Papal pareidolia?

One of my favorite phenomena that represents better than perhaps any other how humans are wired to look for patterns, whether there is a pattern there or not, is the phenomenon known as pareidolia. As a Catholic-turned-sort-of-heathen, in particular I like Virgin Mary pareidolia, and have blogged about multiple such incidents. Of course, the Virgin Mary is not the only sort of image seen in pareidolia. Jesus shows up quite frequently as well.

Now, would you believe that the late Pope John Paul II is showing up in flames? No, really:

This fiery figure is being hailed as Pope John Paul II making an appearance beyond the grave.

The image, said by believers to show the Holy Father with his right hand raised in blessing, was spotted during a ceremony in Poland to mark the second anniversary of his death.

Details appeared on the Vatican News Service, a TV station in Rome which specialises in religious news broadcasts.

Service director Jarek Cielecki, a Polish priest and close friend of John Paul II, travelled to Poland after hearing an onlooker had photographed the image.

Father Cielecki said he was convinced the picture showed the former pontiff.

“You can see the image of a person in the flames and I think it is the servant of God, Pope John Paul II,” he said.

The pictures were being broadcast continuously on Italian TV and also posted on religious websites, some of which crashed as thousands logged on to see for themselves the eerie figure formed by the flames.

Here’s the image:


Uncanny, yes?

Maybe not.

Dan Finkelstein, who caused such a furor over his comments about Richard Dawkins and the Jews not too long ago, perhaps in a bid to kiss and make up, sees this fire in a different way. Naturally, as he does so often in cases of pareidolia, the King makes an appearance:

i-e249512642789a82078efb62f00d43b2-flames_3.jpg i-8eecf6ed46a622033f925201b8904b81-elvis_3.jpg

Finkelstein has a few other ideas about whom this miraculous flame resembles, as well. Personally, although Finkelstein’s suggestions aren’t bad, I think this magical fire looks more like Pete Townsend (that is, if you tilt the picture a little so that they match up more closely):


Rock on!


  1. #1 Inquisitive Raven
    October 17, 2007

    Looks to me like a wizard casting a spell. I’ll see if I can find the cross stitch pattern it remind me of.

  2. #2 jk
    October 17, 2007

    I dunno. . . When I sse things like this, I instinctively think “Photoshop.”

  3. #3 rl
    October 17, 2007

    Wizard? It’s Dumbledore.

  4. #4 obscurifer
    October 17, 2007

    It looks like a profile of an Aztec face looking to the right. Does that mean that the Aztec calendar should somehow come into play?

  5. #5 pough
    October 17, 2007

    Looks to me more like a guy on fire trying to escape said fire. Less a blessing, more a “HELP! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF THIS FIRE!”

  6. #6 qetzal
    October 17, 2007

    Um, I’m a bit confused. Why would a Catholic expect to see JPII in flames? Clouds, maybe.

    I mean, if even the Pope is consigned to a fiery afterlife, there’s no point in the rest of us attending mass or saying rosaries or any of that. It clearly doesn’t help!

  7. #7 sailor
    October 17, 2007

    “I mean, if even the Pope is consigned to a fiery afterlife, there’s no point in the rest of us attending mass or saying rosaries or any of that. It clearly doesn’t help!”

    I think this sums it up perfectly.

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    October 17, 2007

    It’s Graham Gooch playing a forward defensive, with a high backlift.

    Don’t look at me like that!


  9. #9 Koray
    October 17, 2007

    Obviously the late pope has failed. Those flames don’t look exactly like him. They also don’t seem to be saying anything.

    If you’re going to make an appearance after death, make an undeniable appearance.

  10. #10 anon1234
    October 17, 2007

    Film any ordinary bonfire for ten minutes, and among the frames you’ll find all the interesting images you want.

  11. #11 clheiny
    October 17, 2007

    Looks like a 3/4 profile of a bust of Bozo the Clown to me.

  12. #12 yonatron
    October 18, 2007

    Speaking of pareidolia, why is it so hard to find anything about it in the peer-reviewed literature? I was hoping to try and look at it for my senior thesis (in Cognitive Science, with a Psych professor), but it turns up almost nothing in Google Scholar (as does apophenia). Especially when you’re looking for it in folks without psychopathologies.

    Anyone know another search term I should be using for the same phenomenon? Seems like somebody must have wanted to study it in normals..

  13. #13 has
    October 18, 2007

    “Speaking of pareidolia, why is it so hard to find anything about it in the peer-reviewed literature?”

    No problem; just take any piece of random literature and keep on staring at it until you see what you want.

  14. #14 yonatron
    October 18, 2007

    ba-dum bum tssss….

  15. #15 Bourgeois_Rage
    October 18, 2007

    Feh. Pete Townsend isn’t dead how could he be making appearances in bonfires…

  16. #16 tonyl
    October 18, 2007

    No way man, that’s Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot again!
    here’s a random image from a google search

  17. #17 magdalena
    October 19, 2007

    “Speaking of pareidolia” – it IS an uncanny little phenomenon… I went canoeing this summer, and the river was lined with fallen trees, branches outstretched into mid-river, tangled roots bared etc. I can assure you I saw meaningful images (like a huge cat crouched on the bank, or a pair of birds, and other stuff), in ALL these jumbled groups before getting closer and thinking “ow, it’s just a bunch of branches again” 😉
    I thought it was normal until I asked my boyfriend and he said no, he didn’t see any of those images at all!
    Are some people more prone to this stuff, and if yes, then why?
    I’ll be coming back here for an answer! 😉

  18. #18 Mike Spears
    October 20, 2007

    Wow! the bonfire image was not wearing pants nor shortpants, how can you claim it was elvis, paul or john.

  19. #19 Sirrus911
    October 20, 2007

    This is my favorite Virgin Mary appearance.

  20. #20 Tunic
    October 21, 2007


    Could be a forward defensive, but it looks more to me like a squarish on-drive… then again, Goochie’s technique was always suspect :p

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