Stigmata are bodily marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus. The term originates from the line at the end of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians where he says, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus,” stigmata is the plural of the Greek word stigma meaning a mark or brand such as might have been used for identification of an animal or slave. An individual bearing stigmata is referred to as a stigmatic.
The causes of stigmata are the subject of considerable debate. Some contend that they are miraculous, while others argue they are hoaxes or can be explained medically. Stigmata are primarily associated with the Roman Catholic faith. Many reported stigmatics are members of Catholic religious orders. The majority of reported stigmatics are female.
A depiction of St Francis receiving the Stigmata, by Cigoli. Rays of light are seen emanating from Christ to pierce St Francis’s hands.Reported cases of stigmata take various forms. Many show some or all of the five Holy Wounds that were, according to the Bible, inflicted on Jesus during his crucifixion: wounds in the hands and feet, from nails, and in the side, from a lance. Some stigmatics display wounds to the forehead similar to those caused by the crown of thorns. Other reported forms include tears of blood or sweating blood, wounds to the back as from scourging, or wounds to the shoulder as from bearing the cross.
Some stigmatics feel the pain of wounds with no external marks; these are referred to as invisible stigmata. In other cases, stigmata are accompanied by extreme pain. Some stigmatics’ wounds do not appear to clot, and stay fresh and uninfected. The blood from the wounds is said, in some cases, to have a pleasant, perfumed odor.
Cases of stigmata have been reported at different ages for different stigmatics. Some have manifested stigmata continually after the first appearance; others have shown periodic stigmata that re-occur at certain times of the day or on certain, sometimes holy, days throughout the year.
The first well-documented case, and the first to be accepted by Church authorities as authentic, was that of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), who first experienced stigmata in La Verna, Italy, in 1224 .
In the century after St. Francis’s death, more than twenty additional cases of stigmata were reported. Stigmata have continued to be reported since, with over three hundred cases by the end of the 19th century . In the 20th century, the number of cases increased dramatically; over 500 cases have now been recorded. In modern times, increasing numbers of ordinary people – rather than mystics or members of religious orders – began to report stigmata. Cases were also reported among non-Catholic Christians .
The first written record of a woman to have received stigmata is in the Medieval Codex Iuliacensis, ca. 1320-1350, reporting the stigmata of Blessed Christina von Stommeln (died 1312), whose relics rest in the Propsteikirche in Jülich, near Aachen , or Georgetta von Schnitenburgs. It is claimed that one can still see marks from the crown of thorns on Christina of Stommeln’s skull, which is publicly displayed annually during the octave beginning 6 November in Jülich.
Famous stigmatics :
Saint Catherine of Siena
Saint John of God
Saint Marie of the Incarnation
Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio)
Saint Francis of Assisi
Saint Gemma Galgani
Blessed Lucia Brocadelli of Narni
Saint Faustina Kowalska
Saint Catherine of Ricci
Saint Rita of Cascia
There have been historical stigmatics that were known to have faked wounds, such as Magdalena de la Cruz (1487–1560), who admitted the fraud.
Similarly self-inflicted wounds can be associated with certain mental illnesses. Some people who fake stigmata suffer from Munchausen syndrome which is characterized by an intense desire for attention. People with Munchausen hurt themselves or fake an illness hoping to end up in a hospital where they can be given attention and care.
Skeptics also point out that stigmata have appeared on hands in some cases, wrists in others, and the lance wound has appeared on different sides of the body. This suggests some form of internally generated phenomena, based on the victim’s own imagination and subjective in character, rather than something of external divine origin. It is unknown, either through the gospels or other historical accounts, whether crucifixion involved nails being driven through the hands, or wrists, or what side the lance pierced Christ’s body, and this would appear to be reflected in the inconsistent placement of stigmatists’ wounds. However, Roman Crucifixions involved the nails driven through the ulna and radias gap, being just medial to the wrist.
No instances of stigmata showing wounds through the wrists were noted before the publication of the photographs of the Turin Shroud showing wounds of this kind. The physical appearance of wounds is often linked to the iconography of crucifixion with which the stigmatic is most familiar.
The ratio of left Side wounds to right side wounds in stigmtics approximates to the ratio of right handed to left handed people in the general population. This suggests wounding by the stigmatic him or herself.
Similarly, no case of stigmata is known to have occurred before the thirteenth century, when the crucified Jesus became a standard icon of Christianity in the west.. Since crucifixes typically show Jesus having been nailed by the hands, people popularly believed this depiction to be true. As such, if one were to receive stigmata through the wrists, people would not consider it as Jesus’ wounds.
In his paper Hospitality and Pain, iconoclastic Christian theologian Ivan Illich touches on the phenomenon of stigmata with characteristic terseness: “Compassion with Christ… is faith so strong and so deeply incarnate that it leads to the individual embodiment of the contemplated pain.” His thesis is that stigmata result from exceptional poignancy of religious faith and desire to associate oneself with the suffering Messiah.
In 1998, Edward Harrison suggested that there was no single mechanism whereby the marks of stigmata were produced. He found no evidence from a study of contemporary cases that the marks were supernatural in origin. However marks of natural origin need not be hoaxes, he concluded. Some stigmatics marked themselves in an attempt to suffer with Christ as a form of bizarre piety. Others showed marks as a kind of religious performance art. Others marked themselves accidentally and their marks were noted as stigmata by witnesses. Often marks of human origin produced profound and genuine religious responses. Dr Harrison also noted that the female to male ratio of stigmatics which for many centuries had been of the order of 7 to 1, had changed over the last 100 years to a ratio of 5:4. Appearance of stigmata frequently coincided with times when issue of authority loomed large in the church. What was significant was that early stigmatics were not predominatly women, but that they were non-ordained. Having stigmata gave them direct access to the body of Christ without requiring the permission of the church through the Eucharist. Only in the last century have priests been stigmatised. There is currently a cluster of cases in the United States.
^ Mystical Stigmata. New Advent.
The Catholic Encyclopedia The Encyclopedia Press, 1913, Online Edition 2003, K. Knight.
Boyle, Alan, Science replays the crucifixion, MSNBC, 2005.
Carroll, Robert Todd, The Skeptics Dictionary, Wiley, 2003.
Living Miracles – Stigmata, Zentropa Real ApS. & Wonders Unlimited, 2005.
Sadaputa Dasa, Religion and Modern Rationalism: Shifting the Boundary Between Myth and Science, ISKCON Communications Journal #1.2, July/December 1993.