Sealed in Skin

Sigillography as Scarification in the Late Middle Ages

Kathryn Dickason1

Only the sign remains of that original sin as you contract it from your father and mother when you are conceived by them. . . . The inclination to sin, which is the scar that remains from original sin, is a weakness as I have said, but the soul can keep it in check if she will.

. . . I have told you of the good the glorified body will have in the glorified humanity of my only-begotten son, and this is the guarantee of your own resurrection. What joy there is in his wounds, forever fresh, the scars remaining in his body and continually crying out for mercy to me the high eternal father, for you! You will all be made like him in joy and gladness; eye for eye, hand for hand, your whole bodies will be made like the body of the Word my son.2

In these two excerpts, St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) gives a religious allegory of scars. In the first passage, procreation transmits the primordial Fall to successive generations. Passed down in the form of scars, these remnants of Adam’s transgression expose humanity’s moral failings; they are imbricated into the very sinews and sutures of our being. Catherine remains hopeful, as the will to reject evil tempers one’s temptation to sin, ushering in a possibility for redemption. Catherine continues to develop this motif in the second passage. Christ’s scars remain on his exemplary body for intercessory salvation. Receiving his resurrected, wounded body, Christians can reclaim their likeness to the imago Dei (image of God). Catherine’s manipulation of the scar turns an accident into an act of providence. The scar encapsulates the transformational thrust of Christianity: from original sin to divine mercy. In this way, I argue, scars function as a seal (sigillum), authenticating creation’s indelible connection to the Creator.

As Catherine’s words, suggest, the medieval scar (cicatrix), both actual and symbolic, external and internal, emitted flexible meanings. In hagiography (saints’ lives) and visual sources, scars marked the body of a religious practitioner as testimony to a miraculous event. For theologians and polemicists, the incontestable presence of scars validated doctrinal truths and discredited heresy. Battle wounds, illness, and most stigmata produced involuntary scarring. Martyrs, crusaders, and mystics set themselves up to be scarred in the name of God.3 The making of manuscripts, too, involved scarification. Scribes produced written artifacts by inscribing parchment—made from flayed animal hides—with quills and ink. Conscious of their sacrificial act, scribes sometimes stitched sutures onto the manuscript page. Scribal scarification reminded the reader that making a book required the sacrifice of a living animal, just as saving humanity required the sacrifice of the agnus Dei (lamb of God).4 Scars therefore reconfigured the subject’s body (animal, human, or divine) as a meaning-making surface, a sign (signum) to be read. They at once sealed the surface of the body and amplified its communicative potential.

Despite the presence of scars and scarification in religious and secular materials, scholars have not studied them in depth. Caroline Walker Bynum and others focus on the symbolic acts of bleeding, weeping, flowing, and wounding in religious practice and the imagination. Yet few investigations have wrestled with the material aftermath, or remainder, of physical rupture.5 This paper instead show how medieval scars—far from remaining skin-deep—transmitted theological significance for religious communities. Going beyond traces of flawed flesh, medieval scars imbued sacred time, individual identity, and theological premise with perceptible form.6

My investigation of the Western medieval sources (c. 1200–1450) demonstrates how scars became theologically intelligible as seals. In medieval material culture, wax seals were indispensable tools of authorization, identification, and communication. A comparison between scars and medieval sigillography, the study of seals, highlights how scars shaped and reconciled the dialectic between individuality and corporate (Christian) identity.7 Of particular interest to me in this paper is the religious underpinning of seals’ signifying power. For medieval Christians, the semiosis of seals presupposed that humans bear the divine imprint of God, the original seal. In this way, the seal relates to the scarred body of Christ, which re-erected the bridge between humanity and divinity, cosmos and world. To my knowledge, medieval discourse on seals and on scars were not directly related. Semiotically speaking, however, this paper demonstrates how scars and seals operated in a comparable fashion. Both functioned to signify and authorize a particular presence.

This paper contains three sections. First, I address how scars worked sigillographically, essentializing and authenticating personhood in the course of one’s life and afterlife. St. Francis of Assisi serves as my principal example. Within the logic of sealing, the scars from Francis’s stigmata authenticate a past encounter with Christ and situate him within an apocalyptic landscape. Second, I explore the affinity between scars and seals through the lens of theological aesthetics. The scars of virtuous individuals were beautiful because they achieved semiotic transparency between seal and sealed, which attested to their close relationship with God. In contrast, scars of evil souls were ugly because they disrupted the affinity between the original archetype and the reproduced image. Finally, I assess the scarified body of Christ as the ultimate seal. Presenting the prototype of redemption, Christ’s scars impressed salvific presence onto Christians. This analysis offers a different perspective on how medieval subjects viewed themselves within the totality of Christian history.

Scarred for Afterlife: The Seal of Identity

Skin, as a sensorial boundary between ourselves and the world, materializes subjective experience. In a classic example from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the flaying of the satyr Marsyas illustrates the intimacy between skin and self. During this horrific incident, Marsyas exclaims “Why are you stripping me from myself?”8 This tearing away of Marsyas’s identity reduces his body to a single wound.9 While skin naturally undergoes many metamorphoses in the course of life, scars—however faded they become—remain on the skin. Despite the passage of time or change of circumstance, the scar maintains its appearance and reveals what may otherwise remain hidden. In poetry, literature, and popular culture, scarred bodies display enduring markers of personal identity; they make the individual stand out from the multitude.10 In medieval Christianity, the permanence of scarred flesh could not be reduced to a dermatological aberration. Congruent with the seal, the scar reified the individual, refashioning an abstract persona into a concrete symbol. Scars as seals captured one’s essence and historicized their rapport with divinity. Both defining factors remained with medieval Christians until the end of time.

During the High and Late Middle Ages, sophisticated theories of the Resurrection took scarification to a new level of significance. According to eschatological theories, the body in general, and scars in particular, were so integral to identity that their physical presence continued in the resurrected body and lasted for eternity. Medieval Christians were not only scarred for life, they were scarred for afterlife. Indeed, a tight correlation between the body and selfhood in the Middle Ages, as Caroline Bynum has shown, undergirds theological debates on bodily resurrection.11 For example, in Augustine’s Civitas Dei (City of God), interrelations between bodily remains, self, and the end of days colored ruminations on medieval individuality.12 Scars occupied a critical juncture between the particular (individual identity) and the universal (corporate consciousness). Within this dialectic, the scar operated in the same semiotic fashion as the seal. Medieval seals signified through the system of essentialist semiotics, i.e. the association between God (the sealer) and humankind (the sealed) in relation to the divine imprint. Exercising a signifying mode similar to sealing, scars recognized the individual and mimicked one’s essential unity between Christians and Christ.

Medieval seals, both ecclesiastical and secular, purported to erase the gap between the signifier and the signified. Though not composed of bodily matter, the seal nevertheless conveyed the most salient attributes of the individual it signified.13 Typically appearing on charters, legal documents, and papal bulls, seals authenticated writing and minimized the possibility of forgery. Consider the seal of Robert Fitzwalter (d. 1235). A feudal baron of Essex, Fitzwalter is perhaps most famous for rebelling against King John of England. Along with twenty-four other Englishmen, this revolt culminated in the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” of 1215 that protected the rights of the Church and the barons, thus tempering monarchical power. Fitzwalter’s silver seal-matrix, or sealing device, displays his knightly identity [Fig. 1]. A man of noble rank, Fitzwalter is pictured with knightly accoutrements: horse, hauberk, shield, and helmet. His shield bears his family crest. His horse, donned in the heraldic design of an ally, gallops over a dragon. Medieval seals like Fitzwalter’s condensed the definitive traits of an individual: bloodline, social status, and occupation.

Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter

Fig. 1
Seal matrix of Robert Fitzwalter
England, c. 1219
London, British Museum no. 1841.0624.1

Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, an expert in medieval sigillography, has demonstrated how medieval sealing practices encoded individuality within a theological framework. Seals could represent qualities of selfhood as diverse as reason, will, intention, sex, social rank, and imagination.14 By the tenth century, powerful members of the laity were permitted to have their own seals (a practice formerly granted exclusively to royalty and clergy of superior rank). And by the twelfth century, sealed objects could substitute for the physical presence of the person they signified.15 Just as the Creator infuses his image onto creation, the seal matrix imprints its icon onto hot wax. Throughout the High and Late Middle Ages, the seal, the sacred origins of its signage, lent legitimacy to its pictorial tokens of identity, presence, and authority. The religious undertones of seals became particularly potent after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Following this council, the transubstantiation, or the transformation of the communion rite into divine presence, became official doctrine. Within this model of the Eucharist, the things (wafer and wine) actualized what they signified (body and blood). This semiotic essentialism reinstated the congruence between the sealer and sealed, matrix and impression. The seal’s transparent agency was theologically generative. It helped restore humankind’s original likeness to God, which had been obscured in the postlapsarian age following Adam’s sin.16 Therefore, the post–Lateran IV incarnational theology gave warrant to seals (even of a secular variety) to simulate individual presence and evoke its divine source.

The marked bodies of thirteenth-century saints provide further evidence for this semiotic shift. Embossed with the image of Christ, the scarred body of St. Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) was the paragon of individual and integral holiness. Francis received numerous scars that signified his exceptional sainthood and portrayed him as the crucified Christ. For instance, a letter by Elias of Cortona (d. 1253), one of the earliest members of the Franciscan Order, extols Francis’s scars:

And now I announce to you a great joy, a new miracle. The world has never heard of such a miracle, except in the Son of God, who is Christ our Lord. A little while before his death, our brother and father appeared crucified, bearing in his body the five wounds, which are truly the stigmata of Christ. His hands and feet were as if punctured by nails, pierced on both sides, and had scars that were the black color of nails. His side appeared pierced by a lance, and often gave forth droplets of blood.17

Francis’s stigmatic body emblematized his extraordinary personhood. Duplicating the trace wounds of Christ’s body, as medievals understood them, Francis bore the true likeness of God. His scars both set him apart (in the true sense of the word sacer), and refashioned him as a transparent image of divinity imprinted onto matter. As evident from Elias’s account, Francis’s scars garner significance by impressing, or sealing, his Christ-like persona. The stigmata, as sealed scars, places Francis’s identity along a historical continuum. It documents a past event and foreshadows an imminent return, transporting the saint’s essence for life and afterlife.

Elsewhere, Francis’s disciples draw attention to the timelessness of his scar. Thomas of Celano (d. 1265), the first biographer of Francis, privileges the saint’s side scar as his residual wholeness. Francis’s interaction with the seraph, however transient, formed a flowing mark on his side: “His right side was marked with an oblong scar, as if pierced with a lance, and this often dripped blood, so that his tunic and undergarments were frequently stained with his holy blood.”18 This vision at once stamped Francis’s body with a personal signature and recalled the intercessory discharge from Christ’s side wound, as depicted in late medieval Last Judgment scenes. More specifically, the fluidity of Francis’s scar reflects Thomas’s desire to represent Francis as a timeless exemplar of holiness and to foster an unchanging vision of the Franciscan Order.19 In consonance with the seal, the scar enables the part to stand in for the whole. For the early Franciscans following the death of their founder, the image of his scar activates the saint’s holy, and wholly omnipresent, nature.

Francis’s identification with the seal became even more important in later decades when St. Bonaventure (d. 1274) recognized Francis as the sixth seal of Revelation (Apocalypse 6:12–17).20 In tension with Thomas of Celano’s purist position, the deployment of Francis’s scars in Bonaventure’s Legenda Maior (Major Legend) promotes religious reform. Following the death of its founder, the Franciscan Order, split between two principal factions, the Spirituals and the Conventuals. The former group aimed to maintain Francis’s own lifestyle and to practice their devotion to him outside the strictures of ecclesiastical authority. The latter sought to assimilate the Order into the world while working within the institutional framework of the Church.21 In 1260, the Chapter of Narbonne commissioned Bonaventure (the newly elected Minister General) to compose an authoritative biography of Francis, presumably to harmonize the Order’s festering conflicts.22 With his Conventual leanings, Bonaventure was more calculating in his recounting of Francis’s exemplary virtue. Rather than emphasizing his individual idiosyncrasies, the Legenda Maior, as Hester Gelber has argued, presented an image of Francis in the form of an “anagogical appropriation” of the body of Christ.23 In other words, embodied devotion achieved mystical ascent. Despite the Legenda Maior’s miraculous milieu, Bonaventure makes it clear that Francis’s body, as a sign of sanctity, is always dependent upon his resemblance to God.24 Perhaps in light of these internal politics, Bonaventure validates Francis’s stigmata with the image of the papal seal:

To confirm this with greater certainty by God’s own testimony, when only a few days had passed, the stigmata of our Lord Jesus were imprinted upon him by the finger of the living God, as the seal of the Supreme Pontiff, Christ, for the complete confirmation of the rule and the commendation of its author.25

Bonaventure recasts Francis into a faithful follower of the traditional ecclesiastical structure. The saint’s scars acquire authenticity through their connection to papal auctoritas. By identifying Francis’s stigmata with the papacy, Bonaventure’s version of the side scar has a decidedly ecclesiological purchase on the Conventual position. The scar encodes orthodoxy, paralleling how the seal accredits validity.

The Legenda Maior, which became the official biography of Francis, championed a typological presentation of the saint. In this mode of representation, Francis presented a typos, an impression or pattern, referring back to its original mold: the imago Dei. Christ, the ideal seal, manifests the perfect convergence between Logos and flesh, sign and thing. His presence is so totalizing that it continued to resonate after he left the terrestrial world for his celestial throne. For instance, “The Ascension of Christ” as narrated in Jacob of Voragine’s The Golden Legend, tells how Christ permanently marked the earth on which he once walked:

Regarding the place from which Christ ascended, Sulpicius, bishop of Jerusalem, says, and the Gloss [Glossa Ordinaria] also says, that when a church was built there [the Mount of Olives] later on, the spot where Christ had stood could never be covered with pavement; and more than that, the marble slabs placed there burst upwards into the faces of those who were laying them. He also says that footmarks in the dust there prove that the Lord had stood on that spot: the footprints are discernible and the ground still retains the depressions his feet had left.26

Here divinity forever seals the earth with holy presence and scarifies earthly matter with remnants of his Incarnation. Christ’s traces reside on the utmost layer of the earth, just as scarred flesh extends beyond the epidermis. Like the seal, they defy forgery and maintain integrity. The Latin text employs the term vestigium for both for footmark and footprint. With each step, Christ’s feet engage in an act of sealing, imprinting divinity onto matter and investing the vestigial imagery with phenomenal presence. The sealed earth authenticates Christ’s spectral continuity, propelling his absence into an actual afterlife.

Beyond Skin-Deep: The Theological Aesthetics of Scars and Seals

The theological aestheticization of scars strengthened the interrelation between seals, signs, and holiness. Hagiographic materials contain numerous examples of this aesthetic turn. Following his stigmatization, St. Francis developed a red scar over his side wound, which contracted into a circle and “looked like a beautiful rose,” according to Bonaventure.27 Francis’s body replicated the wounds of Christ, but Bonaventure chose to highlight the scar’s aesthetic dimension rather than stressing physical pain. In a well-known example from medieval German mysticism, Henry Suso (d. 1366) carved Christ’s initials (IHS) onto his heart with a stylus, cutting his flesh in the divine monogram. Suso then “tore open his tunic and saw that his breast was flooded with radiance and surmounted with a gold cross imbedded with precious, glistening stones.”28 The scars of mortification illuminate with revelation as Suso’s body transforms into a crux gemmata (bejeweled cross) in glory. This transformation runs contrary to Elaine Scarry’s claim that physical pain collapses intersubjective understanding.29 Suso’s auto-scarification liberates communication. Personal pain projects a visual spectacle; penitence progresses into beauty. Readers enter the event, delighting in admiratio of the shimmering emblem. Sealing their subjects with a new identity, these scars aestheticize the body in unique ways that enable the scar to substitute for the virtue of the saint him/herself. Forged as transparent referents of the image of God, the scars of Francis and Suso corroborate their imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ), wholeness, and transcendence.

In the Middle Ages, the importance bestowed upon wholeness, or integrity (integritas) was religious as well as aesthetic. Scars could signify the beauty of God, to which humankind aspires. In the writings of Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, beauty was a theological and philosophical concern.30 Christ channeled his spiritual pulchritude into human flesh. And because Christ never ceases to be beautiful as God and righteous as a man, even his scarred beauty can never be diminished.31 Christ’s resurrected body retained its scars to signify further, rather than to undermine, his glory. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae extends the Augustinian notion that Christ’s bodily markings will not defile him, but rather accentuate his incorruptibility: “Those scars which remained in Christ’s body are not scars of corruption or of defect. Since they are signs of virtue, they are ordered to manifest a greater degree of glory. They even appeared in the places where wounds were a special type of beauty.”32 And as he concludes, “The scars, therefore had to be permanent. . . . Thus it is clear that the scars which Christ manifested after the resurrection never left his body afterwards.”33 The beauty of Christ’s scars was not just visual. Its splendor revealed to viewers Christ’s essential, everlasting meaning.

Within the semantic realm of theological aesthetics, even ugly scars can serve as carriers of sanctity and salvation. In his letter to Oceanus Jerome eulogized the reformed noblewoman Fabiola (d. 399) for her public penitence, which effectively botched her former beauty: “As Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, so He shall not be ashamed of her in heaven. She laid bare her wound to the gaze of all, and Rome beheld with tears the disfiguring scar which marred her beauty.”34 Jerome’s statement implies that the Romans failed to understand the meaning of Fabiola’s scar. While they saw it as detrimental to her self-worth and objective value, Jerome read Fabiola’s scar as a sign of her exceptional devotion and her compatibility with Christ.

The aesthetic desirability of scars is particularly striking given the general distaste for their appearance in the Middle Ages. Consider the evidence from medieval surgery and surgeons’ preferences regarding the tools and techniques of their trade (thread, needles, sutures). For the Italian surgeon Guglielmo da Saliceto (d. 1277), it is clear that the surgical scars aroused an aesthetic concern:

Some people sew it up as skinners sew up skins, and this suture gives the prettier scar. It is also done with [individual] knots and stitches, and here the threads are wrapped around twice the first time and once the second, so that the knot will stay tight, leaving a certain distance between one stitch and the next.35

Similarly, the surgical treatise of Henri de Mondeville (d. 1316) warns his readers about the procedure of removing encysted growths. If done sloppily, it may result in an aesthetically unpleasant scar:

An ugly scar remains there, due not only to the broad cut but to the skin and flesh that originally covered the growth, because since they had been stretched to cover and surround the growth, and nothing of them is removed with the growth, many wrinkles are left in the scar. . . . Others cut off the growth together with the skin and flesh, and if it is a big one, this makes the ugliest of scars.36

While Christ’s scars remain forever beautiful, scars, like seals, were intrinsically unseemly when they distorted the image of their divine prototype. For instance, Bedos-Rezak has provided examples in which seals served as carriers of an individual’s difformitas. Despite the mechanic regularity of sealing, the seal could not dissimulate the evil person behind it. Bedos-Rezak finds evidence for this phenomenon in medieval invectives. According to their reasoning, the seals of suspect individuals would not be considered credible markers of their identity or true repositories of divine presence: “Dissimilitude was the reducible difference between a good model and its aspirant copies, but deformity implies the deliberate bending of the model’s template.”37 Since humankind was crafted in God’s image through a type of divine imprinting, the copy should retain the original presence of its maker. However, if someone despoiled his own image through impiety or sin, he damaged his relation to the divine prototype. When an individual’s malicious character distorted his relationship with the God, his seal of identity no longer enjoyed proximity to divine presence. Accordingly, the wicked are ugly inside and out; conformitas degrades into difformitas.38

In line with this logic, Christ’s persecutors were often branded with scars, skin lesions, and tattoos. These imperfections accentuate their ugliness and distance from divinity.39 Such tropes extended into popular, local legends. In medieval lore, the “witch’s mark” displayed a dark, demonic inverse of saintly stigmata.40 According to a twelfth-century Scandinavian story, Judas received a scar in childhood before he became separated from his family. Years later, his mother recognized the scar following an incestuous union. In this Oedipal drama, Judas’s scar superimposes taboo onto memory, providing a myth of origins for his epic betrayal.41 Moreover, in medieval biblical exegesis, the character of Cain underwent stages of increased deformation. The ambiguous “mark of Cain” (Genesis 4:15) was often construed as a protective sign (signum) by early commentators. Medieval exegetes interpreted it in more incriminating ways: Cain’s curse, his descent into hell, his animal nature, his supposed blackness, or even his Jewishness (the latter contrasting with Abel’s proto-Christian symbolism).42 Whatever meaning was made of Cain’s mark, it clearly served as a visual indicator of his depraved identity.

Medieval poets, too, deployed the sigillographic discourse of difformitas. These writers tended to exhibit anticlerical overtones. Hugh Primas, a cleric and popular poet of twelfth-century Orléans, exposes the corrupt clergy (posing as black sheep lurking among the innocent) by the scar of gluttony on their throats.43 Despite the clergy’s attempt to blend in among the white sheep, their scars signify their inner difformitas. Dante Alighieri goes even further by defacing the corrupt papacy, “[whose] scar of infamy will disfigure the Apostolic See, even until the fire for which the heavens and the earth have been reserved.”44 In this letter, Dante, already exiled from Florence for the past twelve years, writes to a group of Italian cardinals, urging them to restore the papal seat of Rome as they prepared for conclave in 1314.45 Dante’s allegory of the scar alluded to the reprobate Pope Clement V (d. 1314), infamous for his execution of the Knights Templar and for displacing the Roman papacy to Avignon. Clement’s disfiguring scar subverts the legitimacy of the papal seal. Though countering the ideals of theological aesthetics, this unseemly scar and deformed seal nevertheless partake in semiotic essentialism. Scars as seals encase the entirety of one’s being.

Saved by Scars, Sealed with a Promise

Christ’s scars partook in the economy of grace. Etched into the ethos of the Resurrection, these ghostly remainders helped recalibrate this singular event into a continuous process of mercy and forgiveness. Sealed but never closed off, Christ’s scars were a radical site, a state of exception by which human history negotiated and corrected its errors. Theologians treated the doctrinal authenticity of Christ’s scarred body as an evidentiary document, recalling the function of seals. Viewed contractually, just as seals guaranteed legitimacy, Christ’s scars promised salvation. For instance, Dionysius the Carthusian (d. 1497), who argued that Christ willingly poured out all of his blood as a gift, likens the side wound to a door:

For truly a door, like a window, is opened, and thus . . . for us the spiritual door through which the sacraments of the church flow, without which no one enters into true life. And just as from the side of Adam in his first sleep in paradise Eve was formed, so from the side of the second Adam was formed the church. . . . Thus they who saw him who was pierced and the Jews will see this in a future judgment, for the scars of Christ’s five wounds are preserved in his body not only to certify his resurrection but also to convict at the last judgment those guilty of the sin of his death.46

Dionysius explains the significance of the side wound in creational, ecclesiastical, and sacramental terms. The afterlife of Christ’s wounds, in the form of everlasting scars, offers testimony at the Last Judgment. Moreover, Dionysius employs the language of certification (ad certificationem) to describe the five scars, which prove Christ’s triumph over death. In conjunction with the practice of sealing, the scars of God officiate the Resurrection, verifying the promise of salvation.

The passability of Christ’s body enables an infinite concatenation of sealing, linking the faithful to the first impression. Christ’s scar, as the original scar from which all others derive meaning, operates in an identical fashion to the sealing process.47 Bedos-Rezak articulates how seals work in technical and theological terms:

As impressio the seal was a mark, which actualized presence through an originating contact with its causal agent. The very act of imprinting articulated and dramatized these principles of marking origin and materializing presence. The conflation of the seal’s mechanical origin (the matrix) with its human causation (the sealer) naturalized the process of representation, since the seal produced itself as a physical extension of its owner. The seal impression, thus participating in a natural relation with the sealer it represented, embodied the real presence of the individuals who affixed them. The seals’ mode of signification was through incarnation.48

Seared with scars, the resurrected body of Christ materializes his divine status. As the ultimate seal, Christ’s scars are at once temporary and timeless; their historicity presumes their futurity.49

A leaf from a late medieval gradual, or liturgical music book, showcases this paradox [Fig. 2].50 Framed by a border of angels, putti, satyrs, mermen, and decorative objects, a historiated initial depicts Christ trampling over his tomb in triumph [Fig. 3]. Stigmatic traces on his hands and feet remain detectable, while the artist draws attention to Christ’s lateral scar. In the foreground, his tormentors, clad in pagan armor and accented with orientalized features, contrast with Christ’s modest shroud, contrapposto stance, and gesture of blessing. This painted miniature accompanies the musical notation for the introit hymn on Easter Sunday: Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum Alleluia (I have risen and I am with you, Alleluia). His scarred side carries the trace of its former wound, enabling religious onlookers to read the history of his body. The accessible aperture provides a passage to salvation; vestigial matter now signifies conversion, redemption, and transformation. As Karmen MacKendrick explains, “somatic eternity is not the endurance of the body but the transfigurative rhythm and rupture of time and the fullness of life, in and through the flesh.”51 With the unfolding and consummation of the Christian myth, Christ’s subjects are likewise marked, as foretold in Revelation 22:4 (“And they shall see his face: and his name shall be on their foreheads”).52 Sealing the faithful gives them a role in the chain of events that comprise and finalize Christian history. Cast from the same mold, Creator and creation engage in an ongoing interaction between past/future, individual/collective, and humanity/divinity.

Gradual, Antonio da Monza

Fig. 2
Gradual, Antonio da Monza, illuminator
Rome, late fifteenth/early sixteenth century
J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig VI 3, folio 16 recto
Image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Gradual, Antonio da Monza, detail

Fig. 3
Detail, historiated initial with the resurrected Christ

Functioning as seals, scars could collapse the distinction between fragment and totality. As explained in the previous section, medieval Christianity favored integritas and other attributes pertaining to physical harmony. Yet the remarkable sufferings, displaced appendages, and unique markings of the body could metonymically signify one’s identity in toto. A medieval account of the life of St. James the Apostle (son of Zebedee) exemplifies this idea. James prayed to the Virgin Mary on behalf of a dismembered devotee who had been deceived by the devil. This intercession restored the young man to life bearing only the scars of his past mutilation.53 Whereas Christ’s passable body promotes fluid exchange, Mary’s body remains the impassible hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) of chastity.54 The scars of the healed man registered his closeness to Mary, whose sealed body he now mimicked. Integrating pieces into wholeness, his scars signified his physical and spiritual completion (perfectio).

The signifying agency of the scar-seal achieves its highest potency with Christ. For medieval Christians, his scarred image verified the promise of restoration. St. Catherine of Siena expressed in one of her own prayers (“How Fitting Mercy Is to You!”) that Christ’s scar may re-signify the communities of the faithful in relation to his redemptive flesh: “In mercy you preserved the scars in your Son’s body so that he might with these scars beg for mercy for us before your majesty.”55 Catherine’s oration stresses the totalizing significance of scars for medieval Christians. Tarnished by the lineage of original sin, human beings lost their initial closeness to God and, as a result, lost a part of their own identity as creatures emanating from a perfect origin. Christ, as the new Adam, reverses the old Adam’s infamous scar by bearing the traces of his own sacrifice. Renewing the semiotic consonance between God and humanity, Christ’s scarred body recalibrates the seal’s conformitas. All subsequent scars derive significance from their relation to this divine point of reference. In paradise, resurrected bodies will maintain their own scars as keepsakes of their mortal past. The scar in turn transcends individual identity by collectively sealing the triumph of salvation over sin. Although superficially added to his body, Christ’s scars evolved into the sine qua non of his sacred corpus. They emerged as a definitive locus for deliverance in which the contingent became necessary, the signum became the sigillum. At the end of time, it is through Christ’s scars that the hinge of history makes its mark.


Beyond the confines of medieval Europe, a legacy of sealing the self seems to be with us today. The normalization of tattoo culture and aesthetic scarification reveals a compulsion to brand the body with a specific identity.56 Like the medieval seal, this pars pro toto essentialism, also apparent in reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, aims to represent the self within an image on the body.

Other modern practices, however, seem to subvert the essential self. The black market of body commodification, or the transplantation, harvesting, and trafficking of human organs, creates a bioethical and ontological quandary. In contrast to medieval integritas, body commodification uproots individuals’ vital organs (dead or alive) and implants them across geographic, ethnic, and gendered lines, reducing one’s body to “spare parts.”57 Moreover, in the digital age, as prosthetic devices create virtual avenues of interaction. iPads, Google Glass, selfie sticks, and personal drones forge physical and sensory extensions of the body. As bodily surrogates, digital tools change patterns of mediation between self and society, therefore changing the construction of the individual.

In this nexus of post-modern sensibilities and technologies, scars still cling to a condensation of the self. They testify to a phenomenon, to an event that demands our presence. Our scars are quintessentially our own, and trace the meanderings of our personal journeys, as well as the values, desires, and memories that have accumulated in the course of our existences. In the Middle Ages, scars exerted such powerful valences because of the specific pre-semiotic conditions—the Fall, Incarnation, and Resurrection—that helped implement the scar-as-seal. Theological precedents that were in place during the Middle Ages licensed scars to mediate between the contradictions of sin and sanctity, ugliness and beauty, living and dead, genesis and eschaton. The anthropology of the sign depended upon a historically specific anthropology of humankind. Seals and scars, as this paper has shown, exerted a similar semiotic impetus, one that indexed authenticity with a religious resonance. Within a Christian and sigillographic frame of reference, scars promised a homecoming to mythic origins. Their meanings shifted between one context and another. Those in power manipulated them to serve specific agendas. But most importantly for medieval subjects, scars, like seals, reclaimed the Augustinian principle of semiotic integrity: the sign is the thing. They held up a transparent mirror to the faithful showing them from where they came, who they were, and how they will return. They were the beginning of the end.


1. The early phases of this project benefited from insightful conversations with Shahzad Bashir, Kellam Conover, Marisa Galvez, William Mahrt, and Cici Malik. Atticus Bergman, Fiona Griffiths, Barbara Pitkin, and Leah DeVun graciously read previous drafts and provided astute suggestions. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers and editors for their feedback, which enriched the clarity and cogency of my writing. A special thanks is in order for Hester Gelber, who supported my research from the beginning and helped nourish it to fruition.

2. Catherine of Siena, Il Dialogo, XIV, XLI: “Rimase in voi solo il segno del peccato originale, che contraete quando siete concepiti dal padre e dalla madre. . . . Quell’inclinazione al peccato poi, che le resta come una cicatrice, viene indebolita, e l’animo può frenarla, se vuole. . . . Ti parlavo del bene, che ritrarrebbe il corpo glorificato nell’Umanità glorificata del mio Figlio Unigenito, la quale dà a voi certezza della vostra resurrezione. Esultano i beati nelle sue piaghe, che sono rimaste fresche; sono conservate nel suo corpo le cicatrici, che continuamente gridano a me, sommo ed eterno Padre, misericordia. Tutti si conformano a lui in gaudio a giocondità, occhio con occhio, mano con mano, e con tutto il corpo del dolce Verbo, mio Figlio.” In Il Dialogo della Divina Provvidenza, ed. Angiolo Puccetti (Siena: Edizioni Cantagalli, 1998), 57, 94–95; trans. Suzanne Noffke and Guiliana Cavallini,Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 53, 85. It is noteworthy that the Italian term for sign (segno) can also denote a mark, signal, or scar. Elsewhere Catherine explains how the pus drained out of Adam’s sin left him and his descendents with a scar (Il Dialogo XIV, 56–57), and describes Adam’s original sin as a “mortal mark,” which, according to Puccetti, is comparable to a scar, ibid., 56 n. 1.

3. Although this paper focuses on the religious significance of medieval scars, secular sources offer a range of meanings associated with scars, e.g. Francesco Petrarch, Canzoniere, Senilies, and De Remediis Utruisque Fortunae. Incidentally, a recent examination of Petrarch’s corpse revealed the presence of multiple scars on his legs, presumably from horse riding accidents, Elisabeth Rosenthal, “Pathologist on the Hunt for Saints and Poets,” New York Times, October 9, 2004.

4. For studies on the sacrificial use of parchment in the Middle Ages, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Zone Books, 2011), 89–93; Bruce Holsinger, “Of Pigs and Parchment: Medieval Studies and the Coming of the Animal,”Publications of the Modern Language Association 124, no. 2 (March 2009): 616–23; idem, “Parchment Ethics: A Statement of More Than Modest Concern,” New Medieval Literatures 12 (2010): 131–36; Nancy Vine Durling, “Birthmarks and Bookmarks: The Example of a Thirteenth-Century French Anthology,” Exemplaria 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 73–94; idem, “British Library MS Harley 2253: A New Reading of the Passion Lyrics in Their Manuscript Context,” Viator 40, no. 1 (2009): 271–307; Sarah Kay, “Original Skin: Flaying, Reading, and Thinking in the Legend of Saint Bartholomew and Other Works,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 36, no. 1 (Winter 2006): 35–73; idem, “Legible Skins: Animal Skins and the Ethics of Medieval Reading,” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval and Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (2011): 13–32; idem, “Flayed Skin as objet a: Representation and Materiality in Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinage de vie humaine,” in Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Clothwork, and Other Cultural Imaginings, ed. Jane E. Burns (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 193-205, 249–51; Mary A. Rouse and Richard H. Rouse, “From Flax to Parchment: A Monastic Sermon from Twelfth-Century Durham,” in New Science Out of Old Books: Studies in Manuscripts and Early Printed Books in Honour of A.I. Doyle, eds. Richard Beadle and A.J. Piper (Hants, UK: Scolar Press, 1995), esp. 7–9; Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 306–308.

5. Bynum, Christian Materiality; idem, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); idem, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Crying in the Middle Ages: Tears of History, ed. Elina Gertsman (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011); Jeffrey Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany (New York: Zone Books, 1998); Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Richard Kieckhefer, Unquiet Souls: Fourteenth-Century Saints and Their Religious Milieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). Some notable exceptions: Georgia Frank, “Macrina’s Scar: Homeric Allusion and Heroic Identity in Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 511–30; Virgina Burrus, “Macrina’s Tattoo,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 403–17; Karmen MacKendrick, World Made Skin: Figuring Language at the Surface of the Flesh(New York: Fordham University Press, 2004); Virginia Blanton, Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Aethelthryth in Medieval England, 695–1615 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007); Valentin Groebner, Who Are You? Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe, trans. Mary Kyburz and John Peck (New York: Zone Books, 2007). Bynum has some abbreviated discussions about scars and the resurrected body in The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200–1366 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 85–86, 296; idem, Wonderful Blood, 104–107, 129, 144–45.

6. I use the term “trace” literally and metaphorically (as in material fragments, remnants of the past, or sketching progression over time). While I do not invoke Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction in this paper, his concept of the trace and its ability to signify between presence and absence (see Of Grammatologyand Writing and Difference) is another productive way to think about scars as signs.

7. To be clear, I refer to a pre-modern sense of self in which individual identity is self-consciously tied to corporate identity, differing from modern individualism. See esp. Caroline Bynum, “Why All the Fuss about the Body? A Medievalist’s Perspective,” Critical Inquiry 22, no. 1 (1995): 1–33; Colin Morris,The Discovery of the Individual, 1050–1200 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987).

8. Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI, ll. 235–48: “Quid me mihi detrahis?” Interestingly, the Christianized Ovide Moralisé glosses Marsyas’s sin as vain glory, pride, and false hypocrisy, Ovide Moralisé: Poème du Commencement du Quatorzieme Siècle, ed. Cornelis de Boer et al. (Wiesbaden: M. Sändig, 1938), 332–33, ll. 1981–2056.

9. For a psychoanalytical take on the myth of Marsyas, see Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego, trans. Chris Turner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), ch. 4. Claudia Benthien reflects on the relationship between skin and subjectivity more comprehensively in Skin: On the Cultural Border between Self and the World, trans. Thomas Dunlap (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

10. Examples of the scar as an individualizing fixture of identity abound in literature, film, and drama, including the poetry of Kahlil Gibran and Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the pulp fiction series The Purple Scar, a recent film adaptation of Beowulf (2007), and William Shakespeare’s Henry V (act IV, scene iii).

11. Bynum, “Why All the Fuss about the Body?” 1–33. Jessica A. Boon has shown the strong correlation between medical understandings of the body and self-knowledge in “Medical Bodies, Mystical Bodies: Medieval Physiological Theory in the Recollection Mysticism of Bernardino de Laredo,” Viator 39, no. 2 (2008): 261–66.

12. See especially Augstine’s Civitas Dei, XXII. Important scholarly treatments of these resurrection issues include Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in Its Medieval and Modern Contexts,” in Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 253–54; Burrus and MacKendrick, “Bodies without Wholes: Apophatic Excess and Fragmentation in Augustine’s City of God,” in Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality, eds. Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 79–93; Virginia Burrus, “Carnal Excess: Flesh at the Limits of the Imagination,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 17, no. 2 (2009): 247–65.

13. Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, “The Social Implications of the Art of Chivalry: The Sigillographic Evidence (France 1050–1250),” in Form and Order in Medieval France: Studies in Social and Quantitative Sigillography (Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1993), 1–2.

14. Bedos-Rezak, “Signes d’Identité et Princeps d’Altérité au XIIe Siècle: L’Individu, C’est l’Autre,” in L’Individu au Moyen Âge: Individuation et Individualisation Avant la Modernité, eds. Bedos-Rezak and Dominique Iogna-Prat (Paris: Aubier, 2005), 44. Michel Pastoureau has argued that seals, as proto-heraldic devices, could also signify group identity, Michel Pastoureau, Les Sceaux, (Typologie des Sources du Moyen Âge Occidentale, Turnhout: Brépols, 1981), fasc. 36.

15. Idem, When Ego Was Imago: Signs of Identity in the Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 5–57. According to Bedos-Rezak, this shift towards more personalized seals is most evident after the Carolingian period. Whereas Carolingian royal seals abstracted the individual by aligning him with monarchical power, post-millenial seals captured the personal identities of individuals depicted in seals, ibid., 233–35.

16. Idem, “Medieval Identity: A Sign and Concept,” American Historical Association 105, no. 5 (2000): 1491–1503. Even Abelard began to theorize to what extent someone’s personhood could be signified in the absence of their bodily presence, ibid., 1503. For an etymological analysis of this semiotic principle of likeness, see Bynum, Christian Materiality, 231. And for Augustine’s position, see Belford Darrell Jackson, “The Theory of Signs in St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana,” in Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert A. Markus (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1972), 131.

17. Attrib. Elias of Cortona, Epistola Encyclica de Transitu Sancti Francisci (c. 1253): “Et his dictis, annuntio vobis gaudium magnum et miraculi novitatem. A saeculo non est auditum tale signum, praeterquam in Filio Dei, qui est Christus Dominus. Non diu ante mortem frater et pater noster apparuit crucifixus, quinque plagas, quae vere sunt stigmata Christi, portans in corpore suo. Nam manus eius et pedes quasi puncturas clavorum habuerunt, ex utraque parte confixas, reservantes cicatrices et clavorum nigredinem ostendentes. Latus vero eius lanceatum apparuit et saepe sanguinem evaporavit.” InFontes Franciscani, 245; trans. Regis Armstrong, J. A. Hellmann, and William Short in Francis of Assisi, Early Documents: Volume Two, the Founder (Charlottesville: InteLex Corporation, 2006), II: 490; Arnold I. Davidson, “Miracles of Bodily Transformation, or How St. Francis Received the Stigmata,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 458; Cf. Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism, 1200–1350 (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1998), 62. The term stigmata derives from the Greek word for mark, but can also refer to a sign or scar. The Vulgate employs the same term in Galatians 6:17.

18. Thomas of Celano, Vita Prima Sancti Francisci, II.3: “Dextrum quoque latus quasi lancea transfixum, cicatrice obducta, erat, quod saepe sanguinem emittebat, ita ut tunica eius cum femoralibus multoties respergeretur sanguine sacro,” in Fontes Franciscani, 371. St. Bonaventure’s Legenda Maior describes a similar scar: “Dextrum quoque latus quasi lancea transfixum, rubra cictrice obductum erat, quod saepe sanguinem sacrum effundens, tunicam et femoralia respergebat,” in Fontes Franciscani, 892; Adrian House, Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life (Mahwah, NJ: Hidden Spring, 2001), 262–63. It is noteworthy that Julian of Speyer, Francis’s second biographer, eliminated much of Thomas’s text, yet nearly duplicated his predecessor’s description of the scar. (Julian of Speyer, Vita Sancti Francisci, XI.62: “In latere vero dextro cicatrice obductum vulnus apparuit, quod et sacrum sanguinem saepius evaporans tunicam ipsius necnon et aliquoties femoralia tinxit.” In Fontes Francisani, 1080.)

19. For a discussion about Thomas of Celano’s biographical application of indefinite time, see Hester Gelber, “Revisiting the Theater of Virtue,” Franciscan Studies 58 (2000): 26–29.

20. Bonaventure’s prologue to Legenda Maior Sancti Francisci affirms Francis’s identify as the sixth seal of the Apocalypse: “. . . sub similitudine Angeli ascendentis ab ortu solis signumque Dei vivi habentis adstruitur non immerito designatus. . . . Positus est perfectis Christi sectatoribus in exemplum . . . veram etiam irrefragabili veritatis testificatione confirmat signaculum similitudinis Dei viventis, Christi videlicet crucifixi, quod in corpore ipsius fuit impressum.” In Fontes Franciscani, 778–79. See I Corinthians 1:22 for another relationship between sealing and Christian identity.

21. Susan J. Hubert, “Theological and Polemical Uses of Hagiography: A Consideration of Bonaventure’s Legenda Major of St. Francis,” Comitatus 29 (1998): 48–49.

22. Raphael M. Huber, A Documented History of the Franciscan Order, 1182–1517 (Milwaukee: Nowiny Publishing Apostolate, 1944), 522–27; Damien Vorreux, “Introduction to the Major and Minor Life of St. Francis,” in St. Francis of Assisi: Writings and Early Biographies: English Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, ed. Marion A. Habig, trans. Paul Verreux (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1983), 615–26. Cf. Dante, Paradiso, canto XI, eds. Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3:230–231, ll. 106–108.

23. Hester Goodenough Gelber, “A Theater of Virtue: The Exemplary World of St. Francis of Assisi,” in Saints and Virtues, ed. John Stratton Hawley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 31–32.

24. E.g. Bonaventure, Legenda Maior, XIII: “Disparens igitur visio mirabilem in corde ipsius reliquit ardorem, sed et carne non minus mirabilem signorum impressit effigiem.” In Fontes Franciscani, eds. Enrico Menestò and Stefano Brufani (Assisi: Porziuncola, 1995), 892; trans. R. Armstrong et al., Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, 2: 632–33.

25. Ibid., IV: “Quod et certius constaret testimonio Dei, paucis admodum evolutis diebus, impressa sunt ei stigmata Domini Iesu digito Dei vivi tamquam bulla summi Pontificis Christi ad confirmationem omnimodam regulae et commendationem auctoris.” In Fontes Franciscani, 813; trans. Armstrong et al.,Francis of Assisi, Early Documents, II: 559–60; Cf. McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism, 96, 98.

26. Jacobus de Voragine, De Ascensione Domini: “. . . cum ibi postea edificata esset ecclesia, locus ille in quo institerunt uestigia Christi ascendentis nunquam potuit sterni pauimento, immo resiliebant Marmora in ora collocantium. Calcati etiam pulueris a domino hoc dicit esse documentum quod uestigia impressa cernuntur et eandem adhuc speciem uelut pressis uestigiis terra custodit.” In Legenda Aurea, ed. Giovanni Paolo Maggioni (Tavarnuzze: SISMEL • Edizioni del Galluzzo, 1998), I: 481; trans. Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger, The Golden Legend (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1941), I: 292.

27. Bonaventure, Legenda Maior, II.15, “vulnus autem lateris rubeum et ad orbicularitatem quamdam carnis contractione reductum rosa quedam pulcherrima videbatur.” In Fontes Franciscani, 906; trans. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, 2:646. This passage occurs in the chapter about the transferal of Francis’s body and his canonization. In following, Bonaventure offers a description of Francis’s rose-budding side that recalls the Transfiguration of Christ, Legenda Maior, II.15, in Fontes Franciscani, 906. For insights into the multi-symbolism of the rose in the Middle Ages, see Rachel Fulton, “The Virgin in the Garden, or Why Flowers Make Better Prayers,” Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 4, no. 1 (2004): 1–23.

28. Heinrich von Seuse, Leben, IV: “In dem entsank er im selb und ducht in, daz neiswaz liehtes us drungi von sinem herzen, und er lugte dar: do erschein uf sinem herzen ein guldin krúz, und dar in waren verwúrket in erhabenr wise vil edelr stein, und die luhten zemal schon.” In Deutsche Schriften: Im Auftrag der Württembergischen Kommission für Landesgeschichte, ed. Karl Bihlmeyer (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1907), 17, ll. 3–7; trans. Frank Tobin, Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989), 70–71. Jeffrey Hamburger suggests that images of Suso’s bodily inscription parallel Christ’s incarnate Logos: “A bleeding monogram inserted into the text of The Exemplar, it does more than simply illustrate this passage, it identifies the corpus of Suso’s writings with the corpus Christi in the most immediate and tangible fashion,” The Visual and the Visionary, 263. For other references to the aesthetics of medieval scars, see Jill Ross, Figuring the Feminine: The Rhetoric of Female Embodiment in Medieval Hispanic Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 56–75; Brown, The Cult of the Saints, 83; Mechthild von Magdeburg, Das Fliessende Licht der Gottheit, ed. Gisela Vollmann-Profe (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassik Verlag, 2003), 82, 148.

29. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

30. Aquinas articulates a triune theological aesthetic with his three primary conditions of beauty: consonantia (harmony, proportion, or symmetry), claritas (brightness), and integritas (or perfectio, perfection or completeness), Umberto Eco, History of Beauty, trans. Alastair McEwen (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.), 2004, ch. 4. The Thomist standards of theological aesthetics signify beauty with their close conformity with divinity, and integritas in particular was crucial to medieval notions of embodiment, idem, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 89, 92.

31. On the one hand, Christ’s triumph over death inspired the Christus victor theme, whereas the Passion influenced the Christus deformis motif, see Ann W. Astell Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 51–54; Candida R. Moss, “Heavenly Healing: Eschatological Cleansing and the Resurrection of the Dead in the Early Church,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 4 (December 2011): 1009–10.

32. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 54, art. 4, rep. to obj. 1, “Ad primum ergo dicendum quod cicatrices illae quae in corpore Christi permanserunt non pertinent ad corruptionem vel defectum; sed ad majorem cumulum gloriae, inquantum sunt quaedam virtutis insignia. Et in illis locis vulnerum quidam specialis decor apparebit.” In Summa Theologiae: Latin Text and English Translation, Introductions, Notes, Appendices, and Glossaries, ed. C. Thomas Moore, vol. 55 (London: Blackfriars, 1964), 30–35.

33. Ibid., rep. to obj. 3: “Ex quibus apparet quod semper in ejus corpore cicatrices illae remanebunt. . . . Unde patet quod cicatrices quas Christus post resurrectionem in suo corpore ostendit nunquam postmodum ab illo corpore sunt remotae,” ed. Moore, 34. For medieval attitudes toward postmortem scars, see Irina Metzler, Disability in the Middle Ages: Thinking about Physical Impairment during the High Middle Ages, c. 1100–1400 (London: Routledge, 2006), ch. 3.

34. Jerome, Epistola LXXVII ad Oceanum, de Morte Fabiolae: “Non est confusa dominum in terris et ille eam non confundetur in caelo. Aperuit cunctis vulnus suum et decolore in corpore cicatricem flens Roma conspexit,” in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, 55:42. Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg’s study on early medieval nuns and their response to Viking invasions provides another example of voluntary disfigurement in the service of God. In order to protect their virginity and repel potential rapists, a community of Germanic nuns willingly cut off their noses. See “The Heroics of Virginity: Brides of Christ and Sacrificial Mutilation,” in Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Mary Beth Rose (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 46–52.

35. Guglielmo da Saliceto, Chirurgia, II. 3: “Nam vulnus a quibusdam suitur ut pelliparii suunt pelles, et hec sutura pulchrioris est cicatrizationis. Fit etiam cum nodis et nectatione, et in hac sutura revolvitur filium in prima nectatione bis et in secunda semel ut nodus firmior remaneat et dimittatur inter nectum et nectum distantia aliqua.” In Michael McVaugh, The Rational Surgery of the Middle Ages (Firenze: Edizione del Galluzzo, 2006), 99. Medieval surgeons often praised the formation of white pus, as opposed to fetid pus, which was believed to produce better healings and scarring than the latter type, Rosanne Gasse, “The Practice of Medicine in Piers Plowman,” The Chaucer Review 39, no. 2 (2004): 193–94, n. 12.

36. Henri de Mondeville, Chirurgia, III.1: “Quia cicatrix remanet ibi turpis tam propter incisionem secundum latum quam propter cutem et carnem, quae erant super apostema, quae propter comphrensionem et defensionem apostematis distendebantur et quia de eis nihil amovebant cum apostemate, ideo ibi in cicatrice remanent multae rugae. . . . Alii totam excrescentiam cum cute et carne amputant et isti, si sit magna, turpissimam faciant cicatricem,” in McVaugh, Rational Surgery, 124. Additional materials on the ugly effects of medieval scars include Alaisina Yselda, “Na Carenza al bel cors avienenz,” inSongs of the Women Troubadours, eds. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White (New York: Garland, 2000), 96-97, ll. 17–20; Paolo Santoni-Rugiu and Philip J. Sykes, A History of Plastic Surgery (Berlin: Springer, 2007), 55; Marie-Christine Pouchelle, The Body and Surgery in the Middle Ages (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 167, 227; Claudio Da Soller, The Beautiful Women in Medieval Iberia: Rhetoric, Cosmetics, and Evolution (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri-Columbia, 2005), 118; Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Not of Woman Born: Representations of Caesarean Birth in Medieval and Renaissance Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990), 33, 39.

37. Bedos-Rezak, “Difformitas: Invective, Individuality, and Identity in Twelfth-Century France,” in Norm und Krise von Kommunikation: Inszenierungen Literischer und Sozialer Interaktion im Mittelalter, eds. Alois Hahn, Gert Melville, and Werner Röcke (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2006), 268.

38. Ibid., 263–66. Bedos-Rezak draws from Arnulf’s Invectiva (c. 1133), in which he criticized the difformitas, or bad image, made by the sinful and the enemies of Christ: “You, Pietro, as you roll from vice to vice, obfuscating the brightness of the divine face that was sealed upon you [signatum super te lumen divini vultus], de-forming the image of God [deformata jam divinitatis imagine Dei], obscuring by your turpitude the resemblance to this image [et ipsius similitudine flagitiis offuscata], how dare you presume to be the successor of Christ, without first assuming his resemblance?,” cited in ibid., 266. Paralleling Bedos-Rezak’s analysis of essentialist semiotics, Judson Boyce Allen, in his overview of medieval literary theory, explains that sin entailed trespassing the sign, whereas innocence required accepting the sign, The Ethical Poetic of the Later Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 44.

39. Ruth Mellinkoff, Outcasts: Signs of Otherness in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Age, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 168, 185, 230.

40. Dyan Elliott, The Bride of Christ Goes to Hell: Metaphor and Embodiment in the Lives of Pious Women, 200–1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 264.

41. Wolf, “The Judas Legend in Scandinavia,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 88, no. 4 (1989): 464; Elizabeth Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 109–110, 218–19. Cf. medieval literary treatments of birthmarks that shame their possessors: Jean Renart, Le Roman de la Rose ou Guillaume de Dôle: Publié d’après le Manuscrit du Vatican par Gustave Servois (New York: Johnson, 1965), 115, ll. 3817–18, 151, l. 5037; Gerbert de Montreuil, Le Roman de la Violette ou de Gerart de Nevers, ed Douglas L. Buffum (Paris: H. Champion, 1928), 29–30, ll. 646–67.

42. Idem, The Mark of Cain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 51–94.

43. Hugh Primas, XVIII, ll. 109–110: “Quantum gula sit lecatrix, none signat hec cicatrix?” in The Arundel Lyrics, 206–7. For more historical context, see James Holly Hanford, “The Progenitors of Golias,” Speculum 1, no. 1 (January 1926): 44–50; Christopher J. McDonough, “Hugh Primas 18: A Poetic Glosula on Amiens, Reims, and Peter Abelard,” Speculum 61, no. 4 (October 1986): 806–35.

44. Dante, Epistola VIII: “. . . cicatrixque infamis Apostolicam Sedem usserit ad ignem, et cui coeli et ierra sunt reservati,” in Dantis Alagherii Epistolae: The Letters of Dante, ed. Paget Jackson Toynbee (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920), 142, 147.

45. Toynbee, “The Laurentian Codex (Cod. Laurent. XXX,8) of Dante’s Letter to the Italian Cardinals (Epist. VIII),” Modern Language Review 13 (1918): 207–208.

46. Dionysius the Carthusian, Expositio Passionis, art. 25: “Nam vere, sicut otium vel fenestra aperitur, sic iste miles aperuit nobis ostium spiritual per quod sacramenta Ecclesiae emanarunt, sine quibus ad veram vitam nemo intravit; et sicut de latere Adae premi dormientis in paradise formata est Eva, ita de latere secundi Adae formata est Ecclesia. . . . Habetur Zach. XII. Illa autem transfixio proprie fuit in Christi lanceatione. Et hoc videbitur a Judaeis in futuro judicio: nam cicatrices quinque vulnerum Christi praeservatae sunt in corpore ejus, non tantum ad certificationem suae resurrectionis, sed etiam ad convincendum in extreme judicio de peccato suae mortis.” In Doctoris Ecstatici D. Dionysii Cartusiani Opera Omnia: In Unum Corpus Digesta ad Fidem Editionum Coloniensium, vol. 42 (Monstrolii: Typis Cartusiæ S.M. de Pratis, 1896), 545–565; trans. Bynum, Wonderful Blood, 170–71.

47. Karmen MacKendrick extends the impact of this phenomenon in her analysis of “multipliable bodies,” in which Christ’s stigmata stays with him yet migrates to other bodies, “The Multipliable Body,” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 1, nos. 1/2 (February 2010): 112–13.

48. Bedos-Rezak, When Ego Was Imago, 235.

49. Cf. Steven Connor’s ruminations on dermal modification (which allow the skin to be in and out of time), The Book of Skin (London: Reaktion Books, 2004), 72.

50. Gradual, Antonio da Monza, illuminator, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig VI 3, folio 16 recto (Rome, late fifteenth or early sixteenth century); Margaret Scott, Fashion in the Middle Ages (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2011), 100–101; the Getty’s Open Content Program: Accessed June 30, 2015. For other relevant illustrations, see Speculum Salvationis Humanae, The Hague MMW 10 B 34, folio 39 verso (Cologne, c. 1450); Speculum Salvationis Humanae, The Hague, MMW 10 C 23, folio 42 verso (Germany, c. 1400–1450); Ci Nous Dit XCIV, Château de Chantilly, Musée Condé, MS. 26, folio 69 verso (France, c. 1340).

51. MacKendrick, Fragmentation and Memory: Meditations on Christian Doctrine (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 133.

52. “. . . et videbunt faciem eius et nomen eius in frontibus eorum,” in Biblia Sacra: Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem, 1905. Interlinear annotation from the Glossa ordinaria explicates that the servants of God shall behold his face in an open expanse, directly and without mediation: “Non enigmate ut nunc sed sicut est. Dei vocabuntur et agni. . . . Id est in aperto, sicut in aperto eum confessi sunt,” in Glossa ordinaria, 4:577. Cf. Apocalypse 7:2–4, 13:14–17, 14:1. The miraculous birthmark of Margrave Frederick the Undaunted, which, according to his subjects, rendered him an eschatological emperor of the Last Days, see Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 142–43.

53. Idem, De Sancto Iacobo Apostolo: “Post triduum igitur solis in illo cicatricibus remanentibus iter arripuit et inuentis sociis omnia per ordinem enarrauit.” In Legenda Aurea, 1:659; trans. Ryan and Ripperger, II: 8. Compare this scar with that of John of Damascus, after the Virgin Mary healed his amputated arm, Vita Ioannis Damasceni, in Patrologia Graeca, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris, Garnier Fratres et J.P. Migne Successores 1860), 94: 429–84.

54. For discussions of Mary’s sealed body, see Honorius Augustodunensis’s Sigillum de Beatae Mariae, analyzed by Rachel Fulton in From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800–1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 248–64; Miri Rubin, Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 27, 219, 311, 378. Mary was of course the exception, as medieval women were believed to possess relatively unsealed, boundary-breaching bodies. For the gendering of bodily fluids in medieval women, see K. Lochrie, “The Language of Transgression: Body, Flesh, and Word in Mystical Discourse,” in Speaking Two Languages: Traditional Disciplines and Contemporary Theory in Medieval Studies, ed. Allen J. Frantzen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 124–25; Peggy McCracken, The Curse of Eve, the Wound of the Hero: Blood, Gender, and Medieval Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), ch. 1.

55. Catherine of Siena, Oratio XIX, ll. 85–87: “Ex misericordia dimisisti cicatrices in corpore agni unigeniti tui, ut cum ipsis coram maiestate tua pro nobis misericordiam postulet.” In Le Orazioni di S. Caterina da Siena, ed. Guiliani Cavallini (Roma: Edizioni Cateriniane, 1978), 217; trans. Mary O’Driscoll,Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity. Selected Spiritual Writings (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1993), 64.

56. Other powerful examples of scarified identity derive from ritual practices in several non-Western religions. For select studies, see Jame C. Farris, Nuba Personal Art (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972), 32–36; Maryrose Cuskelly, Original Skin: Exploring the Marvels of the Human Hide(Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011), 62–63; Ariel Glucklich, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 133–34.

57. Renée C. Fox and Judith P. Swazey, Spare Parts: Organ Replacement in American Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), xiv–xv. For anthropological and historical studies on organ transplants, see Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Bodies for Sale: In Whole or in Parts,” in Commodifying Bodies, eds. Scheper-Huges and Loïc Wacquant (London: Sage Publications, 2002), 1–8; Lawrence Cohen, “Where It Hurts: Indian Material for an Ethics of Organ Transplantation,” Daedalus 128, no. 4 (1999): 135–65; Barbara Newman, “Exchanging Hearts,” 1–20; Caroline Bynum, “Material Continuity, Personal Survival, and the Resurrection of the Body: A Scholastic Discussion in its Medieval and Modern Contexts,” History of Religions, 31, no. 1 (1990): 57–64.

Kathryn Dickason
is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Stanford University. She focuses on western medieval Christianity (c. 1200–1450), with particular interests in embodiment, performance, iconography, gender, early dance history, and medievalism. Currently she is writing a dissertation on the religious ambivalence of dance in the Middle Ages. She received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, San Diego, and a Master of Arts from New York University.