It is the sort of thing they make religious horror movies about. A young woman presents herself at a hospital in Florence complaining of inexplicable bleeding from her face and hands. Doctors who examine the 21-year-old Italian woman can find no evidence of abrasions or lesions on her face or appendages. For three years the spontaneous bleeding continued. To confuse the matter further there were no obvious triggers; in the October issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal her doctors explained that this bleeding would happen when she physically exerted herself, but it would also occur when she was sleeping.
To the religious it sounds somewhat like stigmata, the phenomenon in which especially holy individuals spontaneously experience the wounds inflicted upon Jesus during his crucifixion. The origin of the term is Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, in which he declares, “I bear on my body the marks (stigma) of Jesus,” but the first recorded case of stigmata was Francis of Assisi (namesake of Pope Francis and founder of the order of Franciscans). Most reported cases of stigmata involve bleeding from the sites of the “holy wounds”: the wrists or feet (from the nails used to attach Jesus to the cross), or from the side (from the lance that pierced Jesus in the Gospel of John). Most stigmatics are members of Roman Catholic religious orders and, according to Michael Carroll’s Catholic Cults and Devotions, about 80 percent of them are women.
More rarely, stigmata involves wounds to the head, from where the crown of thorns was pushed into Jesus’ scalp, marks on the back that are associated with the scourging received before his death, and crying or sweating blood. Some stigmatics claim to feel the pain of the wounds without exhibiting any outward signs of being wounded.
Sweating blood is not technically a wound inflicted upon Jesus immediately before or during his crucifixion, but it does have biblical roots. According to Luke 24:43-44, as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest, a strengthening angel appears and he starts to sweat “drops like blood.” Even though this detail only appears in one of the Gospels, it has captured the popular imagination: several modern languages, including French and German, use the metaphor “to sweat blood.”
The interesting thing, though, is that these two verses are omitted in many of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament. Dr. Hugh Houghton, director of Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing at the University of Birmingham, told The Daily Beast that “the detail about Jesus’ sweat being like drops of blood in Luke 22:43-4 goes back to early Christian tradition, [but]it is unlikely to have been part of the original text of Luke’s Gospel. It is missing from two papyri and the most important early… manuscripts of Luke.” This isn’t a new observation, either, as early as the fifth century Christian writers began to ask questions about the strange history of these verses.
Their lack of presence in the documentary record raises some questions about the phenomenon of stigmata. If these verses aren’t original to the Gospel of Luke and somebody added this into the New Testament, then we can say with some certainty that this event never happened. If it did not, we have to wonder what is going on with the stigmata; how can people experience holy wounds that Jesus himself never felt? Are they faking it or does intense spiritual meditation enable them to manifest sympathetic wounds?
Not every New Testament scholar agrees that these verses are secondary. Claire Clivaz, a distinguished text critic, argues in her book L’ange et la sueur de sang (Lc 22,43-44) ou comment on pourrait bien encore écrire l’histoire that these verses are authentic. For Clivaz the reason the verses were omitted from early manuscripts is because they were popular with a group of Christians that the scribes viewed as heretics. Even if the verses are authentic, this doesn’t mean that this detail is historically accurate. Only the Gospel of Luke mentions this element of the story, and this makes it less likely to be true.
Even if we put aside the issue with the manuscripts, there’s a similar problem when it comes to stigmata associated with the nails in Jesus’ hands. One of the most famous medieval stigmatics was Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, an early 20th century Italian friar and mystic. Over 50 years Padro Pio experienced first a painful mark and then bleeding from his feet and the palms of his hands. In the aftermath of World War I Padre Pio became a beloved symbol of hope, but a number of people both religious and non-religious accused him of faking his wounds. In his book The Other Christ: Padre Pio and 19th Century Italy, historian Sergio Luzzatto accused Padre Pio of using carbolic acid to manufacture the wounds (the Catholic Church countered that he used the carbolic acid to sterilize syringes for vaccinations).
What’s strange about Padre Pio’s wounds is that he, like Francis of Assisi, bled from the palm of his hands. On the face of it, this makes sense, Catholic crucifixes and Western art depict Jesus as nailed to the cross through the palm of his hands. Most scholars, however, think that Jesus was nailed to the cross through his wrist bones (a sturdier anchor point for the weight of his body). The biblical passages that describe the nailing of Jesus use a Greek word that could equally refer to the hand or the wrist, so the problem is not with the text itself. But this interpretative mistake does raise some questions about stigmatics who bleed from the palms of their hands. If the wounds don’t correspond to the historical crucifixion, do they have religious significance at all?
The situation is only complicated by the existence of both non-Christian stigmata and, now, a medical explanation. The authors of the recent CMAJ article have diagnosed the woman with hematohidrosis, a rare medical phenomenon in which “blood sweat” is discharged through unbroken skin. They cite a 2009 article from the Indian Journal of Dermatology in which “acute fear and intense mental contemplation” are identified as “the most frequent causes” of this kind of bleeding. The phenomenon has been observed in prisoners awaiting execution and was noted as early as Aristotle, who described sweat that “either looked like or really was, blood.”
None of this means that this new Florentine case of hematohidrosis is or is not also stigmata (real or faked). The Roman Catholic Church believes that God can work miracles through natural phenomenon, so this isn’t a silver bullet in the religious interpretation of stigmata. Moreover, we know very little about the woman who “sweats” blood from her forehead and feet. We don’t know if she is religious, much less Catholic. According to the medical report, her condition has apparently alienated her from others and has led to panic attacks and bouts of depression. Fortunately, by providing a medical (rather than spiritual) evaluation, doctors realized that there’s a quick fix for her stigmata. According to the article, a beta blocker for high blood pressure led to a marked reduction in her symptoms.