Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.
Francesco Forgione proudly displayed his wounds in a grainy black-and-white photograph. The turn-of-the century image of the Italian man who’d later become known as Padre Pio, depicted a young, bearded and content person in his robe, gazing upon something that was out of frame. He appeared to be beaming in the most pious way possible. However, it was obvious what he wanted to display in the photo -- two ghastly wounds on his hands.
A closer look revealed that they emulated wounds created by large nails -- the kind driven into Jesus’s hands during his crucifixion. Young Padre Pio was aware of this comparison; he knew the significance that these wounds represented for him and others who saw it. God spoke, he believed, and he passed some of his divine power to him.
The condition, while rare, is known as stigmata. They are mysterious, instantaneous wounds that appear to be similar those inflicted on Jesus. In some accounts, the wounds bled profusely, in other recorded cases, they appeared as welts or scratches on the hand, wrist, feet or head.
Over the years, stigmata has become a beacon for sainthood. Padre Pio is merely one example.
Among devout Christians (especially within the Catholic denomination), the wounds are seen as miracles. Many believe that God is using the inflicted person -- called a stigmatic -- to communicate a prophetic or divine message.
Over the years, stigmata has become a beacon for sainthood. Padre Pio is merely one example. In fact, some of the most revered saints in Christianity were “blessed” by this supposed miracle.
But, there’s a question about stigmata: is it really a miracle? Surprisingly, the condition goes beyond religion and myth. The recorded cases are real. The wounds are real. However, reports of these wounds occur during historical periods, and have appeared in different parts of a person’s body. The latter indicates that the power of suggestion of the inflicted may play a larger role than expected. And, there are cases of suspected fraud.
A miracle or psychological infliction: stigmata is not something to be taken lightly.
In Christianity, Jesus’s crucifixion was a momentous event. Among Christians, the event marked the moment that Jesus sacrificed his life for their sins. In addition, it eventually led to his resurrection and his divine revelation that he was the son of God.
According to church doctrines, Jesus was nailed to the cross through his hands and feet (later to be changed to his wrist, more on that later), forced to wear a crown of thorns, and was later pierced on the side by a Roman centurion with a spear.
Despite its significance in Christianity, it took more than 1,200 years after the crucifixion before the first recorded case of stigmata occurred. And that moment would have a profound effect on the history of the religion.
A Saint is Born
The first recorded incident of stigmata happened in 1224, and it happened to the renowned Saint Francis of Assisi. As the account goes, the future saint was in his second month of a retreat in Monte La Verna in Tuscany, Italy. During this time, he spent weeks in “prolonged contemplation” of Jesus’s crucifixion. According to a Smithsonian article on him, Francis’s contemplation involved “protracted fasting” as well as prolonged meditations and prayers.
As the story goes, (based on the Fioretti or The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi), during sunrise on Saturday September 14th, Francis began his prayers. This day eventually transformed him and those that witnessed it. He beheld visions of “seraph with six shining” descending from heaven onto him and “recognized that [Francis] had the form of a man crucified...”
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In the aftermath, five wounds mysteriously appeared on Francis: both palms, two on his feet, and one on his side. The wounds through the hand and feet were similar to those inflicted upon Jesus when he was nailed to the cross. The wound on the side imitated the spear wound on Jesus made by a Roman centurion who was checking to see if he was dead.
The event may have been graphic and ghastly for the witnesses; however, they took this as being a miracle. In fact, the event propelled Francis of Assisi into prominence and profound influence within Catholicism. He’d later be elevated to sainthood after Pope Gregory IX in 1228, two years after Francis’s death and four years after being recognized as the first stigmatic.
Others followed. In the beginning, they were documented in Medieval Europe and were mostly men. Over the centuries, the cases switched to other places such as South Korea and Japan (at least one case), and women began to dominate the ranks of the stigmatic -- especially in the 20th century.
Among the most notable were the following:
- Magdelana ds la Cruz (1487-1560) of Spain ;
- Therese Neumann (1898-1962) of Bavaria;
- Padre Pio (1887-1968) of Italy
- Catalina Rivas of Bolivia (present)
- Fr. James Bruce of Washington DC ( circa, 1992)
Supposedly, stigmata gave these people supernatural powers. For example:
- Neumann was said to have become a clairvoyant, and was capable of astral projection (something akin to an out-of-body experience).
- Fr. James Bruce claimed religious statues wept in his presence.
- Padre Pio supposedly levitated after the stigmata appeared.
In addition, those inflicted with stigmata seem to get it on a frequent basis. In one case from the 19th century, Louise Lateau had his stigmata appear regularly every Friday for 15 years.
Stigmata Wounds Move
As mentioned, stigmata wounds can appear to be very real, or, at least, appear to be. In addition, they may appear as newly opened wounds or scars in common regions associated with stigmata.
Often, the wounds have described as:
- Puncture wounds in the palm;
- Puncture wounds on the feet;
- Wound on the side;
- Bloody scratches on the forehead or face (similar to the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore at the crucifixion).
- Bloody eyes or “tears” (this may be associated with reports of the religious statues crying tears of blood).
However, the position of puncture wound on the palm changed in later years. Lately, those who witnessed or were inflicted by stigmata reported having the puncture wounds on the wrist, instead. Part of the reason had to do with recent studies suggesting that a crucified body on a cross was better supported if the nails were driven into the wrist. In addition to that, many modern statues depicting the crucifixion have made this change, too.
... cultural changes – in particular how Christians began to view Jesus during Medieval times -- may have led to the first case of stigmata
This has not been lost on skeptics and anthropologist studying the phenomenon. Many have come to the conclusion that they are not religious miracles.
Instead, it’s a combination of psychological, cultural factors, and deliberate fraud.
Culture Shifts in Belief
In fact, cultural changes – in particular how Christians began to view Jesus during Medieval times -- may have led to the first case of stigmata. According to the Smithsonian article, St Francis of Assisi’s stigmata came at a time when church officials started to “humanize” Jesus.
According to the article, there was a shift from depicting Jesus as a deity to representing him as the human embodiment of the son of God. This shift in belief was profound, for it meant Jesus suffered in pain – much like humans did -- when they were executed in this fashion. The pain he endured came to symbolize his sacrifice for humans plagued by numerous forms of sin (giving rise to the saying “he suffered and died for your sins”).
Other culture shifts and historical events played roles in the reporting of stigmata. When Padre Pio became a stigmatic, it was at a time when Europe and Italy were in political disarray. World War I was around the corner.
In the second half of the 20th century, women made of a majority of stigmata cases. In part, it coincided with women taking more prominent social/political and leadership roles in society in Europe, North America and much of the developed world.
There are several characteristics that the stigmatic throughout history had. These similarities were:
- They were devout believers
- Many were in the midst of fasting
- Many were fatigued or gravely ill.
- They reported seeing angels, saints, or holy spirits.
Saint Francis and Padre Pio fit these characteristics. Several eyewitnesses reported them convulsing or reacting to some invisible force. Coupled with their strong beliefs and the physical and mental conditions they were in (due to the prolonged fasting, meditations and prayers they put themselves through), it’s possible that they began hallucinating.
There’s speculation that the wounds are psychosomatic – a mentally induced infliction. One popular column and website, The Straight Dope, states that most stigmatic are mentally imbalanced people who are capable of inflicting wounds on themselves or are manifesting their own tortured psyche in the form of very physical wounds.
Further evidence supports the psychological cause through non-related studies of “psychogenic purpuras.” In these cases, patients with emotional disorders experienced unexplained painful bruising, swelling, and bleeding through apparently intact skin. One theory blames “auto erythrocyte sensitization,” in which individuals react pathologically to their own blood (Cecil Adams 1998).
Cases of Fraud
Not all cases are based on historical/cultural situations. Evidence of hoaxes have plagued many accounts. Even St. Francis can’t escape this accusation. Some speculated he gouged his wounds when nobody was looking. This claim was based on accounts stating St. Francis became obsessed with imitating Jesus in every fashion possible.
This accusation pertaining to St. Francis is circumstantial at best. That’s not the case with Magdalena de la Cruz. Chronically and seriously ill, de la Cruz eventually confessed that she faked her stigmata.
She was not the only one. Others came forward or were exposed to be frauds. Others on the other hand have escaped detention.
According to The Straight Dope Writer, stigmata has made it tough for scientists and researchers to prove cases of stigmata are either real or a swindle. Often, the stigmatic will have their stigmata when they are alone.
One example given happened in 1973. A ten-year-old girl from California reported having stigmata. The doctors tried to observe this condition in action, but to no avail. The case remained a mystery.
This leads to another questions: Why fake stigmata? Possibly, the case of a modern stigmatic may answer this question.
The Case of Catalina Rivas
Catalina Rivas is considered by many Catholics around the world as being a messenger of Jesus. The accusations may seem odd, considering this middle-aged grandmotherly Bolivian doesn't look the part of a would-be saint. However, Rivas claims to have stigmata, a condition that puts her in league with the great saints.
Her followers believe she gets direct messages from Jesus, Mary, and the angels. Supposedly, they communicate to her in Greek and Latin. In return, she translates these messages to her followers. She claimed that her divine powers came after she had stigmata.
Still, there’s a lot more to Rivas. She turned her stigmata into a movement. She claims to be the “spiritual mother” for two international religious movements known as Apostolate of the New Evangelization and The Great Crusade of Love and Mercy (Carroll, Robert, 2010). In a sense, the humble looking grandmother became a cult leader with followers living by the whims of her words.
Real, imagined, or faked, stigmata is a condition that has had social and religious ramification. Many stigmatic have gone on to become religious leaders – even saints.
However, the incidents of stigmata expose a broader truth; cultural shifts, religion and the power of suggestions will make anyone into a believer.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Dean Traylor
JC Scull on February 21, 2020:
As someone who believes solely in science, my opinion is that any unexplained phenomenon, especially those similar to stigmata, are due to natural causes, cognitive processes or fraud. There is always a scientific explanation. But in any case, excellent article. Well written and presented.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on November 16, 2019:
Very interesting, and in some cases quite unexplainable while others were clearly hoaxes. Good article, Dean.