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(stĭg`mətə, stĭgmăt`ə) [plural of stigma, from Gr.,=brand], wounds or marks on a person resembling the five wounds received by Jesus at the crucifixion. Some 300 cases of stigmatization have been attested, nearly all of them being women. St. Francis of Assisi was the first known stigmatic. According to contemporary biographers, he had in his later life wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, which bled profusely and were intensely painful. St. Catherine of Siena reputedly bore invisible stigmata, which became visible after her death. The Roman Catholic Church investigates every such instance but avoids any pronouncement on their nature or cause. Modern stigmatics (including in the 20th cent. Therese Neumann and the Capuchin Padre Pio) have been examined by medical authorities. Scientists are inclined to believe that the stigmata are connected with nervous or cataleptic hysteria.


See R. Biot, The Enigma of the Stigmata (tr. 1962).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The stigmata are wounds that appear on the body that resemble the wounds received by Christ during his crucifixion. The basic wounds are traditionally in the palms of the hands, while others may also occur on the feet, the brow of the head (where the crown of thorns was placed), the side (where Christ was stabbed with a spear), and the back (where he was whipped).

The first appearance of the stigmata is usually traced back to the last years of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226). It initially manifested following a forty-day fast that culminated on Holy Cross Day (September 14), when he had a vision of the crucified Christ. The vision culminated in the appearance of the wounds appearing on his body. The wounds were quite spectacular, and many have suggested that he might have unconsciously inflicted them upon himself while lost in his vision.

Over the next century no less than 30 cases of the stigmata were reported, and hundreds of cases have appeared in subsequent centuries. Included in the list of stigmatists are Catherine Emmerich (1774–1821), whose visionary experience would become the basis for the movie produced by Mel Gibson, The Passion (2004), and modern Italian mystic Padre Pio (1887–1968).

A variety of explanations have been offered for the appearance of the stigmata. It has been noted that they came at a time during which contemplation of the sufferings of Christ for the world was being emphasized as a form of Christian piety. It has also been noted that on occasion people caught up in their contemplation of the sufferings of Christ would unconsciously inflict wounds upon themselves; the wounds on the palm, for example, may result from digging fingernails into one’s hand.

The stigmata generally seem more closely tied to hypnosis, resulting in many body changes accomplished through the power of suggestion during a trance. When such wounds have been produced under hypnosis they usually clear up very quickly. However, the stigmata as demonstrated by Catholic mystics may linger for years. Furthermore, they will often appear at specific holy times of the year. Those seeking something other than supernatural explanations for the stigmata have often concluded that, in addition to the power of self-suggestion, the marks may have some correlation with the person’s propensity for self-punishment. A number of stigmatists have been shown to indulge in self-mutilation, for instance. Catholic scholar Herbert Thurston, who had become an accomplished student of the paranormal, considers the stigmata to be a “pious obsession” stemming from very suggestible people who manifest what he termed a “crucifixion complex.”

One of the problems with the stigmata concerns the placement of the wounds. Thurston noted, for example, that wounds in the side would vary from person to person as to their being located on the right or left side. In recent years it has become common knowledge that during Roman times the crucified had nails driven through their wrists, not the palms of their hands, because the bones in the hand would not support a person’s weight. However, throughout the Church’s history, Christ is depicted in artworks as having the nails driven through His palms. The stigmata, therefore, do not so much reproduce the wounds of Christ as they reproduce the medieval version of the wounds of Christ.


Freze, Michael. They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1989.
Harrison, Ted. Stigmata: A Medieval Mystery in a Modern Age. New York: Penguin, 1996.
Nickell, Joe. Looking for a Miracle. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.
Thurston, Herbert. The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952.
The Encyclopedia of Religious Phenomena © 2008 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


wounds of Christ appearing on others. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 136, 146, 211]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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