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August 14, 2002
Taos mystery painting puzzles scientists, tourists
Painting of Christ housed in 18th century adobe chapel emits glow
By Lorenzo Chavez
RANCHOS DE TAOS, N.M. - A few miles south of Taos' main plaza lies the 18th century San Francisco de Asís Church, among the nation's oldest Spanish mission churches and home to a mysterious painting of Christ.
The 120-foot-long church was completed in 1772, two decades after construction began. Made of masonry, adobe and timber rafters, the structure was built in the Ranchos de Taos village.
The tan-colored adobe structure sits solemnly alone with its three white crosses reaching toward a deep blue cloudless sky. For centuries its simple yet elegant design has attracted painters, photographers and tourists alike.
Visitors come to view the rustic church that pays homage to St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology. Every year during the first two weeks of June, the 1,000-plus congregation led by Father Tim Martinez helps clean, plaster and repair the walls of the 229-year-old church that saw its last major renovation in the 1980s.
They also come to view "Shadow of the Cross," a life-size painting of Christ painted in 1896 by French Canadian artist Henri Ault. Curiosity-seekers worldwide visit the parish hall to see the mysterious painting that becomes luminescent in the darkness.
In plain light the painting is a life-size portrait of Jesus Christ standing on a rock near some water. One hand lies close to his heart and the other by his side. However, in the darkness the painting emits a glow and becomes luminescent with the Lord appearing in silhouette. According to one observer, the figure of Christ seems to move or flicker slowly as if the figure is walking or moving. A black band or shadow in the shape of a cross appears over his right shoulder and the dark outline of what appears to be the bow of a boat also appears. A very faint, nearly imperceptible halo appears above his head and, according to some, faint white letters can be found near the top of the painting, near the head.
According to a host who presents the painting to visitors, scientists have examined the chemical properties of the paint and have confirmed that no radium or other luminescent chemicals or materials are present to produce the eerie glow.
"About five or six years ago the halo started fading," said church secretary Ruby Martinez. "We don't have any explanation for any of it."
"Some people say, `What's the trick?'" Martinez said. "Some people are all excited about it and say `It's a miracle!' We tell them it's not a miracle, it's a mystery that we can't explain. We're really not claiming anything, but some people are really affected by it.
"About 20 years ago they moved it to the parish hall so that we can set it up more often because visitors come all day long," Martinez said. "And in the past they had to come at night when the night tours were conducted at the church."
Having worked at the church for nearly 20 years, Martinez has seen all types of reactions.
"Some people run out ... they get nervous and run out with tears in their eyes," she said.
"Children have a different response. The children like that the painting always faces them. Sometimes they hide behind the door and we tell them `You can't hide from Jesus,'" she said, laughing.
According to church historian and archivist Corina Santistevan, "There are extreme reactions to it.
"There are those who are very touched and very moved and very reverent," she said, "And those who continue to be skeptical. And those who are curious and want a scientific explanation."
A Taos native and a charter member of the Taos County Historical Society, Santistevan for years provided guided tours before her retirement. With University of New Mexico scholar Van Dorn Hooker, she co-authored an architectural history of the church titled "Centuries of Hands."
"Sometimes you turn the lights off and you find people on their knees," she said. "Some of them feel very guilty that they can't see it. Some people want to be left alone to meditate."
Santistevan has had her own experiences with the mysterious painting. One particularly challenging evening she was moved by the intensity of the glow.
"Once I was decorating the church and I was having a hard time trying to hang flower pots that were very heavy. It was late evening and we had to close the church so I was under stress. This couple came in and immediately started to help and they wanted to see the painting. So when we finished hanging the pots I locked the church and showed them the painting.
"Usually, you wait a while to adjust to the darkness but that thing went off just immediately," she said. "There was no reason for it to brighten as much as it did that one time."
With awe, she added, "I was impressed."