stĭgˈmətə, stĭgmătˈə [plural of stigma, from Gr.,=brand], wounds or marks on a person resembling the five wounds received by Jesus at the crucifixion. Some 300 cases of stigmatization have been attested, nearly all of them being women. St. Francis of Assisi was the first known stigmatic. According to contemporary biographers, he had in his later life wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, which bled profusely and were intensely painful. St. Catherine of Siena reputedly bore invisible stigmata, which became visible after her death. The Roman Catholic Church investigates every such instance but avoids any pronouncement on their nature or cause. Modern stigmatics (including in the 20th cent. Therese Neumann and the Capuchin Padre Pio) have been examined by medical authorities. Scientists are inclined to believe that the stigmata are connected with nervous or cataleptic hysteria.
– Source: The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition

The term “stigmata” has a range of meanings in the Catholic mystical tradition, but its most common meaning, and the one that will be used here, refers to visible wounds (or at least visible wound marks) corresponding to the wounds received by Jesus Christ during his Passion. 1 Most devotional accounts assert that the first person to “receive” the stigmata (and the implication is always that the stigmata have been given to the individual by some supernatural agency) was St Francis of Assisi. St Francis is supposed to have received the stigmata on Mt La Verna in 1224, two years before his death.

Whether St Francis was the first person to receive the stigmata has been a matter of debate among Catholic historians. 2 There is also some doubt as to whether the historical St Francis actually had the stigmata; even devotional accounts concede, for instance, that only two persons saw his stigmata during his lifetime. But historical priority aside, the fact remains that since the thirteenth century hundreds of Catholics have claimed to have received the stigmata and millions of Catholics have accepted these claims at face value.

This is not because the Church goes to great lengths to encourage a belief in the supernatural origin of the stigmata. On the contrary, the Church has always been very circumspect in this regard; only in the case of St Francis has the Church said that stigmata visible during a person’s lifetime are of supernatural origin. In the case of Gemma Galgani ( 1878-1903), an Italian stigmatic canonized in 1940, the Church even went so far as to say that her stigmata were not in themselves evidence of saintliness. Yet despite such circumspection on the Church’s part, stigmatics have long been objects of attention by ordinary Catholics, even in recent times. Therese Neumann and Padre Pio, for instance, two of this century’s most well-known stigmatics, died in the 1960s, and Father Gino Burresi, perhaps the most well-known living stigmatic, received his stigmata as recently as 1969.

Some stigmatics develop many wounds corresponding to all the wounds acquired by Christ during his Passion. Consider the case of Marie-Julie Jahenny, a nineteenth century French girl:

On the 2Ist March, 1873, she received the marks of the five wounds [in her feet, hands, and side]; the crown of thorns followed on Oct. 5th; on the 25th of November appeared an imprint on the left shoulder [interpreted as the bruise caused by carrying the cross] … On Jan 12, 1874, her wrists showed marks corresponding to those which the cords must have produced when our Saviour’s arms were bound … By Jan. I4th stripes had appeared on her ankles, legs and forearms in memory of the scourging, and a few days afterwards there were two weals on her side. ( Imbert-Gourbeyre 1894b, 27; translated by Thurston 1952, 63 -4).

But the “core” set of wounds, that is, the wounds that appear on most of those people labelled as stigmatics, are wounds in the hands, feet, and side, which correspond to the wounds received by Christ when he was crucified.
– Source: Michael P. Carroll, Catholic Cults and Devotions: A Psychological Inquiry. McGill-Queens University Press, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. 1989. Page 79-80

Perhaps no miraculous power is more equated with sanctity in the popular mind than stigmata, the spontaneously duplicated wounds of Christ’s crucifixion upon the body of a Christian. I say Christian because, as the Rev.Smith observes:

The major non-Christian religions do not seem to have anything parallel to stigmata; their ascetics and even their mystics do not seem to claim to receive wounds which are not inflicted by external instruments, wounds produced either by human suggestion or by divine action.This is not surprising since none of the great founders of the non-Christian religions and philosophies ( Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, Socrates, Plato, etc.) died violent deaths.Stigmata are also absent in both the major separated branches of Christianity.Even the separated Christians who accept the full significance of the crucifixion of Christ have developed no “crucifixion complex” in their piety, either before or since the time of St. Francis of Assisi. 47

Stigmata typically take the form of wounds in the hands (as in John 20: 25 ); less commonly in the feet, 48 the side (as from the lance wound in John 19: 34 ), and brow (as from the crown of thorns, Matt. 27: 29 ). In rare cases, stigmatics have supposedly believed that the heart was wounded also or that its tissue had miraculously formed into the semblance of some Christian object such as a cross or chalice.A related phenomenon is the appearance on the finger of certain “brides of Christ” of a “mystical ring” which may take the form of a reddish band, a thickening of the skin, or the like. 49

History’s first recorded stigmatic was St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, whose alleged ability to levitate was noted earlier.He supposedly exhibited the stigmata in 1224, two years before his death.

It should be pointed out that Francis’s stigmata occurred in a medieval climate of morbid fascination with the physical effects of crucifixion— depicted in art, shown in miracle plays, and expressed in acts of self‐ mutilation.For example, just two years before Francis exhibited the stigmata a young man was tried on a charge that he “made himself out to be Christ and . . . perforated his hands and feet,” apparently deliberately, so as to enable him to be repeatedly nailed to a cross for exhibitionistic purposes. 52 Although Ian Wilson ultimately comes to the opposite conclusion, he concedes, in his The Bleeding Mind, the possibility that given such fascination with crucifixion at the time, St. Francis, “not necessarily with any conscious deception on his part, might in some hunger-crazed state have similarly inflicted crucifixion wounds upon himself.” 53

Certainly there have been fake stigmatics. In a rare moment of skepticism, Michael Freze, author of They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata, admits that “there have been cases where some overly fanatic souls have so desired the Sacred Stigmata that they have intentionally wounded themselves with knives, picks, etc., in order to produce false impressions to others that they were extraordinary saints!” 54 Despite this all-too-brief acknowledgment of deliberately faked stigmata— as if they were uncommon— Freze does admit there are other types of “false Stigmata” which he attributes to such “possible causes” as “diabolical origins; mental disease or sickness; hysteria; self-hypnotic suggestion; and nervous conditions that can cause the skin to redden, break and even bleed.” 55 By contrast, in Comparative Miracles the Rev. Smith freely admits that since St. Francis, a great many impostors have attempted to simulate true stigmata. 56

Ian Wilson catalogs several cases of such fakery.For example, Magdalena de la Cruz ( 1487-1560) underwent ecstasies, abstained from food, performed mortifications (self-punishment), and finally exhibited the stigmata—practices that impressed the Spanish nobility, including Queen Isabella herself, and led expectant mothers to seek Magdalena’s blessing on their awaited infants’ clothing and nursery furniture.Then, becoming seriously ill in 1543 and fearing she would die a sinner, Magdalena suddenly confessed, admitting that for many years she had been practicing deceptions. She was tried by the Inquisition and received a severe sentence. 57 Such a case should give the miraculists pause, since Magdalena’s deception went undetected and, had she not confessed of her own volition, she might now be venerated as St. Magdalena—her “ecstasies” and other alleged experiences and manifestations being cited by the credulous as confirmation of her sanctity. (As it is, Freze consigns her fake stigmata to the “diabolical” category, explaining that “the devil” has produced stigmatic marks “many times in the course of Christian history.” 58 )

Another fake stigmatic was Maria de la Visitacion (b. 1556) who exhibited a stock set of stigmata, including an inch-long wound in the side and crown-of-thorns puncture marks on the forehead.Maria was exposed by a sister nun who saw her painting a stigma onto her hand, but was defended by doctors in 1587. (Apparently her ploy—that her wounds were unbearably painful to the touch—restricted the examination to mere visual scrutiny.) Eventually Maria was investigated by the Inquisition, whose examiners scrubbed away the “wounds” to reveal unblemished flesh. 59 According to a contemporary report:

The nun of Portugal who was universally held for a saint has been found out at last. The stigmata are proved to be artificial and the whole trick invented to gain credit in the world. She was induced to act thus by two friars of her Order of St. Dominic, with a view to being able some day to tell the King that unless he handed Portugal over to Don Antonio he would be damned forever, and with the further object of raising a rebellion against the King.The friars are in the prisons of the Inquisition, the nun in a convent awaiting sentence…. 60

The case is instructive in showing that medical authorities can be deceived even by imitation stigmata—not to mention real but self-inflicted wounds— and that confreres of a bogus wonder-worker may be co-conspirators in the imposture.

The genuineness of some stigmatics’ wounds and other phenomena may be questioned in view of the mystic’s general character. For example, Englishwoman Teresa Helena Higginson ( 1844-1905)—whose claims included ecstasies, mortifications, and stigmata—was once dismissed from school for “apparent poltergeist phenomena” and later accused of theft, drunkenness, and unseemly conduct: accusations that led to her dismissal as a teacher. 65 Berthe Mrazek, a Brussels-born circus performer who claimed a miracle cure in 1920 and who later received the stigmata, was first regarded seriously; but then (as Wilson explains) “doubts began to be expressed and late in 1924 she was arrested for obtaining money by deception and committed to an asylum as insane.” 66

Other stigmatics must be viewed in light of their propensity for selfpunishment and self-mutilation. They include Lukardis of Oberweimar (c. 1276-1309) who, for two years before allegedly receiving the stigmata, “had the habit of driving her fingernails into her palms”(!); St. Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi ( 1556-1607), who, before the age of ten, “adopted the habit of hiding herself in ‘the most secret part of the house,’ and there whipping and mortifying herself with an improvised crown of thorns and prickly belt”; St. Margaret Maria Alacoque ( 1647-1690), who had a “particularly strong penchant for inflicting injuries upon herself” and who also “apparently burnt or carved the name of Jesus on her breast”; Domenica Lazzari ( 1815-1848), who “beat herself mercilessly with her fists”; and so on. 67 Would such people also be willing to inflict stigmata upon themselves? The answer seems obvious.

Then there are those like Therese Neumann, Padre Pio, and many others, who arouse suspicion by the sheer variety of their allegedly miraculous abilities. Neumann ( 1898-1962) not only exhibited the stigmata, including weeping bloody tears, but she also claimed to experience visions of Mary, undergo miraculous cures, and avoid all food and drink except daily Communion (the last claim being analyzed in the following section of this chapter). 68 Padre Pio ( 1887-1968) added to his exhibition of stigmata the claim that he was often physically assailed by evil spirits and that he had performed a variety of alleged “miracles.” (His many reported bilocations, however, seem to be best characterized as anecdotal reports similar to Elvis Presley sightings.) 69

Herbert Thurston attributes the phenomenon of stigmatization to the effects of suggestion:

First of all we have the striking fact that not a single case of stigmatization was heard of before the beginning of the thirteenth century. No sooner, however, was the extraordinary phenomenon which marked the last days of St. Francis published throughout the world, than other unquestionable cases of stigmata began to occur even among people who were much lower than St. Francis in religious stature, and have continued to occur without intermission ever since.

Therefore, Thurston states:

What I infer is that the example of St. Francis created what I have called the “crucifixion complex.” Once it had been brought home to contemplatives that it was possible to be physically conformed to the sufferings of Christ by bearing His wound-marks in the hands, feet and side, then the idea of this form of union with their Divine Master took shape in the minds of many.It became in fact a pious obsession; so much so that in a few exceptionally sensitive individuals the idea conceived in the mind was realized in the flesh.

Thurston continues:

If the suggestion just made were well founded, we should expect to find that the exteriorization of the “crucifixion complex” would vary much in degree according to the suggestibility of the particular subject.But this is in fact what happens. It is noteworthy that in a good many cases the development never goes any further than a certain deep reddening of the skin or the formation of something resembling a blood blister in the site of each of the wounds. It is equally noteworthy that the form and position of these wounds or markings vary greatly. In some instances the wound in the side is on the right, in others on the left. Sometimes we have a round puncture, sometimes a straight cut, sometimes a crescent‐ shaped wound. 70

In brief, Thurston concludes: “All these things seem to point to an auto-suggested effect rather than to the operation of an external cause whatever its nature.” 71 However, experimental attempts to duplicate the phenomenon, as with hypnosis, have been ultimately unsuccessful 72 —except for one instance cited by Wilson involving incredible claims which were attributed to an anonymous subject and which I suspect of having been an elaborate hoax. 73

Indeed, I feel that hoaxing—the proven explanation in numerous cases —provides the most credible overall solution to the mystery of stigmata. Since Thurston has found “no satisfactory case of stigmatization since St. Francis of Assisi,” 74 it is well to consider whether St.Francis’s own stigmata could have been faked. Smith admits that knowledge of their miraculous nature “is gained not directly and exclusively from a study of the records of his stigmata” but rather “from a consideration of his preeminent sanctity and character.” 75 But what was that character? According to John Coulson The Saints:

[Francis] had only one aim, to love Christ and to imitate him and his life perfectly, even literally, and he followed this aim ever more completely from his conversion to his death.He was by nature impulsive and sensitive, with an immense capacity for self-sacrifice…. Above all, he was a son of the church to the marrow of his bones; her sacraments, her teaching and her priesthood were all manifestations of Christ, and his simple faith ultimately became a mystical contemplation of the incarnate word, the crucified Jesus. 76

While this personality profile would seem inconsistent with a willingness to perpetrate deception for crass motives, it would appear entirely compatible with a desire to foster a pious hoax—one that would, to Francis’s mind, promote the example of Christ to others.
– Source: Joe Nickkel, Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. 1993. Page 219-225

This post was last updated: Oct. 27, 2007