The Renaissance was a watershed moment in history in a number of respects. From the 14th to the 17th century, Europe experienced a significant cultural, political, artistic and economic rebirth, following the decline of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Middle (or Dark) Ages, records of which are sparse.

The cultural shift that became characteristic of the Renaissance period in history endured and laid the foundations for the technological and scientific progress of the 20th century, also in terms of the exposure that members of the LGBTQI community enjoy today. This shift was all encompassing, especially when we consider the iron grip that the Catholic Church still had around the world during this period in history. It comes as no surprise, then, that a lot of the church’s concerns at the time had to do with scientists, philosophers and artists directly going against the grain of what the church taught and believed at the time.

It is well known that Galileo Galilei had to face the Roman Inquisition for his then-claims (which we now know to be fact) that the earth moves around the sun, and not the opposite, as had been previously believed. But one religious leader, who would have remained in obscurity, had records of her trial not been discovered in the 1980s, deserves an honourable mention.

Visions of grandeur

Benedetta Carlini had been dedicated to the church as a baby, and would leave for a convent of the Order of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary (commonly known as the Theatines) at age 9. Carlini began experiencing visions in her early twenties – these would, interchangeably, be the blessing and curse of her life.

At the tender age of 30, Carlini was made the abbess of the convent, and it was during this time that she was assigned a young nun, Bartolomea Crivelli, as a companion to assist her with her tasks as manager of the convent. Benedetta was still experiencing visions, and there was concern that she was being harassed by demons, hence Crivelli would share her cell and keep watch. Carlini began delivering sermons (during a time when even women in relative positions of power never took to the pulpit) and her visions intensified to include stigmata – physical manifestations on the self of the bodily wounds, scars and pain that Jesus Christ experienced during his crucifixion.

Benedetta Carlini revealed that she had had a vision on 20 May 1619, in which Jesus had appeared and said he wanted to marry her. The “marriage ceremony” was subsequently held. During the wedding, Jesus gave a sermon through Carlini, in which he supposedly said that Carlini was to be recognised as the “empress of all the nuns” and that “he who does not believe in my bride shall not be saved”. Talk of heresy began doing the rounds, and a trial to investigate Carlini was scheduled late in May 1619.

Physical examinations of the stigmata found nothing too untoward, and Carlini was restored to her post. It was only after she allegedly “died” and was resurrected with her memories of Paradise intact, that papal investigators were summoned to thoroughly investigate the abbess’ claims. It was during this second investigation that Carlini’s companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, would confess that Carlini was transformed into the beautiful angel Splenditello at night, when she would make love to Crivelli, “[putting] her under herself and kissing her as if she were a man, she would speak words of love to her… she would stir so much on top of her that both of them corrupted themselves”.

As the legal status of non-penetrative lesbianism was unclear in 17th century Italy (despite homosexual acts between two men being completely condemned) and since Benedetta Carlini confessed that she had been corrupted by the devil, ascribing the acts she committed to Splenditello, she was not convicted as a heretic, but rather condemned to a life of involuntary hermitage, spending the last 35 years of her life in solitary confinement. Her story was shrouded in obscurity until American historian, Judith Brown, came across records of Carlini’s trial in the state archives of Florence in the 1980s.

Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, famous for films like RoboCop, Basic Instinct and Total Recall, has undertaken to take Benedetta Carlini’s story to the silver screen. Benedetta, set for release in 2020, is the film we’ll be discussing in the GaySA Radio movie club during Rainbow Talk on Friday, 1 February. Tune in between 12:00 and 15:00 to listen to this fascinating story.