Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a photograph of the damage the monster storm Sandy had inflicted on the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. This beachfront community had been hit hard by air, water and fire, leaving the fourth classic Greek element, earth, strewn with rubble and ashes. The front-page photo, reproduced five columns wide, was taken by Natalie Keyssar. Its most striking feature was the centered presence of a wholly intact and upright sculpture of the Virgin Mary, still placed in an equally unharmed shell-crowned niche. Spread out behind the statue were blocks of devastation where private homes had once stood.
The stunning survival of this statue soon earned it the name of the Virgin Mary of Breezy Point. The sculpture and its setting of ruins were also featured on news coverage by Fox, CNN and NBC, among others. Not surprisingly, this statue's dramatic appearance has been linked to the discovery of the "9/11 Cross," the horizontal and vertical beams found standing amid the ruins of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Both have been viewed as miracles or divine signs.
The idea of the holy being imperishable to fire or other forces has deep roots within the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Book of Exodus, Moses encounters God speaking from the Burning Bush, which although it is on fire, "is not consumed." In the Book of Daniel, when Babylon's ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, seeks to make a public example with his execution of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, he places them in a fiery furnace. When the three (there is also a protective angel with them) emerge untouched by the blaze, the ruler grants them freedom of worship.
And St. Paul, whose own travels were marked by episodes such as being run out of town by an angry mob and being in a shipwreck, evokes trial by fire in his first letter to the Christian faithful at Corinth.
Stories of saints or relics and sacred objects surviving fires and other destructions are legion across the Christian West. Hagiography accounts tell of saints who walked away from torture by fire, and relics are described as saving buildings around them. When the Chambery Chapel in Savoy, which then housed the Shroud of Turin, burned down, the shroud itself emerged with only slight scorching.
The most famous episodes of survival are those linked with Chartres Cathedral in France, today celebrated for its soaring Gothic architecture and luminous stained-glass windows. Around 876, Charles the Bald, the grandson of Charlemagne and the ruler of Western France, gave Chartres the Sancta Camisa, a tunic said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary at the Nativity. Three days after fire destroyed the building in 1020, the Sancta Camisa was found intact in the ruins of the cathedral's treasury. Bishop Fulbert considered this a miracle and a sign, and rebuilding was soon begun. The whole population, from nobleman to peasant, and from Court Ladies to milkmaids, pulled wagons filled with materials to the cathedral's construction site, singing hymns as they moved along. The Sancta Camisa is still at Chartres Cathedral.
Even earlier, in the sixth century, Gregory of Tours describes in his "Eight Books of Miracles" how the workers on his mother's estate had set some straw on fire to keep warm, only to see the blaze rapidly spread: His mother, with holy items of St. Eusebius, "sprang from the table and lifted up the holy relics against the masses of flames and the fire went out." Later, with the same relic, Gregory defeated an approaching storm cloud, which "immediately divided into two parts and passed on the right and the left and did no harm to us or anyone else thereafter."
The Patron Saint of Firefighters is St. Florian, a third-century Christian martyr who was a member of a fire-fighting bucket brigade in the Roman army. Florian's profession of Christian faith over pagan idols led to his execution by drowning, being thrown in a river with a stone tied around his neck. This martyrdom lead to his also being a saint to receive prayers for victims of water and hurricanes.
Other Marian objects—not relics, but the Virgin's representation in art— while perhaps susceptible to destruction were still accorded extraordinary powers. During the English Reformation, Thomas Cromwell and Sir Roger Townshend seized the wooden statue of Our Lady of Walsingham in 1538 and took it to London to be ceremoniously set ablaze. After the Walsingham sculpture had made its journey, one woman loudly pronounced that miracles had occurred in its wake; she was put into stocks as a public example, but to little avail; Sir Roger wrote to Cromwell, "I cannot perceyve but the seed image is not yett out of the sum of ther heddes."
Far closer to our own time is the Leaning Virgin and Child of Albert, as discussed by Paul Fussell in his "The Great War and Modern Memory." Albert was a French town located amid the Battle of the Somme during World War I. Attacked and held back and forth by German and Allied forces, Albert saw the shelling of its church, Notre Dame de Brebières; a gilded sculpture of a Madonna and Child placed atop its tower fell, but only to a near-horizontal position. This "miracle" soon made the town and its sculpture famous; in October 1915, a Allies chaplain described it as the statue "that has never fallen." By the following July, it was becoming a sign of hope or of extraordinary presence; one soldier wrote home: "Marched through Albert where we saw the famous church with the statue of the Madonna and Child hanging from the top of the steeple, at an angle of about forty degrees, as if the Madonna was leaning down to catch the Child which has fallen."
Two years later, the statue would eventually be destroyed in a British attack on the town. A measure of its fame then is found in a New York Times headline: "Albert Now Death Trap: Town of former Leaning Virgin and Babe a Target for British Guns." Postwar, the town was renewed and its church rebuilt. A second version of the Madonna and Child now stands again atop the steeple.
Even more akin to the story of the Virgin of Breezy Point is that of the Madonna of La Gleize, told by Robert M. Edsel in "The Monument's Men," his account of soldiers dedicated to the preservation and recovery of important art and architecture during World War II.
In touring La Gleize in December 1944, protector and sculptor Walker Handcock observed that this small Belgian town's cathedral had only two things of note: a view, from its tower, over the Ardennes Forest and, in its nave, an extraordinary 13th-century wooden Madonna.
Two months later, Hancock returned after the Battle of the Bulge had swept through the region. La Gleize lay in ruins, including the cathedral. Bodies of soldiers from both sides lay frozen in nearby snow. But the Madonna remained standing in the nave, untouched. As Mr. Edsel writes, "the town was abandoned, but not entirely." Hancock oversaw the sculpture's move to safe storage in a nearby cellar.
Like the continuing presence of the Madonna of La Greize, the survival of the Breezy Point sculpture will be dismissed as coincidence by atheists, who—as they have with the 9/11 Cross—would have it banned from public property. Agnostics will perhaps pause at the sequence of two religious images emerging out of New York's two most destructive events some 121 months apart. Believers may have their faith in signs or miracles affirmed.
Mr. Carmean is an art historian and a canon in the Episcopal Church. He lives in Washington.
A version of this article appeared November 6, 2012, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Faith in the Face of Destruction.