Stigmata are wounds which appear on the body of exceptionally devout Christians corresponding with the wounds on Jesus Christ’s body during the crucifixion, specifically on the palms and joints of the hands, feet, and the upper body. Stigmatics are almost always ecstatics, people who experience trances, visions, and whose minds are given to moments of ecstasy in which the worldly senses are suspended and one experiences a sense of transcendence, awe, or fear.
The phenomenon traces its historical roots to the thirteenth-century, with St. Francis of Assisi, who received his first stigmata in 1224, just two years before his death, after experiencing a vision during the Feast of the Cross, a feast which commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. While Francis was praying, and experiencing the vision of a seraph with six wings and hands extended, and attempted to comprehend this vision, wounds began to appear on his hands and feet, seemingly pierced by nails. In 1230 Thomas of Celano wrote:
“His hands and feet seemed to be pierced through the middle by nails, whose heads appeared in the inner sides of the hands and on the upper sides of the feet and their pointed ends on the opposite sides. The marks in the hands were round on the inner side, but on the other side they were elongated; and some small pieces of flesh took on the appearance of the ends of the nails, bent and driven back and rising above the rest of the flesh. In the same way the marks of the nails were impressed upon the feet and raised in a similar way above the flesh. Furthermore, his right side was as though it had been pierced by the lance and had a wound, which frequently bled and covered his tunic and trousers with his sacred blood. He made every effort to conceal this miracle from both friars and those outside the order.” [i]
Though Francis attempted to hide his marks, they were witnessed by several friars, monks, and lay people during his lifetime. These marks seemed to not go away, and remained even after his death two years later. The significance of his stigmata had much to do with the supposed miracles that were accompanied in relation to the stigmata, such as the appearance of his stigmatic wounds on images depicting him, and his tomb having the miraculous ability to heal others of their wounds, diseases, and ailments.
St. Francis was thus amongst the first Christians to be considered a martyr not having perished a typical martyr’s life, that is being killed for his belief, but a martyr in the sense of living his life in a state of penance and suffering, bearing open wounds. St. Francis was the first documented stigmatic, and though it is considered a miracle, it was obviously one that gave him – and would give others in the future – a great amount of paint and shame.
Since the thirteenth-century over three-hundred Christian mystics and ecstatics have had definite recorded stigmata’s. Over sixty saints of both sexes had this experience, including the co-patron saint of Italy Catherine of Sienna. This phenomenon, though medieval in origin, has continued into the twenty-first century. The most notable twentieth-century stigmatic was the Italian priest Padre Pio (1887-1968), who from 1918 until his death in 1968 experienced the stigmata on his hands.
The scientific community has attempted to explain this phenomenon. Medical officials who have examined ecstatic do not claim that the wounds are not genuine, yet they cannot prove that they are supernatural. Some have posited that the ecstatics create these wounds during their ecstatic or hysterical experiences, where they may not be aware that they are mutilating themselves while in a dissociative state.
 Stigmata derives from the Latin stigma, meaning “mark or brand made onto the skin with a hot iron,” or simply, to “puncture.” It can therefore be translated as simply bearing the brand of Jesus Christ. Prior to the 1600s this term was mostly used as to describe brands on slaves, or brands of shame or disgrace, but has since been applied almost exclusively to seriously devout Christians who experience these supernatural marks.
 Thomas of Celano (c.1185-c.1220) was a Franciscan friar and contemporary of Francis, hailed from the small town of Celano in the Abruzzi region, entering the Order in 1214. He was the first hagiographer of Francis.
[i] Robson, Michael. St. Francis of Assisi: the Legend and the Life. London: Continuum, 1999. 263.