Between saints and celebrities

The devotion and promotion of stigmatics in Europe, c.1800-1950

Tine Van Osselaer, Andrea Graus, Leonardo Rossi

This project studied the promotion and devotion of the hundreds of stigmatics reported in five European countries during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The majority of the work on these women (and a few men) who carried Christ’s wounds, had focused primarily on the medical debates and religious treatises and examined the stigmatics in isolation. This project moved beyond the traditional historiographical emphasis in at least three ways.

First of all, we focused on the popular perception of stigmatics and examined how they became symbolic figures of political and religious causes. Secondly, we studied the interaction of the ‘victim souls’ with their communities and examined how they were turned into ‘living saints’ through religious practices and discourse, and how some of them were eventually even beatified and canonized. Thirdly, we addressed them as carefully constructed religious commodities (celebrities) and rebalanced the research on the selling of religion that has adopted a top-down perspective and focused primarily on the popularization of authorized cults rather than on the impact of the commercialization from the bottom-up. Combining these three aspects in studying the ‘golden age’ of the stigmatics, enhanced our understanding of the role of (new) media and consumption practices in religious change and the construction of religious identities.

As each of these emphases called for a study that took into account chronological and geographical differences, we adopted a comparative approach and examined five of the countries where most of the (hundreds of) stigmatics had been attested (Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Belgium). This allowed us to trace larger trends as changes in the type of stigmatic (e.g. bedridden silent ‘sign’ or a socially engaged charismatic leader) and moments and locations of increased attention (e.g. political crises). However, since this was the era of an internationalized Catholicism the countries were not studied in isolation and special attention was given to transnational attraction (e.g. pilgrims) and the related differences in promotion and perception.

  • This project has received funding from:
    • European Research Council (Starting Grant) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Grant agreement No: 637908.
    • Project duration: 2015-2019