Haunted History: The Supernatural Life of Benedetta Carlini
I recently watched the film Benedetta (2021) and it blew me away. I loved it. And I was especially fascinated that it was based on the life of an actual 17th century nun. Is it horror? Not really, but it is an interesting history that has a mystical element to it. Carlini was a nun who claimed to see mystical visions from God, and after many trials the Vatican deemed her fraudulent. The investigations also uncovered that she had a sexual relationship with anotner nun. Let’s get into it.
Benedetta Carlini was born on January 20th 1590, in the countryside village of Vellano in Italy. And it was actually Benedetta’s birth that sealed her fate as a servant of God. During her birth, her father was told that there was a chance both mother and child may not survive. He made a pact with his Lord, that if Benedetta survived, he would ensure she became a nun. Benedetta’s name means ‘Blessed.’ From the moment she came into the world, her life was determined to be dedicated to religious education and practice.
Benedetta grew to be especially interested in the Virgin Mary and St. Catherine of Siena.
(Side note: St. Catherine deserves her own exploration at some point. She was born in 1347 and defied the will of her parents in order to devote her life to religion. She ended up being a close advisor to the Pope, a mystic, activist, writer and an official Doctor of the Church. She’s known for her mystical marriage to Jesus. Something that we will see Benedetta mimic during her life.)
Interestingly, Benedetta was taught at home by her father. Not by her mother as was traditional for the time. Her childhood seems to have been very ventured around religious learning. When she was young, Benedetta was attacked by a dog. Her family interpreted this as the Devil at work.
When she was nine years old, Benedetta was brought to a convent in Pescia (where the film mostly takes place.) Interestingly, the ‘convent’ was not officially sanctioned. It was more of a group of pious women who lived together and shared a common passion of Christ. They also produced silk to afford their lifestyle. Because there was a boom in this way of life, most religious groups in the area required the ‘Brides of Christ,’ or up and coming monks to pay for entrance into these communities. It’s also worth noting that the community Benedetta joined would often self-mutuate or flagellate themselves in penance.
When Benedetta was 23 years old she started to experience visions. This is where things really get interesting. Her visions were all consuming and would seemingly transport her to another realm. To those with her, it appeared that she would go into a trance. In some of these supernatural experiences, Benedetta would be taken to a beautiful garden or the bottom of a huge mountain. Always with a message. It’s interesting to note that prayer through visualization was a normal practice at the time. And there is evidence that Benedetta had encountered these guided visual prayers before her first vision occurred.
There was a mixed reaction. Her Father Confessor seemed to not be skeptical that the visions were happening, but unsure if they were tricks from the Devil meant to test the nun. By 1617 the visions took on a new level of intensity. They evolved from messages from Christ into dark nightmares of men pursuing her with weapons. Around this time she also started to experience extreme physical pain.
One evening, between two and three in the morning, reports claim that Benedetta experienced the stigmata. She saw a crucifix that shot red rays of lights from its points to her hands, head and feet. This process of nuns receiving the stigmata through rays of light (what looks like laser beams in historic paintings) was totally unknown to me, and feels very science fiction-y. Though at first the stigmata was painful, later Benedetta said that it turned into the loveliest feeling of warmth and love. Another nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, was nearby when this happened and vouched for Benedetta. She said she saw red markings around Benedetta’s body, but that the wounds were not bloody. Experiencing the stigmata is a common theme among Saints.
Because of her visions and stigmata, Benedetta was chosen as the Abbess in the Spring of 1619 and many that had doubted her started to change their tune. During sermons, Benedetta would rarely address the nuns directly. Instead, she was often in trance channeling an angel who was believed to be preaching through her body. Very supernatural sounding if you ask me. Another note, usually women (even the Abbess) were not allowed to speak publicly or lead sermons. The only reason this was allowed was because Benedetta was thought to be in a trance-like state. This piece of history reminds me in some ways of the Spiritualist movement of the Vicotiran Era in the United States. Another spiritual situation where women were able to find their voice and be leaders, which traditionally was not accepted in Christian religions at the time. Perhaps Benedetta, who had devoted her entire life to God, wanted the ability to preach to the nuns that she oversaw. Only speculation on my part, but it doesn't seem so crazy to me.
Things get a bit wilder from here. Soon after, Benedetta claimed that she was visited by Christ, who wanted to take her heart. Literally. After some back and forth, she agreed and claimed to live for three days without a heart in her chest. Again, Bartolomea verified this by saying she felt a void in Benedetta’s chest during this period. After three days, Christ returned and put a new heart into the nun.
On May 20th 1619, Jesus again visited Benedetta in a vision and told her that they would be married a week later. He left her with very specific directions about how the convent should be decorated for the event. Surprisingly, the father confessor allowed the decoration of the convent and the wedding preparations to proceed.
When the day came, Benedetta was visited by Jesus who presented her with a ring that only she would see. Several nuns in attendance claimed that her voice was ‘more beautiful than usual.’ Though, of course, some of the other nuns doubted this supernatural wedding. And suspicion started to spread through the convent that Benedetta was not actually experiencing visions, but was using them as a way to get attention and support.
Benedetta was met with further criticism because her sermons (the angel or Jesus using her voice) would often praise her. Which was not usual for a religious leader. The day after the wedding, a high ranking religious official came to investigate the truthfulness of Benedetta’s visions. During this investigation her wounds from the stigmata had turned bloody and raw. She underwent months and months of examinations and questioning. After an outside church representative came to investigate, and after Benedetta told the Provost that if he continued the investigation God would unleash the plague on Pescia, he found her innocent and she was reinstated as Abbess.
In one more wild moment in history, Benedetta was able to resurrect herself. On March 25th 1621, when Benedetta was 31 years old, she died. The other nuns witnessed this and called for help. However, when the religious official commanded Benedetta to return to her Earthly body, she did so. Simple as that.
After some time another investigation was launched. With the Protestant Reformation, Christianity started to see a shift from the mystical and supernatural to a more grounded view of religion. It also effectively changed the requirements for Sainthood, deeming claims around phonemonan like the stigmata to be unfounded. During this investigation, the other nuns in the convent started to come forward and report inconsistencies in Benedetta’s claims. Several even reported times they’d seen her fake miracles. But that all paled in comparison to the information Sister Bartolomea revealed.
Bartolomea had been assigned to help take care of Benedetta during her visions. Her testimony revealed that their beds had been pushed together, so that Bartolomea could help take care of the Abbess if she was experiencing extreme pain during a vision. Bartolomea also revealed that Benedetta had, several times a week for two years, engaged in sexual intercourse with her. Because lesbianism was so outside the realm of possibility to this religious community, it was almost incomprehensible to the investigators. Benedetta went on to claim that during these acts she had been possessed by the male spirit of her guardian angels. During this time, the punishment for sapphism was usually to be burned at the stake.
Seeing no other way out, Benedetta now confessed that her visions must have been from the Devil all along. And because society at the time viewed women as unillegent and unequal to male leaders, she was imprisoned at the convent until she died at the age of 71.
The 2021 film incorporates a lot of Benedetta’s true history, though of course it takes some liberties. In a way, the fact that Benedetta’s story is still being told is a testament to her will power to lead and live outside the confines of her strict and pious society.