Hands with Stigmata, depicted on a Franciscan church in Lienz, Austria.
Stigmata (singular stigma) is a term used by members of the Christian faith to describe bodily marks, sores, or sensations of pain in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ, such as the hands, wrists, and feet.
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, tattoo, 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 or a stigmatist.
Stigmata are primarily associated with the Roman Catholic faith. Many reported stigmatics are members of Catholic religious orders. St. Francis of Assisi was the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history. For over fifty years Padre Pio of Pietrelcina of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin reported stigmata which were studied by several 20th century physicians, whose independence from the Church is not known. The observations were reportedly unexplainable and the wounds never became infected.
A high percentage (perhaps over 80%) of all stigmatics are women. In his Stigmata: A Medieval Phenomenon in a Modern Age, Edward Harrison suggests that there is no single mechanism whereby the marks of stigmata were produced.
St. Francis considered stigmata part of the imitation of Christ.
Reported cases of stigmata take various forms. Many show some or all of five Holy Wounds that were, according to the Bible, inflicted on Jesus during his crucifixion: wounds in the wrists 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. Stigmata as crown of thorns appearing in the 20th century, e.g. on Marie Rose Ferron, have been repeatedly photographed. Other reported forms include tears of blood or sweating blood, and wounds to the back as from scourging.
Many stigmata show recurring bleeding that stops and then starts, at times after receiving Holy Communion, and a large percentage of stigmatics have shown a high desire to frequently receive Holy Communion. A relatively high percentage of stigmatics also exhibit inedia, living with minimal (or no) food or water for long periods of time, except for the Holy Eucharist, and some exhibit loss of weight.
The ecstasy and sufferings usually began for the Saints who suffered stigmata starting on Thursday and ending on Friday afternoon around 3 or 4 o'clock. All the recipients of this mystical wounding suffered dreadfully. Many of the stigmatics experienced cruel rejection and suspicion before their wounds were authenticated. Saints who suffered stigmata were carefully watched day and night so that tampering with the wounds could not be performed. When these methods were used, a number of false stigmatics were exposed. Sometimes this stigmata became invisible on express request and prayers by the Saints who suffered them.
Some stigmatics claim to feel the pain of wounds with no external marks; these are referred to as invisible stigmata. In other claims, 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, known as the Odour of Sanctity.
Individuals who have obtained the stigmata are many times described as ecstatics. At the time of receiving the stigmata they are overwhelmed with emotions.
No case of stigmata is known to have occurred before the thirteenth century, when the depiction of the crucified Jesus in Western Christendom emphasized his humanity.
In his paper Hospitality and Pain, Christian theologian Ivan Illich states: "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.
St. Francis of Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi is the first recorded stigmatic in Christian history. In 1224, two years before his death, he embarked on a journey to Mt. La Verna for a forty day fast. One morning near the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, a six winged angel allegedly appeared to Francis while he prayed. As the angel approached, Francis could see that the angel was crucified. He was humbled by the sight, and his heart was filled with elation joined by pain and suffering. When the angel departed, Francis was purportedly left with wounds in his hands, feet, and side as if caused by the same lance that pierced Christ.s side. The image of nails immediately appeared in his hands and feet, and the wound in his side often seeped blood.x
St. Francis' first biographer, Thomas of Celano, reports the event as follows in his 1230 First Life of St. Francis:
"When the blessed servant of God saw these things he was filled with wonder, but he did not know what the vision meant. He rejoiced greatly in the benign and gracious expression with which he saw himself regarded by the seraph, whose beauty was indescribable; yet he was alarmed by the fact that the seraph was affixed to the cross and was suffering terribly. Thus Francis rose, one might say, sad and happy, joy and grief alternating in him. He wondered anxiously what this vision could mean, and his soul was uneasy as it searched for understanding. And as his understanding sought in vain for an explanation and his heart was filled with perplexity at the great novelty of this vision, the marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, just as he had seen them slightly earlier in the crucified man above him. His wrists and feet seemed to be pierced by nails, with the heads of the nails appearing on his wrists and on the upper sides of his feet, the points appearing on the other side. The marks were round on the palm of each hand but elongated on the other side, and small pieces of flesh jutting out from the rest took on the appearance of the nail-ends, bent and driven back. In the same way the marks of nails were impressed on his feet and projected beyond the rest of the flesh. Moreover, his right side had a large wound as if it had been pierced with a spear, and it often bled so that his tunic and trousers were soaked with his sacred blood." Today, we humbly ask you to defend Catholic Online's independence. 98% of our readers don't give; they simply look the other way. If you donate just $5.00, or whatever you can, Catholic Online could keep thriving for years. Most people donate because Catholic Online is useful. If Catholic Online has given you $5.00 worth of knowledge this year, take a minute to donate. Show the volunteers who bring you reliable, Catholic information that their work matters. If you are one of our rare donors, you have our gratitude and we warmly thank you. Help Now >
St. Pio of Pietrelcina
A young Padre Pio showing the stigmata.
For over fifty years, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina reported stigmata which were studied by several 20th century physicians, whose independence from the Church is not known.  The observations were reportedly unexplainable and the wounds never became infected. His wounds healed once, but reappeared. The wounds were examined by Luigi Romanelli, chief physician of the City Hospital of Barletta, for about one year. Dr. Giorgio Festa, a private practitioner, also examined them in 1920 and 1925. Professor Giuseppe Bastianelli, physician to Pope Benedict XV, agreed that the wounds existed but made no other comment. Pathologist Dr. Amico Bignami of the University of Rome also observed the wounds, but could make no diagnosis. Both Bignami and Dr. Giuseppe Sala commented on the unusually smooth edges of the wounds and lack of edema. Dr. Alberto Caserta took X-rays of the hands in 1954 and found no abnormality in the bone structure.
"Stigmata I" by Mexican artist Mauricio GarcĂga.
Some modern research has indicated stigmata are of hysterical origin, or linked to dissociative identity disorders, especially the link between dietary constriction by self-starvation, dissociative mental states and self-mutilation, in the context of a religious belief. Anorexia nervosa cases often display self-mutilation similar to stigmata as part of a ritualistic, obsessive compulsive disorder. A relationship between starvation and self-mutilation has been reported amongst prisoners of war and during famines. A psychoanalytic study of stigmatic Therese Neumann has suggested that her stigmata resulted from post-traumatic stress symptoms expressed in unconscious self-mutilation through abnormal autosuggestibility.
In his Stigmata: A Medieval Phenomenon in a Modern Age, Edward Harrison suggests that there is no single mechanism whereby the marks of stigmata were produced. Harrison found no evidence from a study of contemporary cases that the marks were supernatural in origin. He concluded, however, that marks of natural origin need not be hoaxes. Some stigmatics marked themselves in attempt to suffer with Christ as a form of piety. Others marked themselves accidentally and their marks were noted as stigmata by witnesses. Often marks of human origin produced profound and genuine religious responses. Harrison also noted that the male-to-female 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 about stigmatics was not that they were predominantly men, 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 stigmatized.
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From the records of St. Francis. physical ailments and symptoms, Dr. Edward Hartung concluded in 1935 that he knew what health problems plagued the holy man. Hartung believed that he had an eye ailment known as trachoma, but also had quartan malaria. Quartan malaria infects the liver, spleen, and stomach, causing the victim intense pain. One complication of quartan malaria occasionally seen around Francis.s time is known as purpura, a purple hemorrhage of blood into the skin. Purpuras usually occur symmetrically, so each hand and foot would have been affected equally. If this were the case of St. Francis, he would have been afflicted by ecchymoses, an exceedingly large purpura. The purple spots of blood may have been punctured while in the wilderness and therefore appear as an open wound like that of Christ.
Among the Warao of the Orinoco Delta, a contemplator of tutelary spirits may mystically induce the development of "openings in the palms of his hands." That these tutelary spirits are presented by the "itiriti snake" makes for a close analogue with the Seraph who endowed Francis of Assisi with his stigmata.
Buddhist "stigmata" are regularly indicated in Buddhist art.
- Saint Paul the Apostle
- Blessed Lucia Brocadelli of Narni
- Saint Catherine of Ricci
- Saint Catherine of Siena
- Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich
- Saint Francesco di Assisi
- Saint Gemma Galgani
- Saint Veronica Giuliani
- Saint John of God
- Saint Faustina Kowalska
- Blessed Marie of the Incarnation
- Marie Rose Ferron
- Marcelline Pauper, member of the Sisters of Charity of Nevers
- Marthe Robin
- Therese Neumann
- Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina
- Saint Rita of Cascia
- Zlatko Sudac
- Natuzza Evolo
- Maria Esperanza de Bianchini
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