Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Saint Wilgefortis: Bearded woman

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

St. Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! Her feast day is today (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.
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.”

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!

Last year this post generated many comments with various theories about Wilgefortis -- as the patron saint of intersex people, as a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, as a powerful lesbian virgin. Thanks to Yewtree for this link to a photo of Wilgefortis by contemporary French artists/romantic partners Pierre et Gilles. It’s at the bottom of this German-language page about Wilgefortis:

Another modern appearance of the saint occurs in Castle Waiting, a critically acclaimed graphic novel by Linda Medley. One of the main characters is a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

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