Sister Act

EVEN AS A LITTLE GIRL, Benedetta Carlini, born in a Tuscan mountain town in 1590, had the kind of persuasive charm possessed by politicians and good salesmen. When she played with a feral dog and it attacked her, she told her parents that the dog was the devil, come to earth to torment her. When she was caught playing with a nightingale, then thought to be a dangerous symbol of sensuality and lust, she explained that the bird was a guardian angel. After Benedetta joined a convent of Theatine nuns in 1599, she began having revelations from God. In one vision, Benedetta was again attacked by feral animals; Jesus appeared and chased them off, telling her that he would always be there to help her.

At first, Benedetta’s stories were greeted with skepticism. Women were thought to be stupider and more inclined to sin, more easily tricked by the forces of evil, and so their visions were more likely to be demonic fakes. A woman who asserted confidently that she had seen a vision from God was thought to have been played by her own pride and arrogance. If women mystics wanted authorities to believe that their visions were true, they had to swear up and down that they were false. Benedetta wouldn’t do this; she insisted her visions were real. This made them suspicious.

But when Benedetta developed an illness, in the form of intense pains that would paralyze her at night, church authorities began to take her claims to spiritual insight more seriously. She was assigned a companion, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli, who was supposed to remain with her at all times. The convent slowly began to arrange itself around Benedetta’s visions, and her whims. As Benedetta accumulated power, these became more visceral and baroque. One Friday night during Lent, Jesus appeared over her bed and gave her the stigmata. She was appointed abbess and began going into trances in public, speaking in the voices of angels. In many of these episodes, she spoke as a male angel, Splenditello, who would relay messages from Jesus. Technically, women weren’t allowed to preach in public, but Benedetta didn’t get in trouble. The other nuns and her father confessor abandoned any show of skepticism and embraced her visions as revelations from God.

Giovanni di iPaolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging Her Heart with Christ, tempera and gold on wood, 11 3/4 × 9 1/2''. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Giovanni di iPaolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging Her Heart with Christ, tempera and gold on wood, 11 3/4 × 9 1/2''. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1619, Jesus appeared to Benedetta and announced that he wanted to marry her in an elaborate public ceremony, where he would speak through her to an assembled crowd. On the day of the wedding, Benedetta entered the chapel leading a procession of novices dressed as angels. She narrated the arrival of the saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus, all invisible to the onlookers. “Now I send you this my servant, who is the greatest that I have in the world,” Jesus said of Benedetta. “He who does not believe in my bride, shall not be saved.” If these words sounded like a threat to the nuns, they didn’t dare say so to Benedetta herself.

Benedetta’s visions contained unusual and lengthy expositions of her own merits, immodest demands for publicity, and some conspicuously convenient timing. Church inquisitors were eventually called in to investigate. Among other things, they were skeptical of her stigmata; the wounds on her body seemed to have mostly healed. Benedetta was let out of the interrogation room, but as the investigators were discussing her case, she suddenly ran back in, bleeding profusely from the head. For the rest of the day, she was in too much pain for their interrogation to continue.

It was Bartolomea, her longtime companion, who finally brought Benedetta down. In an interview with church investigators, Bartolomea described, in uncommonly explicit detail, how Benedetta had been having sex with her in the persona of Splenditello, the male angel. According to historian Judith Brown, Bartolomea’s accusation is most likely true, in part because at the time people had such a limited and inaccurate understanding of lesbian sex that it would not have occurred to them to make it up. Benedetta was given an out: If she said she believed that her visions had been false and she had been deceived by the devil, she could remain as a nun in the convent, humbled but in peace. She agreed and lived out what must have been an awkward existence among the Theatines for the next thirty-five years, until her death in 1661. People were not considered responsible for what they did while they were possessed. But for the rest of Benedetta’s life, the convent had an armed guard, to keep her in.

It’s easy to see Benedetta as a deliberate charlatan, boldly scamming the naive nuns and corrupt church investigators for the sake of her own aggrandizement. This kind of false prophet emerges occasionally, as often in our time as in Benedetta’s, though usually they are men. They summon followers to attend to their whims. Like Benedetta, they elicit sexual favors from the women in their inner circles, usually under some kind of ceremonial pretext. Like Benedetta, they accept gifts and live in a style whose opulence undermines their claims to spiritual purity. We all know of these people; know how their material demands and indulgences become greater as their fantasies of persecution become more lurid and paranoid.

But I think it would be a mistake to draw clear-cut conclusions about what Benedetta believed about the truth of her visions. Neither faith nor vanity is so simple; they can coexist and intermingle. Benedetta would not be the first person to get so wrapped up in her own story that she could never quite be sure when she was lying, and she wouldn’t be the last prophet to confuse her own whims for the will of God. Christ and the angels had instructed her to lead, to become a voice of moral authority, to have agency in her sexual and social life—the very things that her culture, and her church, prohibited women from doing. She experienced these impulses not as nefarious subversions but as divine inspiration. For her, the call to freedom was a call to spiritual truth. In that, at least, she was a real visionary.

Moira Donegan is a writer and feminist living in New York.