by Marco Corvaglia
§ 1. Miracles of the Sun or Natural Effects?
In 1952 the German Jesuit GJ Strangfeld made known an interesting study in which he reported the conclusions of Dr. Karl Johann Stokl, who was professor of physics and astronomy at the Philosophical-Theological Institute Hochschule, in Regensburg, and was consultant of the bishop of Bamberg in the analysis of alleged "miracles of the sun" occurred in that diocese.
The professor declared:
When the sun is not so high, namely, when veils of clouds, or humidity and dust dominate more and more in the atmosphere and dampen the sunlight, one can for several minutes look at sun, without damaging the eye. [...]
One thinks to see a dark blue disk in front of the sun (this is already a sign of the highly excited state of the retina). [...] This dark blue disk is somewhat smaller than the solar disk, so that the edge of that disk stands out as a ring beyond that dark blue disk. The one has right away the impression that the solar disk rotates with great speed in one or the other direction. This I have experienced often enough. All this is a subjective appearance that has nothing to do with the external world. [...]
According to the reports sent to me concerning the phenomenon of June 13, 1944, the good people saw all sorts of things in the sun, reflecting even their political orientations: a working woman, a military sword, clocks that ran very fast, spinning-wheels, and many even saw the image of him (Hitler!). All things imaginable.
[in (Father) Stanley L. Jaki, God and the Sun at Fatima, Real View Books, Royal Oak, 1999, pp. 303-304. The full study, entitled Marienerscheinungen seit Fatima, was published in four parts, in as many numbers of "Der Grosse Entschluss": December 1951, pp. 82-85, January 1952, pp.121-125, February 1952, pp. 148-152, March 1952, pp. 180-181]
August Meessen, professor in the Department of Physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, has researched this phenomenon and personally conducted some experiments in Belgium. In his report "Apparitions and Miracles of the Sun", presented at the International Forum on "Science, Religion and Conscience" (Porto, Portugal, October 23-25, 2003), he explains the following:
In November 2002, I looked directly into the sun, at about 4 p.m. The sun was relatively low above the horizon and its light intensity was attenuated, although the sky was clear. I was able to look right into the sun and was amazed to see that the sun was immediately converted into a grey disc, surrounded by a brilliant ring.
The grey disc was practically uniform, while the surrounding ring was somewhat irregular and flamboyant, but did not extend beyond the solar disk. It coincided with its rim [....]
The sun became grey, since my eyes immediately responded to its great luminosity by an automatic reduction of their sensitivity. This adaptation is not simply due to the bleaching of pigments in the colour-sensitive cones of the fovea, where the image of the sun is projected, but to secondary processes [....] The trans-membrane potential [of the photoreceptors] is modified and this change constitutes the neurological response to the incident light. This system provides an automatic and highly efficient gain control, allowing us to cope as well with very low as with extremely high luminosities. This adaptation process is completely unconscious. That’s why the unexpected appearance of a grey disc instead of an extremely bright solar disc can give the impression - in a context of apparitions - that this was not a natural process.
The glowing ring is instead visible exactly because the sun’s border is less bright and, therefore, the receptors’ inhibitory response is weaker. Meessen continues, in fact:
The brilliant ring can also be explained. [....]
The brain will associate with every point a combination of excitatory and inhibitory responses [...] Near the edge of the solar disc, the inhibitory part of receptor fields are partially covering a region where the light intensity is smaller. The inhibition is decreased and the average response is increased. Visually, there appears a bright rim.
The testimony of father René Laurentin is also useful and above suspicion: he has been, for at least fifteen years, the most famous defender of Medjugorje in the world.
He reports that an official, a friend of his, explained to him that being able to gaze at the sun at certain times and seeing it as opalescent, is entirely physiological.
And he once demonstrated it to him in Bretagne. Here is the account by Laurentin:
- It 's a natural phenomenon, he said, and I will show it to you.
One evening he came to Malestroit in Bretagne, at the hour when the sun is still shining just before sunset (the most propitious time), and said:
- Look at the sun!
- I cannot, it hurts my eyes .... But my interlocutor insisted, and he was sure of himself. I therefore fixed my eyes on the still dazzling sun. The splendor ceased instantly. The disc became gray-white, surrounded by a ring of intense radiating light. An ocular reaction.
[René Laurentin, La Vergine appare a Medjugorje?, Queriniana, Brescia, 1991, p. 158]
What about the change of color?
The colors that the testimonies speak about (red, yellow, green, blue) correspond to very specific alterations of the chromatic perception, in the phenomenon of “chromatopsia”: more specifically, “erythropsia” (vision of red), “xanthopsia” (vision of yellow), “chloropsia” (vision of green), “cyanopsia” (vision of blue).
Professor Meessen, like his colleague Stokl had in the Fifties, wanted to personally verify these effects, in Belgium:
In a second experiment, realized at 3 p.m. in December 2002, I looked straight at the sun during a much longer time. After some minutes, I saw impressive colours, up to 2 or 3 times the diameter of the sun. They changed, but were mainly pink, deep blue, red and green.
Further away, the sky became progressively more luminous. I stopped there, since I understood that these colours resulted from the fact that the red, green and blue sensitive pigments are bleached and regenerated at different rates. Moreover, it is well known that receptor fields combine the responses of cones, to form blue-yellow, red-green and white-black opponent pairs.
Of course, it is likely that the response times may vary from subject to subject.
The pulsing effect originates from "opposing excitatory and inhibitory activities [in the visual cortex]", notes Meessen, who adds:
After about a quarter of an hour, the sun takes on again its “normal” appearance. It becomes too brilliant for continued gazing. This means actually that bleached pigments have been regenerated and that secondary biochemical processes are not effective any more for some time.
The full study is available here.
It’s obvious that in places regarded as "miraculous" there are always people trying to stare at the sun (in Medjugorje pilgrims have the habit of doing so,especially coinciding with the time of the apparitions), thus, sooner or later, the necessary conditions being present, the phenomenon is perceived and whoever perceives it sooner invites the others to do the same: of those, some will "see" and others will not "see" (probably based on their retinal sensitivity to the light).
When one is not in places of this kind, however, it is unlikely that one begins to gaze at the sun.
However, what we have said up to now should not make us forget that gazing at the sun is a potentially dangerous activity for the retina, as is also documented by several specific scientific studies on Medjugorje:
- Ralph R. Nix and David J. Apple, Solar Retinopathy From Sungazing In Medjugorje, published in the Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, August 1987, volume 139, 8, pp 36-40;
- Randy V. Field, Jack Or. Sipperley, Gary Hall, J. Alan Rappazzo, Medjugorje Maculopathy,New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 318, 18, May 1988, p. 1207;
- M. Hope-Ross, S. Travers, D. Mooney, Solar Retinopathy Following Religious Rituals, British Journal of Ophthalmology, August 1988, 72, pp. 931-934.
Upon examining the medical literature, we can see that people who reported damage from sungazing perceived the very same "miraculous" phenomena we have been speaking about (dark or greyish spot in the center of the sun, bright edge, apparent pulsations, vision of colours or "chromatopsia).
Let us consider some patients in the studies just mentioned.
In “Solar Retinopathy Following Religious Rituals” doctors M. Hope-Ross, S. Travers D. Mooney report four cases of solar retinopathy registered within some months at the Royal Victoria Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin. Three of these cases have been produced in Medjugorje. We can read:
Case two. A 39-year-old man presented to the RVEE Hospital, in October 1986. He complained of blurred vision and black spots in front of his left eye. He had recently returned from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje.
Case three. A 23-year-old nurse presented to the RVEE Hospital in June 1987. She complained of blurred vision and persistent black spots in the central field of vision of both eyes. The onset of her symptoms was five days prior to presentation. She had no previous ophthalmic history. While on a pilgrimage to Medjugorie she had stared at the sun for 10 minutes in the late afternoon of a hot summer's day. While staring at the sun it went a deep green, surrounded by a gold rim, and when she looked away her vision was blurred.
Case four. A 33-year-old woman presented to the RVEE Hospital in July 1987. She complained of a black spot in front of her right eye. In May 1987 she had been on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. She had stared at the sun at 7.00 pm intermittently for a few minutes. While she was so doing, the sun had danced and changed colour from orange to black to white. When she looked away she noticed her vision was blurred, and there was a black spot in front of her right eye.
A final observation of the team (p. 933):
We present here a series of four patients all of whom looked deliberately at the sun for prolonged periods of time. They were encouraged to do so by other pilgrims.
In “Solar Retinopathy From Sungazing In Medjugorje” (Journal of the Louisiana State Medical Society, August 1987, 139,8, pp. 36-40) one can read:
Case one.A 60-year-old male was first seen on November 14, 1986, with a history of viewing the sun in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia for approximately 25 minutes, 15 days earlier on October 30, 1986. This occurred at approximately 3:00 p.m… He stated that a black disc covered the sun, with brilliant colors radiating and pulsating from around the disc… On February 12, 1987 the patient returned and stated that he experienced the same phenomenon of seeing a black disc covering the sun while sungazing in New Orleans on January 15, 1987 for approximately 15 minutes around 4:00 p.m.
Case two.A 29-year-old female was first seen on February 5, 1987 and stated that she observed the sun covered by a black disc with brilliant colors radiating and pulsating from around the disc for 15 minutes at 2:30 p.m. in New Orleans on February 3, 1987. She noted the time before and after this occurrence. She then summoned a neighbour and attempted to look at the sun a second time for 15 seconds, five minutes later. However, this time the black disc was not present. She stated that she has seen a small white scotoma [a spot in the field of vision] in the center of both fields of vision since that time.
Case three.A 34-year-old female was seen on February 26, 1987 with the history of having observed the sun during a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Yugoslavia in November 1986. She saw a black disc covering the sun with brilliant colors radiating and pulsating from the disc. This occurred around 3:30 p.m. and lasted about 20 minutes. The next day she again attempted to look at the sun for about 20 seconds. She stated however that the black disc was not present, and that she has seen small grey central scotoma in both fields of vision since that time.
Case four. A 37-year-old female was first seen on May 7, 1987 with the history of looking at the sun in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia on April 28, 1987 for about two minutes. She covered the left eye, but saw with the right eye six or seven satellite suns that were bluish in color spinning around the sun. Twenty minutes later she saw a pink cloud behind the sun. The center of the sun appeared gold and then turned blue. She observed this for three minutes. She stated that the vision in the right eye has been blurred since that time, and she initially saw a dark central scotoma in the right field of vision, that now appears white.
Evidence suggests a great individual variation in the susceptibility for developing solar retinopathy, as the cause of the lesion is felt to be a photochemical injury rather than a thermal injury of the retina and retinal pigment epithelium.
Let us now consider the following movie, taken from the documentary on the CD I veggenti di Medjugorje sul banco di prova della scienza (English title:"The Visionaries From Medjugorje Tried By Science"), that is sold in Medjugorje.
The images, relating to one of the alleged miracles of the sun that occurred there, are interesting. Allegedly a miracle is happening, but the people who watch it are continuously photographed, not the sun itself. In the last scene we at least see that the sun, recorded by the camera, is absolutely normal.
What occurred on 14 May 2009 to a group that took part in the pilgrimage organized by the Italian journalist Paolo Brosio is very exemplifying.
While the people at issue were on the bridge of Mostar (40 km from Medjugorje) what happened is documented by the images that follow, in the first part of the video.
In the second part, a pilgrim, in a hotel, shows some images of the sun that she obtained, in those same moments, with an iPhone:
Some considerations demonstrate, beyond any reasonable doubt, that nothing unusual was happening.
Regarding the first part of the movie, this must be emphasized:
As you can see, the camera did not record any change in the sun. Which is a further indication of the physiological nature of the phenomenon. To explain this, please refer to the various explanations suggested by science and experience, previously reported in this same page.
In particular, with regard to the red colour spoken of in the film, it can be added that “erythropsia” is, exactly, defined as " red vision following exposure to intense white light”in ”Photoprotection Of The Eye - UV Radiation And Sunglasses”, Dr. David H. Sliney, U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion & Preventive Medicine, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology, Volume 64, Number 2-3, November 15, 2001, pp. 166-175].
Moreover, that this was a simple ocular reaction resulting from the fact that the pilgrims have stared at the sun, it seems further substantiated by the finding that no media in the region appears to have given notice of any abnormal phenomenon encountered by the population on 14 May 2009.
This article continues on the page "Miracles of the Sun": Optical and Technical Effects [Part 2]