true miracles.
"Nowadays madonnas weep blood. In my opinion this is because we now have colour TV.''
Dr Garlaschelli has more recently turned his attention to several officially accepted sightings of ''bloodied hosts'' - red spots that appear on the Holy Eucharists used in Communion. He thinks this is caused by the microbe Serratia marcescens which lives on starch and excudes a bright red, jelly- like pigment.
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