Stigmatics: Saints or charlatans?

The story behind the stigmata

The first recorded stigmatic was Saint Francis of Assisi, who received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – on his hands and feet during a religious ecstasy in 1224.

But most stigmatics throughout history have been women.

In the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena, a mystic and laywoman, is reputed to have lived for long periods without food or water except for the wine and bread of the Mass.

She apparently scourged herself three times a day with an iron chain and allowed herself just thirty minutes of sleep on a board every other day. She also claimed to have had a mystical marriage with Jesus. He placed a ring upon her finger in a vision and espoused her to Himself.

She said she had received the stigmata but prayed that they be made invisible for the sake of humility. 

Around the same time, Santa Rita de Cascia displayed a partial stigma on her forehead corresponding to the Crown of Thorns.

There have been two notable stigmatics in the twentieth century.

The first was Therese Neumann, a Bavarian nun, who even the Gestapo did not dare arrest because of her reputation.

The other was a man known as Padre Pio. He claimed to have received the stigmata in 1918 during a religious ecstasy. The curious wounds appeared intermittently for the next fifty years of his life.

It was variously reported that they did not appear to clot or become infected, and the blood coming from them was said to have a pleasant perfume, known as the Odour of Sanctity. Not everyone was convinced. Critics said it was actually eau de cologne.

Padre Pio became a controversial figure inside the Church.

The Vatican even banned him from saying Mass and launched numerous investigations. One physician reported that he used carbolic acid to produce the wounds.

Despite his critics, Padre Pio remained a hugely popular figure with many Italian Catholics, and when he died in 1968 his Requiem Mass was attended by over 100,000 people. Thirty years later, the Vatican bowed to public pressure and made him a saint.

Ivan Illich, a contemporary Christian theologian, suggested that ‘compassion with Christ is faith so strong and so deeply incarnate, that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.’ 

In other words, stigmatics create their own wounds with the power of their emotions.

So, what is the truth?

No one really knows. But one startling fact is that there are no recorded cases of stigmata before the thirteenth century, when artistic depictions of the crucifixion in religious art first appeared.

FOOTNOTE: My novel Stigmata was inspired by two anomalies in the history of western religion. One was the Cathar Crusade. The other was the appearance of religious figures displaying stigmata

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About Colin

Colin Falconer
Colin Falconer is a best-selling author known for historical thrillers such as Silk Road, Harem, Fury, and Feathered Serpent. He has published over 30 books, which have been translated into 25 languages, distinguishing him as a prominent figure in historical fiction.

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