Missing pieces: studying the relics of European stigmatics

by Tine Van Osselaer

The hood of Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824) on display in the house of her childhood in Flamschen, next to it: the box with the text on how the object was preserved. Left: detail of the hood where the fragments had been cut out.

It does not take a very alert visitor to note that there is something missing. There can be no doubt: some fragments have been cut out of the hood (“Haube”) on display in the birth house of Anna Katharina Emmerick (1774-1824). Born there in Flamschen, she became one of Germany’s most famous stigmatics. She was well-known during her lifetime but in the first decades after her death, her fame seems to have faded. But not completely: some still cherished her memory. Next to the blood-stained hood, lays a small box that once contained it. On its cover is a handwritten text explaining how it had been handed down from generation to generation. It is the biography of an object, vouching for the authenticity of the item.

The hood and its missing pieces are telling examples of the catholic culture of relics. There are different types of relics ranging from bodily parts to objects that had once belonged to a saint or items that had been in touch with the saint. The general idea behind them is that they can represent – or function as a medium for – the person to whom they once belonged. As Alexandra Walsham phrases it, they are “spiritual electrodes”. Most of the research that on relics focuses on those of recognised, official, saints. As Anne Katherine Emmerick was beatified in 2004, she fits the profile (or is at last on her way to do so). However, the objects that have been preserved, survived also during years which she was not yet on any official list. The faithful held on to things that were often without any intrinsic quality. (Remember, we are talking about fragments of a hood here.) They kept them because they reminded them of a person they had once deemed exceptional or even a ‘living saint’. As such, the practice is similar to cherishing the objects of a deceased loved one. But they ‘used’ them too and the items were loaded with thaumaturgical power. In case of a severe headache for instance, a fragment could be put on the forehead and, combined with a (more orthodox) prayer, work miracles. Stories on such miraculous cures were referred to in beatification and canonization processes and helped a saint-to-be, to an official recognition.


Anna Katharina Emmerick, illustration from: T. Wegener, Das wunderbare innere und äußere Leben der Dienerin Gottes Anna Katharina Emmerich, Dülmen (5. Auflage, 1912, p.339).

It is often hard to hear the voices of the ‘common’ laypeople and to get an idea about whom they considered worthy of sainthood. The easiest way is of course to focus on those who were recognised and work your way back. But this means you would miss out on those who did not make it. By studying stigmatics we are focusing on a set of people deemed ‘exceptional’ by their contemporaries because of their (often corporeal) phenomena. They saw them as the material ‘proof’ of God’s presence on earth. The ‘relics’ of stigmatics circulated already during their lifetime: these could be handkerchiefs with blood stains on them – the ‘DIY relic’ the lucky ones took home with them after attending a Friday Passion –  or a piece of bed straw of the bedridden alter Christus. Systems of authentication developed as well and we found, for instance, devotional cards with a stain of blood and the signature of the parish priest declaring them authentic. Such practices continued after the death of the stigmatics as pilgrims travelled great distances to take home some gravel from her/his grave. In some cases, the body was exhumed, fragments (or even the skull) removed and put on display. Anna Katharina Emmerick did not get much rest: she was exhumed several times in the first decades after her death. (The first time however, it was to see if she was still there because a rumour had spread that her corpse had been stolen by a Dutch salesman!)

Studying such ‘relics’, means focusing on items that contrary to most of the nineteenth-century mass produced devotionalia, can be studied within their context of origin and consumption. Difficult to track down and a little gruesome at first (they are after all rather ‘bloody’ in nature) they’re a wonderful way of grasping a lived devotional culture. And for the archival work:  latex gloves work just fine …

Reference: A. Walsham, ‘Introduction: relics and remains’, Past and Present supplement 5 (2010) 9-36.

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