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.


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.

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.

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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Dr Edwards will see you now. Historical and religious sensations

by Kristof Smeyers


Detail from Pietro de Cortana, Ananias restoring the sight of St Paul (1631).

On the first of April 1899, a correspondent for the Welsh newspaper South Wales Daily Post wrote in excited terms of a great sensation having taken hold of Paris. A ‘weird individual named Edwards’ was offering instantaneous, miraculous cures in a consulting room in the Rue Cadet, ninth arrondissement. The self-styled ‘Dr Edwards’ was born in America and had lived in England and Australia for years before moving to the French capital, where he reinvented himself as a modern-day mystical doctor and carved out a living from whatever his patients were willing to give him. The Welsh correspondent found the house in the Rue Cadet crammed with people, ‘many of whom were well-known ladies of society’. Only after considerable patience did the reporter come eye to eye with the much-spoken-of Edwards, and when he did he was shocked: ‘Dr Edwards, with his long white hair tumbling in disorder over his back, his regular features, and the Semitic incline of his nose, presents a striking appearance […] in a long dressing-gown, on which shines, at the waist, a silver cross, and with bare and sandaled feet.’ Edwards did not ‘look the part’ of a doctor, that much was clear. He seemed rather to emanate an Old Testament prophet; for good reason, as it turned out. ‘My mother,’ Edwards explained, ‘spent some days before my birth in great devotion before the statue of St Paul, and christened me Paul. Doubtless that is why I resemble St Paul.’ Paul Edwards bore the stigmata, though they were slightly unconventional: ‘The toes and fingers corresponding to those of Christ through which the nails were driven are missing in my feet and hands.’ The people lined up in the house and on the street showed considerable excitement; they were here to meet a mystical celebrity, a man known colloquially as St Paul, who could heal their ailments but, more importantly, offer them a personal glance of the divine. This excitement, and the sensation of meeting Edwards, clearly rubbed off on the Welsh reporter whose piece on the Parisian St Paul showed his enthusiasm in its length alone.

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

by Leonardo Rossi

The 19th century could be considered a century filled with great paradoxes, violent political struggles and intense cultural debates that divided revolutionaries and conservatives. On the one hand, it was a turning point in European history due to the secularisation of political life and the laicisation of society – the end of Church’s temporal power, the suppression of ecclesiastical orders, and the spread of positivism and rationalism. On the other hand, it was the golden age of mysticism, supernaturalism, and the politicisation of the popular piety. Ecstasies, stigmata and political prophecies were phenomena at the centre of the public debate of that time, which mobilised supporters and detractors in a political-cultural contest for declaring their authenticity or falsehood.


Figure 1

Figure 1: Monster of Apocalypse

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