Currently reading : Demon Marks

Demon Marks

22 July 2014

Author : julia-silverman

Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata, 1513-15, by Domenico Beccafumi
Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata, 1513-15, by Domenico Beccafumi

There is a passage from 2 Corinthians that reads, “Being manifested, that you are the epistle of Christ, ministered by us, and written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in the fleshly tables of the heart.” Given that I’m an enthusiast of all things medieval AND of tattoo history, the parallels between the two, especially in this passage, hold obvious importance for me.

For medieval Catholics, the passage was roughly interpreted as meaning that God been incarnated in the flesh through Christ (as opposed to the tablets of Judaism), and this realization almost made possible a goal of internalizing the tenets of Christianity so fully as to inscribe them on one’s heart, thereby conforming oneself to Christ. But the passage’s many interpretations through the texts, images, and objects of the Middle Ages make the seemingly tenuous tattooing reference a bit more interesting.

From the stigmata–which a professor once kindly pointed out to me, served as a plausible derivation from the Latin word for “tattoo”– to the tale of Henry Suso (1295-1365 AD), a Dominican friar who literally inscribed the name of Christ into his skin with a grifel, a writing implement, tattoo references abound.

Suso showing some skin, c. 1640
Suso showing some skin, c. 1640

Anyway, the point of this is to introduce this article from Bowdoin, called “Demon Marks Lay Bare the Twisted History of Tattooing.” It concerns the 17th century, not the Middle Ages, but I still found it particularly interesting given the context above, although the article’s scope goes far beyond what I’ve written. ALSO, I can’t take any credit for finding this–it came to my attention thanks to Marisa Kakoulas of Needles and Sins.

“In the seventeenth century you see women tattooing themselves with holy names and the sign of the cross,” says [Katherine Dauge-Roth, author of Signing the Body in Early Modern France]. “One devout widow engraves the name of Jesus on her chest to avoid remarriage. It was a way of saying, ‘I belong to God,’ of affirming their spiritual commitment and identity.”

Other women come by their inscriptions after a run-in with the devil.

Jeanne des Anges, an Ursuline nun from Loudun, France, experienced possession, exorcism and demonic “exit” marks that ultimately transformed her into a saintly character. “Jeanne reportedly had seven demons in her body,” says Dauge-Roth. “When they exited they left several marks, including the inscription of four saints’ names on her hand.

“What is fascinating about these marks is that, apart from their merit as Catholic propaganda, they bring a newfound sense of identity– and even power–to the woman who bears them. They take Jeanne from being a marginalized demonic to becoming a figure who is re-embraced by her faith and made almost saintly.”

An engraving of Jeanne des Anges, ca. 1638, shows the nun displaying her signed hand. - VIA BOWDOIN
An engraving of Jeanne des Anges, ca. 1638, shows the nun displaying her signed hand. – VIA BOWDOIN

Read the rest here.



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