“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 (http://www.nam.ac.uk/online-collection/detail.php?acc=1972-07-45-1).

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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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Musical poems in praise of a stigmatic

by Andrea Graus

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Margalida Amengual in ecstasy, c. 1918. ADM, 13.1.

Abandoned the day of her birth, Margalida Amengual (1888-1919) was adopted by a peasant family from Costitx, an isolated village in the middle of Mallorca (Spain). Extremely pious, she tried to join a convent but was rejected because of her feeble health. Amengual became a Franciscan Tertiary and was said to spend several hours meditating over the Passion. In her small library, she kept a book on the life of the stigmatised Italian mystic Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), canonised in 1940. Her spiritual father removed the book from the library after the start of the extraordinary phenomena. In late July 1918, Amengual started to have severe difficulties swallowing and began a period of inedia that lasted six months, until her death on 30 January 1919. Allegedly, she was only nourished by the Eucharist and by ice mixed with sugar and cinnamon. On Friday 9 August, stigmata became visible in her hands for the first time. From then on, she relived the Passion every Friday. She allegedly experienced other extraordinary phenomena, such as visions and levitation, and had the gift of prophecy—she correctly predicted the day of her death. The Bishop of Mallorca charged Reverend Nicolás Saggese and Canon Antonio Sancho with an investigation. All rejected fraud and judged the phenomena to be veridical.

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