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  • Strange Miracles:A Study of the Peculiar Healings of St. Maria Maddelena de' Pazzi
  • Molly Morrison (bio)

The Renaissance Italian nun St. Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi (1566-1607) entered the Carmelite convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence as a teenager and remained there until her death at the age of forty-one. In the convent, fellow nuns transcribed what she uttered during her numerous ecstasies, today known as her "works."1 However, up until about thirty-five years ago when they were first published, knowledge of Maria Maddalena came primarily from an important hagiographical account written by Vicenzo Puccini, her confessor for the last two years of her life.2 The saint's reported actions and miracles in Puccini's Vita have received considerably less scholarly attention than her "works."3 I wish to examine Puccini's account of two strange miracles Maria Maddalena is said to have performed by licking the putrefying sores of two nuns, as well as another related episode in the convent that involves her eating the filth of human wounds.4 There are similar stories present in saints' lives and devotional texts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I want to show that the representation of saints who lick or consume filthy bodily substances is not simply a fixed and [End Page 129] unchanging motif of hagiographical literature.5 In these accounts, various important themes emerge that are associated with the practice. For example, the saints use it as a penance, an attempt to conquer disgust, or an attempt to seek to achieve heroic feats of self-discipline. I will argue that in these accounts, it is the saints themselves who benefit from this practice. I will show that the representation of Maria Maddalena's actions is distinguished from the actions of other saints and that her actions point to a new theme. Unlike these other cases, the important focus of Maria Maddalena's remarkable lickings of putrid flesh is the healing of the patients for whom she cares. With Maria Maddalena, the representation of this unusual religious practice shifts from an act focused on the self to one that is concerned solely with the well-being of others. The episodes involving Maria Maddalena are ultimately used to associate her with Christ.

Like many saints, Maria Maddalena is shown as having a fervent desire to care for the ill. She frequently visited those in the infirmary, no doubt because she was prohibited from mingling freely among the impoverished sick of public society. The first of the two miracles under discussion occurs in 1589. It involves a nun named Barbara Bassi who suffered from a contagious disease that had spread throughout her whole body, eating away at her flesh.6 Puccini remarks that the woman had repeatedly asked Maria Maddalena for prayers. One day Maria Maddalena went to visit the woman in the infirmary and licked her wounds: "having gone to visit this sick woman, she [Maddalena] was so inflamed with Charity that she began to lick her [Bassi's] hands and arms with her tongue, and she licked wherever the pestiferous disease afflicted her the most."7 Maria Maddalena then told Bassi to have confidence in God and the Virgin, and a few days later the woman was completely healed. In 1591, Maria Maddalena's second bizarre miracle was performed on Sister Maria Benigna Orlandini, who also endured a contagious disease considered to be leprosy by her physicians. Like Barbara Bassi, [End Page 130] this sister had frequently asked Maria Maddalena for prayers. Puccini declares that Maria Maddalena went to the woman and licked her leprous wounds: "she went to where the woman was, and having removed the veils from her head, with her own tongue she licked the woman's ears, and her head, and wherever the disease was greatest, with such great charity."8 In a brief time this woman also was completely healed of her leprosy. These miracles are related to another extraordinary event that also involves Maria Maddalena's licking of wounds. Maria Maddalena lovingly nursed two lay sisters and, in 1592 or 1593, one of the women (Mattea) fell ill with an incurable sore. The wound was...


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