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/

Weighing the body

by Kristof Smeyers

The time has come now, at last, to talk truth.

Our research on stigmata doesn’t directly engage with the possibility of the wounds’ divine or supernatural nature. As cultural historians (albeit from different angles) our interest is in the stigmata’s meaning to people in the past rather than in trying to prove or disprove, sanctify or debunk the wounds of Christ. To do so, we have put great emphasis on so-called ‘bottom-up’ history, simply put: to reconstruct those layers of meaning departing from fragments close to the phenomenon and to build on those layers reaching outward to state and church archives.

In a great article last year, Christine Grandy problematized the weight of meaning – or rather, the ways we as historians measure the weight or significance of something in the face of an ‘absent audience’: ‘we continue to know very little about the way ordinary people responded to most forms of culture’ (p. 645). Where do we turn to hear the voices of ‘ordinary’ people? Inevitably, very often they are found in the sources of the meaning-makers: ‘the experts, the professionals, or those whose livelihoods are most explicitly tied to the functioning of that set of symbols whose archives we sift through’ (p. 647). In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that means, among other things, trawling through newspapers that proclaimed to be the voice(s) of the people(s), but which more often than not ran with a particular case of stigmata to sensationalise or ridicule it in order to sell. Rather than mere receptacles of contemporary ‘voices’, from which we can glean how stigmata functioned within the culture wars of Europe in the late nineteenth century for example, these newspapers fuelled and shaped those culture wars in ways not so different from how they steer today’s culture wars.

Now, we may not spend our research hours figuring out which stigmatic wounds were authentically divine, perversely diabolic, or inflicted via other means, but many of the sources of meaning-makers centred around this crucial matter; many of these sources are preserved precisely because of this focus. Today this is still the question at the heart of the phenomenon for most people, expert or no. Medical and theological scholars continue to attempt to find the cause under the skin or in transcendence.

The first thing we often get asked when our work comes up in conversation is what we really think went on in this case or that – on this or that person’s body. We have become skilled at nimbly avoiding that question, using all the arguments in the arsenal of a cultural historian: we are interested in meaning, you see; what did this phenomenon signify to the individuals and communities we study? But how fair is our act of avoidance when so much of our sources grapple with exactly that question? And how does this repeated, conscious act influence how we read such sources, only to ripple through our own writing?

What does all this imply for our ‘bottom-up’ approach? How, if at all, do we circumvent or reflect the hierarchy, the meaning-making of the sources in our work? Part of the answer, I think, is to hone in on the physicality of the phenomenon itself. Bottom-up begins with the body. Most often, stigmata were read as (often also presented to the world as) corporeal manifestations of redemptive suffering: a bleeding body that offered comfort to pious onlookers. We contextualise this religious suffering within a – primarily – Catholic tableau of spiritual, sublimated pain. The stigmatised bodies are inhabited by ‘victim souls’. Focusing so much on this meaning, the body is sometimes left behind. What happens, for instance, when we situate the supernaturally suffering bodies within a context of physical suffering more generally, among the ‘rank, foul and dysfunctional’ bodies ‘racked with pain, disability and disease’ (Roy Porter, Flesh in the age of reason (London, 2004), p. 25) in which so many people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived? Different contexts create different meanings.


Suffering bodies in supernatural, corporeal Catholicism make for rich sources for prose, poetry, and other forms of fiction. Many are sensationalist and gory, often playing to the same tropes as contemporary newspapers. In 1991 Ron Hansen published Mariette in ecstasy, a strange book about a rich teenager who enters a convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion in New York, in 1906. The order has its motherhouse in Louvain, Belgium. Central to the novel is not the question of truth, but Mariette’s body. The New York Times reviewed the book as a ‘luminous novel that burns a laser-bright picture into the reader’s imagination, forcing one to reassess the relationship between madness and divine possession, gullibility and faith, sexual rapture and religious ecstasy’. Returning to Mariette in ecstasy in 2016, the Paris Review summarised this appeal: ‘Catholics go for crucifixes over crosses. They want their Mass wine in a chalice, not Solo cups. The Eucharist is not a symbol; it is substance.’


Mariette in ecstasy (not, strikingly, Mariette with stigmata) is a story of pious psychology and body horror. The novel hits beats that are familiar to those who have browsed our database. Mariette’s stigmata followed years of prayer to Christ’s Passion and a sustained wish for enclosed life. Once in the convent, her emphatically corporeal devotion meets with suspicion and judgment from the other sisters. One sister enters Mariette’s cell and finds her on the floor, ‘unclothed and seemingly unconscious’, holding her hands up as if crucified. On Christmas Eve, she receives the wounds on her body. She holds ‘out her blood-painted hands like a present’, saying ‘Oh, look at what Jesus has done to me!’ Sisters notice red footprints in the hallways. Her faith is lived on the skin, and the skin in turn becomes canvas: ‘Blood scribbles down her wrists and ankles and scrawls like handwriting on the floor.’

In these fictions, stigmatised bodies become places on which others vie for vindication, and sites of conflict – whether of an eschatological, religious, scientific, or social nature. Mariette’s body is not hers, either: she surrenders it to Christ and God, but by doing so she also gives it up to a society that tries to make sense of the strange wounds. The inhabitants of the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion are unwilling or unable to engage with the intense physicality of what goes on in Mariette’s cell. One sister enters at night and licks the blood from Mariette’s stigmatised palm: ‘I have tasted you. See?’ Her stigmata become a news item to the outside world. A doctor – her father, no less – examines her body. He concludes: ‘You have all been duped.’

In stigmata fictions, the truth behind the wounds is often central. Many stories hone in on the method behind the wounds, as if the body is a crime scene, a whodunit: how did they manage to get away with it? What tools did they use to inflict the wounds? Who was ‘in on it’, who is ‘duped’? What were the stigmatic’s primary motives? How long will their pious fraud – or fraudulent piety – continue? Mariette in ecstasy’s protagonist has supernatural wounds. The author never gives any indication that another explanation is plausible or necessary. The reader never doubts Mariette’s sincerity; we simply witness the miraculous at work. All suspense comes from the reactions of others to her body. They make meaning, and in that process of making, Mariette’s body suffers all the more for it.

Stories of isolation before the Coronavirus: following the example of stigmatics

By Leonardo Rossi

Exceptional, surreal, unusual. These words are among some of the most frequently used expressions of the bewilderment that we are all experiencing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Only a few months ago, we considered it a worrying but distant danger, since then we have realised that we were wrong. From China to Italy, from the States to all corners of the globe, no one is immune and safe. We have discovered ourselves to be weaker, more helpless, more powerless than we assumed to be. Our habits have been subverted. Most of the offices are closed, children are home from school, transportation is extremely limited. The daily frenzy and our interpersonal relationships have suddenly changed.

Time runs differently when you are isolated and cut off from your social framework. The appointments on the agenda thin out, the superfluous disappears into the background, and only the essential things remain visible. You have more time for yourself and for thinking. In the first days of isolation, the most frequent questions I wondered about were about the exceptional nature of the moment we are passing through: how much will this influence affect our habits in the long term? Will 2020 be remembered solely for Coronavirus, or also as a turning point? When and how will we return to our ‘ordinary’ life? Every idea that flashed through my mind was characterised by the adjective ‘exceptional’: nobody has clear answers because nobody has ever experienced anything like this. As the days and weeks went by, however, what previously seemed so unusual quickly started to become ‘normal’. Life goes on, with small and big changes. Now it is no longer odd to work at home, wear a mask when we go out, queue to enter the supermarket. Smiling with the eyes has replaced the handshakes, phone calls evoke the hugs of loved ones, online meetings substitute family lunches. New habits have become a routine, and the old questions that I was unable to answer have given way to another type of reflection: Are we actually witnessing a unique event in history? Did not other generations also spend months isolated from the community? For what reasons? How did they deal with that particular moment?

Cigoli, St Francis

Ludovico Cigoli, St Francis in meditation in an isolated place (Wikimedia Commons)

In my case, the small/big change was to finish the review of my PhD not in my office in Antwerp, but in Gaeta, a municipality at the south of Rome, historically famous as ‘the port of the popes’. Here, I spent weeks of self-isolation, away from my office and family, with an internet connection that did not work brilliantly. Sifting through the pages of my manuscript and reflecting on the past, I realised that this situation is exceptional only for those who, like me, had never experienced anything like this. Looking back can somehow make us feel less alone and exceptional. Before COVID, many people experienced various forms of isolation, social exclusion, withdrawal from the world. History is full of interruptions or subversions of what was considered ‘normal’.

Experiencing a form of seclusion has influenced my point of view. My attention is drawn to situations that are similar to the current one. During the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century, the period that I analyse in my research, there have been several pandemics that have collectively forced thousands, or even millions, of people to live in isolation. At that time, waves of cholera, smallpox, and typhus raged frequently. Moreover, revolts, civil wars, international conflicts, famines and natural cataclysms spread among countries. Periods of seclusion affected the protagonists of history and those who study it: the historians. Fernand Braudel published in 1949 « La Méditerranée et le Monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II », but he worked on it during his captivity in Germany (1940-45). Some spiritual leaders and heads of state were also forced to live in isolation. Imprisonment was the common denominator of the pontificate of numerous popes in the nineteenth century. Pius VI fled to Siena in 1798 when he tried to escape the invasion of the Papal States by the French troops. Pius VII spent years of exile away from Rome, as a prisoner of Napoleon in Fontainebleau. Pius IX spent more than nine months here in Gaeta to escape the revolutions of the Roman Republic and the so-called “Spring of the Peoples” (1848-49).

In the sources I studied, exile and forced imprisonment did not only concern popes but also other people. In addition to reasons of force majeure that indiscriminately involved all of the population, a particular category of individuals experienced long moments of isolation in their lives, that is the stigmatics. The wounds of passion that were impressed and visible on their bodies often turned stigmatics into religious celebrities in their community and, sometimes, even on the global level. Their public fame attracted the attention of the people, but also made them suspicions in the eyes of sceptics and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and the Vatican curia (especially the Holy Office) opened investigations and not rarely condemned those who were popularly considered alteri Christi to a life of seclusion. Other stigmatics were not in search of fame and success but wished to spend their lives in solitude and meditation. The visible stigmata would have attracted unwanted attention and, for this reason, they decided to withdraw themselves from the public scene and isolate themselves in monastic cells or domestic environment, carefully keeping their graces a secret.

Therefore, it was not a disease that kept stigmatics away from society, but rather a personal choice or an obligation imposed from above. Some examples can help us to understand their experience better. Solitary and contemplative life has always been part of the Christian tradition. Already in the third century, anchorites and hermits left the community to live in the desert or in isolated places in northern Africa. In the West, the monks did the same by building their abbeys and monasteries in inaccessible areas far from inhabited centres. The desire for a  withdrawn life motivated several stigmatics to aspire to live as religious women. Gemma Galgani (1878-1903), Teresa Palminota (1896-1934), and Maria Concetta Pantusa (1936, 1894-1957) tried to enter the convent and become nuns. All three had a deep mystical life and were endowed with special charisms, such as stigmata, ecstasies and visions. They tried to hide their graces from the world and preferred seclusion to the limelights. Even the renowned Tyrolean stigmatics, Maria Von Mörl (1812-1868) and Maria Domenica Lazzeri (1815-1848), had problems with accepting and enduring their unwanted popularity. Despite their wishes, both had become famous religious figures. Hundreds of articles that were dedicated to them appeared in the main newspapers of the time, and thousands of faithful and curious visited them in their houses. Von Mörl refused in most cases to speak and interact with the spectators. Lazzeri confessed to her spiritual father that she desired not to be disturbed by pilgrims, especially by sceptics and unbelievers who made fun of her. The Roman stigmatics, wives and mothers, Elisabetta Canori Mora (1774-1824) and Anna Maria Taigi (1869-1837) did not aspire to enter a cloister, but lived a ‘mixed life’, that is a combination between secular and religious spirituality. During the day they took care of their daily chores, and when their families went to sleep in the evening, they spent their nights in meditation and prayer.

St Catherine

St Catherine of Siena portrayed in prayer in her room (Ruusbroec Library)

The search for peace and isolation could, therefore, be both physical (locking oneself in a monastic cell) and spiritual (hiding graces from the world). This solution was not always an option. Elena Aiello (1895-1961), for example, entered the convent at fifteen years old hoping to spend her life there but, due to an accident, she had to leave. For some stigmatics, seclusion was not a free choice, but rather the punishment issued by a religious authority, such as the diocesan bishops or the cardinals of the Holy Office. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Sardinian abbess Maria Rosa Serra (1766-post 1806), confessed after years of notoriety to the bishop that she had lied about her divine charisms. The Monsignor removed Serra from her position as abbess and condemned her to perpetual isolation in a monastic cell. The same fate fell upon Maria Agnese Firrao (late nineteenth century-1855) and Ester Moriconi (1875-1937). In their case, the Holy Office condemned the stigmatics as false saints. Firrao was transferred to another city where she died 30 years later (the penalties could be very severe and last long) and Moriconi was interned in a psychiatric clinic in Milan, far from her religious community and the faithful. The ecclesiastical authorities regarded isolation as the best solution to block these women’s reputation for holiness among the people. In the files of the processes instigated against them, we read how the clergymen only isolated the ‘offenders’ when they were able to. They did not want to transform stigmatics into popular ‘martyrs’ of the faith, unjustly condemned to a life of isolation. They tried to prove their fraud and to destroy the credibility and authority these women held in their community.

Numerous stigmatists experienced social exclusion for different reasons. Some for a few months or years (as Palma Matarrelli and Padre Pio), others for a lifetime (as Firrao and Moriconi). Some of them had led a very active and busy life, received visitors and pilgrims, and had gained significant public influence. After the conviction or voluntary isolation, everything changed. Elisabetta Canori Mora, for example, belonged to the upper Roman bourgeoisie and led a worldly life before she embraced the mystical path. When she chose to dedicate herself to the Lord, she abandoned all privileges. Her new routine no longer included gala dinners, theatre and elegant clothes, but occasional meals, continuous penances and a humble basement where she could pray isolated from the world. We can read about the daily routines in her spiritual diary. Elisabetta used to cook fish for her daughters on Friday, since, in line with Catholic tradition, this is the day of the week in which the Passion of Christ is remembered, and meat is prohibited. Furthermore, in moments of spiritual despair, she ate a small piece of dark chocolate in order to alleviate her suffering. Other stigmatics also adapted themselves to their changed lives. Maria Agnese Firrao, in her prison-cell in Perugia, received letters from her faithful, replied to them, and even continued to direct the Roman monastery she had led before her condemnation thanks to her network of alliances. Imprisoned in an asylum, Palma Matarrelli received visits from her supporters. For many stigmatics, meditation and introspection were ways to abandon society and its problems to get in touch with the Lord. However, even in isolation, they created new routines and means to deal with the new situation productively. Nevertheless unique and exceptional our situation may seem, before us many people have experimented with forms of isolation and seclusion, and their example can teach us how to turn limitations into opportunities.