An eternal heart. The cardiac phenomena of St Teresa of Ávila

Leonardo Rossi

For the Carmelite Order, 2022 is a year of important commemorations, being the anniversary of the death of Saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-1582) and the fourth centenary of her canonisation (1622). Pope Francis celebrated a memorial mass last 12 March to commemorate the Castilian mystic. However, apart from some initiatives by the Spanish Carmelites and the Vatican clergy, the current centenary seems to be subdued compared to the previous one. Numerous events were organised between the second half of the nineteenth and the first decades of the twentieth centuries to celebrate the 300th anniversary of her death and sanctification. Pilgrimages, processions, and the creation of a special devotional medal were just some of the dozens of public events. However, the attention of the faithful and the clergy focused above all on the heart of Saint Teresa.

In 1876, Nemesio Cardellac y Busquets, priest of the Congregation of the Mission, published a booklet in which he claimed the supernatural origin of the thorns that appeared on the saint’s mummified heart displayed in a reliquary glass in the Carmelite monastery of Alba de Tormes. Cardellac’s primary purpose was to end the long controversy focussed on her relic, which threatened to cast shadows on one of the most famous Carmelite saints and – above all – on the Vatican decree of 1732, which recognised the phenomenon of mystical transverberation.

Nemesio Cardellac y Busquets, Sainte Thérèse de Jésus et les épines de son coeur qui est vénéré dans le couvent des Carmélites déchausées de Alba de Tormès (diocèse de Salamanque), Paris: Imprimeries-Libraires de l’Oeuvre de Saint-Paul, 1882 (first edition, 1876).

The heart issues of Teresa of Ávila have an older origin than the nineteenth century. Let’s proceed in chronological order. In her Autobiography, the nun wrote that a seraph pierced her heart with an ignited gold bolt, a symbol of the deep bond with the Lord. In mystical language, this phenomenon is called transverberation. On her death, on 15 October 1582, an autopsy was performed on her body. The Carmelite community found a 5-centimetre-long wound on Teresa’s heart. They interpreted it as evidence of her transverberation, confirming the mystical graces that she affirmed experienced during her lifetime.

Transverberation of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

The news generated uproar inside and outside the monastic walls, fuelling the enthusiasm of the faithful but also the jealousy of the local religious communities. The nuns of her hometown Ávila claimed the care of her body, thus entering into competition with those of Alba de Tormes, where Teresa lived and died. Fearing the transfer of her human remains, in 1586, a nun from Alba tore the heart from the saint’s chest with a knife in the hope of keeping the precious relic. According to Carmelite hagiography, even though four years had passed since her death, her body was still uncorrupted and her heart contained fresh and perfumed blood. The fragrance spread throughout the monastery and revealed the sacrilege of the corpse. The ecclesiastical authorities condemned the gesture but decided that the organ would remain separate from the rest of the body (which was sent to Ávila), encapsulated in a glass reliquary and kept in Alba de Tormes to end the rivalries between the two Carmelite communities.

Reliquary containing the heart of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

Once the corporeal phenomena (transverberation and the incorruption of her body and heart) had been verified and the relations between the monasteries of the order appeased, the cause for canonisation proceeded quickly. Paul V beatified Teresa in 1614 and eight years later, in 1622, Gregory XV elected her as a new saint. In 1725, a special investigative process on her transverberation was begun, which ended in 1732 with the official recognition by Pope Benedict XIII and the institution of the liturgical feast (27 August). For the Roman Catholic Church, the mystical and cardiac phenomena of Saint Teresa were supernatural and true divine graces.

However, the matter was not closed. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the heart of Saint Teresa returned to the eye of the storm. On 19 March 1836, the nuns of Alba de Tormes discovered another fact: some thorns appeared on her heart relic kept in the glass case. What were these? Another prodigy or growths of natural origin? The local clergy tried to keep the news secret, but it spread and quickly reached the papal palaces. The Holy See feared these discoveries could question the ecclesiastical recognition of her miracles. The bishop of Alba appointed a team of doctors and professors from the University of Salamanca to clarify the event.

Drawing of the heart of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

The investigations lasted for years and the results were contradictory, increasing the opposition between loyal devotees and critical sceptics. Among those who wanted to observe the heart of Castilian mysticism with their own eyes, there was the priest mentioned above, Nemesio Cardellac y Busquets. In 1873 he moved to the monastery of Alba de Tormes to perform spiritual exercises and then heard the lively debate on the heart relic. Nemesio carefully studied the organ and the medical reports composed about it. In April 1875, Bishop Narciso Martinez Izquierdo officially put him in charge of supervising the examinations and drafting his final verdict, hoping to resolve the case finally. As we have seen, Nemesio published a pamphlet defending the supernatural origin of the phenomena of Teresa (1876). According to him, the thorns were the symbol of the Passion and the pain suffered by Christ for the remission of humanity’s sins. His work achieved great international success, translated into several languages ​​(Catalan, Italian, French) and reprinted several times. In particular, his engraved drawing of the heart circulated throughout Europe not only as ‘proof’ of the cardiac prodigies of Teresa of Ávila but as a devotional holy card.

Drawing of the heart of Saint Teresa. Devotional image, Antwerp, Ruusbroec Institute.

The public debate, the division between believers and sceptics, and the involvement of clergy and scholars in the affair helped to rekindle the spotlight in the nineteenth century on one of the most famous and contested mystics of the early modern age, Saint Teresa; but also to testify to the importance of the relics in the Catholic context. In addition, to the cardiac phenomena of the Castilian nun, many other saints boasted exceptional prodigies related to the heart (like transverberation or incorruption), such as Catherine of Siena, Charles Borromeo, Francis de Sales, Luigi Orione, Gemma Galgani. To sum up, the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the birth and canonisation of Saint Teresa of Ávila were seen by the Roman Church as an opportunity to reaffirm God’s miraculous and inscrutable work.


Confusing coffins.

Tine Van Osselaer

Let’s talk coffins. Or, to put it more precisely, let’s talk about a coffin that was deemed important enough to be displayed decades after it had held the remains that it was originally designed for. The coffin of Margaret Wake (1617-1678) is just such a specimen. Kept in a glass case at the Van Celst Institute in Antwerp (that’s right, only a stone’s throw from our offices in Antwerp), it has survived years of turmoil and destruction. A material testimony of the veneration of the Carmelite nun Mary Margaret of the Angels, the coffin has had quite a turbulent history.

The coffin of Margaret Wake at the Van Celst Institute (photograph by the author)

Why would one keep a coffin (without a body)? Aren’t the remains enough? Before I start answering these questions and exploring our coffin’s journey, let me first introduce the person it was made for. Margaret Wake (1617-1678) was thedaughter of Lyonel Wake and Mary Thorny (who had both converted to the Catholic faith). In 1633 she entered the English Carmel in Antwerp where she became ‘Mary Margaret of the Angels’ and was elected prioress in 1665 and in 1677. She was not an official saint, but was perceived as a ‘saintly nun’ (during her lifetime and after her death).[1]

Margaret Wake became the center of attention when almost 40 years after her death, her body was found to be incorrupt on 13 August, 1716. The story of its discovery has been well studied by Nicky Hallet (see The senses in religious communities, 1600-1800, 2013; Lives of spirit: English Carmelite self-writing of the early modern period,2007). The remains were put on display and became the object of veneration. The Carmelite nuns actively engaged in promoting the exceptional body. They asked Peter Balthazar Boutatts (1666-1755), the famous Antwerp engraver, to create a devotional card and in the days after the discovery, two Carmelite nuns were assigned the task of touching the body with the medals and pictures that the faithful provided. The efforts paid off and some miraculous cures were attributed to Margare Wake. Two years later, her remains were put in a new coffin, but it was still possible to see the body if one obtained special permission from the bishop.[2]  

Devotional card with the incorrupt body of Mary Margaret of the Angels (Margaret Wake). (© Archives of the Archdiocese of Malines)

While there is much to be written about the afterlife of the remains, in the following I want to focus on Wake’s coffin and the somewhat later period, namely the years after the English Carmelite nuns left for England at the end of the 18th century.Bypaying attention to this material aspect of the story, I hope to be doing justice to the many witnesses who carefully documented the whereabouts of the coffin and made sure to preserve and display it. Before we dive in, I need to warn you. Margaret Wake had several coffins and I am not completely sure which one is kept at the Van Celst institute. The first one, the one she was buried in, was replaced two years after her incorrupt body had been discovered, and the final one (a smaller one of 80 centimeters) was ordered in 1843 at the request of cardinal Sterckx.[3] As the coffin is definitely longer than 80 centimeters, we are either dealing with coffin number one (1678-1718) or coffin number two (1718-1843) and I have conflicting sources. Why would this be easy if we can throw several coffins in the mix?

So what happened? We know that on 29 June, 1794 (before the second French invasion): “In the morning the English Theresians left Hopland for England….- and, as the Kronijk van Antwerpen adds – These nuns had as a precaution moved this body elsewhere, and so it is said, put it in the cathedral in the bishops’ vault…” [4] The people involved in this operation (who commented on this in 1800) testified that before the body was put in the bishops’ vault, the coffin was opened once more and “The body lay completely undamaged, what was supernatural since the many years that Margater Wake had been dead”[5]. In 1794, that same year, one of these eye witnesses was forced by representatives of the new government to open the coffin again and also this time found “a dead body of a woman, dressed in religious robes of the Theresians… complete and undamaged, with a colour that was supernatural for a dead person” [6] The eyewitness account of 1800 seems to suggest that the body remained in the bishops’ vault from 1794 to 1800 (when the witnesses returned to the cellar they found the body soiled and they had the coffin closed with a rope).

It is interesting to note that another story circulated as well, namely that Simon-Pierre Dargonne, commissioner of the “directoire exécutif de la municipalité”, was said to have transported the remains to the town hall. “… and in Antwerp people said that he had taken the two rings that the corpse was wearing[7] It is unclear if there is some truth to this story. Why would the coffin have to be transported to the town hall when the coffin was already open? But it is telling that Margaret Wake’s remains became the subject of gossip about the diabolical behavior of this new government – a body like hers needed to be treated with respect.

Unknown (engraver), The cathedral of Antwerp, PK.OP.10923, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Museum Plantin-Moretus (CC0 1.0)

So is this our coffin at the Van Celst Institute? A footnote in Sister Hardman’s account of the nineteenth-century discussions, suggests that it was indeed this (second) coffin (which was replaced in 1843) that ended up in the institute.[8] I am not sure. I am tempted to believe this was the original coffin – of 1678 – in which Margaret Wake was initially buried. A few arguments in favour of this position. According to the Chronicle of the Van Celst institute – where the coffin is now kept – it was the coffin “wherein the venerable Margaret of the angels, English Carmelite had lain for 38 years and had remained uncorrupted” [9]. Why did the Carmelite nuns keep that coffin and why did the new owners likewise cherish this material remnant? The care for its preservation was probably related to the miraculous cures that had been linked to it. Since it had been in close contact with the body of an alleged saint, it functioned as relic, and therefore had thaumaturgical powers: e.g. the faithful could be cured by drinking its dust mixed with wine.

So if this is indeed our coffin, how did it end up in the Van Celst Institute? I have found two slightly different accounts: the first one, the notes of Sophie Van Celst (1875), daughter of the founder of the institute, remembered its history as follows. In 1794, when the nuns travelled to England, they left the coffin with the Basteyns family (a member of that family belonged to their order). After the family sold their house, the pharmacist Van Goor kept the coffin. It seems to have been a good place to shelter, for he noted: “I lay in it during the bombardment of the city and was preserved from the Dutch bullets and cannonballs that crossed my house”[10] When he left Antwerp, on 5 March 1834 he gave it to Sophie Van Celst. “For fear of the government”, they transported it to the Van Celst Institute at 10 p.m., disguised in a pushcart. At the institute, the coffin received a solemn reception “and we received it in procession praying the litanies of the Holy Trinity.”[11] The effect could be felt almost immediately. Shortly after the arrival of the coffin, the hand of a sister was healed by putting a small piece of wood from the coffin on the wound. Interestingly, the chronicle of the congregation gives a different order of the owners: after the death of Goor the coffin was given to Mr Bastyns “who went to live outside Flanders and gave us this treasure to preserve.”[12] Still the main date remains the same in both versions of the story: the coffin entered the institute in 1834.

Whether it is coffin number one or number two, when you read the sources, a few things stand out. First of all, this was no ordinary coffin, it was a relic (it had thaumaturgical powers and could protect you from bullets). Secondly, owning it held blessings and dangers (as it had to hidden from the government at times). Finally, while the devotion might have been forgotten in Antwerp and you need to lobby your way in to see the coffin at the Van Celst Institute, it is an exceptional testimony of what once was. We might need a little help to decipher its meaning ad history, but it is clear that this coffin was not only meant for the dead.


English Convents in Exile, 1600–1800, part 2, vol. 4 (Life Writing II), edited by Katrien Daemen-de Gelder, London & New York: Routledge, 2013 (contains the ‘Short Colections of beginnings of our English monastery of Teresians in Antwerp with some few perticulars of our dear deceased religious’).

Hallett, Nicky, The senses in religious communities, 1600-1800, Burlington: Ashgate, 2013 (esp. pp.107-110).

Hallett, Nicky, Lives of spirit: English Carmelite Self-Writing of the Early Modern Period, Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.

[1] On Margaret Wake, see: Gerard Simons, “Zuster Margaret Wake, Karmelietes”, Antwerpen. Tijdschrift der Stad Antwerpen, 23.4 (1977), pp.219-222; Prims, Floris, Antwerpsche heiligen, De Nederlandsche Boekhandel, 1943, Antwerpen, pp.106-114; Hardman (Sister Anna), Two English Carmelites: Mother Mary Xaveria Burton (1668-1714) and Mother Margaret Wake (1617-1678), 1939; Rita Hostie, Une Carmélite anglaise à Anvers: Margaret Wake (1942); “Who were the nuns?” (https://wwtn.history.qmul.ac.uk, consulted 14 September 2022).

[2] Daemen-De Gelder, 2013, pp.142-143, see also p. XXII; Hallett, 2007, p.59, p.169. Prims mentions two keys: one kept at the cloister and one at the diocese. Prims, 1943, p.113.

[3] By cardinal Sterckx, archbishop of Malines in 1843. Simons, 1977, p.221.

[4] “smorgens sijn de engelsche Theresen uijt het Hopland naer Engeland vertrokken …Deze Nonnekens hadden seg ik dit lichaem bij voorsorg elders versplaetst, en soo men segt in de cathedrale in den kelder der Bisschoppen gestelt…” Jan Frans Van der Straelen and Jan Baptist Van der Straelen,  Kronijk van Antwerpen, vol.4: 1791-1794, ed. by Rylant, Antwerpen: Voor God en Volk, pp.206-207

[5] “Dat het voors. Dood lichaem lag geheel ende onbeschadigt, ’t gene bovennatuurlijk was, in aenzien van de menigvuldige jaeren dat de voors. Margarita Van Dewyk overleden is.”Malines, Archives of the archdiocese of Malines (AAM), Acta Vicariatus (Acta), A.I.2.  Zalig- en heiligverlaringen, Eyewitness account, 16 June 1800: report on the whereabouts of the body during the French invasion. See also: Rijksarchief Antwerpen-Beveren, Archief kathedraal van Antwerpen, B. Gedenktekens en grafmonumenten, 6.B.11  Proces-verbaal van overbrenging van de kist van zuster Margariet van de Wijck naar bisschoppenkelder:  16 juni 1800; 1911-1928.

[6] “een dood lichaem van eene vrouwe, gekleet met religieuse kleederen der Theresiaenen “geheel en ongeschonden, ende van een coleur voor eene doode bovennatuurlyk” AAM, (Acta), A.I.2. Eye witness account, 16 June 1800.   

[7] “en men vertelde in Antwerpen dat hij zich de twee kostbare ringen had toegeeigend die aan den vinger van de doode staken” Prims, 1943, p.113, see also: Leuven, Kadoc, archief van de Zusters van het Heilig Hart van Jezus (Van Celst), Antwerpen/Westmalle, 190. Teksten betreffende zuster Maria Margareta Wake, “Notes sur Marie Marguerite des Anges, fournies par Mademoiselle S. Van Celst d’Anvers, 26 Avril 1875.” 

[8] Cited in Hardman, 1939, p.168. Floris Prims likewise mentions 1843 as the transfer date. He explicitly mentions that the body had decayed (whereas Jespers believed it to be found incorrupt). Prims, 1977, p.221. In 1843, the body of bishop Espinosa was discovered during the refurbishment of the Groenplaats and transferred to the bishops’ vault in the cathedral. Archbishop Sterckx on that occasion also visited the coffin of Margaret of the Angels and had some relics removed (parts from the neck and feet).  He gave them to F.J. De Gruytters, who had been the secretary of the last bishop of Antwerp, and was at that time the rector of the Van Celst institute. AAM, Acta, A.I.2, Marguerite des Anges, testimonies of J. Schaffer and cardinal Sterckx about 1843.

[9] “waer de venerable Magereta ab angelus Engelsche Carmelitesche 38 jaeren ingelegen had en onverderfelijk gebleven was.” Kadoc, Van Celst, Chronicle of the Van Celst institute, 1817-1855, p.4. The author would like to thank Hilde Daman for this reference.

[10]… je m’y suis placé du temps du bombardement de la ville, et j’ai été préservé des balles et des boulets hollandais qui transversaient ma maison.” Kadoc, Van Celst, Notes S. Van Celst, 1875.

[11] “crainte du gouvernement (…) et l’avons reçu processionnellement en priant les litanies de la Sainte Trinité.” Notes S. Van Celst, 1875. Kadoc, Archief van de Zusters van het HH van Jezus (Van Celst), Antwerpen/Westmalle.

[12] “die buyten in Vlaenderen is gaen woonen en ons dien schat in bewaernis heeft gegeeven.” Kadoc, Van Celst, Chronicle of the Van Celst institute, 1817-1855, p.4.


Of bodysnatching and lesser crimes

Kristof Smeyers

The archives of the Franciscans in my hometown Hasselt, Belgium, hold a box that is labelled, in all capitals, ‘CRIME’.

This surprises me. The box sits in a voluminous collection of records about the Franciscan brother Valentinus Paquay, who for more than a century now has been widely revered as the town’s most saintly inhabitant. He was beatified in 2003, but even before his death in 1905 he was much better known as a saint. People who didn’t know his name did know ‘het heilig paterke’ – ‘the little holy brother’. Before entering the archives, I had read about him, and not just hagiographies: Paquay didn’t strike me as someone who would commit a crime. At the worst, he had a reputation of occasional grumpiness.

Nor is it likely that the Franciscan brothers who organised the archive in function of the beatification campaign wanted to direct attention to Paquay’s previously unknown criminal past. (At any rate, the archive labels in the collection have a tendency to direct this historian’s attention to those boxes that allegedly hold nothing of importance. Several of them claim to have nothing but ‘Rubbish’, and are in fact full of material devotional treasures.) Paquay had predicted the moment of his own death months earlier, when struggling with illness. He would not allow himself to die in 1904, a jubilee year of the Virgin Mary, so he passed on 1 January 1905. Even in his final moments he lived a life free of sin and full of saintliness.

Packed between the many boxes of testimonies about the little holy brother’s miracles and intercessions, ‘CRIME’ sticks out like a sore thumb.

But it also fills me with anticipation. After all, the box sits neatly in a section of the archive that is themed around Paquay’s afterlife: the burial, the tomb, the exhumation, the reburial, the relics. Did the saintly dead body commit a crime? Also highly unlikely. But I know about some of the transgressions that took place in the immediate aftermath of the Franciscan’s death, when his body was displayed outside the church and people from all over Belgium clambered to tear off pieces of the weathered brown robe – or worse, Paquay’s body. When his body was exhumed in 1926 throngs of people again gathered to claim a piece of holiness; at the cemetery, the bishop threatened loudly with excommunication for ‘anyone who would dare to take away even the smallest piece of the body, the fabric, or the coffin’. Were these the ‘crimes’ in the box?

I also know of other crimes that happened with similar saintly bodies; they are histories of grave-robbing operations, dismembering, bodysnatching in moonlight, deception, desecration, fraud. They are histories of accusations, also retroactively, across centuries. Take the Anglican antiquarian James Raine. In 1827 he witnessed the opening of St Cuthbert’s tomb in the cathedral of Durham. The body of the medieval saint had remained incorrupt and intact since his death in 687, so it was said. Raine’s scepticism was vindicated when the body was revealed. The saint’s eyeballs were obviously fake, and the monks who had exhumed Cuthbert in 1104 were to blame for the whole fraudulent affair, and for breathing life into this ‘tale of centuries’ about saintly incorruptibility.[1] Or, closer to Paquay’s time and place, there was the theft in 1907 of the body of the Redemptorist Joseph-Amand Passerat, who had died in the ‘odour of sanctity’ in 1858. Passerat’s body turned out not to be immune to the forces of time and nature, but sometimes a whiff of incorruptibility, no matter how faint, suffices to provoke criminal behaviour.

I had also read about the rumours of Valentinus Paquay’s body in the years after his death in 1905. Those rumours did not seem to hold up against the exhumation reports, but they persisted regardless. ‘CRIME’, then, might very well refer to an episode of attempted robbery or relic theft. If so, this was news.

I grew up with stories about Paquay, living in a town that kept his saintly legacy alive with new miracle stories, publications, and all kinds of merchandising. (Do try the ‘Heilig Paterke speculaas’ biscuits if you’re in the neighbourhood.) Being in this archive feels like (re-)establishing a personal connection with the town; I am more acutely aware of the emotions that course through these records than I am in other archives, perhaps because I recognise surnames and street names. I go through the list of sponsors for the construction of Paquay’s new tomb in the 1920s and am surprised not to see my family’s names there when everyone else was sending small envelopes to the Franciscans. This only to say that after several days in the archive I had come to feel especially invested in Paquay’s story in a way that made reading the countless eyewitness testimonies of his miraculous intercessions less a test of endurance and more a meditative and emotional exercise.

‘CRIME’, then.

I open the box. Inside: a pile of press cuttings and notebooks and letters about a ‘hold-up’. In February 1967, it turns out, students had kidnapped a colourful bust of Paquay. The town was in uproar for several days. Even people who had long complained about the kitsch aesthetics of the bust were outraged. The bust was found in a neighbouring town two days later. The whole affair had little to do with Paquay’s supposedly miraculous body, but it does hint at the emphatic presence of Paquay’s legacy, and at how ideas of sanctity mixed with local identity. In the aftermath stories of his supposedly intact body resurfaced; the Franciscans observed a notable spike in visitor numbers to the tomb. People’s connection to the body inside is constantly remade through gestures and habits that become more pronounced in moments of crisis and crime, even if that crime turned out to be a practical joke.

I make a note to ask my family about the bust. I move on to ‘Rubbish’ and immediately find a carefully tied-together bundle of wood from Paquay’s coffin, and a piece of cloth that comes with a note: ‘Has touched the body of our beloved little brother.’

[1] James Raine, Saint Cuthbert: with an account of the state in which his remains were found upon the opening of his tomb in Durham Cathedral (Durham: Humble, 1828).


The body matters

Written by Leonardo Rossi

The body matters. The corpses of religious leaders and charismatic figures have been charged with powerful – and sometimes contradictory – meanings. Human remains of illustrious people are for some groups monuments of devotional memory while, for others, they are irritating symbols that need to be hidden or destroyed. In this post, I will deal with the disputed body of Pius IX (1792-1878), the last pope-king and probably the first pontiff to become a worldwide celebrity in the nineteenth century.

Portrait of Pope Pius IX

The reasons for the dispute

To understand why his corpse was contested post-mortem, we must step back and take a look at the last years of the pope’s life. In 1870, the Italian army of Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy invaded the remaining domains of the Papal States, including Rome, and ended the millennial secular power of the popes. Pius IX reacted by declaring himself a “prisoner of the Vatican,” he did not recognize the newborn Italian kingdom and, for the rest of his days (he died eight years later), remained within the borders of the smallest state in the world.

The problem of the body

Despite his aversion to the Italian kingdom, the pontiff had indicated in his will the desire to be buried not in the monumental basilica of St Peter, in the Vatican, but in St Lawrence outside the Walls, a church on Roman soil. But how to transport the corpse of a former pope-king to an enemy state? The Vatican authorities preferred to temporarily keep the body of Pius IX in St Peter and waited over three years before moving his coffin. In the late spring of 1881, the diplomats of the two states arranged the event. It was supposed to be a private ceremony, celebrated in secrecy and at night, without the presence of the faithful or protesters. The fixed date was the night between 12 and 13 July 141 years ago. In the end, however, things turned out differently.

Post-mortem portrait of Pope Pius IX (1792-1878). On February 8, 1878. (Photo by adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images)

An announced tragedy

A few days earlier, news of the transfer went viral. In Rome, there was no talk of anything else, and the cardinal vicar officially ordered members of Catholic societies not to organize public demonstrations. In agreement with the Vatican curia, two senior representatives of the Roman laity warned the police headquarters that immense popular participation in the ceremony could be expected and lead to clashes between intransigent Catholics and anticlericals. The commissioner alerted the highest offices of the government, asking for more soldiers in the streets to ensure safety. They underestimated the danger: for them, Pius IX was a ghost of the past. They committed a severe error of assessment. On the afternoon of 12 July, St Peter’s Square was already crowded with faithful and onlookers who patiently awaited the coffin of Pius IX: it was the sign of a foretold tragedy.

Temporary burial of pius IX in St Peter’s basilica, Vatican City

Partisan versions and fake news ante litteram

The world learned about the Roman events thanks to the news reported in the main newspapers the day after. The Italian government and the Vatican quickly sent their version to the foreign embassies and the leading press agencies, blaming each other. Catholics accused the Italian Kingdom of doing nothing to protect the illustrious pontiff’s body and guarantee the faithful’s safety. In their opinion, the goal of the state was to dismantle religious freedoms, reduce Catholicism to a persecuted sect and force the current pope (Leo XIII) to stay inside the Vatican walls. The liberals, on the other hand, spoke of non-compliance with the agreements and an illicit public procession. The civil authorities had authorized no demonstrations, but the Catholics ignored the pacts and provoked political opponents through chants and anthems against united Italy. They were neither martyrs nor persecuted as they liked to describe themselves, but disturbers of public order. If it is difficult to reconstruct the events of that night from the partisan sources, we can grasp from these the importance that the body of Pius IX had for the two different groups.

The veneration of the corpse

St Peter’s Square crowded with faithful, 1870s

During his long pontificate, Pius IX showed himself to the faithful as the good shepherd, willing to suffer martyrdom for the salvation of the faith and the Church. Already in life, he had been considered a ‘living saint’ and his fama sanctitatis increased after his death. The Catholic press published dozens of witness accounts of miracles and healings attributed to his intercession. The devotional images and relics of him were flying off the rack, and the people asked for the opening of an immediate beatification process. For the 100,000 Catholics who accompanied the coffin of Pius IX from the Vatican to St Lawrence, being present meant publicly demonstrating their loyalty to the deceased pontiff and their hope of obtaining graces from his miraculous body. Armed with devotional candles, they invaded the streets of Rome, addressing prayers and supplications to the pope and protecting his body from opponents’ attacks. Losing his body meant losing a powerful relic and the symbol of a longed-for triumph of the Church over its enemies.

Illustration of the riots of 1881 and satirical cartoon of Pius IX

Throw the body into the Tiber

Shouting the slogan “throw the remains of the ‘Pork Pope’ into the river,” about thirty radical anticlericals tried to grab the coffin of Pius IX and throw it from Ponte Sant’Angelo into the Tiber. The intervention of the police stopped assault, but the opponents reattempted several times that night, hoping to destroy his body. Why this fury against a corpse? Pius IX had expressed his opposition to the creation of the Italian Kingdom, and considered it a violation of the legitimate status quo. After the conquest of Rome, his position became even more intransigent, and until his death, he attacked the new government and modern society. For the unionists – and more generally for groups linked to Freemasonry, anticlericals and non-Catholic liberals – he had been the main enemy and, despite his death, his legacy continued to influence Italian Catholics. Symbolically, destroying his body meant destroying his ideas, wiping out oppositions against the changes and modernity. Furthermore, they recognized his corpse as a devotional catalyst still capable of conditioning Italian society.

Exposed body of Pius IX in the lower crypt of the basilica of St Lawrence, Rome

The symbolic body

The events that occurred during the transfer of the human remains of Pius IX demonstrate the centrality of his body. Admired by the faithful and mistreated by opponents, he continued to embody powerful meaning years after his death. After the eventful night, Catholics from all over the world sent financial donations to Rome for the construction of a new and sumptuous mausoleum to celebrate the “martyr pope.” From then on, believers went on pilgrimage to St Lawrence to honour his sacred remains. Still nowadays, Pius IX rests in the lower crypt of the basilica and, after his beatification (3 September 2000), his ‘uncorrupted’ body is publicly displayed. Faithful consider it a relic worthy of devotion, tourists a curious remnant of the past, and scholars an important material source to investigate.

Gazing at death and the dead

Workshop report (by Linde Tuybens)

The most dangerous person at a funeral is the body in the coffin –  Richard Cobb

On May 5th and 6th, researchers from all over Europe and the USA met in Antwerp to explore a range of fascinating topics around death and the dead. An initiative of the Contested Bodies project, this workshop promised a rich program full of unravelling contributions and discussions on the material, commemorative and emotional cultures of death.

Attendees in Antwerp

With his public lecture “A magic we can believe in”: belief, unbelief, and the sacrality of the dead, Thomas Laqueur (UC Berkeley) set the tone and invited us to reflect on the charisma of bodies, bones and dirt (!), and the role of dogma, beliefs and unbelief in how we treat mortal remains. Exploring necrosociality, he made us wonder whether caring for the dead as act of civility and love is what makes us human, and how these practices relate to the supernatural world. What do Diogenes’ disregard of his own corpse and Antigone’s concern about her brother’s remains tell us about the dis/enchantment of dead bodies? What is the work of the dead?

Laqueur’s lecture provided an inspiring framework for the upcoming presentations. The evening ended with a dinner amidst religious statues (Elfde Gebod) and a ghostwalk through the centre of Antwerp.

Silvia Cavicchioli (University of Turin) opened the actual workshop on Friday with a lecture on the instrumental use of human remains and the implementation of the sacred language of martyrology into the political space of nineteenth-century Italy. During the Risorgimento and post-Risorgimento period, the idea of the revolutionary martyr and his accompanying relics became instruments of politics, inspiring patriotic acts of sacrifice for the nation or remembering the human actions they represent. These secular relics and their histories served as communicative tools for the narration and sacralisation of the unified nation in a vocabulary well-known to the Italian people.

Moving forward in time, Amy King (University of Bristol) continued to explore the powerful narrative of martyrdom. Structured around the case study of Nicola Bonservizi (local Fascist leader shot in Paris in 1924) and that of Guiseppe Carisi and Michele Ambrosoli (two Blackshirts killed in New York in 1927), she examined the repatriation of fascist bodies during Mussolini’s regime and the commemorative culture it entailed. This geographical distance and the transnational exchange of the martyrized bodies allowed the regime to construct the imperial rhetoric of the nation (i.e. fascist ideology) as something that cannot be contained by national borders.

The next two papers took us away from the secular martyrs into the wondrous world of the incorrupt body. Leonardo Rossi (University of Antwerp) talked about the journey of the bodies of foundresses of new religious congregations in 19th- and 20th-century Italy. The deep bond with their communities during lifetime was often followed by an intense desire of that community to transfer,  preserve and display the sacred remains of their spiritual mother inside the motherhouse. These bodies, often perceived as miraculous and exceptional, hold deep religious meaning to its guardians. The corpse represents their history and identity, and enables them to maintain a relationship with their foundress as if she was still alive.

In his turn, Andrea Pezzini (University of Bern) looked into promotion strategies of exceptional dead bodies in 19th century Italy. From the early 18th century onwards the institutionalisation of sanctity and the centralisation of the canonisation process led to a model of sanctity with an increasing importance of heroic virtues and a diminishing role for the miraculous. However, the devotion of miraculous (dead) bodies flourished during the nineteenth century, especially in popular piety, which raises the question how these exceptional corporeal phenomena contributed to the development and increase of the fama sanctitatis of the saint-to-be. With the examples of Ignazio da Santhià (1686-1770) and Vincenzo Maria Strambi (1745-1824), Andrea showed us that the promotion strategies and their outcomes concerning incorrupt bodies changed according to different local contexts.

Leonardo Rossi, Andrea Pezzini & Kristof Smeyers (chair)

After a delicious meal – for indeed, the living do have needs -, the group moved to the Letterenhuis to admire their collection of death masks, or at least a small part of it. The Letterenhuis, safeguarding the literary heritage of Flanders, has more than one hundred death masks of Flemish writers in their archives. For the occasion, they put a selection of their collection on display and allowed us to gaze at the source of the artist’s genius.

The afternoon session started with a paper by Jen Baker (University of Warwick) on domestic idolatry of the child corpse in 19th-century consolation literature. Frequent references to the deceased child as a beautiful angel and the fetishizing of body parts, e.g. a lock of hair, as if they were relics, implied the idea of the child as being sacred. Because of the Protestant condemnation of idolatry, this worshipping of the deceased child could become problematic. However, Jen argues, these practices should not be considered as controversial idolatry, but rather as a consolatory practice, confined to its domestic and ordinary meaning. In the end, they did accept God’s reason and understood the celestial status of the child as a reward of keeping faith in God and his divine providence.

Next, Bernadett Bigalke (Leipzig University) introduced us to the Theosophical Society and its cremation discourse. The Theosophical Society was a transnational esoteric movement from around 1900 that was involved in many reform movements. In her paper, Bernadette investigated its entanglement with the European secular(ist) cremation movements. She underlines that in order to understand this entanglement and the theosophical ideas about cremation, we should understand their knowledge system which was a combination of science, religion, philosophy, astrology, spiritism and occultism. Analysing conceptions of religion and science in relation to death, apparent death (& safety coffins!) and cremation leads her to identify shared ideas and mutual practices between materialistic and non-materialistic/esoteric cremationists.

Revived by some coffee and cake we were now ready to listen to Kristof Smeyers (University of Antwerp) who used this opportunity to reflect on the conceptual meaning of the Catholic gaze in relation to (extraordinary) dead bodies. In order to say something about the Catholic gaze, Kristof marked some questions to take into account: which bodies are involved and whose gaze are we talking about? Can we speak of a Catholic gaze at all? And what about the power relation between the living and the dead? Who is it that dominates this act? Furthermore, gazing was never only gazing. A diversity of sensory experiences was described by the Catholic onlooker. The exceptionality of opportunities to gaze at these bodies made the occasion all the more significant.

Tine Van Osselaer (University of Antwerp) then took us along on her hunt for reliquary sculptures of early Christian martyrs. Responding to the nineteenth-century need for saints, Rome distributed thousands of relics of Roman martyrs all over the world. These fragments of human remains were put into wax sculptures representing the body of the saint. The saint him/herself was almost always unknown and without a devotional past, but that did not matter as long as it was a martyr. In her presentation, Tine addressed this new mode of display, the aspired emotional effect of these sculptures and the diverse responses to them at the start of the nineteenth century in Belgium. Meant to move the faithful, these reliquary sculptures turned out not to be entirely unproblematic and could also inspire mockery rather than awe.

The workshop was closed by Angela Berlis (University of Bern) with a paper on death masks and postmortem photographies as secular and sacral memory. With the examples of the Letterenhuis fresh in our minds, Angela guided us through the history of death masks and how they developed from surrogate faces through objects of science into civil memorabilia. She emphasised their multiple interface in religious view – representing memory, presence and expectation – and discussed the influence of photographical enactment in the 20th century. Angela concluded that death cults and memory cults were always shaped in a specific religious and/or secular context.

Angela Berlis

Send us your (early Christian) martyr

by Tine Van Osselaer

I watch with eager anticipation as my guide is carefully opening a series of small doors. We are not unwrapping one layer after another, but sections of a single, bigger, display case.  The impact of the procedure is best compared to one of those visual puzzles. Every new piece gives you an idea of what the overall image might look like, but you need to take a step back to take it all in and get a clearer view. That is what I am doing at this moment. From a distance, it is easier to ignore the cabinet doors and sections, and  imagine the impression that St. Leo’s wax statue used to make on the visitors. The gold colored frame of the glass coffin is barely visible, but I have seen a lithograph and some pictures, and my mind is puzzling the rest together.

Statue of St. Leo at the Seminary in Bruges

Once the pride and glory of the clergy of the Seminary, the martyr’s statue is now hidden from view and visible only to those – like curious me – who ask to see it. I am standing here after a great day delving through documents on this statue in the diocesan archives of Bruges. It is hard not to compare the statue’s hidden existence with the pride that radiated from the files on the translation and veneration of the relics (1844-45), or with the care – captured in a photograph  –  with which the clergy transported the statue to a safer location in 1917.[1]

I have found statues like St. Leo’s in even more puzzle-like circumstances. The wonderful Parcum, the museum for religious heritage (Louvain) has a box on display that holds the head, torso and limbs of a similar statue, St. Clara.[2] A saint in a box. I imagine that I am not the only historian working on Catholic devotional culture that would love to get a miniature kit of this.

Statue of St. Clara at Parcum (Leuven)

St. Leo and St. Clara were import saints in Belgium. They were examples of the renewed enthusiasm for the early Christian martyrs of the Roman catacombs in the nineteenth century. As scholars like Vincent Viaene and Caroline Ford have shown, the massive distribution of the relics of these martyrs helped to reconstruct Europe’s devotional landscape after the plundering of the revolutionary years. Philippe Boutry, pioneer in the study of these relics, has estimated that the Vatican distributed circa 2400-2500 relics in the first half of the nineteenth century (Boutry, 2016, p.236, p.887). Not all of these relics were embedded in wax body-like statues like those of St. Leo and St. Clara, but the display fashion was also introduced (with different effects) in countries like Belgium.

Enthusiasm for these relics and statues dwindled due to the professionalization of Christian archaeology (and the rekindled debate about the authenticity of these martyrs’ relics) and the closure of the catacombs for relic extraction in 1881 (Ghilardi, 2020). The suppression on March 29, 1961 of the devotion to St Philomena – one of the most popular early Christian martyrs – had a detrimental effect on the popularity of the devotions and the martyrs’ statues. This first wave of iconoclasm was also triggered by a change in religious taste, reducing the sculptures to ‘kitsch’ (e.g. France: Durand, 2007, pp.68-69).

The many sculptures that survived currently face new risks to their conservation. With the present-day closure and secularization of many churches, the statues face abandon and destruction. Information about the devotions to these martyrs is at risk of disappearing together with an older generation of Catholics. A telling example hereof is the statue of the child martyr St. Pius in the now secularized Passionist church (soon to be a gym) in Ere. The caretakers of the school were incredibly helpful in helping me trace the devotion to the saint in the previous decades, but – at the risk of overusing the image – I am still missing some pieces of the puzzle.

Statue of St. Pius at the former Passionist church in Ere

This dwindling enthusiasm stands in sharp contrast to those locations where the devotion to the local martyr is still vibrant. As Religious Bodies team we have been exploring the field a little via Instagram. We hope you will share the link and “Send us your martyr” (https://www.instagram.com/sendusyourmartyr/) – in the form of some photographs and information (or a miniature kit).


  • Boutry, P., ‘Les corps saints des catacombes’, in: Baciocchi, S. and Duhamelle, C. (eds.), Reliques romaines. Invention et circulation des corps saints des catacombes à l’époque moderne, Rome, 2016, pp.225-259.
  • Durand, M., ‘Inventions de reliques, création de saints et naissance d’une controverse : les ‘corps saints’ extraits des catacombes romaines (XVIIe-XIXe siècles)’, Actes du deuxième colloque de pathographie, Paris, 2007, pp.49-72.
  • Ford, C., Divided Houses. Religion and Gender in Modern France, Ithaca/London, 2005.
  • Ghilardi, M., ‘The Roman catacombs in the nineteenth century’, in: Nineteenth-century European pilgrimages. A new golden age, Pazos, A.M. (ed.), London, 2020, pp.46-61.
  • Viaene, V., Belgium and the Holy See from Gregory XVI to Pius IX (1831-1859). Catholic Revival, Society and Politics in 19th-century Europe, Leuven, 2001.

[1] The 1963 guide by Janssens-deBisthoven, De Abdij van de Duinen te Brugge, pp.14-15, indicates that the statue was already inside the wooden altar. I thank Stefaan Franco for this reference.

[2] Relic sculpture of Saint Clara, wax and gypsum, Leuven, PARCUM, collectie Grauwzusters van Antwerpen, CRKC.0004.000; This is not a collection. Persdossier, 2019, p.9;  https://www.mapmyvisit.com/object/viewobject/62441/nl/039C78234D1BC0CD819F388671D23B29

Breathing life into a body

by Kristof Smeyers

Here is a story.

One evening a nun sneaks down into the vault under a chapel. She has been contemplating this all day. She shivers: she is a little cold and more than a little nervous. It’s around nine o’clock and she is alone, but she doesn’t feel alone. In the corner of the underground space stands, ‘as upright as a wax candle’, a long-dead body awaiting reburial. The nun kisses its hand, with fingernails ‘as white as those of a living person’. Then she cuts or rips a piece of the thin black veil that covers the body’s pale and intact face, clenches it in her fist, and hurries back up the stairs. Somehow, despite her secrecy, the police find out: the next day an officer stands guard at the entrance to the vault. In the following days, people from far and wide are drawn to the body standing in the vault: it ‘makes a great noise in the city’, the nun writes in a detailed letter about her transgression. So great a noise, in fact, that plans change: the police has the body buried at night in an undisclosed place in the cemetery to deter prying eyes and stealing hands.

What to make of such stories?

It’s a peculiar story, about an incorrupt body, and historians tend to zoom out and weave such stories into a large cultural tapestry so that they make some sort of sense. In answering the ‘why?’ behind the incidental and anecdotic, they become ‘cases’ that illustrate larger developments: here about extraordinary religious phenomena, for example, or about belief (and doubt, and scepticism).

The story of the body standing upright in the corner of the vault, for instance, can then fit rather well into a history of early nineteenth-century Enlightenment practices in the German states. It had belonged to baroness Francesca von Hauserin, General Superior of the Munich branch of the Congregation of Jesus. In April 1809, as the nun sneaked downstairs, von Hauserin was half a century dead. In Munich people sometimes still called members of the congregation the ‘English Ladies’, because it was founded by Mary Ward in sixteenth-century England. The European panorama of post-revolutionary secularization certainly invites us to zoom out from the moment in which the nun kissed the incorrupt hand of the baroness and tore some fabric off her veil. The community’s dead were dug up from the vault in April 1809 to be buried in Munich’s public cemetery, years after the 1803 dissolution of enclosed convents. By 1809, six years of uncertainty and instability drove the ‘English Ladies’ to move relics of English martyrs to their sisters in Yorkshire (where they were subsequently forgotten till much later in the century). Moving bodies out of religious spaces into public ones was, then, a political act – one effect of the dissolution of convents – that illustrates shifting state attitudes to Catholic communities at the time.

But what are the consequences of treating the body in the vault as a snapshot of a much larger history?

One consequence is, often, that people’s stories fall by the wayside. Microhistories can offer a window onto (aspects of) the grand sweep of history, as historians from Carlo Ginzburg to Natalie Zemon Davies have proven with great success since the early 1980s. But historians’ efforts to show that the seemingly anecdotic or inconsequential can have much wider ramifications also sometimes – especially with regards to the supernatural, the miraculous – comes at the cost of stressing just how out-of-context and singularly disruptive an encounter with the inexplicable could be. Putting the uncorrupted body of the General Superior into a context of Enlightenment politics reduces the nun’s experience to a footnote at best. Attention shifts to the ecclesiastical, worldly, and scientific forces that get involved. To the anatomists, for example, who three days later already have the General Superior dug up again for examination and find a bodily interior ‘as fresh as if she had died the day before’. Seemingly self-contained vignettes such as that of the thieving nun or, three days later, of the gravedigger who handled the intact body often remain untold.

A consequence of ‘cultural-historying’ a body in a vault can then be that the body itself – just to remind you: a body that, at the point of being kissed and robbed, had been dead for over half a century and was seemingly entirely intact, uncorrupted, alive in all ways but one – loses its strangeness. Lining up cases of similar phenomena helps discern certain religious or political trends, and can even shed light on larger cultural shifts. But it can also diminish the significance of what it meant for someone to come face to face with the impossible. Zooming in rather than out, and making space for the details of such an individual experience, means to bring in the fundamental, often sensational weirdness of encounters with extraordinary bodies. And to take seriously the exclamations of wonder and confusion that appear again and again, in so many records. ‘I have never seen such a thing in my life!’ the policeman tasked with guarding the vault told his colleague the day after the nun stole the fabric, unintentionally giving away that he, too, had sneaked down.

These individual mini-stories are ‘human interest’ in their purest, historical sense; they breathe life into histories in which extraordinary bodies are often treated as symbols or markers of cultural meaning.

Strikingly, such stories do take centre stage sometimes, in ways that mostly remain unavailable to historians. In 1981 a TV crew interviewed the gravediggers who, two years earlier, had accidentally exhumed the apparently uncorrupted body of an early nineteenth-century girl in a local cemetery in Co Cork, Ireland. Their story brings home the point that so often the currency of an encounter with an extraordinary body is sensation, surprise, and strangeness.

Bodies on display. An alternative Roman Tour

By Leonardo Rossi

Rome, bodies, (aspiration to) eternity. If these keywords arouse your interest, then you are reading the right post. Whether you are travelling with your imagination sitting on a cosy sofa or walking on the centuries-old cobblestones of Rome, this alternative tour throws you into popular Roman devotion, showing you stages unfamiliar to tourists but well known to the Catholic faithful, based on the displayed bodies of saints and blessed people.

The veneration of corpses (both religious and secular) is certainly not a new aspect in Rome, but the mortal remains of illustrious personalities have attracted the attention of local citizens and foreign visitors for millennia. Here in ancient Rome, rituals for the dead and the celebration of their memory were once elaborate practices. Accordingly, the emperors received public funerals that included people’s participation and burial in sumptuous mausoleums (such as those of Augustus and Hadrian). Then, with the advent of Christianity, the places of torture of the first martyrs (e.g., Peter and Paul) became significant places of worship. Starting from the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, the first archaeological excavations brought to light paleochristian underground cemeteries and thousands of bodies contained therein, so that between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, visiting the narrow cuniculi of the catacombs became a must for Grand Tour travellers, as well as commemorating the tombs of celebrities. Even today, you can pay homage to Raffaello Sanzio and King Vittorio Emanuele II in the Pantheon, as well as Antonio Gramsci and Percy Bysshe Shelley in the non-Catholic Cemetery. On the latter’s epitaph, his wife and writer, Mary Shelley, had the moving words Cor cordium (heart of hearts) engraved, in the hope of crystallising their love for all eternity, hence making it one of the most romantic places in the city.

The curiosity towards death and corpses has recently given rise to several commercial initiatives, such as setting up exhibitions or creating thematic itineraries. With this, the German anatomopathologist, Gunther von Hagens, brought to Rome, not without criticism and perplexity, the exhibition on ‘plasticised’ bodies entitled Body worlds: The real world of the human body, from 14th September, 2011 to 31stMarch, 2012. Every year here, during the day of the catacombs, catacombs and archaeological mortuary sites, usually closed to the public, are open for free (this year, the fourth edition took place on 16th October). In addition, numerous tourist guides offer visits to monumental cemeteries (such as the Verano), Vatican Grottoes (the place that contains the bodies of the Popes), reliquaries and ossuaries of many churches (one of the most characteristic is probably Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini).

Anna Maria Taigi (1769-1837)

Despite the competitive offer and the many attractions, the tour I propose has the ambition of being an alternative and a standout from these routes for several reasons. First of all, it does not lead you to discover tombs, cemeteries or reliquaries, but shows you the human remains of heroes of the Catholic faith whose bodies have behaved out of the ordinary in the afterlife. Among these phenomena considered prodigious by the faithful (and not by the Catholic Church, which does not recognise these signs as proof of holiness) can include incorruption of the flesh, flexibility of the limbs, emanation of perfumes and fragrances, and emission of ‘fresh’ blood days – or even years – after death. These wonders could be attested when the saint-to-be has passed away or, after a while, during a formal procedure called ‘ricognitio’ in canon law (i.e., the exhumation and examination of the body). The corpses you will see belong to people who lived between 1750 and 1950 approximately. After their process of beatification or canonisation, they would be put on display in crystal cases, in churches or sanctuaries in Rome and its province. In this regard, the dead remains have usually undergone treatment to create an image that was not scary or disturbing to the believers, but that communicates the peaceful rest of the saints and their victory over death. The practice of showing bodies here is not just typical of Rome or the period considered; however, in Rome and in this time, we can count a number that – at the current state of research – have no equal in other geographical and chronological contexts.

Pius IX (1792-1878)

What are we going to see by clicking on the different pins? Well, we’re going to learn about the facts and curiosities of twelve bodies exhibited in Rome and its province. They are stories of popes (Pius IX, Pius X and John XXIII), charismatic mothers and wives (Anna Maria Taigi), martyrs (Maria Goretti and Giovanni Lantrua), priests (Stefano Bellesini and Bernardo Silvestrelli), foundresses (Paola Frassinetti and Maria Crocifissa Curcio) and founders (Vincenzo Pallotti and Giacomo Alberione). We will see how their bodies have been put on display and what techniques have been used. In certain cases, their remains (after being found in an exceptional state of conservation) have only been treated with chemicals, for safety reasons (civil law imposes rules on the treatment of human corpses), while aesthetic interventions have been made in others as well, such as the application of masks in different materials (for example, wax, silver, plastic and silicone). Finally, we will learn more about particular religious practices, such as the recognition of the bodies and popular devotions towards them.

Bernardo Silvestrelli (1831-1911)

Before letting you explore the tour virtually, via the link you will find below, I would like to draw your attention to a fundamental aspect; that the goal of this tour is not to judge the preservation of a corpse or the miraculous nature of the incorruption, but to look at these bodies from the faithful’s perspective. For them, these cadavers embodied religious meanings, since they belonged to charismatic and trustworthy figures and because, after death, they behaved prodigiously. In this respect, they were considered miraculous, as proof of the divine election of the saints and their entry into heaven, endowed with thaumaturgical powers and the ability to work graces. For these reasons, these bodies were – and still are today – worshipped by believers and at the centre of religious practices and the life of the local community.

Enjoy the tour!



by Linde Tuybens

As historians, we can’t claim the exclusive right to tell the story of stigmatics. Other cultural products – books, films, theatre plays – are also shining light on their extraordinary lives. Recently, news has spread that American filmmaker Abel Ferrara is preparing a film on the early life of Padre Pio, allegedly starring Shia LaBeouf (playing the Italian stigmatic) and Willem Dafoe. Ferrara, known as a provocateur, often challenges societal norms and values in his work, and this film might be no different. Yet, it will not be the first popular product on stigmatics to cause furore. A play by Austrian playwright Felix Mitterer, for example, roused strong emotions among the Tyrolean public in 1982.

Mitterer’s play Stigma: ein Passion is set in Tyrol in the 1830s – the heyday of Tyrolean stigmatics – and tells the tragic story of Moid, a farm maid who bears the wounds of Christ. As a maid, she represents the bottom of the social hierarchy. Since her position forbids her to marry and as the possibility of extramarital love is denied by the Catholic Church, Moid turns to the only man for whom her love is allowed: Jesus Christ. After offering her menstrual blood, she takes him as her groom and receives the stigmata to participate in his agony.

Throughout the play Moid’s sufferings parallel the stations of Christ’s Passion – as suggested by the title. Yet, her stigmata are not only outward signs of her own Passion, they also become armaments against the oppression and hardship she endures, giving her the voice she never had: at the behest of Christ, she pleads for more justice and reprimands the powerful of the world – secular and religious – for exploiting the have-nots. Consequently, she emerges as a political figure who questions the traditional balance of power and therefore poses a threat to the established authorities. Eventually, Moid, who is considered a saint by the poor, is chased away by her landlord, exorcized and excommunicated by the Church, accused of hysteria and fraud by medical authorities and finally shot dead by the police.[1]

The traditional Tyrolean society that is threatened by forces of change is a recurring theme in Mitterer’s work. The challenge of hanging on to tradition but at the same time accepting the changing world was, in a certain way, also emphasized by the controversy that arose in the weeks before Stigma’s premiere in 1982. The play, with its assumed blasphemous and anti-clerical, as well as anti-authoritarian position, met with a lot of opposition from the Tyrolean public. After reading it, the mayor of Hall, a town near Innsbruck, rejected the play as a “collection of filth and religious mockery” and was no longer willing to host the theatre festival where Stigma was to premiere.[2] Media coverage of the search for a new venue and the publication of some excerpts from the play resulted in a flood of protest letters, demonstrations, legal charges and even bomb threats against the author and others involved.

Stigma obviously touched some taboos. These fierce reactions show that many people felt offended by certain scenes and, in particular, saw their religious beliefs disparaged. It was, however, not Mitterer’s intent to mock the simple faith of the people. He knew how important religion was, and had been, in their everyday existence. The play does present a critical attitude towards the institutional Church, though, and exposes some conflicts between the dogmatism of the Catholic Church and plain religious beliefs. Others argued that the archaic living conditions as depicted in the play were no longer relevant and that the play did not provide any insight into contemporary issues. Mitterer, on the other hand, said only to write about the world he knew. Growing up in the Tyrolean countryside as the adopted son of two farm laborers was, as he recalls it, much like the nineteenth century: “The rural society, as I portray it in the play, I’ve experienced myself, it was as much so in the 1950s”.[3] Also, the inequality between men and women and the oppression and exploitation of the socially and economically disadvantaged seem to be issues of long-lasting relevance.

“Wallfahrer” by Franz Defregger (Wikimedia Commons)

While some bitterly fought against the play, others ridiculed these opponents as backward and narrow-minded. It is notable that Stigma was rated significantly more positively in German newspapers and magazines than in most Austrian ones. Some of the former expressed themselves slightly amused or even condescending about the feud that was raging in the Tyrolean region. Would such a controversy over a play have only been possible in Tyrol?

The complex relationship between tradition and modernity in Tyrol, as highlighted by the play and, supposedly, also by its reception, seems to be a fundamental part of its history and identity. In the nineteenth century, this region was known as the ‘Holy Land Tyrol’ because of its identification as a sacred place, untouched by modernity. This positive interpretation of the uniqueness of this region was accompanied by a negative connotation in which Tyrol was perceived as a beacon of traditionalism and conservatism, where ignorance and superstition reigned supreme. In 1850, for example, a liberal newspaper tried to convince local authorities to take action against Juliana Weiskircher, an Austrian stigmatic from Schleinbach, a small village near Vienna. According to the journalist, it was one thing such a phenomenon could occur in the remote mountains of ‘the Holy Land Tyrol’, but that this could also happen “at the gates of the residence of constitutional Austria” went beyond comprehension.[4]

Whereas in the nineteenth century these liberal voices considered stigmatics such as Juliana Weiskircher to be a symptom of a presumed cultural and social backwardness, more than a century later, Mitterer on his turn uses stigmata as a means to question traditional structures and morals. Yet, the suggestion by some journalists about the singularity of the controversy over such a play recalls the demeaning tone of the nineteenth-century liberal voices. Apparently, Tyrol hasn’t lost its stigma yet.

[1] Ursula Hassel, “„Ihr Frauen habts es nit leicht.” The Dramatization of Gender Issues in the Plays by Felix Mitterer”, in: Felix Mitterer. A Critical Introduction (1995), 178-181.

[2] Irmgard Plattner, “„Kulturkampf in Herrgottswinkel”. Stigma: eine Passion von Felix Mitterer”, in: Tirol: “Land im Gebirge” : zwischen Tradition und Moderne, 1999, 291.

[3] Herbert Hertzmann, “The Relevance of the Tradition: The “Volksstücke” of Felix Mitterer”, Modern Austrian Literature, 24 (1991), 175-178.

[4] Ostdeutschen Post, 12 July 1850.

A pile of hope

by Tine Van Osselaer

The tomb of Anna Katharina Emmerick

I do not need to read the messages to know that what I am looking at is a pile of hope, despair, loss, but above all … trust. The small pieces of paper on the tomb of Anna Katharina Emmerick are the material testimony of faith in the intercessory power of the blessed stigmatic. The practice is gripping in its simplicity. Whoever feels overpowered can regain a little control over the situation by calling upon the beloved stigmatic and ask for her support. Writing down one’s sorrows and hopes and leaving the paper on Emmerick’s sober gravestone in Dülmen alleviates the burden, if just a little. Writing can be an act of faith.[1]

Such writing always gets to me. I have encountered it before whilst studying the ways in which the faithful invested their trust in (living) saints. The practice is well-documented for the German stigmatic Therese Neumann. Whilst she was still alive, the faithful left small notes behind the crucifix of the local church in Konnersreuth. Therese Neumann answered the messages by praying for the conversion or the healing that the letter-writer hoped for.[2] Hope also speaks from the hundreds of letters Neumann and other stigmatics received via the ‘normal’ post services or intermediaries, asking them for their prayers, their help in saving loved ones. Hope was the foundation of the miracle stories included in the Konnersreuth periodicals and other publications; and hope was the material of which ex-votos were made.[3]

The messages, in whatever form they reached the stigmatics, testify of the bonds between people. The faithful wrote as parents, partners, friends and by doing so expressed their love for those close to them, those they wished to help, those who did not (or no longer) have the strength to write themselves. Writing was and is a way to care for the people you love.

I really like textual sources, as most historians do. Still, even though the notes on Emmerick’s grave are indeed texts, what fascinates me here is not so much what the faithful write, but the fact that they are writing. For them, leaving the letters on the grave is not the start of a correspondence, … but it is the start of a communication, a call for help.

In the case of Emmerick, leaving behind a note on the tomb actually seems to be a recent invention, probably linked to the translation of Emmerick’s body inside the church. When her remains were still in the graveyard, the faithful prayed beside the grave, but rather than leaving a message behind, they took something with them from the grave (like sand or leaves), so they would have something to hold on to at home.[4] Practices such as these have been well-studied from the perspective of the miracle story, the development of a pilgrimage site or the faithful’s relationship with divine beings, but not really from an emotional point of view. Yet I think the small pieces of paper – and not just the text they contain – are in themselves small emotional objects, brimming with feeling. Writing, folding and leaving them on the grave fills them with meaning.

I admit, I had almost forgotten about Emmerick’s grave. Yet somehow, the current epidemic and the concomitant increase of lightening candles in honor of a saint (preferably St. Rita and St. Rochus, at least here in Belgium[5]) reminded me of that pile of paper in Dülmen, and of the faith, hope and love people invest in these small notes.

[1] On emotions as a kind of practice, see Monique Scheer’s seminal article ‘Are emotions a kind of practice (and is that what makes them have a history)? A Bourdieuian approach to understanding emotion’, History and Theory 51 (2012) 193-220.

[2] “Most of the visitors, especially the women, also visit the parish church, venture behind the high altar and behind a crucifix that is hanging on the wall there placed open and sealed letters, and notes on which everything imaginable is written.” Staatsarchiv Amberg, 4169 Bezirksamt Tirschenreuth, Schreiben der Gendarmeriestation Konnersreuth an das Bezirksamt Tirschenreuth, 57: 16/9/1927, cited in Van Osselaer, Graus, Rossi and Smeyers, The promotion and devotion of stigmatics in Europe. Between saints and celebrities, 2020, p.67, footnote 78.

[3] For such devotional letter writing, see Robert Orsi’s wonderful study of the letters concerning the cult of Saint Jude (Orsi, Robert A. Thank You, St. Jude Women’s Devotion to the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[4] Van Osselaer, Graus, Rossi and Smeyers, 2020, p.150.

[5] https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/nl/2020/10/26/hoop-in-bange-dagen-verkoop-van-noveenkaarsen-boomt-in-begijnho/