Tuesday, July 20, 2010

St. Wilgefortis: Bearded woman

St. Wilgefortis in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loreta Sanctuary in Prague, Czech Republic

St. Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! Her feast day is July 20. This virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBT, queer and transgender folk.

Here’s an account of her life by Terence Weldon, a gay Catholic who blogs on queer and religious matters at Queering the Church, where this summary first appeared.
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A wonderful example of a sainted bearded lady?

Unfortunately, Saint Wilgefortis may also be an example of a ‘saint’ whose biography is more popular fiction than recorded history. Still, she is listed in the standard catholic reference works, and has had an official feast day, as well as bewildering array of aliases, among them Liberata, Kummernis, Uncumber, and Livrade, Of the biographical details, take them as you will. For what it is worth, the legend says that she was the daughter of a king, who had taken a vow of virginity. When her father wanted to marry her off to the King of Sicily, she prayed for deliverance from this evil fate. Whereupon she grew a beard. What self-respecting king would want to marry a bearded princess? Her father was said to be so enraged at this that he had her crucified. This may be the reason she became known as the patron saint of difficult marriages – but crucifixion seems an extreme way to end one.

Modern skeptical scholars suggest that the story of her beard and crucifixion are sheer invention. Spoilsports! Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Sadly, her “cult was suppressed and she was dropped from the calendar in 1969.″
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[Note from Kittredge Cherry: Here are a few more fun facts about St. Wilgefortis. Her veneration arose in 14th century Europe, and her story is often set in Portugal. The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). Her English name Uncumber means escaper, while she was called Liberata in Italy and France, and Librada in Spain -- meaning “liberator” from hardship or husbands!]
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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9 comments:

Valerie said...

Or maybe she had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which has as one of its component parts a more typically male distribution of body hair, often on the face. My mother's facial hir kicked in around 27 or so, I believe, while mine kicked in while I was around 11-12 years old!

KittKatt said...

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome sounds like a real possibility for Wilgefortis. Her legend is certainly mysterious and intriguing on many levels. Thanks, Valerie, for sharing insights based on your experience.

Turtle Woman said...

This was an incredible tale. The virgin is a woman of power in medieval times, and also a symbol of lesbian resistance against male sexual colonization. She'd be considered a gold star today!

KittKatt said...

Yes, Turtle Woman, the story of Wilgefortis resonates with my experience as a lesbian -- needing to resist marriage to a man and in the process becoming “masculine” in the eyes of the world.

This post is getting a lot of attention and funny comments on Facebook. One of my favorites is a MAN who wrote, “I wish I was being forced to marry a pagan king.”

I also learned that there is a critically acclaimed comic book called “Castle Waiting” in which one of the main characters is a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!

Yewtree said...

Hi, I like St Wilgefortis because her feast day is also my birthday (go figure). Pierre et Gilles did a photo of her, and there's a page about her here in German with a copy of it.

She also gets a mention in one of Robertson Davies' novels. It is likely that her legend arose because people mistook depictions of Peter crucified upside-down for a bearded lady, apparently. Also it may be something to do with the Holy Face of Lucca.

Apparently women prayed to her if they wanted to be rid of troublesome husbands.

J. C. said...

interesting blog

KittKatt said...

Happy birthday, Yewtree! And welcome, JC, I look forward to getting to know you.

The Pierre et Gilles photo is amazing -- a contemporary Wilgefortis in vivid color looking somewhat like a drag queen. Thanks for the link, which includes some nice historical renditions of Wilgefortis, too.

There seem to be many theories of why the legend of Wilgefortis arose. I think it has something to do with a basic human fascination with androgyny. To my surprise, this is one of my most popular posts.

Anonymous said...

The committee is still out on the validity of the Saint. My own view, for what it is worth, is that she did exist. There are many stories of the monarchy in every dynasty turning reality into myth.
Clearly St Wilgefortis is the Patron Saint of Intersex People.
Pax. Br Graham-Michoel

KittKatt said...

Brother Graham, thanks for waking me up to the possibility that the church hierarchy may have suppressed the reality of St. Wilgefortis. I was too willing to relinquish her story as “too good to be true.”
It’s fascinating to me how many different people seem to identify with St. Wilgefortis -- intersex, lesbians, queers, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, pagans, women in bad marriages… She seems to stand with many outsiders.