Author’s Note: In memory of Tom Flynn.
In my investigative travels through beautiful Italy, I have witnessed many marvels—sometimes accompanied by my great friend and fellow skeptic Massimo Polidoro, who has dubbed me “The Detective of the Impossible.” Alas, among the inviting enigmas that I have only been able to read about is in the little town of Genazzano, some thirty miles southeast of Rome: an “impossible” painting in a church there.
This is the Santuario Madonna del buon Consiglio (that is, “Sanctuary of Our Lady of Good Counsel”). According to legend, a painting miraculously appeared there in 1467. Since then, it has acquired its own altar, on which it is displayed in a glass-paneled frame. However, therein—according to many witnesses—it “floats,” defying gravity, “for it is not attached or supported in any way.”1 It has been an allegedly unsolved mystery for over half a millennium!
One needs to look no further than Joan Carroll Cruz’s credulous book Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Statues and Portraits (1993) to learn the legend of the “floating fresco.”
The story begins in 1467 when the old church at Genazzano was badly in need of renovation. A widow in the congregation, Petruccia de Geneo, felt a calling to donate her meager savings to the project. But when that money proved insufficient, those who had scoffed at her audacity now openly ridiculed her, calling the incomplete work “Petruccia’s Folly.” Then, as happened so often in legends of yore, a miracle occurred.
It was on St. Mark’s Day (April 25) in the now unforgettable “year of the miracle.” While the church was overcrowded with the city’s populace celebrating that saint’s annual festival, suddenly came strains of celestial music. Then, out of a clear sky a “mysterious cloud” began to descend until it covered an unfinished wall of the church. When it dissolved, there, seemingly floating before the wall, was a beautiful portrait of the Madonna and the Christ Child. Fittingly, because this is a pious legend, the city’s church bells began to ring—of their own accord, “it is said”—attracting people from all around.2
And from April 27 to August 14—a notary’s record having been kept that is yet preserved—171 healings were attributed to the miraculous image! So great was all this evidence that Pope Paul II sent two bishops to investigate, and their favorable findings are reportedly preserved also.3,4,5
But wait. Scarcely had the miraculously appearing picture been named—it was called the Madonna of Paradise after its celestial bestowal—than the pious tale had to be revised and the picture renamed. It seems that two refugees had arrived from Albania where invading Turks were terrorizing the populace, and the two had an interesting story of their own. They had seen, only weeks before, in an Albanian church, the very same painting! And when the commission of inquiry checked, they learned that not only had the Albanian picture gone missing but that it left behind on one of the walls an empty space of the exact same size!
The result is that the acquirers of the picture renamed it for their church, Our Lady of Good Counsel. Although Albanians continue to characterize the portrait as “their” Madonna, they still maintain that it left “spontaneously” during the Turkish invasion. And the folks in Genazzano, Italy, now refer to it piously as having been “miraculously relocated.”6 (I suppose we should not speculate that a looting Turk had traded an item of plunder for some vino.)
Interestingly, another source relates the narrative from the earlier Albanian perspective. It tells how the Ottoman (Turkish) army invaded Albania. Before the capital (Skutari) was taken, the Virgin Mary revealed to “two pious men” that the holy image would not be harmed but that they should be prepared to follow it when it left the country.
“The picture then moved away from the wall, seemingly of its own accord, and floated into the air.”7 So the two men followed the image as, hidden in a cloud, it traveled over the Adriatic Sea. The pair stepped upon the water and, finding themselves miraculously supported, continued to follow the cloud to the coast of Italy, where they lost sight of it.
Soon, however, the sound of heavenly music allowed them to pick up the trail again. The account then catches up with the earlier tale of the picture appearing in Genazzano: “They watched dumbfounded as the little cloud descended and came to rest where it can still be seen today, floating before a wall of the Church of the Mother of Good Counsel in Genazzano.”8,9
There are different versions of each story; folklorists call them “variants.” The one we just read stated that the picture seemed to move “of its own accord, and floated into the air,” whereas another enthused that it was “Brought by angelic hands,” and there are artworks depicting the angels.10 Not surprisingly, variants are common to these kinds of narratives that evolve in oral tradition. (As a folklorist, I have often encountered these processes, beginning with my 1987 doctoral dissertation for the University of Kentucky, “Literary Investigation.”)
Because such religious narratives are typically focused on saints (in this case St. Mary), folklorists classify them as “saints’ legends,” and they are notoriously miracle-mongering tales—suitable for children or childlike peasants.
The painting in question, measuring 40 by 45 centimeters (about 15 1/2 inches by 17 1/2 inches tall), is a portrait of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. It is a fresco—that is, a painting executed on a lime plaster surface, especially while the plaster remains moist so that pigment and plaster bond. It was typically used for wall paintings.
Art experts in the late 1950s suggested that the image “was once part of a larger fresco that covered a wall [whether Albanian or Italian] and was subsequently covered over with plaster.”11 According to this theory, the picture did not miraculously appear but rather was accidentally revealed during a renovation. (I would add my hypothesis that the miracle cloud of legend had perhaps been a cloudlike swirl of plaster as it was sponged off.) The experts also believed the image was likely one by an early fifteenth-century artist, Gentile da Fabriano.12
Books on the alleged floating panel typically equivocate, dissimulate, use the past tense, state what was “believed,” and so on. Here are examples (emphases added):
“… it could well have occurred that the holy Image did not rest at once upon the wall, though it afterwards may have touched it above or below”;
“… that many who have had to examine it, through the course of ages, have stated that they believed it to rest isolated without any support whatever”;
“that the painting … touched the wall only on the upper edge [having the effect of being suspended] so that when the canon touched the faces of the image the plaster yielded like a piece of fabric.”13
Some statements as to the image completely floating for five centuries14 are obviously only exuberant hearsay.
A book of the latter nineteenth century stated that the painted panel of plaster was so thin it was “not much thicker than strong paper.”15 As already mentioned, over time the image acquired its showy altar (which confuses the issue of floating) as well as a glass cover for the picture.16 The glass was no doubt intended to be protective, because the “miraculous” painting has developed several large cracks.
A Magic Trick?
Today, the painting continues to echo the “floating” theme of legends—although those appear to have been largely discredited. Joan Carroll Cruz states that while the image “is behind glass that is secured in a golden gem-encrusted frame, neither the frame nor the glass nor anything else actually touches the portrait.”17 However, what is stated next is contradictory: “It is said to rest on its base, unsupported in any other way.” Why the equivocation of “It is said”? And if it rests on its base (on the altar), how is it actually floating?
Next, Cruz describes what sounds quite similar to a magician’s trick. Recall the stage illusion, The Floating Lady, in which the magician’s assistant, lying down, appears to levitate, whereupon he passes a large hoop along her horizontal body to “prove” there are no wires or supports of any kind.18,19
Compare that to Cruz’s statement, that the picture in its frame is “unsupported in any other way [emphasis added] so that a thread can be passed in front of the portrait, around the top and behind it.”20 Consider that carefully, and ask, Why does the thread not pass under the bottom? Apparently, it is because the picture rests on its base. Obviously, this little stunt is not even as effective as the magician’s stage illusion!
Therefore, when Cruz states that “The portrait actually defies gravity and has done so for over 500 years,” we must challenge that claim. It is repeated in a photo caption: “For over 500 years, the portrait has been positioned so that it rests on its base, unsupported in any other way.”21 Doubts are reinforced: if the picture thus rests, it is not defying gravity.
Floating or Freestanding?
A salient point is that art experts did manage to place the picture in a protective frame. Now, I introduce to readers what is known to the art world as a floater frame. Such frames “give art the illusion of floating inside the picture frame.” Because the artwork is kept from touching the frame, the image is preserved “from potential contact or damage” and is recommended for “priceless artwork.”22
It is of course true that, wherever gravity is present and its effects not countered, an ordinary picture will touch its enclosing frame somewhere. In the case of our “floating fresco,” the secret, as we have seen, is that it rests on its base. But how could a picture so thin stand upright on only its bottom edge? Wouldn’t it topple? It might, but if the space inside the frame were narrow, it might stand relatively straight, and the touching would be minimal.
Another possibility is that if the base has a suitable recess—say a long, deep saw cut—the picture bottom could be inserted into it, and the weight of the base would keep the image upright. But in either case, it would not be “floating” or “levitating.” It would instead be more correct to describe it as “freestanding.” And this, I submit, is the simple secret of the “miracle”—in its post-framed embodiment—touted as the “floating fresco.” This is consistent with photographs and texts we have considered (see footnotes).
It is unlikely that science will be permitted to make a proper examination. As with countless other “miracles” I have studied over my half-century career, that of the famously “floating fresco” does not fare well when subjected to investigation. Lacking a science of the supernatural, the only way for the beloved fresco to float is in the minds of true believers, where gravity, along with disbelief, may still be kept at bay—and where pious legends still hold forth.
 Our Lady of Genazzano. Online at http://www.roman-catholic-saints.com/our-lady-of-genazzano.html; accessed February 17, 2017.
 Joan Carroll Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady: 100 Famous Catholic Statues and Portraits. Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 1993, p. 188.
 Joan Carroll Cruz, op. cit., pp. 187–188.
 Joao S. Clá Dias, The Mother of Good Counsel of Genazzano. Sunbury, PA: Western Hemisphere Cultural Society, 1992, pp. 105–121.
 George F. Dillon, The Virgin Mother of Good Counsel: A History of the Ancient Sanctuary in Genazzano. Rome: Offices of the Sacred Congregation. Reprinted n.d., n.p.: Book Renaissance, 1884, pp. 233–290.
 Joan Carroll Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady, pp. 188–189.
 Our Lady of Genazzano, op. cit.
 Our Lady of Genazzano, op. cit.
 George F. Dillon, The Virgin Mother of Good Counsel, pp. 102–111.
 Joao S. Clá Dias, The Mother of Good Counsel of Genazzano, pp. 30, 71, 154.
 Our Lady of Good Counsel. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Lady_of_Good_Counsel; accessed November 8, 2019.
 Our Lady of Good Counsel, op. cit.
 Quoted in Joao S. Clá Dias, The Mother of Good Counsel of Genazzano, pp. 31, 34.
 See, e.g., Joao S. Clá Dias, op. cit., p. 27.
 George F. Dillon, The Virgin Mother of Good Counsel, pp. 85–86.
 George F. Dillon, op. cit., p. 358.
 Joan Carroll Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady, p. 189.
 Nathaniel Schiffen, Abracadabra! Secret Methods Magicians & Others Use to Deceive Their Audience. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997, pp. 57–64.
 Will Dexter, This Is Magic: Secrets of the Conjurer’s Craft. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1958, pp. 89–100.
 Joan Carroll Cruz, Miraculous Images of Our Lady.
 Joan Carroll Cruz, op. cit., pp. 189, 192.
 Mark Rogers, What Are Floater Frames and How to Use Them. Online at https://www.framedestination.com/blog/resources/what-are-floater-frames; accessed November 8, 2019.
Author’s Note: In memory of Tom Flynn. In my investigative travels through beautiful Italy, I have witnessed many marvels—sometimes accompanied by my great friend and fellow skeptic Massimo Polidoro, who has dubbed me “The Detective of the Impossible.” Alas, among the inviting enigmas that I have only been able to read about is in the …