Virginity and mystical eroticism. Sexuality, stigmatics and the Church in the 19th-20th centuries

by Leonardo Rossi


G.L. Bernini, Transverberation of Saint Teresa (1647-52), Church of St Maria della Vittoria, Rome

At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and even more at the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic Church not only attempted to control religious’ behavior, but envisaged a great moral reform in order to regulate all the aspects of the  societas Christi. The sexual dimension was one of the most crucial issues. While the Holy See assigned a higher degree of perfection to virginity and chastity, it did not intend to deny sexuality but rather to regulate lay unions in accordance with the sacred text. Sexual intercourse was only legitimized for procreation, as was written in Genesis (the controversial and erotic Song of Songs was conveniently forgotten). In the 19th century, the century of the ‘popularization’ and ‘feminization’ of religion, this moral trend appeared as lively as ever and took on a functional role in the re-Christianization of society. Chaste and obedient lay women, even more than the virgin nuns, were described as heroines of morality, and as a model of virtue or ‘conversion tools’ for husbands and children. The laymen, especially the women, responded to this reform in three ways: by rejecting (arousing the reproach of clergy and of their community), accepting (the most common choice, at least in appearance) or trying to sublimate the sexual instinct through a sensualization of the sacred (mystical experiences). In this short post I focus on the latter and study the relationship between Church, sexuality and mysticism through the cases of some representative Italian stigmatics.

“I am not a woman, I am a virgin!”. With these words, almost denying her female sex, Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815-1848) responded to father Santuari who had compared her to a “normal woman” that is “full of fantasy”. Apart from documenting the latent misogyny that was widespread amongst the clergy of that period, the transcript of their dialogue makes clear that Maria Domenica perceived herself not as a girl, a mystic or a sick person, but as a virgin. According to her community, irrefutable evidence of her ‘pure’ state was the illness that had chained her to the bed since early adolescence. Her ‘certified’ chastity had persuaded people to believe in the good faith of her supernatural phenomena. The popular perception of the bedridden Maria Von Mörl (1812-1868), another stigmatized virgin of Tyrol, was quite similar.  More unfortunate was the case of Crescenzia Niglutsch (1816-1885), ‘guilty’ of living an active life. Even before the religious authorities made a statement, her mobility and the spiritual direction of a young father convinced the people to judge negatively the “aspiring sanctity” of Crescenzia. According to vox populi, the disappearance of the visible stigmata from her body was the proof of a divine punishment for having lost her virginity. Fifty years before, similar sexual defamations had hurt the reputation of the Sardinian abbess Rosa Serra (1766 – first decades of 19 century). In the diocesan investigation conducted to establish the nature of her stigmata a significant part of the process focused on the unhealthy relationship with her confessor. Mystical phenomena and virginity appear intrinsically linked to the fama sanctitatis, not only for the clergy but also for the people.


Picture of St Gemma Galgani (1878-1903) with lilies (symbol of virginity)

In addition to women religious and young virgins, the Church had to appeal to wives and mothers as well. Foremothers of this group were Anna Maria Taigi (1769-1837) and Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1824), beatified in 1920 and 1994 as exemplary models of Catholic motherhood. In their case, it was not virginity that was invoked as a virtue but chastity and above all obedience to their husbands. Elisabetta had accepted with pious resignation her husband’s cheating and started an almost monastic life in the domestic realm. She considered Christ as her real spouse and father of her daughters, and promised him perpetual worship and chastity. Her spiritual father, became aware of her desire for total sexual abstinence, and accused her of having caused the ruin of her marriage, ‘forcing’ the husband into adultery. He ordered her to terminate her chastity. Elisabetta described the drama in a desperate tone in her diary, torn as she was between the desire of abstinence and the obligation to comply with the duties of a wife. Her divine spouse intervened in the matter, granting her the gift of a mystical marriage and considering her as a ‘virgin creature’. As well as the Immaculate, Canori Mora perceived herself as a “virgin mother” and legitimized this special status with her extraordinary inner life. However, she did not entirely abandon the corporeal dimension, but body and spirit as well as pleasure and pain were confused and overlapped (“her body suffered but the spirit relished of burning love. Sweet and pleasing was the suffering”). Describing her mystical gifts (crucifixion, transverberation, mystical marriage) she used a physical and sensual language, recalling (though with less bright tones) the famous and erotic tales of St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Ávila.


Portrait of Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1824) with her daughters

Closely connected to sexuality were diabolic attacks that terrorized (and excited) other stigmatics. Palma Maria Mattarelli (1825-1888), a controversial stigmatic of Oria was the victim of several of such sexual assaults. The manuscript of her confessor censored by the Inquisition explicitly described the demonic temptations (“for three hours demons inflamed my uterus.”) Divided between the fear of offending God by giving up her chastity and a willingness to give in to desire, Palma d’Oria offered her inner suffering for the glory of the Church. It was a useless sacrifice, because Vatican condemned her case along with that of another stigmatic, Sister Anna Maddalena (née Ester) Moriconi (1875-1937). She was deemed a fake saint when a scrupulous investigation started in 1923 and her sexual conduct pleaded against her case. She confessed to having intercourse  with “three men in masks”, three demonic creatures. According to the Holy See, it was either a demonic possession or an union with real men, anyway Ester was deemed consenting and thus an accomplice, not an innocent virgin as she claimed to be, but a lustful neurotic.

The judgment of the Church seems to be mess severe with regard to sexual scandals that put into question the chastity of (stigmatized) male religious, such as Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968). In the ‘50s and ‘60s there was a huge media debate concerning his relationship with four devotees. Wiretapping and audio recordings signaled ambiguous noise of kisses and embraces. Skepticism and the opposition of John XXIII were brushed aside by the rehabilitation of his figure and flash-sanctification, silencing (at least officially) gossip and scandals.

By way of conclusion, it is not entirely correct to say that the position of the Catholic Church towards sexuality is based on ‘sexual phobia’, but the Church has tried to regulate the sexual instincts of lay believers. Such regulations were intended to morally educate the faithful and potentially convert the secularized society. Virgin women and chaste mothers of the family could function in the 19th and 20th centuries as ‘Trojan horses’ within a male and atheist socio-family dimension. Still the obsession for sexual control does not seem to have been able to regulate – despite the condemnation – the mystical experiences, that remained rich of ambiguous tones and episodes. The spiritual dimension remained a ‘free land’ to live out their sexuality without ecclesiastical censures and popular prejudices.


  • Pelaja M.-Scaraffia L, Due in una carne. Chiesa e sessualità nella storia (Rome-Bari: Laterza, 2008);
  • Gadaleta L.M.-Vesely Leonardi L., Il “Diarium Missarum” di don Antonio Eccel con annotazioni riguardanti Maria Domenica Lazzeri “l’Addolorata di Capriana” (1815-1848) (Rovereto: New-book edizioni, 2015);
  • Luzzatto S., Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011) (Italian ed. 2007);
  • ASC, State Archive of Cagliari, Carte relative alla falsa santità della Monaca di Ozieri Suor Maria Serra dal 1802 al 1806, Cagliari (Italy);
  • ASCQF, Archive of the Monastery of St Carlino alle Quattro Fontane, Scritti della povera Giovanna Felice del Cuore di Gesù, Rome (Italy);
  • ACDF, Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Censurae Librorum, 1875 P. II CL 1875 5 vol. II, Holy See.

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