St Francis receiving the stigmata

Stigmatic Spirituality

NEW RESEARCH: Signs of Salvation: The Evolution of Stigmatic Spirituality Before Francis of Assisi

The stigmatization was very early on seen as a special Franciscan keynote understood as a divine seal for the order’s rule and right to preach. Francis of Assisi’s reported reception of the stigmata on Mount La Verna in 1224 was accordingly widely reported to be the first documented instance of an individual miraculously and physically marked by the wounds of Christ.

Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata
An old fashion? Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata

“The appearance of this miracle, however, in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, was not as unexpected as it first seems”, writes Carolyn Muessig in a new article. Taking her departure from Galatians 6:17—“I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ in my body” she explores how this verse had been commented upon in biblical commentaries since the early Middle Ages. “These works posited that clerics bore metaphorical and sometimes physical wounds (stigmata) as marks of persecution, while spreading the teaching of Christ in the face of resistance”, she continues.

“By the seventh century, the meaning of Galatians 6:17 had been appropriated by bishops and priests as a sign or mark of Christ that they received invisibly at their ordination, and sometimes visibly upon their death. In the eleventh century, Peter Damian articulated a stigmatic spirituality that saw the ideal priest, monk, and nun as bearers of Christ’s wounds, a status achieved through the swearing of vows and the practice of severe penance. By the early twelfth century, crusaders were said to bear the marks of the Passion in death and even sometimes as they entered into battle.”

Thus it came about that by “the early thirteenth century, “bearing the stigmata” was a pious superlative appropriated by a few devout members of the laity who interpreted Galatian 6:17 in a most literal manner.”

Thus, this article considers how the conception of “bearing the stigmata” developed in medieval Europe from its treatment in early Latin patristic commentaries to its visceral portrayal by the laity in the thirteenth century, which transformed the strict asceticism of monasticism into something altogether more radical and which brought some fervent individuals to associate themselves literally with the wounds of Christ to the point of self wounding.”


Signs of Salvation: The Evolution of Stigmatic Spirituality Before Francis of Assisi
By Carolyn Muessig, Reader in Medieval Religion at the University of Bristol.
In:  Church History, Volume 82: 1, March 2013, pp 40 -68



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