Saint Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! This virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBT people. Her feast day was July 20 (today) until she was removed from the Vatican calendar in 1969.
Wilgefortis remains in standard Catholic reference works, and images of her as a bearded woman on a cross are plentiful across Europe and in Latin American folk retablos.
She probably originates more in popular imagination than in history, but Wilgefortis continues to be an object of devotion in folk religion, a favorite character in pop culture and an inspiration in queer art.
The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). In Spanish she is Librada -- meaning “liberated” from hardship and/or husbands. She also goes by a bewildering variety of other names. Her alternate English name Uncumber means escaper. In addition, she is known as Liberata, Livrade, Kummernis, Komina, Comera, Cumerana, Ulfe, Ontcommen, Dignefortis, Europia, and Reginfledis.
Legend says that Wilgefortis was the teenage Christian daughter of a king in medieval Portugal. She had taken a vow of chastity, but her father ordered her to marry a pagan king. She resisted the unwelcome marriage by praying to be made repulsive to her fiancé. God answered her prayers when she grew a beard.
Unfortunately her father got so angry that he had her crucified and Wilgefortis joined the ranks of virgin martyrs. The church has promoted “virgin martyrs” as examples of chastity and faith, but lesbians and other queer people recognize them as kindred spirits.
Her veneration began in 14th century Europe and grew until the 16th century, when her story was debunked as fiction. She stayed on the official Vatican calendar until 1969. Scholars suggest that her legend arose to explain the Volto Santo of Lucca, a famous Italian sculpture of the crucified Christ in a long tunic that medieval viewers thought was a woman’s dress.
Contemporary readers have come up with many theories about Wilgefortis. She has been interpreted as the patron saint of intersex people, an asexual person, a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or a powerful lesbian virgin.
She is presented in two incarnations -- as Wilgefortis and as Liberata -- in the “Queer Santas” series by Chicana artist Alma Lopez. The series grew out of the artist’s insight that female martyrs may have protected their virginity to the death not so much out of faith, but because they were lesbians. Lopez paints Wilgefortis/Liberata as masculine women in crucifixion poses. They look like butch lesbians, liberating themselves by rejecting feminine appearance and traditional gender roles.
Wilgefortis also makes various appearances in modern literature. The critically acclaimed 1970 novel “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies concerns a scholar researching Wilgefortis. Castle Waiting, a graphic novel by Linda Medley, features a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!
Saint Wilgefortis (Qualia Encyclopedia of Queer Folklife)
Uncumber or Wilgefortis (Queering the Church)
Various images of Wilgefortis (brauchtum.de)
Santa Librada (Wilgefortis): Una santa Barbuda (Santos Queer)
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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