Measured Against Reality

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seeing angels in reflections

This is a great example of how people see more than they should when they look at things. Humans naturally assume intent behind events, and we naturally see agents in innocuous places.

Here's the backstory:

When retired policeman Andy Key went on a trip to Rome, he was struck by the beauty of sunlight streaming through a window in the Vatican.

As the Pope made an address nearby, he decided to capture the stunning image on his camera.

But it was only when Mr Key, 48, and his wife Susan, 44, returned home and and downloaded their photographs that they noticed a strange apparition in the picture.

They were amazed to see what looked like the image of a guardian angel above the heads of other visitors to St Peter's Basilica.

Mr Key, from March, Cambridgeshire, said: "It looks like an angel hovering on the people's heads.

"No-one can explain it - there's nothing on their heads for the light to bounce off."

Here's the angel:

Being the skeptic I am, I had to figure out what was really causing this. I'll admit, in that picture it's a bit hard to see what's going on. Look at the zoomed in one, it's the dead giveaway:

From here it's clear. This is just a reflection coming off of something in front of the crowd. You can see how the "head" is just the same pattern after it has gone over a corner, making it look offset. The "wing" and mid-body have a similar effect, but it's harder to notice. My bet is that it's some kind of baptismal or holy water container reflecting the light back up, something circular, elliptical, or rectangular and filled with water (or made of metal). It's no angel, it's just a reflection following the contours of the wall that looks like it could be vaguely person-shaped.

Mr Key, from March, Cambridgeshire, said: "It looks like an angel hovering on the people's heads.

"No-one can explain it - there's nothing on their heads for the light to bounce off."

I just explained it, and I think fairly convincingly. It's really easy to see how it's just following the contours of the wall. You can't see what it's reflecting off of, but it's obviously something.

So I did a bit of googling, and I think I found it (larger version pops):

I can't be sure, but that big pool of water in the middle of the aisle leading up to the area under the dome may just be the source of the reflections onto the wall behind it. I can't be sure, but I'm pretty damn close. (And for the record, I found this after I guessed it was a holy water-fountain (or whatever they're called). Go me.)

So Mr Key, do I get a reward for explaining the so-called "angel"? I know I won't, but I think I should!

Let this be a lesson to you about seeing agents or intent where there is none to be had, lest you make a reflection into an angel.

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  • Mr Key, from March, Cambridgeshire, said: "It looks like an angel hovering on the people's heads."

    It should also be pointed out that, as there is no point of reference as to what an 'angel' is supposed to actually look like (religious art is not a reference, merely an interpretation) there's no possible way to coherently say "this looks like an angel" without a huge chunk of wishful thinking. One could just as easily call it an image of a fairy, ghost, spirit, Athene, or some other cultural icon.

    People are famously known for their ability to see faces and other recognisable shapes where there are none.

    I had the same thing the other day when I noticed a "baby holding one arm in the air and a large fish in the other" on the bathroom floor. On closer inspection, it was just the random pattern of the tiles and my ability to make sense of patterns.

    By Blogger nullifidian, at 12:10 AM, May 17, 2007  

  • Cultural perceptions of angels leave people with ideas of what these sentient beings could be like. However, as each of us evolves to gain insight into our intuition and senses, we will make our own assessments.

    Its curious to hear people say things don't exist simply because others "see" what they don't. This simply proves is different people perceive different things. Varied realities exist, like varied levels of maturity and understanding.

    Just because you don't see what someone else supposedly sees doesn't mean they don't see anything at all. You may be blinded by your own skepticism, fear or unwillingness to expand your perception.

    By Anonymous Liara Covert, at 7:01 AM, July 22, 2007  

  • Alternately, my dear "liara," it could be the case that our brains purposely search out patterns (especially in the form of faces or bodies) so as to notice, say, that lion hiding in the grass waiting to munch on us. It's just that many logic-using people investigate the situation and come to find that, rather than being a lion, the blades of grass just happened to be sitting in such a way as to look vaguely lionish.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:32 AM, December 08, 2007  

  • Angels, demons, god, whatever, there's no such thing...

    By Anonymous cheap viagra, at 8:46 AM, April 15, 2011  

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