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The strange phenomenon of stigmata

The first person reported to receive the marks was Francis of Assisi in 1224.

"St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata," painted by Giotto di Bondone (ca 1295-1300)

On Good Friday in 1926, a 28-year-old German woman, Therese Neumann, displayed blood on her hands and feet. Blood was also seen coming from her eyes, according to some witnesses. Her family called a priest to give Neumann the Last Rites, but her condition improved.

She lived on to have similar incidents on Good Fridays until her death in 1962.

Neumann’s “suffered” from a strange and highly controversial phenomenon known as stigmata, the appearance of blood, wounds or other marks on the body that are said to parallel those that Christ received during the Crucifixion.

The first person reported to receive the marks was Francis of Assisi in 1224. In the eight centuries since then, there have been about 400 additional reported cases.

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As Mike Dash, a British historian, journalist and contributor to the Smithsonian’s “Past Imperfect” blog, noted in a fascinating article last fall, stigmata cases seem to appear in clusters (several within a period of a few years and then none for decades), in women (although the female/male ratio of stigmatas has narrowed considerably in recent years), and almost exclusively among Catholics.

Dash also reported that the most recent count of contemporary stigmata cases, which was made about a decade ago, identified about 25, including ones in Korea and Japan.

How is the phenomenon explained? Some cases are clearly fraudulent, while others appear to have a psychosomatic cause. Writes Dash:

Fraud certainly figures in some cases. Magdalena de la Cruz, the famous Spanish stigmatic of the 16th century whose frequent self-mortification and spectacular wounds made her a favorite at court, eventually confessed to having inflicted her own injuries. Similarly, Johann Jetzer, who claimed to have experienced not only recurrent poltergeist phenomena but also a series of religious visions, confessed in 1507 that his stigmata were fake. Four friars from his monastery were subsequently burned at the stake, and Jetzer himself escaped death only after his mother smuggled him a set of women’s clothes, in which he bluffed his way out of his death cell.

Aside from cases of outright fraud, which may well form the majority of all cases, the appearance of stigmata appears to be an essentially psychological condition whose manifestations are determined by the cultural expectations of the stigmatics themselves. A large number of sufferers seem to have displayed abundant evidence of low self-esteem, health problems, or a tendency toward self-mutilation — a potent mix when combined with exposure to the pervasive iconography of centuries of Christian tradition. It has been shown beyond a reasonable doubt that many have inflicted the five wounds on themselves, sometimes unconsciously, perhaps while in an altered state of consciousness brought on by extensive fasting or intensive prayer.

You can read Dash’s article on stigmata at the Smithsonian website.