When the Saints Go Arting In: Wilgefortis
Today I learned about Saint Wilgerfortis, a woman who took her vow of holy chastity so seriously that when her father wanted to marry her off she prayed to God to make her unattractive and God responded by giving her a beard. This made Wilgerfortis’s father so angry that he had her crucified which, even given the fact that attitudes towards gender fluidity and facial hair have changed a lot over the last few centuries, feels like a bit of an overreaction.
Generally considered a bit of a legend who stuck to her guns and challenged heteronormativity, Wilgefortis’s existence has been broadly challenged, with many people thinking she was just made up unlike countless other religious things that are absolutely true like dragons. Either way, the art is magnificent.
In this German depiction Wilgefortis’s missing shoe is the least of her worries, along with the problem of what to wear to a crucifixion. I don’t care who you are or how many shoes you’ve got, that dress is fabulous. I’d say it’s probably an inappropriate time for a violin solo though, especially if you’re particular about wanting your audience to clap afterwards.
Hieronymus Bosch depicted Wilgefortis with just the tiniest hint of a beard like Kiefer Sutherland in The Lost Boys, and with a come-fight-me stance like Marky Mark when he was with The Funky Bunch, if he’d been wearing a very good frock and sleeve tattoos. Everyone at Wilgefortis’s feet is freaking out about a lady with a beard, and one has even fainted — probably a conservative politician. They’re very sensitive, you know.
This statue of Wilgefortis in a shrine in Prague is incredible partly because it’s one of those rare instances where a crucified bearded lady is more interesting than two amputated arms at her feet, and partly because it’s impossible not to imagine that every now and then she tries to blow that errant piece of hair away from her eyes.
Here, in a museum in Austria, Wilgefortis is blatantly challenging God’s ability to make her unattractive, with her lush corsetry, Greta Garbo eyes, and obvious hug-readiness. There’s not a person alive who wouldn’t consider taking this piece out for a respectfully suggestive cocktail and a chat about pain relief.
Other artists have been less generous to Wilgefortis, painting her while she’s still in her dressing gown and curlers, looking a bit upset that the artist didn’t wait until corsets and not crucifying people were more fashionable.
Anyway, that’s Saint Wilgefortis, a woman blessed with a great wardrobe, an enviable beard, some admirable stubbornness and honestly a bit of bad luck. Still, she really took it on the chin.