Saint Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king — and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! This gender-bending virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBTQ people. Her feast day is July 20,
She was removed from the official Vatican calendar in 1969, but Wilgefortis remains in standard Catholic reference works. 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.
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 transgender person, a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or a lesbian virgin.
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 who do not engage in heterosexual activity.
Her veneration began in 14th century Europe and grew until the 16th century, when her story was debunked as fiction. People continued to worship her despite frequent opposition by church officials. She was honored all across Europe, and in some places her popularity rivaled the Virgin Mary. Scholars suggest that her legend arose to explain the Volto Santo (Holy Face) of Lucca, a famous Italian sculpture of the crucified Christ in a long tunic that medieval viewers thought was a woman’s dress.
The history is explored in the book “The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages” by Ilse E. Friesen., professor of art history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. The author traces the emergence of increasingly female crucifixes over the centuries, focusing on the he German-speaking regions of Bavaria and Tyrol, where the veneration of Wilgefortis reached its peak.
Saint Wilgefortis appears on the cover of the 2017 book “The Bloomsbury Reader in Religion, Sexuality and Gender,” edited by Donald Boisvert and Carly Daniel-Hughes (editors). The introduction explains:
Wilgefortis adorns the cover of this reader because her story offers a compelling example of how religion and sexuality intersect. It reveals, first, how sexuality regularly infuses religious devotion and identification…. But there is something more here that solicits our interest in this saint’s story. For it indicates that holiness or sacredness may itself be “queer.” Here we take queer not as an identity (something that Wilgefortis has), but rather as a description of how her story unsettles normative binaries, such as male/female and human/divine.
The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin) or the Old German “heilige Vartez” (holy face). In Spanish she is Librada — meaning “liberated,” set free 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. In Barcelona (Spain), local people honor Múnia de Barcelona, a legendary saint who is similar to Wilgefortis. Her feast day day is Feb. 28.
The saint speaks for herself in singer-songwriter-pianist Rebecca Clamp’s song, “St. Wilgefortis.” Clamp is originally from Cambridge, England, and moved to Helsinki, Finland. She engages in a sweetly quirky dialogue with the saint in a song and concludes:
I won’t marry a heathen
And I won’t marry a saint
I won’t marry at all
Just grow me a beard
And find me a cave
I’ll be a happy little hermit
And I’ll build a little shrine
To my dear St. Wilgefortis
To my dear St. Wilgefortis
The patron saint of bearded ladies
To my dear St. Wilgefortis
So sublime, so sublime
The saint 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. Lopez is best known for her controversial images of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
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!
Uncumber or Wilgefortis (Queering the Church)
To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Santa Librada (Wilgefortis): Una santa Barbuda
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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