Blood, suffering and ‘fake news’. Prophecies of Italian stigmatics in the 19th century

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

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).


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


“The nun with the wounds”: on mockery, politics and the supernatural

by Andrea Graus

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Figure 1: Sor Patrocinio and Queen Isabel II of Spain, c. 1865. White globes cover the stigmata. Figure 2: Caricature of Los Borbones en Pelota (c. 1868), by SEM (pseudonym).

The Spanish Franciscan nun Sor Patrocinio was born on 27 April 1811. “On that day,” wrote the authors of an anticlerical booklet entitled Los Neos en calzoncillos (1868) (“Neo-Catholics in their underwear”), “the woman was born who perhaps, and by no accident, has for over thirty years been the staunchest enemy of the Spanish people, the true queen of Spain, who with her feigned saintliness managed to dominate the granddaughter of a hundred kings [Isabel II].”[1]

In the early 1830s, she gained a public reputation as a stigmatic and became popularly known as “la monja de la llagas” (the nun with the wounds). Her stigmatization coincided with times of national transformation, when the transition from an absolutist to a constitutional monarchy opened the way for a liberal regime and threatened the status quo of the clergy. During Queen Isabel II’s reign (1833-68), Sor Patrocinio allegedly exercised her political influence through mystical experiences. Alarmist letters from Spanish politicians warned that the Queen based some state decisions on “the nun’s visions”. To many, Sor Patrocinio became a symbol of the Church’s attempt to control the throne. A very popular satirical sonnet of the time expressed this fear:

I fear that the sceptre will become a crosier […] / I venerate God, I venerate the tabernacle; / but not a hypocrite Sister who with emetic tartar, / mimics the [holy] wounds […] / if this cynical farce continues, / all masks will fall / and all Spain will burn like a match.[2]

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Adeline’s hands – on lies, flaws and visual sources

by Tine Van Osselaer

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Photograph of Louise Lateau (1877), Archives of the Seminary of Tournai (see ‘The affair’)


How do you photograph sanctity? When you look at the picture above, there does not seem to be much to it. You photograph a girl praying the rosary, solemnly closing her eyes. If your model is a well-known stigmatic, and a young girl from a humble background on top of that, it does not seem to require much effort to produce the right saintly effect. Still, the moment you gaze a little more attentively at this picture of Louise (Lateau, 1850-1883), you start to notice small details. Wasn’t the bed on the other side of the room and not nearly as close to window as it seems to be here? And what are those hands doing on the right-hand side of the picture holding up a white sheet?

If you did not see the hands of Louise’s sister Adeline when you first looked at the photograph, do not feel bad. Most people seem to filter them out of the picture focusing their attention on the face of the stigmatic (I’ve tested this on my students). It means the photographer did a good job and Louise’s face is indeed quite an eye-catcher, perfectly lighted as it is so close to the window and with the white sheet reflecting the natural light. A slightly better framing of the picture, a little turn to the left, and we would never have known about the staging. Luckily for us, there was this one more clumsy moment, and a picture amidst a series of photographs that tells us more than the flawless versions that eventually made it onto the devotional cards.

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Road trip

by Kristof Smeyers

When you wander into the woods around Dunkirk, near Canterbury, there is little to remind you that this is the site of the last civil insurgence on English soil. Trees are huddled closely together; the undergrowth is thick. Little moves apart from the territorial robins trying to chase you off with overconfident bravura. The monotonous sound of the motorway nearby is domineering and hypnotic.

On the last day of May 1838 however, nothing was quiet as the 45th Regiment, nicknamed the Sherwood Foresters, marched up the road and into these woods. Shots were already ringing out ahead of them, where a few farmers, impatient of waiting on the weathered soldiers, had taken it upon themselves to get rid of the rebels. A few members abandoned their ragtag band that had disrupted local life so much. By the time the 45th Regiment initiated a pincer movement, only between 35 and 40 members of the band remained. All of them—most were farmhands and agricultural artisans: fathers, husbands and sons—carried sticks, apart from their leader, who bore pistols and an exotic scimitar. The weapons were only part of this strange man’s attire. He was dressed in bright red, sported a Christ-like beard and wildly waved his hands, adorned with the stigmata. He looked not unlike an oversized, overconfident robin.

In a ditch not far from where this band was hiding lay the mangled body of Nicholas Mears, brother of the local constable, who had tried to apprehend the strange man earlier that morning.

The 45th Regiment had therefore taken its precautions. About a hundred soldiers now moved through these woods. They had only recently returned from suppressing unrest in the colonies. One arm of the regiment’s pincer came upon the farmhands first. The Christ-like man stepped forward from the trees and shot the lieutenant, and the Battle of Bossenden Wood, as it later became known, started. It lasted only a few minutes. Forty farmers with sticks were no match for a hundred veteran soldiers. Sir William Courtenay, as the extravagant vagabond leader called himself, was the first of the rebels to die; the battle dispersed after seven of his followers were also killed or mortally wounded.


‘Sir William Courtenay alias John Thom, the pretended Messiah and his credulous followers’, coloured soft ground etching by W.L. published by William Spooner, 1840 © National Army Museum, Study collection (

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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.

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Stigmata and celebrity from the bottom-up

by Andrea Graus


Marie-Julie Jahenny (middle) with her followers, La Fraudais (France), c. 1935.

Popular religion is linked to the cult of saints as much as popular culture is symbolized by the worship of famous individuals. Becoming a saint, especially a living saint, is related to becoming a celebrity because, to begin with, it implies obtaining a widespread reputation – in this case, the so-called fama sanctitatis. Cases of ‘popular canonization’ are similar to the sacralization of secular celebrities. There are also evident parallels between the behaviour displayed by the visitors to stigmatics and by the fans of a media celebrity. Visitors to stigmatics showed a need to be close to their idols, to experience their feelings, to gain something from them. Obtaining a handkerchief imprinted with the blood from the stigmata was like getting a celebrity autograph. Mourning the corpse of a deceased stigmatic, turning her house into a living museum and shrine, organizing pilgrimages to her grave, are all examples that can be traced to the cases of rock stars and Hollywood legends. They thus provide further evidence of the relationship between the cult of saints and celebrity culture. In the following, we will take a closer look to the case of the French stigmatized mystic Marie-Julie Jahenny (1850–1941).

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Adventures in archival hunting

by Team members


It is 9 a.m. and my contact person is guarding the door. We did not see anyone when we came in and we want to make sure that nobody knows I have been in here. I take my pictures in a hurry. Both of us nearly get a heart attack when someone enters only a minute after my contact has put the documents back in place. This is not the description of a top-secret mission of a spy during the Cold War, it is the current reality of our archival work.

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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.

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