Weighing the body

by Kristof Smeyers


The time has come now, at last, to talk truth.

Our research on stigmata doesn’t directly engage with the possibility of the wounds’ divine or supernatural nature. As cultural historians (albeit from different angles) our interest is in the stigmata’s meaning to people in the past rather than in trying to prove or disprove, sanctify or debunk the wounds of Christ. To do so, we have put great emphasis on so-called ‘bottom-up’ history, simply put: to reconstruct those layers of meaning departing from fragments close to the phenomenon and to build on those layers reaching outward to state and church archives.

In a great article last year, Christine Grandy problematized the weight of meaning – or rather, the ways we as historians measure the weight or significance of something in the face of an ‘absent audience’: ‘we continue to know very little about the way ordinary people responded to most forms of culture’ (p. 645). Where do we turn to hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people? Inevitably, very often they are found in the sources of the meaning-makers: ‘the experts, the professionals, or those whose livelihoods are most explicitly tied to the functioning of that set of symbols whose archives we sift through’ (p. 647). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that means, among other things, trawling through newspapers that proclaimed to be the voice(s) of the people(s), but which more often than not ran with a particular case of stigmata to sensationalise or ridicule it in order to sell. Rather than mere receptacles of contemporary ‘voices’, from which we can glean how stigmata functioned within the culture wars of Europe in the late nineteenth century for example, these newspapers fuelled and shaped those culture wars in ways not so different from how they steer today’s culture wars.

Now, we may not spend our research hours figuring out which stigmatic wounds were authentically divine, perversely diabolic, or inflicted via other means, but many of the sources of meaning-makers centred around this crucial matter; many of these sources are preserved precisely because of this focus. Today this is still the question at the heart of the phenomenon for most people, expert or no. Medical and theological scholars continue to attempt to find the cause under the skin or in transcendence.

The first thing we often get asked when our work comes up in conversation is what we really think went on in this case or that – on this or that person’s body. We have become skilled at nimbly avoiding that question, using all the arguments in the arsenal of a cultural historian: we are interested in meaning, you see; what did this phenomenon signify to the individuals and communities we study? But how fair is our act of avoidance when so much of our sources grapple with exactly that question? And how does this repeated, conscious act influence how we read such sources, only to ripple through our own writing?

What does all this imply for our ‘bottom-up’ approach? How, if at all, do we circumvent or reflect the hierarchy, the meaning-making of the sources in our work? Part of the answer, I think, is to hone in on the physicality of the phenomenon itself. Bottom-up begins with the body. Most often, stigmata were read as (often also presented to the world as) corporeal manifestations of redemptive suffering: a bleeding body that offered comfort to pious onlookers. We contextualise this religious suffering within a – primarily – Catholic tableau of spiritual, sublimated pain. The stigmatised bodies are inhabited by ‘victim souls’. Focusing so much on this meaning, the body is sometimes left behind. What happens, for instance, when we situate the supernaturally suffering bodies within a context of physical suffering more generally, among the ‘rank, foul and dysfunctional’ bodies ‘racked with pain, disability and disease’ (Roy Porter, Flesh in the age of reason (London, 2004), p. 25) in which so many people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived? Different contexts create different meanings.


Suffering bodies in supernatural, corporeal Catholicism make for rich sources for prose, poetry, and other forms of fiction. Many are sensationalist and gory, often playing to the same tropes as contemporary newspapers. In 1991 Ron Hansen published Mariette in ecstasy, a strange book about a rich teenager who enters a convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in New York, in 1906. The order has its motherhouse in Louvain, Belgium. Central to the novel is not the question of truth, but Mariette’s body. The New York Times reviewed the book as a ‘luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy’. Returning to Mariette in ecstasy in 2016, the Paris Review summarised this appeal: ‘Catholics go for crucifixes over crosses. They want their Mass wine in a chalice, not Solo cups. The Eucharist is not a symbol; it is substance.’



Mariette in ecstasy (not, strikingly, Mariette with stigmata) is a story of pious psychology and body horror. The novel hits beats that are familiar to those who have browsed our database. Mariette’s stigmata followed years of prayer to Christ’s Passion and a sustained wish for enclosed life. Once in the convent, her emphatically corporeal devotion meets with suspicion and judgment from the other sisters. One sister enters Mariette’s cell and finds her on the floor, ‘unclothed and seemingly unconscious’, holding her hands up as if crucified. On Christmas Eve, she receives the wounds on her body. She holds ‘out her blood-painted hands like a present’, saying ‘Oh, look at what Jesus has done to me!’ Sisters notice red footprints in the hallways. Her faith is lived on the skin, and the skin in turn becomes canvas: ‘Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like handwriting on the floor.’

In these fictions, stigmatised bodies become places on which others vie for vindication, and sites of conflict – whether of an eschatological, religious, scientific, or social nature. Mariette’s body is not hers, either: she surrenders it to Christ and God, but by doing so she also gives it up to a society that tries to make sense of the strange wounds. The inhabitants of the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion are unwilling or unable to engage with the intense physicality of what goes on in Mariette’s cell. One sister enters at night and licks the blood from Mariette’s stigmatised palm: ‘I have tasted you. See?’ Her stigmata become a news item to the outside world. A doctor – her father, no less – examines her body. He concludes: ‘You have all been duped.’

In stigmata fictions, the truth behind the wounds is often central. Many stories hone in on the method behind the wounds, as if the body is a crime scene, a whodunit: how did they manage to get away with it? What tools did they use to inflict the wounds? Who was ‘in on it’, who is ‘duped’? What were the stigmatic’s primary motives? How long will their pious fraud – or fraudulent piety – continue? Mariette in ecstasy’s protagonist has supernatural wounds. The author never gives any indication that another explanation is plausible or necessary. The reader never doubts Mariette’s sincerity; we simply witness the miraculous at work. All suspense comes from the reactions of others to her body. They make meaning, and in that process of making, Mariette’s body suffers all the more for it.

Stories of isolation before the Coronavirus: following the example of stigmatics

By Leonardo Rossi


Exceptional, surreal, unusual. These words are among some of the most frequently used expressions of the bewilderment that we are all experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only a few months ago, we considered it a worrying but distant danger, since then we have realised that we were wrong. From China to Italy, from the States to all corners of the globe, no one is immune and safe. We have discovered ourselves to be weaker, more helpless, more powerless than we assumed to be. Our habits have been subverted. Most of the offices are closed, children are home from school, transportation is extremely limited. The daily frenzy and our interpersonal relationships have suddenly changed.

Time runs differently when you are isolated and cut off from your social framework. The appointments on the agenda thin out, the superfluous disappears into the background, and only the essential things remain visible. You have more time for yourself and for thinking. In the first days of isolation, the most frequent questions I wondered about were about the exceptional nature of the moment we are passing through: how much will this influence affect our habits in the long term? Will 2020 be remembered solely for Coronavirus, or also as a turning point? When and how will we return to our ‘ordinary’ life? Every idea that flashed through my mind was characterised by the adjective ‘exceptional’: nobody has clear answers because nobody has ever experienced anything like this. As the days and weeks went by, however, what previously seemed so unusual quickly started to become ‘normal’. Life goes on, with small and big changes. Now it is no longer odd to work at home, wear a mask when we go out, queue to enter the supermarket. Smiling with the eyes has replaced the handshakes, phone calls evoke the hugs of loved ones, online meetings substitute family lunches. New habits have become a routine, and the old questions that I was unable to answer have given way to another type of reflection: Are we actually witnessing a unique event in history? Did not other generations also spend months isolated from the community? For what reasons? How did they deal with that particular moment?


Cigoli, St Francis

Ludovico Cigoli, St Francis in meditation in an isolated place (Wikimedia Commons)


In my case, the small/big change was to finish the review of my PhD not in my office in Antwerp, but in Gaeta, a municipality at the south of Rome, historically famous as ‘the port of the popes’. Here, I spent weeks of self-isolation, away from my office and family, with an internet connection that did not work brilliantly. Sifting through the pages of my manuscript and reflecting on the past, I realised that this situation is exceptional only for those who, like me, had never experienced anything like this. Looking back can somehow make us feel less alone and exceptional. Before COVID, many people experienced various forms of isolation, social exclusion, withdrawal from the world. History is full of interruptions or subversions of what was considered ‘normal’.

Experiencing a form of seclusion has influenced my point of view. My attention is drawn to situations that are similar to the current one. During the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century, the period that I analyse in my research, there have been several pandemics that have collectively forced thousands, or even millions, of people to live in isolation. At that time, waves of cholera, smallpox, and typhus raged frequently. Moreover, revolts, civil wars, international conflicts, famines and natural cataclysms spread among countries. Periods of seclusion affected the protagonists of history and those who study it: the historians. Fernand Braudel published in 1949 « La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II », but he worked on it during his captivity in Germany (1940-45). Some spiritual leaders and heads of state were also forced to live in isolation. Imprisonment was the common denominator of the pontificate of numerous popes in the nineteenth century. Pius VI fled to Siena in 1798 when he tried to escape the invasion of the Papal States by the French troops. Pius VII spent years of exile away from Rome, as a prisoner of Napoleon in Fontainebleau. Pius IX spent more than nine months here in Gaeta to escape the revolutions of the Roman Republic and the so-called “Spring of the Peoples” (1848-49).

In the sources I studied, exile and forced imprisonment did not only concern popes but also other people. In addition to reasons of force majeure that indiscriminately involved all of the population, a particular category of individuals experienced long moments of isolation in their lives, that is the stigmatics. The wounds of passion that were impressed and visible on their bodies often turned stigmatics into religious celebrities in their community and, sometimes, even on the global level. Their public fame attracted the attention of the people, but also made them suspicions in the eyes of sceptics and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and the Vatican curia (especially the Holy Office) opened investigations and not rarely condemned those who were popularly considered alteri Christi to a life of seclusion. Other stigmatics were not in search of fame and success but wished to spend their lives in solitude and meditation. The visible stigmata would have attracted unwanted attention and, for this reason, they decided to withdraw themselves from the public scene and isolate themselves in monastic cells or domestic environment, carefully keeping their graces a secret.

Therefore, it was not a disease that kept stigmatics away from society, but rather a personal choice or an obligation imposed from above. Some examples can help us to understand their experience better. Solitary and contemplative life has always been part of the Christian tradition. Already in the third century, anchorites and hermits left the community to live in the desert or in isolated places in northern Africa. In the West, the monks did the same by building their abbeys and monasteries in inaccessible areas far from inhabited centres. The desire for a  withdrawn life motivated several stigmatics to aspire to live as religious women. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), Teresa Palminota (1896-1934), and Maria Concetta Pantusa (1936, 1894-1957) tried to enter the convent and become nuns. All three had a deep mystical life and were endowed with special charisms, such as stigmata, ecstasies and visions. They tried to hide their graces from the world and preferred seclusion to the limelights. Even the renowned Tyrolean stigmatics, Maria Von Mörl (1812-1868) and Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815-1848), had problems with accepting and enduring their unwanted popularity. Despite their wishes, both had become famous religious figures. Hundreds of articles that were dedicated to them appeared in the main newspapers of the time, and thousands of faithful and curious visited them in their houses. Von Mörl refused in most cases to speak and interact with the spectators. Lazzeri confessed to her spiritual father that she desired not to be disturbed by pilgrims, especially by sceptics and unbelievers who made fun of her. The Roman stigmatics, wives and mothers, Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1824) and Anna Maria Taigi (1869-1837) did not aspire to enter a cloister, but lived a ‘mixed life’, that is a combination between secular and religious spirituality. During the day they took care of their daily chores, and when their families went to sleep in the evening, they spent their nights in meditation and prayer.


St Catherine

St Catherine of Siena portrayed in prayer in her room (Ruusbroec Library)


The search for peace and isolation could, therefore, be both physical (locking oneself in a monastic cell) and spiritual (hiding graces from the world). This solution was not always an option. Elena Aiello (1895-1961), for example, entered the convent at fifteen years old hoping to spend her life there but, due to an accident, she had to leave. For some stigmatics, seclusion was not a free choice, but rather the punishment issued by a religious authority, such as the diocesan bishops or the cardinals of the Holy Office. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Sardinian abbess Maria Rosa Serra (1766-post 1806), confessed after years of notoriety to the bishop that she had lied about her divine charisms. The Monsignor removed Serra from her position as abbess and condemned her to perpetual isolation in a monastic cell. The same fate fell upon Maria Agnese Firrao (late nineteenth century-1855) and Ester Moriconi (1875-1937). In their case, the Holy Office condemned the stigmatics as false saints. Firrao was transferred to another city where she died 30 years later (the penalties could be very severe and last long) and Moriconi was interned in a psychiatric clinic in Milan, far from her religious community and the faithful. The ecclesiastical authorities regarded isolation as the best solution to block these women’s reputation for holiness among the people. In the files of the processes instigated against them, we read how the clergymen only isolated the ‘offenders’ when they were able to. They did not want to transform stigmatics into popular ‘martyrs’ of the faith, unjustly condemned to a life of isolation. They tried to prove their fraud and to destroy the credibility and authority these women held in their community.

Numerous stigmatists experienced social exclusion for different reasons. Some for a few months or years (as Palma Matarrelli and Padre Pio), others for a lifetime (as Firrao and Moriconi). Some of them had led a very active and busy life, received visitors and pilgrims, and had gained significant public influence. After the conviction or voluntary isolation, everything changed. Elisabetta Canori Mora, for example, belonged to the upper Roman bourgeoisie and led a worldly life before she embraced the mystical path. When she chose to dedicate herself to the Lord, she abandoned all privileges. Her new routine no longer included gala dinners, theatre and elegant clothes, but occasional meals, continuous penances and a humble basement where she could pray isolated from the world. We can read about the daily routines in her spiritual diary. Elisabetta used to cook fish for her daughters on Friday, since, in line with Catholic tradition, this is the day of the week in which the Passion of Christ is remembered, and meat is prohibited. Furthermore, in moments of spiritual despair, she ate a small piece of dark chocolate in order to alleviate her suffering. Other stigmatics also adapted themselves to their changed lives. Maria Agnese Firrao, in her prison-cell in Perugia, received letters from her faithful, replied to them, and even continued to direct the Roman monastery she had led before her condemnation thanks to her network of alliances. Imprisoned in an asylum, Palma Matarrelli received visits from her supporters. For many stigmatics, meditation and introspection were ways to abandon society and its problems to get in touch with the Lord. However, even in isolation, they created new routines and means to deal with the new situation productively. Nevertheless unique and exceptional our situation may seem, before us many people have experimented with forms of isolation and seclusion, and their example can teach us how to turn limitations into opportunities.


by Kristof Smeyers

The beast and the frog

In 1916, as the First World War came to a standstill in the trenches of the western front, a great beast went hunting in the forests of New Hampshire, USA. The beast, an odd and disturbing creature by all accounts, stalked a frog. In The myth of disenchantment (pp. 159-160), Jason A. Josephson-Storm describes the beast’s modus operandi. It did not kill instantaneously. At sunrise, the beast baptised the ensnared frog and named it ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. This was only the start of the animal’s prolonged suffering. At dusk, the frog was put on trial. With appropriate pomp, the beast exclaimed: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, how thou art taken in my snare. All my life long thou hast plagued me and affronted me… Now, at last, I have thee; the Slave-God is in the power of the Lord of Freedom. Thine hour is come; as I blot thee out from this earth, so surely shall the eclipse pass; and the Light, Life, Love and Liberty be once more the Law of Earth. Give thou place to me, O, Jesus; thine aeon is passed; the Age of Horus is arisen by the Magick of the Master the Beast that is Man.’

After the mock trial, the frog ‘Jesus’ was condemned to death, and subsequently crucified. The British occultist Aleister Crowley (1875-1948), nicknamed the Great Beast and infamous as ‘the wickedest man on earth’, cooked the frog’s legs, ate them, and burned the rest of the body. Jesus was consumed, no more: Crowley had taken and twisted the doctrine of transubstantiation to its extreme. This series of acts was done in accordance with Book LXX (‘The Cross of a Frog’) of the Thelema, Crowley’s own written philosophy. One of many similar rituals, the consumption of the frog transformed Crowley, turning himself into a god one incongruous step at a time. In 1921, he considered the transformation complete, and crowned himself ‘Ipssissimus’: beyond the gods.



Aleister Crowley as photographed by Arnold Genthe. The Equinox 3.1 (Detroit: Universal Publishing Company, 1919), facing page 197. (c) Wikimedia Commons


Christ’s suffering body occupied a particularly strong cultural imaginary in the early twentieth century. Early twentieth-century stigmatics provided ammunition for those polemicists and worriers who aimed to protest a perceived disenchantment. (Or so S. Luzzatto claimed in his 2010 book on Padre Pio: miracles and politics in a secular age; the stigmatic and their community remain disconcertingly and overwhelmingly silent in approaches that go to some length to show how a stigmatic’s suffering was the embodiment of religious negotiations of ‘modernity’.) The parable of the beast and the frog shows how Christ’s body could transgress Christianity and hold symbolic sway in magical, occult, and other practices and beliefs. Crowley absorbed Christian symbolism to make it part of his own theology. The notion of ‘transformation’, of a practical use of Christ’s body, is central to any understanding of this multiplicity of meanings. For Crowley, the body of Christ signified a physical conduit between the material and the divine: to consume it, as he meant to consume all other gods, meant to transcend the bounds of the earthly realm and to reach his full potential. Though radical both in its aetiology and in its exertion, the underlying idea that interaction with the crucified body meant personal transformation or growth connects Crowley’s time under the New Hampshire canopy to the Passion experienced by many of the people that we study. Whether or not the Tyrolean mystic Angelica Darocca used a knife to reproduce the wounds of Christ on her body, for example, is in this respect not particularly relevant. By bearing the stigmata, she transformed herself; she was transformed.

Acknowledging that stigmata could be a form of religious, emotional self-expression is not the same as forcing the phenomenon into a corset of pathology. Our research has examined to some length now how we cannot approach the stigmata as a merely metaphorically and symbolically significant manifestation. The stigmatic was not only a tool in the battles between miracle-loving Catholics and materialists. Mortal skin was not just the canvas for holy signs; the Word was not simply made flesh. But the signs transformed the flesh—and the senses. Moreover, they held power, over believers and sceptics alike. That power was itself subject to the cultural contexts in which it appeared. A religious proclivity to suffering is not universal. In Biography of a Mexican crucifix (2010) Jennifer Scheper Hughes gives the example of the Cristo Aparecido in sixteenth-century Totolapan in Mexico. In 1543 the Augustinian missionary Antonio de Roa saw a crucifix made from the wood of the native maguey plant. The Christ figure is bloody and pale, ‘his ribcage poking through almost diaphanous skin’ as Alyssa Maldonado-Estrada describes it (‘Catholic devotion in the Americas’, Religion Compass, 13 (2019), pp. 1-10: 4). The appearance of the crucifix changed the indigenous community; it also meant a dramatic change in Antonio de Roa’s life. As crucial part of his conversion mission, he turned his own body into a ‘living image of pain’. Christian evangelisation centred around bodily suffering as a gateway into personal transformation. De Roa’s bleeding body, viewed in tandem with the Cristo, became a site of religious, christocentric instruction.


Procession of the Cristo Aparecido in the streets of Totolapan, 15-19 March 2018. Image courtesy of http://museosanestebantetelpa.blogspot.mx/

Life, death, afterlife

The crucified body of Christ had many meanings: idiosyncratic, conflicting, overlapping; to be consumed, forgotten, venerated, or emulated. Stigmata were not the exclusive terrain of Catholics who equated the wounds with penitence and redemptive suffering. Jennifer Scheper Hughes has shown how the people of sixteenth-century Mexico did not welcome Christ’s pain and passion as an embodiment of their own suffering under colonial rule, but saw the crucifix rather as an object deserving of their care and love. For Crowley, though steeped in Christian themes, the body of Christ meant something else entirely. That transubstantiation, resurrection and stigmata were notions open to interpretation becomes apparent in occult writings. Occultists were naturally drawn to the power that emanated from Christ’s life, attributing it with qualities that befitted their own conceptions of the known, unknown, and unknowable universe. Helena Blavatsky tackled the subject of stigmata in Isis Unveiled (1877): supernatural markings on the skin were, in her view, a manifestation of the power of the imagination over one’s own body. To reach that conclusion, Blavatsky cherrypicked from a wide range of material, from Pythagoras to contemporary debates in the English medical journal The Lancet.

In turn, the phenomenon itself clearly held power over the imagination of others. The transformations of Christ evoked comparisons across a broad cultural imaginary. Stigmata were, perhaps naturally, often discussed in relation to matters of life, death, and rebirth. These matters could, depending on the perspective, corrupt rather than enshrine religious practices, and turn them into different things entirely. Stories of stigmata and other phenomena existed in a state of constant flux, oscillating between truth and fiction, between myth, interpretation and hearsay. Those different iterations nonetheless co-existed. Crowley’s hunt in the woods was by some Catholics considered as a mockery of some of the beliefs they held holiest, but they did not pick apart the connotation between occultism and ‘proper’ religion. Rather, the widespread and multiform focus on Christ’s body and suffering allows us to draw seemingly separate strands together. As cultural historians of stigmata we would be wrong to limit our scope to the field of (Catholic) religion at the expense of other contemporaneous worldviews concerning the doctrine of transubstantiation, or themes of penitence and resurrection.

Similarly unnerving comparisons were made in previous centuries, by local communities as well as later scholars. David Keyworth has pointed at the notable similarities (as well as differences) between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives of Central-European vampirism on the one hand and Catholic themes on the other: ‘The supposed existence of vampires also mirrored Christian belief in a future bodily resurrection at the Last Judgement’ (‘The aetiology of vampires and revenants: theological debate and popular belief’, Journal of Religious History, 34:2 (2010), pp. 158-173: 172). Here, vampires and Catholic miracles tied to Christ existed as each other’s mirror image—even if vampires famously have no reflection. Vampires as creatures having escaped the mortal confines of the coffin for an immortal life sustained by feeding on the blood of the living was, in Keyworth’s words, ‘in effect the antithesis to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation’ (p. 172).

Without incorporating these stories we would lose a significant part of this cultural imaginary in which religious phenomena, reanimated corpses, ghosts and vampires co-existed. Ongoing beliefs in stigmata, vampires, and the power that emanates from divinely touched bodies were often linked. Stigmata may at one point have been the sole terrain of the Catholic theologian (and this, too, is up for debate), but by the time Crowley crucified a frog between the maples and birches of New Hampshire Christ’s body and wounds had long been transformed into a powerful nexus of culturally entangled meanings.


In 2017 a student art piece at Penn State’s Abington campus caused furore: Christus Ranae, a seven-foot sculpture of a crucified frog.

A knife in the Vatican

by Leonardo Rossi



Those who spent months or even years doing research in the Vatican archives know that they can be witnesses to ‘unusual’ facts. Among the thousands of preserved documents, you read the condemnations of the works of the most brilliant minds of the past such as Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Émile Zola. Grab a coffee for 40 cents alongside the Holy Office court. Study in grotesquely frescoed rooms and in buildings designed by architects such as Michelangelo Buonarroti and Giuliano da Sangallo. Open a dossier, find a blood-soaked linen fabric inside, and hear the concern of an expert colleague in endemic diseases who explains how certain viruses can survive over the centuries. Arrive early enough on St Peter’s Square on Wednesday morning, in order to avoid the stream of faithful attending the papal audience will hinder your journey to your ‘office’. Proud of these collection of experiences and anecdotes that come in handy as folkloristic notes at post-conference dinners, a few days ago I came across an object that I never thought I would find in the Vatican archives: a knife.



St Peter’s Basilica in the 19th century


Daniel Ponziani, a research assistant and expert of the Holy Office’s sources, had informed me of the presence of some ‘objects’ within the file I was studying: the survey “On the visionary Angelica Darocca, known as the Saint of Radein”. His suggestion to pay attention and discretion actually sounded like an open invitation. I had to open that envelope and check the content as soon as possible. My impatience was rooted not only in the curiosity for the specific object but above all in the need to know who the Tyrolean woman was that lived over a century ago between Italy and Austria. For almost four years I have been working on the Italian stigmatics of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. In order to gather information about ninety-four cases reported, I have spent over a year of research in the archives. Never, however, had I heard about Darocca. A few weeks ago, Kristof Smeyers told me about an interesting article that was published in the St James’s Gazette on 8 August 1889, entitled ‘Stigmata or Imposture?’. It skilfully outlines the life of a certain Veronica Danova, a peasant from the Italian Tyrol but German-speaking, unmarried, who has been bedridden for four years without receiving any nourishment other than the sacred Eucharist. Speaking with Merlijn Gabel about the case, I discovered that another woman, in the same village and in the same period, was famous in the Austrian South-Tyrol nicknamed the ‘Saint of Radein’, that is Angelica Darocca. The valuable information of colleagues allowed me to conduct more specific researches. The Tyrol was in the 1830s-40s one of the most important hotspots in Europe for the mystical phenomenon of stigmatization, with dozens of stigmatics reported (over a hundred according to some chronicles not supported by historical sources). Examining this late nineteenth-century case, might allow us to better understand the phenomenon and its impact in the longue durée perspective.

The first investigation I did was on a media level. Comparing articles in British, Austrian and Italian newspapers, I could see that Veronica Danova and Angelica Darocca were probably nothing but the same person. The St James’s Gazette reported the news from previous articles published in Italian and German, and perhaps the writer confused the name of the stigmatic with an eyewitness (Veronica Danova). The Civiltà Cattolica, an authoritative Jesuit journal and official spokesman of the Holy See, dedicated several pages to the Tyrolean case in November 1891. The news that most caught my attention was the opening of a diocesan investigation led by the Tridentine Curia and above all the negative judgment made by the cardinals of the Holy Office. As mentioned, in months of research within the Vatican archives I had never come across her name. Searching among stigmatics, visionaries, aspirant and false saints of the contemporary age filed in the Cartularium of the former Roman Inquisition, the name Darocca never came up. There could be two explanations: either was a more unique than rare case or I had missed her, amazed by the grotesques and shining polychrome marbles.

Once again Dr Ponziani provided me with a very valuable aid, as well as reassurance on my previous researches: I could not have come across the case because it is not listed in the digital catalogue. Compared to all the other funds of the archive, the one entitled ‘Diversorum’ has not yet been indexed and the file of my interest is stored in it. It consists of about two hundred recto/verso sheets, notes taken by notaries of the Roman Congregation during the inquisitor meetings, testimonies and letters from religious men and witnesses, petitions written by the charismatic woman in Italian, German, and Latin. As stated at the beginning, however, my attention focused mainly on a small knife of about five centimetres. Why was it among the trial papers? What was its use? What is the reason to confiscate and keep it?

Flipping through the sources, we can briefly summarize the story. Angelica Darocca (or Darroca) was born on 24 March 1856 in Radein (diocese of Trent), from an Italian father and a German mother (probably German speaker, not necessary German citizen). Her adolescence was marked by the premature death of her parents, a restless pilgrimage from a relative’s house to another in the Austrian Tyrol (this is why she did not speak Italian) and an unknown and apparently incurable disease. When she was about to die, a Marian miracle happened. The night before the feast of the Annunciation (1874), Angelica suddenly regained her health thanks to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. In gratitude for the miracle received she practised a life of prayers and renunciations. She chastised her body with chains and cilices, ate little to nothing, performed novenas and religious songs. Her efforts were rewarded with visions, ecstasies, divine conversations. The Lord entrusted her with the task of converting pagans, baptizing infants, assisting the sick people, in Italy and abroad through the gifts of bilocation and polyglossia. In 1883 Angelica received her most important mystical grace: the five wounds of Christ’s Passion.

Catherine of Siena_compassion

St Catherine’s stigmata (Ruusbroec Library, Antwerp ©)


Her stigmatized body similar to that of dozens of other European cases we had studied, attracted the attention of the clergy, local people, diocesan and civil authorities and its fame even reached Australia (the news was reported on several newspapers between September and October 1889). From 1883 to 1891, in the summer periods when the roads to the small mountain village could be travelled, about three hundred people flocked every day to see with their own eyes the Darocca wonders. From preserved sources we know that the prince-bishop of Trent did not appreciate her fama sanctitatis at all and tried several times to subject her to a diocesan investigation. Her bilocation always allowed her to bypass danger. This plot happened on Saturday 24 May 1891 as well. The bishop had ordered the religious of the monastery of the Holy Cross of Merano to go to Radein, persuade Angelica and take her with them to lead an isolated life. In their care, so he believed, it would be possible to carry out the investigation and silence the dangerous rumours. Once again, however, Darocca was miraculously carried away by the angels. She appeared in Rome and, after waiting for more than ten masses in St Peter’s Basilica, received hospitality from the sisters of the same order of Merano. Fulgenzio, the director of the monastery and Capuchins general, alerted the cardinal commissioner of the Holy Office, asking how they should deal with her. Angelica’s choice was not a wise strategy, for several reasons.

The dossier is composed by long depositions offered by the friar Fulgenzio, the abbess of the monastery and other sisters, witnesses of religious authorities such as the bishops of Trent and Brixien, the confession of her feigned sanctity and, above all, an envelope containing the famous knife. After a few interrogatory sections, Darocca confessed the fiction of her divine gifts. As the nuns had discovered, at night she used to secretly eat, she stole alms from the church, claimed ecstasies and visions and crated stigmata in her flesh with that small blade. Even her bilocation was the result of a plot. Not the angels had miraculously transported her to Rome, but a more classic train journey (paid for with the money taken from her brothers). From the sources emerges a woman with a confused personality, eager to deceive the spectators but at the same time herself deceived by her fervent imagination. Angelica recurrently requested the spiritual director and parish priest to be left alone, removed from the media clamour and the attention of the faithful and curious. She was not sure of herself, of the voices she heard and the visions she saw. She considered herself a poor patient. Other times, she claimed a special and direct relationship with the divine, declaring she had received a delicate mission to perform in Catholic society. The clergymen close to her did not only fail to remedy her illusions but fed her ambition. Over the years, supported by churchmen and faithful devotees, she had built the public image of a religious charismatic celebrity.

In 1891-92 her story was investigated by the Holy Office. After she apologized for her mistakes committed and retracted every possible heterodox position, the trial did not reach a sentence but ended with some pragmatic solutions. Darocca was to be imprisoned in a Clarisse monastery in Rome; the bishops of Trent, Brixen, and Innsbruck were to annunce the news of the fiction of her sanctity; and her reputation was to fall into a damnatio memoriae. Actually, in the current state of research, things seem to have gone differently. After being imprisoned in the monastery, through the complicity of some clerics, Angelica managed to escape and temporarily return to Radein. From the Tyrol she sent numerous letters to the Pope and Holy Office in which she claimed the invalidity of her depositions: she had been forced to perjure herself. From that date on, the woman lived in a state of perpetual escape, from one village to another, avoiding the controls of the diocesan authority by counting on a structured network of faithful. Compared to the dozens of cases reported in the Tyrol a few decades earlier, Darocca was not an imitative model for other potential stigmatics in the region. Tyrol was not for the second time one of the most important hotspots of stigmata in Europe.

What remains of this daring woman, ‘true’, ‘false’ or feigned saint-to-be, is just a small pocket knife with which she – at least according to certain admissions – pierced her body to emulate Christ’s passion. The Vatican archives are not the archives fictionalized by Dan Brown, but a much more complex and fascinating reality and I have a new story to tell my colleagues at the next conference.

Bertha, Georges & Jean

by Tine Van Osselaer

foto Bertha 1

Ill. 1 Photographs of Bertha Mrazek as stigmatic (private collection K. Smeyers, reproduced with the permission the owner)

I struggle with words during the whole conversation. Maria talks with enthusiasm about Père Jean, casually mentions him being born a woman, but at no point in the conversation does she use the names ‘Bertha Mrazek’, ‘Gloria’ or ‘Georges Marasco’. To her, a lifelong follower of Père Jean, he is the priestly figure she knew as a child, not Gloria the lion tamer or Georges the poet-painter. Maria knows about these episodes though and talks about the small castle that Père Jean lived in with its wild animals, the smell of paint in the hall, and the photographs she saw of Père Jean (as Gloria) lying on a lion. ‘We never spoke about that,’ she notes when I try and puzzle Jean’s past back together and she seems to feel the need to explain the gender shift. What mattered to her is that Jean was the ‘Père’ you went to when you were in need of help. She gives elaborate descriptions of miraculous cures, of childless women who became pregnant against all hope, and of dying birds embodying Jean’s spiritual power.

I know only a little about Père Jean. My point of reference at the start of the conversation is Bertha Mrazek (pen-name Georges Marasco), the post-war mystic, anomaly in the eye of the public and thorn in the side of the ecclesiastical authorities. A woman who allegedly collaborated with the Germans during the war, who had a miraculous cure in the basilica of Our Lady in Halle, and later became a faith-healer. A woman whose cross-dressing and love for wild animals was in the interwar sources linked to her artistic flair – ‘la Marasco.’ All of the sources I have studied so far refer to her as ‘a woman’ and criticize her for not meeting gendered expectations for a good Catholic girl. Wearing men’s clothes got her expelled from church, and her status as religious leader made her problematic in the eyes of the clergy. Accusations of fraud and hysteria were added to the mixture, and after a short lawsuit for making money under false pretenses she was sent to an asylum. And that was that, most stories on her ended there. My mind had constructed – perhaps on a template of Sarah Bernhardt – an image of Bertha as an interwar artist/mystic (whatever that was exactly) who had an adventurous past as lion tamer, nightclub singer and spy and ended up being sent to an asylum. That is why I kept having difficulties during the conversation not to refer to ‘Bertha’ and to talk about ‘Père Jean’ instead.

foto Bertha 2

Ill.2 Photograph of Bertha Mrazek (private collection K. Smeyers, reproduced with the permission the owner)

A portrait of Père Jean was staring at me, and it was clear that I needed to let go of the picture I had created in my head as it was only one chapter, or one version, of the story. In my defense: it had been particularly hard to reconstruct the previous chapters. The testimonies of the inmates of St Gilles prison and some of the postwar sources referred to Bertha as a great storyteller who at one point claimed that she regularly broke out of prison in a basket, or had miraculously escaped several death sentences. Some of the sources such as the typed copies of letters from of former inmates thanking her for helping them escape seemed to have been fabricated only in order to create a good impression of Bertha. Original letters of the inmates protesting against Bertha’s image as a war hero made it clear that the lies in themselves would be worth exploring. The overall problem I faced in this reconstruction was that each ‘chapter’ not only had its own logic and sources (e.g. letters kept in the war archives, in diocesan archives, or the newspapers) but also its own Bertha/Georges or Jean.

foto Bertha 3

Ill.3 Photograph of Père Jean, hanging in Maria’s home (summer 2017).

I had compartmentalized the biography as if the lead character of my story reinvented him-/herself from scratch again and again (like tricksters I had read about). What I learned from Maria that day was that there was no need for that. To the followers of Père Jean all of these former identities easily merged in the man they had all loved. She evoked what a visit to Père Jean had been like: how one would enter the hall where one could sometimes smell the fresh paint of Jean’s artwork; how one would climb the stairs decorated with photographs of the lion-tamer’s past; and finally how one would enter a chapel where there was a huge painting of Bertha’s miraculous cure in Halle on the wall, together with the Belgian flag and war memorabilia (references to the war hero). Her memories of Père Jean’s home and the ease with which she accepted the gender shift were a welcome counterweight to the sensational, episodic and conflict-rich textual sources I had found. It was Maria’s version of Jean I learned about that day. But her testimony did not just provide me with information on the post-asylum years of Père Jean. Her virtual ‘tour’ around Jean’s house gave me an integrated image, a synthesis rather than fragmentation. While I could no longer see the house myself (demolished after Jean’s death in 1967), her memories of its material culture gave me a sense of what was still relevant to her after all these years – what constituted the memory of Père Jean –, and that included also pieces of Bertha and Georges.

(See also: Tine Van Osselaer (2019): The many lives of Bertha, Georges and Jean: a transgender mystic in interwar Belgium, Women’s History Review, DOI: 10.1080/09612025.2019.1590502)

Why pain?

By Merlijn Gabel

You may have already seen my name pop up on the website or somewhere else and you are aware that I have recently started on a new stigmatics project. If not, pain, suffering and stigmatics are the themes I will dive into for the next four years, with the focus on Austria. Last Christmas, the importance of the research became instantly clear. Enthusiastically, I was speaking with a family member about pain. She is a nurse and I asked how she would know if her patients are in-pain. It is important to know that she works mostly with children. She replied that children almost always point to their belly to express pain. It does not matter whether they are dying of cancer or are worried about an important school test, it is the belly where they feel this unpleasantness we call pain. She also stated this makes it difficult for medical personnel to read the severity of the pain children are experiencing. In some cases, doctors may be seriously in doubt whether the children are in-pain or not.

Of course, pain does not always have to be the result of a lesion, think about the so-called phantom pain people can experience in their lost limbs. The relation between lesion and pain becomes even more uncertain when there are people who have a serious injury but claim to not experience pain. Think about cyclists in the Tour de France, who can continue cycling with a broken hip, elbow, knee, ribs, or all the above at the same time. As pain is not always a sign of lesion, doctors do not always trust children being in-pain when they point at their bellies every time they experience something unpleasant.


Foto by ©Leonie Kohn

Not only modern-day doctors are aware of the ambiguous relation between pain and lesion. They were just as aware of it in the past, just as the doctors who examined Juliana Weiskircher. She was an Austrian stigmatic from Schleinbach, a small village close to Vienna. She was born in 1824 and her youth was marked by all sorts of pain. She was one of ten siblings, of whom six would not see their tenth birthday, which was, how sadly so, not uncommon in the nineteenth century. Her father died when she was only thirteen years old, which had a big impact on the young girl. If this was not enough, she was often sick. Very often. She was probably suffering of tuberculosis among other diseases. She coughed blood and sometimes lost control over her body when it cramped. We can only imagine the tragic and pain she must have experienced. Sadly, the medical treatment was not developed enough to cure the diseases. One of the few things doctors could do to relieve pain was bloodletting, but this did not heal her. She had to accept that she had to live with a body-in-pain. Beside the worldly bodily suffering, she also experienced a divine suffering, which became tangible in 1847 in the form of stigmata. She could feel how Christ had been nailed on the cross. The nails left wounds on her hands. This divine suffering was not meaningless and went hand-in-hand with visions. She felt Christ’s pain in body and soul and in an unconscious ecstatic state she would cry out: “My God,” “My Lord,” “This Pain,” “Thy will be done.” Other times she seemed to be in absolute bliss and her face was still and peaceful. When she was not in an ecstatic state, the sources state, she was a happy and cheerful person.

The stigmata did not only leave a trace on the body, the miraculous phenomenon also had an impact on the small village of Schleinbach. Word travelled fast at the time, as newspapers covered the event, and a growing number of people wanted to see the stigmatic for themselves. The word did not only spread to the curious, local authorities also became aware of the miraculous events happening in the town. For them the claimed miracle was a potential social turmoil that needed to be clamped down.

The reasons why the authorities were so anxious about Juliana are a bit unclear. I assume they were afraid of every popular movement that could undermine their jurisdiction. In 1848, European states were threatened by revolutionary forces. The continent had barely recovered from the previous major revolution and the following Napoleonic wars. In this light, it makes sense that the local Austrian authorities suppressed all possible popular movements that had the potential to undermine them. They preferred the unexplainable miracles in Schleinbach to disappear, rather sooner than later.

How to make a miracle disappear? The answer is quite simple. By simply showing that the miraculous is ordinary. This was the mission of the doctors who had to examine the stigmatic. First, they examined her at home, but they were under the conviction that the Catholic home-environment was one of the main triggers for the extraordinary events. A true examination could only be done in the hospital in Vienna, far away from all the misleading Catholic influences. In Vienna the doctors would show to the world that Juliana had faked the stigmata and therefore the miracle was no more than an ordinary scam.

Juliana and her family were not easily convinced to go to the hospital. The poor health of the girl made her vulnerable for the trip and the intentions of the doctors seemed unjust. Only after the bishop had put in a word and the doctors had promised they would cure the girl, they were persuaded to send Juliana to Vienna.

In Vienna, she was treated for almost half a year during which she was constantly watched by nurses and was isolated from any spiritual care-taking. The treatment had its effect. Her health clearly improved and the bleeding had stopped. This was for the doctors the sign that she had been faking the stigmata and they declared her cured, shortly after it seemed unlikely that the stigmata would return. Their mission was accomplished as the miracle was no longer miraculous.

Although the doctors had declared Juliana cured, she still had cramps and bodily ecstasy, which still caused a lot of pain. The doctors, however, stated that she was just exaggerating. Women at that time were ought to suffer in silence. Behavior that did not fit this model was perceived as fake or an exaggeration and could thus be ignored.

In our contemporary eyes it seems totally absurd that a woman who is clearly in-pain can be diagnosed as cured. We are often under the conviction that we are no longer formed by such degrading cultural models of how to express pain. If someone claims to be in-pain, it is acknowledged. Even psychological pain, such as depressions, are more accepted than ever before. So, why is the story about Juliana interesting for us?

I want you to think about the children from the introduction, who point at their belly when they are in-pain. Doctors still lack tools to know how severe someone’s pain is. They often ask the patient to scale their pain from 1 to 10, but we can all think about reasons why this system is untrustworthy and can sometimes still end up in doctors ignoring the children’s pain. Just as they did with Juliana’s. These small children do not yet understand the codes to express their pain correctly. Or how do we deal with people from other cultural backgrounds, who express or feel their pain differently than we do. Recently, I spoke with a doctor who has a lot of patients with a Moroccan background. When these people are experiencing stress, they feel pain in their belly. It took her a while to figure out these people were having stress although the symptoms might implicate something else.

Therefore, the story of Juliana is still important as it is relevant. If we want to be respectful to all people-in-pain and treat them the best way possible, we can no longer take our own cultural standard of how to express pain as the only standard. Otherwise, we end up with more people like Juliana, who come out of a hospital and lose faith in all medical treatment. After Juliana returned home her health decreased once again and the stigmata returned as well. But now, as the doctors had ‘proven’ her stigmata were fake, they did not pay any attention to her anymore. Her tragic life ended in 1862 when she died at the young age of 42.


by Kristof Smeyers


First things first: to everyone belated but sincere best wishes for 2019 from the Stigmatics team! This is promising to be a most fruitful year for our project. The Stigmatics team has made a few resolutions for 2019 which will be realised even if only because we are contractually obliged to do so. Many exciting things are about to happen: publications are scheduled, and we will be presenting the wide-ranging aspects of our research across Europe. Behind the scenes preparations are made: our database is itching to go live, dissertations are being written on Italian and British stigmata, and our newest team member has set off to examine pain and suffering through the lens of stigmatics in Austria-Hungary. Other exhilarating, enigmatic and presently unnamed things are in the pipeline, and will be announced with the appropriate fanfare in the following months. As ‘Between Saints and Celebrities’ enters its final stage, new offshoots branch out, into the unknown.

This first blogpost of the new year is about the future. That future is not fixed. The ideas that shaped this project years ago have outgrown the project proposal, perhaps even turned into a wholly different kind of beast. That is a very healthy evolution: research requires an openness and willingness to adjust, revise, and reject assumptions and hypotheses in favour of new findings. As the future unfolds, some paths overgrow and others appear—unlooked for, maybe unasked for. They have led us into the courtrooms and the Inquisitions, into the intimacy of the convent cell and the doctor’s office, into the editorial pages of the yellow press and a vibrant folk culture. ‘Our’ stigmatics have grown along with this research over the past years. New angles and perspectives and different (types of) sources created a clearer, fuller image of the people at the core of our project. But there is so much we cannot know, even when records seem to suggest a complete picture. Ultimately, they remain out of reach; the past, too, is not fixed.



Halley’s Comet approaches, 1910. © The Yerkes Observatory / Wikipedia.

Many stigmatics were preoccupied with the future and claimed some events were indeed fixed points in time; some of them were, in fact, more widely known as prophets than as partakers in Christ’s Passion. Maria Luisa Firrao in our last blogpost foretold the future from within the convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima in the first half of the nineteenth century. Others were more prolific prophesiers. On 18 May 1910 the seventeen-year-old Timothy Cekwane stood atop Ekukhanyeni, a holy mountain in Natal (now South Africa). The passing of Halley’s Comet over the mountain signified Cekwane’s rebirth as a charismatic leader of a religious mission (its members do not consider themselves a church, but rather as existing outside all churches) called Ukukhanya or Ibandla loku Kanya, both names referring to the importance of light. As in other, similar origin stories of independent religious movements in early twentieth-century Africa, Cekwane’s mission was not only profoundly mystical. Ukukhanya was founded on light, but first and foremost on blood; followers wore red robes, and their leader’s life had begun when a drop of blood fell from Heaven and was inserted into his mother’s womb. When the comet passed over the mountain, its cosmic power—so claimed Cekwane—granted him the ability to speak in tongues and to perform miraculous healings. He also received the stigmata in the palms of his hands, a divine trait that became known among his followers as the ‘gift of blood’, a fundamental prerequisite to Ukukhanya leadership.

Mystical, then, but also to be situated within a political context: when Halley’s Comet drew a fiery trail through the sky, processes were in motion that, thirteen days later, led to the promulgation of the South Africa Act in the British Parliament and the subsequent establishment of the Union of South Africa. Cekwane’s prophetic career was as much about the local identity of Natal vis-à-vis the colonial pretentions of Britain as it was about religious renewal. His prophecies (and his stigmata, for that matter) should never not be read as political.

Prophetic voices tend to resonate louder in atmospheres of perceived uncertainty or acceleration. Technological leaps, overthrown monarchies, economic crises and social unrest: they provoked both optimistic and pessimistic visions of what was to come. Perhaps seemingly contradictory, by offering a prediction of the future that was fixed in time and therefore certain to happen, these voices offered listeners the possibility of a change in course that could be focused on the individual—soothsayers and palm readers often operated on this level—or on society, whether regional as in Cekwane’s case or global, as with the many millenarian, apocalyptic messages of nineteenth- and twentieth-century stigmatics that were rife with all-consuming wars and judgment days. If a prophecy failed to materialise, it nevertheless had succeeded in briefly providing hope by showing the future could change dramatically at any point. At the same time, the prophet’s words did not form in a vacuum but were, often, carefully crafted to please the ears of a particular audience. The Sardinian stigmatic Maria Rosa Serra comforted the royal family with promises of male heirs in 1801; in late Victorian England the stigmatised cult leader Mary Ann Girling continuously foretold the imminent rapture to followers that were starving and freezing in an attempt to keep the community together. Cekwane predicted the long future of his mission. Visions of the future served to achieve something in the present, whether charismatic authority, political momentum, or simply to stay alive.


The politics of future and past are everywhere in our work as historians. Like every science, history is never not political. Looking across our own research on stigmatics, we integrate histories of gender, body, medicine, and spirituality: the very methodological cores of our work are unstable categories to work with because they require an awareness of our own, early twenty-first-century frame of reference. Timothy Cekwane’s body is very different from mine; a doctor’s diagnosis from 1840 does not correspond 1:1 with one from 2019. This distance between past and present is unbridgeable. (That is not to say the past is entirely beyond our reach; only that it will always be a foreign, unfamiliar country.) Even if we were to travel back in time to investigate a stigmatic’s wounds and to confront a prophet with their failed predictions, it would not solve any of the challenges with which we are dealing in our research. As tempting as it may be to try and look into a prophet’s head or a stigmatic’s mind to see what they felt or why they did something, an important part of our craft is to maintain, even safeguard that distance. Because if we give in to that temptation, and barge into the past with our own ideas and frames of reference, we rob that past of its future and replace it with our own present. A prophecy comes on its own terms; it holds the future—all futures, also the ones that did not happen.

Stigmatics’ prophecies caught on and found listeners, finally, because they promised something neat and comprehensible: they brought the unknown within reach. By doing so they gave the historical present a sense of purpose—a kind of de-cluttering of ballast so that people knew what to focus on in function of what the future was expected to bring. Stigmata and millenarian prophecies were, in that respect, an efficient combination: the appearance of the supernatural wounds was physical, visible proof of Christ’s imminent return to earth, and therefore an extra incentive for believers to organise their lives around the approaching Judgment Day, and do away with everything that could be a potential hindrance to their deliverance. In the 1870s several court cases in Hampshire, England revolved around the neglect of children by parents who had joined Mary Ann Girling’s millenarian cult. Their leader’s promise of the Millennium could make followers single-purposed to the extent of leaving their families behind.

As historians, we must tolerate the ballast and the clutter; we must embrace the mess. We cannot approach a different period from our own perspective and overlay our own experiences and thoughts on top of the experiences and thoughts of other people. The past comes to us on its own terms. Much like the prophesiers of the past, I suspect historians are often wrong about what we claim to know, and about what we do not consider valuable knowledge. Prophecies can fail to come true, but that does not mean we should dismiss them out of hand as historical source; they are revelatory to us nonetheless, as they tell us a lot about the context in which they were formulated, and about the hopes and anxieties of people.

One prophecy, that of the Mission’s longevity, did come true. Timothy Cekwane’s religious mission exists to this day. Every year members of Ukukhanya congregate on the mountaintop where in 1910 their founder looked up at the night skies and saw an endless array of possibilities.



‘Nostradamus’ 2019 predictions: Donald Trump assassination, war, and hard Brexit’ 

In the current culture wars, prophets stir. How shall we, as historians engage?

Fraud and Holiness: Scandals in the Convent

by Leonardo Rossi


La Monaca di Monza

Giuseppe Molteni (1847), The Nun of Monza


“We [the cardinals of the Holy Office] declare that the Holiness of the Sister Maria Agnese Firrao has been simulated, fake, and the supernatural phenomena attributed to her are false and fraudulent invented, and therefore she is condemned to be secluded, as long as she lives, in prison under the strictest observance.”

According to the Inquisitor Fathers, this severe punishment of the superior of the Roman convent of Sant’Ambrogio della Massima, was meant to put an end to her reputation for holiness in the religious community and in the Roman diocese. However, they could not know that it was just the beginning. The ‘fictional’ aspect of the story inspired Hubert Wolf, a prominent German ecclesiastical historian, to write a book in which archival sources often mingle with fictional (noir) elements (The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal). Nevertheless, the exceptionality of the story not only fed sensationalism and interest in the spectacle, it also allows for reflections. How did charismatic women build their reputation for holiness? How did the Church try to suppress their cults? What was the impact of stigmata and mystical phenomena in late modern popular devotion.

The plot is as gripping as it is complex. Thus I am going to introduce some facts, places, and characters on the scene. The events took place in Rome at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The city, as most of Europe, was shocked by the Napoleonic wars and the following harsh restoration of the ancien régime. The ‘great story’ seemed far removed from the convent cells of St Antonio, in which the abbess Maria Rosa Firrao could for years act undisturbed without any kind of control. We can find only little biographical information about her safe for the records concerning the inquisitorial process. We do not know anything on her childhood. She entered the religious community at a very young age, reforming it according to the Franciscan rules when she became the superior, and came to be known as ‘Blessed Mother’ (for her mystical phenomena) or ‘Founder Mother’ (for her radical reforms of the convent’s rules). Drawing inspiration from the more radical Franciscan tradition, Maria Rosa offered herself as a sacrificial victim for the redemption of the societas Christi. In particular, she suffered for the liberation of popes from exile and the Church salvation in the years of Napoleon’s campaigns in Italy. Her ascetic life, inedia, and corporal mortification made her very famous. Ecstasies and stigmata were reported as well (probably before 1815) and turned the charismatic superior into a ‘living saint’. The fame of her prodigies quickly spread outside the walls of the convent in Roman ecclesiastical circles, reaching as far as the halls of the Holy Office. The inquisitor fathers conducted an investigation, which ended with the harsh sentence issued on 8 February 1816 (Feria V, in the Latin language of Vatican sources). Maria Rosa was condemned for the crime of ‘affettata santità’ (alleged holiness), that is for having simulated stigmata, ecstasies, and prophecies with the aim of creating a forbidden devotion. The punishment implied removal from Rome, life in isolation in a monastic prison in Gubbio, and the prohibition of communicating with the outside world.

Convent St Ambrogio

Convent of St Ambrogio della Massima, Rome

For almost forty years there was no news about the scandal: the cult of Firrao seemed to have disappeared, just like her charismatic leadership, at least until July 1859. With the support of an important cardinal, princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen denounced the events that had happened in St Ambrogio when she was a novice there. The Holy Office was alerted immediately and the matter was addressed in an investigation and formal process. The princess testified that the fama sanctitatis of the foundress was still alive. Clergymen and sisters practiced devotional rituals in her honour: the ‘Blessed Mother’ was not dead to the community, but continued to lead it through letters and secret meetings. Relics, tissues soaked with her miraculous blood, and devotional images were used daily for the veneration of the ‘living saint’, who was worshipped with prayers and psalms written in her honour.

Hohenzollern decided to open a formal complaint against the convent after an attempt on her life. The noblewoman had discovered affairs, deceptions, and claims of supernatural phenomena by the vicar’s sister, Maria Luisa Ridolfi. In order to keep the secret, the vicar had tried to poison her opponent. The case of St Ambrogio alla Massima did not lack any elements for the plot of a noir novella. To the stigmatic blood of the foundress were added the sensations of murder, sex, relic trade, cases of hysteria and demonic possession that involved both religious (sisters and confessional fathers) and lay people. It is plausible that the facts were altered and exaggerated by the inquisitors during the investigative process to justify the gravity of the measures taken, but there are few doubts about the scandals that occurred in the convent cells. In the convent vicar Ridolfi had cleverly used the positive reputation of the prioress – despite her condemnation – to create her own profile of ‘living holiness’. She claimed to be her spiritual daughter, her mystical follower called to lead the community through her prophecies and appearances of the foundress. However, consulting the Vatican sources, we know that the relationship between Firrao and Ridolfi was not positive at all. Indeed, when Firrao was informed about the exceptional phenomena of the young sister, she  proved criticism and suspicious on her.

At the death of Firrao, in 1855, Maria Luisa saw her path cleared from obstacles. Her power grew both within the convent and outside its walls. Sex, lies, and terror were the glue with which she managed to bind her sisters in an ambiguous relationship of amorous feelings and unconditional devotion. Several clergymen came into contact with her and supported the divine nature of her graces, spreading her fama sanctitatis in Rome. Faithful and curious people entered the convent, eager to know her, to listen to her prophecies, and to ask for graces and prayers. Ridolfi boasted therapeutic and thaumaturgical powers in the treatments of diseases and in exorcisms. Among the most famous patients there was ‘the American’, a 36-year-old Tyrolean or German doctor, married and with children, who decided to abandon everything to live in accordance to the indications of the ‘living saint’. However, though she had many followers, opposing voices were heard as well. When Hohenzollern denounced the events and the inquisitor friars entered the convent, it was not difficult for them to gather compromising testimonies and evidence against the vicar. The trial led to the condemnation of Ridolfi to eighteen years of isolation, for numerous crimes such as ‘fake sanctity’,  spreading improper and previously forbidden worship (of Firrao), violence, sexual and financial fraud. The suspected deaths of three sisters were not imputed to her.


Hubert Wolf, The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio: the True Story of a Convent in Scandal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)

Reviewing the mentioned book by Wolf, Anne Jacobson Schutte points out that perhaps, given the wide audience to which the author refers, the work displays imprecisions, inaccuracies, and sometimes an excessive tendency to sensationalism. Without a doubt, the case of St Ambrogio was indeed sensational. Still, despite the extraordinary nature of the facts, the dark nuances and the fictional elements, it offers the historian many insights. First of all, it tells us something about the way in which the Church and Inquisition in the nineteenth century reacted to mystical phenomena and charismatic women. In fact, the trials show how Firrao and Ridolfi, in a society attempting to separate religious and civil power, were condemned in the late modern age for a religious crime (alleged holiness) that was at least three centuries old. The Holy See, despite the looming political and diplomatic problems of the period (in 1870 Rome was conquered by the Kingdom of Italy, thus ending the millennial history of the States of the Church), was particularly focused on popular devotion. Trial records also inform us about the elements necessary for the construction of the reputation of sanctity, thus what people and faithful perceived as supernatural and worthy of worship. In the case of Firrao her ‘proof’ convinced the religious community to believe in her. The stigmata impressed on her flesh, the blood spilling out, her ecstasies, and miracles performed were seen by the faithful as the evidence of her divine election. Ridolfi, in addition to prophecies and healing abilities, was able to routinize the founder’s charisma, using her positive reputation in building up her own career as a charismatic leader. Both protagonists show how the cliché of a woman as a weak and passive follower of fathers confessor was a prejudicial construction based on the alleged superiority of the male clergy and authority of office. In fact, not only were they able to build up their charismatic leadership, they also influenced and utilized clergymen, friars, and eminent theologians for their plans. Beyond their actions, they showed educated (both knew how to write) and as possessing the skills necessary to maintain control over the convent and the community.

In both cases, despite the official measures taken by the Holy Office, the solution was reached only with the death of the feigned saints. Firrao was removed from Rome and isolated in a monastic cell in Gubbio. However, as indicated, from 1816 to 1855 she continued to direct the convent through letters. In the case of Ridoldi, she was cleared of the crime of murder. The Holy Office, on the one hand, had no authority over criminal offences; on the other hand, it feared that the capital condemnation under which she could be condemned would make her a ‘martyr’ for her faithful and create an international scandal. For these reasons the inquisitor fathers selected a milder sentence, 18 years of isolation. However, Maria Luisa’s behavior complicated the situation. She was considered dangerous in all the institutions in which she was imprisoned. There she either continued to show her graces, thus creating new supporters, or she disturbed the religious community by attacking and threatening the members. She was locked up in several monasteries, but also in psychiatric institutions and in her paternal home. No one was willing to host her, not even her father and sisters, even though the Holy Office payed the fee for her detention. In September 1870, while she was temporarily housed in the a monastery, Savoy troops conquered Rome. Maria Luisa once again showed her wiliness and declared herself a political prisoner of the Church. This accusation led to a civil trial. The Holy Office had to refund the woman for her monastic dowry and for the damages of the abuses suffered. Pius IX had formally declared himself a political prisoner of the invading state, recognizing its power as illegitimate. The Church, however, could not ignore the civil trial that involved the congregation of the Holy Office and Ridolfi. A default judgment would have sparked suspicion about the truth of woman’s accusations in public opinion, and therefore a further scandal for the Holy See.

Is it possible to talk about losers and or winners in this trial? Probably not. On the one hand the two ‘living saints’ did not achieve their purpose, that is to build up a lasting reputation of sanctity, as after their death they fell into the oblivion of the damnatio memoriae. On the other hand, the Vatican proved inept to face and stop the charismatic leadership of these women, who were able to obtain an extraordinary popular devotion. At the end of the nineteenth century the Holy Office seemed to claim, at least theoretically, greater authority and severity in investigating and condemning phenomena of mysticism. At the same time, the number of cases reported increased significantly, so much so that the Roman curia spoke of a ‘new mystical invasion’. What influence the cases of Firrao and Ridolfi exercised in this double evolution has not yet been investigated in historical research, but their cases inform us about much more than scandals and sensationalism.



  • Archive of the Congregation for the Doctine of the Faith, ACDF, 50 B 6 a, Causa c. le monache e direttori del moanstero di S Ambrogio in Roma dette Riformate del terz’ordine di S Francesco;
  • Wolf, Hubert (2015). The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio: the True Story of a Convent in Scandal. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Thérèse Durnerin: mystic, visitor to stigmatics and founder

by Andrea Graus


According to feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray, mysticism was the sole domain in Western culture in which women were able to fully develop their own subjectivity. It is indeed true that mysticism has historically bestowed on women some sort of spiritual autonomy and leadership. Mystic women (religious and lay) have inspired new devotions and started their own foundations. In this post we are introducing a forgotten mystic, stigmatic (invisible wounds) and founder who, with her initiatives, was able to be ahead of her time: Thérèse Durnerin (1848-1905).

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How to hunt a skull in five steps.

By Tine Van Osselaer

  1. Disbelief

‘The parish has the body, without the skull, they should be content.  They can exhume the body – that would even be wise, since the head was decomposing because of the water touching the side on which it rested.’ Staring at this letter of chanoine Armand Thiéry (1868-1955) of January 1943 and reading the lines a few times, I am somewhat shocked. I admit that Louise Lateau (1850-1883) is one of my ‘favorite’ stigmatics, so I might be taking this too personally but, … did he really take the skull? From the letter I can derive that Thiéry once owned the secularized cemetery of Bois-d’Haine where Louise’s remains rest (eh, well, more or less) and that there has been an exhumation years earlier. A picture in one of the other files shows a skull on a window bench, rays of light dropping in – a very Shakespearean scene. The back reads ‘skull of Louise Lateau’ and mentions a photo studio in Louvain, hometown of Thiéry. It looks like Thiéry kept Lateau’s skull amongst his own possessions and seems to have taken great comfort in having it. In a way, this should not come as a surprise since Thiéry had experienced a miraculous cure in 1910 that he attributed to the intervention of the stigmatic of Bois-d’Haine.

Nonetheless, it is the first time I hear anything about a missing skull and my mind starts wondering. No study on Louise Lateau (as far as I know) notes that the skull is no longer in the grave like the rest of the body. Did the head return or is it still out there?


Ill.1 The skull of Louise Lateau (Tournai, Archives of Louise Lateau, G.4.13)

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