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.


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?