The human reception of the stigmata is the only miracle that can be called a thoroughly medieval one as accounts of it are not found in the early Church. It was in 1224 with Francis of Assisi that explicit examples of the miraculous reception of the wounds of Christ's passion were first documented. After Francis, there were dozens of reported cases of stigmatization during the Middle Ages, and the meaning of these phenomena was widely debated. Some theologians (e.g., James of Voragine) believed that stigmatization was an occurrence that could be effected through an individual's devotional imagination and his or her focus on the crucified Christ. Others (e.g., Bonaventure) argued that it was a unique miracle that could happen only to Francis of Assisi. It was claimed by some (e.g., Thomas Caffarini) that stigmatization varied from case to case: for example, it could include people who inflicted bodily mortification on themselves, or those who received the marks miraculously through following a strict regime of prayer and fasting. There were also other churchmen (e.g., Robert of England) who believed the notion was a fraudulent heresy. Most theologians believed in the possibility of the reception of the stigmata and its concomitant indication that a person had become perfected in the image of God. This particular discussion of deification, or theosis, as related to stigmatization has been almost completely overlooked by scholars.
These debates have never been explored systematically. To date, scholarly research on the stigmata has normally entailed case studies of Francis of Assisi and how his stigmata have been depicted in art. The locus classicus is Chiara Frugoni, Francesco e l'invenzione delle stimmate. Una storia per parole e immagini fino a Bonaventura e Giotto (Turin,1993). This exceptional book sets out an explanation of Francis’s stigmata, arguing that discussions of this phenomenon by the Franciscan order helped create an institutional identity that claimed that this spectacular miracle was a singular event that defined not only Francis’s unique deification but indicated that the Franciscan order was literally marked by God. Frugoni’s study does not provide an analysis of the idea of the stigmata outside of a Franciscan context. My research will show that discussion of the stigmata was a more widespread theological matter. I will analyse the precise motives for this miracle’s origin and development in the thirteenth century. Moving into the fourteenth century and beyond, I will consider sermon literature, theological treatises and iconography that treat this phenomenon, not only regarding Francis of Assisi but also (and especially) Catherine of Siena as well as other stigmatics. My terminus ante quem will be the end of the sixteenth century, a point at which stigmatic theology became extremely articulated.
My research will rely on a number of sources, but the main ones are sermons, theological treatises, and iconography. Sermons have been barely noted by historians in this context, but they were the distinctive form of teaching and communicating most associated with theologians of the later Middle Ages; they encapsulated the core arguments put forward in regard to stigmatic theology, and they served effectively as the battleground of debate concerning the stigmata. Among the sermon literature I shall study are unpublished or insufficiently studied sermons by a number of preachers, including Thomas Caffarini. Iconographical depictions of stigmatization also demonstrate the nuances of stigmatic theology which some theologians believed were inadequately expressed by words. Finally, there are several theological treatises which discuss the implications of stigmatization and the meaning of deification. Moreover, they discuss how stigmata should be depicted in art so as to ensure a clear and accurate theological understanding of the five wounds. The treatise De sanguine Christi (Rome, 1471) by cardinal Francesco della Rovere also contains key aspects of the theological issues related to the stigmata. When this cardinal became pope later in 1471 (as Sixtus IV), he pursued a robust campaign in regard precisely to how the stigmata could or could not be portrayed in paintings and sermons. These matters will be considered in the larger picture of stigmatic history.
Although Francis of Assisi was the first identifiable stigmatic, the figure of Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) was equally at the core of late medieval and renaissance stigmatic theological discussion. Catherine of Siena's active and influential involvement in both political and religious affairs was paralleled by her fame as a stigmatic. The place of this holy woman in Christendom and her role as stigmatic brings together several crucial issues in medieval devotion: the extent to which women could be involved in ecclesiastical matters; the notion of a genderless spirituality wherein men and women were considered equal in religious perfection; and the manner in which stigmata could be received (e.g., through spiritual asceticism).
My research will assist in bringing a better understanding of the meaning of stigmatization, the place of deification in Western Christianity, and specifically the role of Catherine of Siena in medieval and early modern attitudes to these matters. It will demonstrate that the theological discussions on the stigmata were not only debated and discussed among theologians but they were presented to the people through sermons and art. Furthermore, it will show that some arguments put forward by medieval preachers and theologians regarding stigmatization emphasized the individual’s role in bringing about such a miraculous event. I will consider this line of reasoning vis-à-vis the so-called 'emergence of the individual' in Western Europe.
My research will be dedicated in the first instance to three publications: 1) A c.12,000-word article, arguing that sermons and art related to the most renowned medieval stigmatics, Francis and Catherine, reveal that considerations of deification through devotional practice were robust in the Latin West. This aspect of stigmatic theology will be considered in a proposal accepted by Professor Walter Melion for a book he is editing, The Authority of the Word: Reflecting on Image and Text in Europe, 1400–1700, to be published in 2011 by Brepols. 2) A longer article, on the development of the idea of the stigmata, looking at its earliest allusions in the twelfth century to elaborate treatises on it in the early sixteenth century, treatises which outlined detailed discussion on the causes, origins and meaning of the stigmata. This will be submitted to a major journal. 3) An article that examines the figure of Catherine of Siena as presented in late medieval and renaissance sermon literature; special attention will be given to the matter of the stigmata. This article will appear in a book I am co-editing with Beverly Kienzle (Harvard) and George Ferzoco (Bristol), and which we have contracted to publish with Brill. (Other contributors to the book include authorities such as Maiju Lehmijoki-Gardner, Thomas Luongo, Suzanne Noffke and Jane Tylus.)
It is my plan for the three connected pieces of research to be effected during my fellowship to lead to a pioneering monograph with additional analysis of how stigmatics interacted within their communities, and a detailed consideration of ecclesiastical, political and lay responses to stigmatics.