by Leonardo Rossi
The 19th century could be considered a century filled with great paradoxes, violent political struggles and intense cultural debates that divided revolutionaries and conservatives. On the one hand, it was a turning point in European history due to the secularisation of political life and the laicisation of society – the end of Church’s temporal power, the suppression of ecclesiastical orders, and the spread of positivism and rationalism. On the other hand, it was the golden age of mysticism, supernaturalism, and the politicisation of the popular piety. Ecstasies, stigmata and political prophecies were phenomena at the centre of the public debate of that time, which mobilised supporters and detractors in a political-cultural contest for declaring their authenticity or falsehood.
Figure 1: Monster of Apocalypse
Violent revolutions, arrests and exiles of popes, and invasions of the Vatican State contributed to the spreading of prophetic and apocalyptic literature – the metaphoric daughter of a counter-revolutionary culture and religious fanaticism – in radical Catholic circles. The most recurring issues concerned the suppression of the Society of Jesus, the catastrophic French Revolution, the satanic conspiracy against the Holy Church and the Holy Father, the apocalyptic war between good and evil forces and, finally, the return to the Ancien Régime and the definitive triumph of the Church. This efflorescence was not only promoted from above by the publication of booklets and anthologies written by clergymen, but also from the bottom up. Throughout Europe, an increasing number of lay prophets communicated their predictions to the people through oral preaching, word of mouth, and sometimes using modern media (especially newspapers and pamphlets).
Figure 2 : J.M. Curicque (1872), Voix prophetiques, Paris, Victor Palmé, 1872
Among the most prolific and influential prophets in 19th-century Italy, stigmatics had a central position. It is in this century – and especially under the pontificate of Pius IX (1846-1878) – that the binomial stigmata and prophecy reached its peak. Physical signs of the passion or acute spiritual ecstasies (religious charisma) had a double meaning: divine ‘proof’ for the people and a catalytic element that gathered the faithful and the curious at the bedside of stigmatics, thus turning them into popular religious celebrities. Thanks to the visible evidence of the divine election (stigmata) and the wide audience of the faithful, political prophecies and visions of the future made by stigmatics became particularly successful in the contemporary society, transforming religious charismatic gifts from divine grace to the way to obtain authority and social influence. In a climate of precarious political balance and religious fanaticism, prophecies were interpreted as divine messages of hope, a possibility of a supernatural change of the situation, a legitimate punishment of the unbelievers. The official position of the Church was somewhat ambiguous towards these ‘domestic’ forms of prophetism. On the one hand, it supported popular piety, but on the other hand it feared the uncontrolled power ‘living saints’ could assert over the Catholic faithful.
Figure 3: Vittorio Emanuele I, Rosa Serra (in front of the king of Sardinia and other aristocratic women) and Carlo Felice
If stigmata contributed to legitimise the genuineness of prophecies, false prophecies could – on the contrary – give rise to doubts about the nature of mystical sores. This was the case of the Sardinian nun Rosa Serra (1766 – after 1806), who became famous for her stigmata and political prophecies. Through a vision, she had foretold the impression of the Passion’s wounds on her body, so contemporaries considered her a clairvoyant as well as a ‘victim soul’. Her charismatic authority attracted numerous faithful to her monastery, among whom the princes of the House of Savoy who were worried about the fate of their kingdom, which was threatened by the Napoleonic troops and the lack of legitimate heirs. Thus, when the royal family arrived in her convent on 15 May 1801, Rosa – after having gone through the classic combination of ecstasy and suffering – announced a positive scenario for the Kingdom of Sardinia: a long continuity of government and male sons. Her benevolent words were rewarded with generous financial donations and protection, but these measures were revoked two years later, when – after the escape from Piedmont invaded by the French army – the Archduchess gave birth to female twins in Rome. The failed prophecies discredited the nun in the eyes of the real dynasty who decided not to protect the abbess from the investigation of the diocesan Inquisition.
Figure 4: Anna Maria Taigi and her ‘mystical sun’
A few decades later, the apocalyptic prophecies made by the Roman wives and mothers Anna Maria Taigi (1769-1837) and Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1825) were reported. They became famous in Vatican circles for their struggle against modernity, for offering themselves as redemptive victims to the sins of the world and for their visions about the fate of the Church and popes. Taigi – gifted according to hagiographers with a mystical ‘sun’ in front of her eyes that allowed her to read the hearts of people and to know the future – prophesied specific events (such as the massacres in Spain, the war in Greece, the Paris Commune (1871), the fire in St Paul’s Basilica, the deaths of Tsar Alexander I, Popes Pius VI, Pius VII and Leo XII, and the election of Pius IX); while Canori spread obscure and dramatic visions. She saw the pontiffs surrounded by a pack of unfaithful wolves, the world turned into a deadly ball of fire, violent earthquakes and famines, an apocalyptic battle that would have decimated the number of Catholics. However, at the end of the fight against evil, according to both prophetesses, the Church would triumph and re-establish its dominion over the societas Christiana.
Figure 5: Palma Matarelli and the book of Imbert-Gourbeyre dedicated to her (Antoine Imbert-Gourbeyre, Les Stigmatisées. Palma d’Oria, Paris, Victor Palmé, 1873)
Similar, although more extravagant, were the prophecies attributed to the alleged stigmatic of Oria, Palma Matarelli (1825-1888). Contrary to the Roman mothers her fame was promoted not by the Vatican leaders, but by local clergy and supporters who wrote articles in Italian and French newspapers in the 1870s. There we can read how the stigmatic predicted the proclamation of the republic in France, Italy and Spain after devastating civil wars, the violent death of Napoleon III; the spread of famines, epidemics and plagues; an epic battle with the deaths of thousands of Catholics, but – in the end – «le Pape de l’Immaculée Conception verra encore le commencement du triomphe de l’Eglise». Palma gave other positive messages for the ultramonanist faction. After the Republican revolutions in France, the Grand Monarque (Henry V) would regain power reintroducing the Ancien Régime, while Pius IX, after a long exile in London or Constantinople, would convert Russia, China, England and the Turkish Empire to the Catholic faith.
As is evident in hindsight these prophecies were ‘fake news’, hardly fitting into the historical course of events. Some mistakes were judged negatively by former faithful (as in the case of Rosa Serra with the Savoy princes or the stigmatic of Oria and the Vatican clergy), but for the Catholic people it was nonetheless more important to believe in the content of these visions as a sort of biblical promise rather than in their imminent realisation. Even after the discovery of their ‘falsehood’ and the ecclesiastical condemnation, both Rosa and Palma continued to hold up among their faithful the fame of being ‘living saints’, and were worshipped as ‘deviant’ religious celebrities. In his writings, the French physician Imbert-Gourbeyre defended the wrong prophecies preached by Matarelli, asserting that divine messages revealed to prophets were only ‘signs’ to be interpreted and that she had managed to read many of them were correctly. This mystic-prophetic climate did not freeze when faced with obvious political defeats of the Church (Union of the Italian Kingdom, loss of temporal power, the capture of Rome “Breccia di Porta Pia”), but rather it continued to heat up until the death of Pius IX. 1878 was an annus horribilis for those who believed in the triumph of the Grand Pape. All the prophets had tied the triumph of the Holy See to the pope of the Immaculate Conception, the great sovereign who after exile and suffering (the martyr pontiff according to the hagiography) was to regain the See’s lost power. When at his death such a project seemed unattainable, the prophecies were not considered fake, but instead simply postponed in time, as St. Paul had done for the Apocalypse.
- Imbert-Gourbeyre, Les Stigmatisées, Paris, Victor Palmé, 1873 (voll. 2);
- , La stigmatisation. L’extase divine et les miracles de Lourdes. Réponse aux libres-penseurs, Paris-Clemont Ferrand, Bellet, 1894;
- M. Curicque, Voix prophetiques ou signes, apparitions et prédictions modernes, Paris, Victor Palmé, 1872;
- Caffiero, La fine del mondo. Profezia, apocalisse e millennio nell’Italia rivoluzionaria, «Cristianesimo nella storia», 10 (1989), pp. 389-441;
- C. Hvidt, Christian Prophecy. The Post-Biblical Tradition, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007.