Stigmata is the plural of the word stigma, which means mark, or brand. However, it is most commonly used to refer to
"Bodily marks or pains resembling the wounds of the crucified Christ"1.
The phenomenon with which this wu shall be considered is that of the several well documented
* cases of people who have experienced stigmata, but without any apparent physical cause. This is considered miraculous by the Catholic church, and many sufferers have been canonised
*Those in recent times
The first recorded sufferer of these mystical stigmata was St. Francis of Assisi, during the 13th Century. There have been many cases since then, including in the recent past, and even the present.
Location of Stigmata
According to the Bible, Christ received several wounds before his death. The most significant of these were the crucifixion wounds. It is interesting to note, that while all our sources seem to point to the nails being driven between the bones of the forearm, almost all stigmatics seem to suffer on their palms. This could be seen as evidence that stigmata are caused by some psychosomatic pathway in the body of the sufferer, who probably believed that Jesus was nailed to the cross by his hands. The other crucifixion wounds that Jesus suffered from were those located on the feet, but these are less common among stigmatics.
There are three other kinds of wound that Jesus received prior to his death. The first of these is the marks of the whip with which he was beaten.
And Pilate, wishing to content the multitude, released unto them Barabbas, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.
St. Catherine de' Ricci
is one of the few recorded cases of such stigmatatics.
Stigmata which appear on the forehead are connected to the crown of thorns with which Jesus was mocked.
And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and arrayed him in a purple garment; and they came unto him, and said "Hail, King of the Jews!".3
According to the gospel of John there is one more wound with which stigmatics might be afflicted. This is the spear thrust used to see whether Jesus was truly dead.
But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs: howbeit one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and straightway there came out blood and water.4
This is not mentioned in the other gospels, and may be a product of Johannine redaction, especially considering the Old Testament
proof texts quoted soon after, which could have been mentioned to fortify the theme of Jesus as fulfillment of the Law. Nonetheless, this is the wound often referred to as Jesus "fifth wound
", and is accepted by the Catholic
As mentioned above, Stigmata can be either visible, or be simply an inexplicable pain. The characteristics of physical stigmata vary somewhat, and defy conventional science. Stigmata can appear, and then heal themselves very quickly, and without warning, but seem to occur more often on the days during which Jesus died, and then laid in the grave. Some stigmatics suffer from stigmata often, but in other cases they only occur once.
The most noticable physical characteristic of most stigmata is that they appear to run with blood. During this time, and often beforehand the sufferer will feel pain. Several scientific studies have been undertaken to investigate the fluid that comes forth from these wounds, and the conclusions have varied. In some cases, the fluid seems to be the blood of the sufferer, in other cases the blood appears foreign. In yet other cases the liquid has been found not be be blood at all.
The wounds always appear fresh, no matter what the duration, and in some cases may even seem to emit a pleasant odour. They appear to resemble their supposed cause in most cases, but may be very shallow, or somehow different in other cases. In fact it seems sensible to reaffirm that there are a common set of characteristics with stigmata, but specifics vary greatly.
There are three non-supernatural theories that may explain stigmata
Perhaps some disease, possibly combigned with the action of the mind is sufficient to cause wounds on the surface of the skin. Unfortunately, we must discount this theory, as stigmata do not react to treatment as normal wounds do, and the healing is remarkably rapid.
It is possible that those appearing to suffer from Stigmata inflict the wounds upon themselves, either consciously or during their sleep. While this seems like a good explanation, it cannot stand up to the accounts of spontaneous wound generation and healing, and there is no evidence to back it up. Some apparent cases of mystical stigmata may be due self-inflicted injuries, but this may only apply to a minority of examples, who's mental stability is likely to be questionable.
The most convincing explanation for stigmata is one that postulates that the mind is somehow responsible for causing the stigmata. While not an expert on the subject, I think it is safe to say that while the mind may be capable of many remarkable feats, the creation, and sudden healing of severe wounds is beyond it, as we currently understand. With further study a greater understanding of such phenomena may be acquired, and perhaps this explanation will become sufficient.
For now, the nature and cause of mystical stigmata are mysterious to us, but we have not exhausted all roads of scientific enquiry, and it is still not possible to point to either a divine or mundane cause.
Some Notable Stigmatics
1: Merriam-Webster Online
2: Mark 15v15 : The Bible (Revised Standard Version)
3 John 19v2-3 : The Bible
4 John 19v32-33: The Bible
Notes from a Religious Studies class