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Wilgefortis

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Saint Wilgefortis
Kuemmernis museum schwaebischgmuend.JPG
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Feast in some places formerly July 20
Attributes bearded woman; depicted crucified, often shown with a small fiddler at her feet, and with one shoe off
Patronage relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated ("disencumbered") from abusive husbands
Catholic cult suppressed 1969

Wilgefortis is a female saint of popular religious imagination whose cult arose in the 14th century. Her name is thought by some to derive from the Old German "heilige Vartez" ("holy face"), a translation of the Italian "Volto Santo"; others believe it to derive from the Latin "virgo fortis" ("strong virgin"). In England her name was Uncumber, and in Dutch Ontkommer (where her name means escaper). In German lands she was known as Kümmernis (where her name means "grief" or "anxiety"). She was known as Liberata in Italy and France, and Librada in Spain, again as "liberator" from tribulations or husbands.[1]

Art historians have argued that the origins of the cult can be found with the Volto Santo of Lucca (picture:Volto Santo), a large eleventh century carved wooden figure of Christ on the Cross (now replaced by a 13th century copy), bearded like a man, but dressed in a full-length tunic like a woman instead of the normal loin cloth familiar in the West.[2] The theory is that when the composition was copied and brought north over the next 150 years, in small copies by pilgrims and dealers, this unfamiliar image led trouser-wearing Northerners to create a narrative to explain the androgynous icon.[3]

According to the narrative, sometimes set in Portugal, a teen-aged noblewoman named Wilgefortis had been promised in marriage by her father to a pagan king. To thwart the unwanted wedding, she had taken a vow of virginity, and prayed that she would be made repulsive. In answer to her prayers she sprouted a beard, which ended the engagement. In anger, Wilgefortis's father had her crucified.

Wilgefortis prague 1139v

Saint Wilgefortis in the chapel in Prague's Loreta, Czechia.

Wilgefortis was venerated by people seeking relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated ("disencumbered") from abusive husbands. A folk etymology derives her name from virgo fortis, "strong virgin." In Sigüenza, Spain, Wilgefortis was confused with Saint Liberata, the sister of Saint Marina of Aguas Santas, also celebrated on July 20.

Wilgefortis-wambierzyce

Saint Wilgefortis in Wambierzyce, Poland.

St Wilgefortis remained popular in the North until the end of the Gothic period; there is an especially attractive carving in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey of a beautiful standing Wilgefortis holding a cross, with a very long beard.[1] She also appears, very lightly bearded, on the outside of a triptych door by Hans Memling [2]. She was decisively debunked during the late 16th century (after a period in the 15th and 16th centuries in which she was popular), and thereafter disappears from high art, although lingering well into the 20th century in more popular forms, especially in Bavaria and Austria[4], but also in northern France and Belgium.

She is often shown with a small fiddler at her feet, and with one shoe off. This derives from a legend, also attached to the Volto Santo of Lucca, of a silver shoe with which the statue had been clothed dropping spontaneously at the feet of a poor pilgrim (eventually pilgrims made off with so much of the Volto Santo that the present replacement was needed). In the Wilgefortis version the poor devotee became a fiddler, perhaps in the 13th century.[5]

The legend of Saint Wilgefortis plays a part in Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, and the saint is mentioned in Reginald Hill's "Arms and the Women." Her feast day was formerly observed on July 20; the Roman Catholic Church removed her commemoration in the liturgical reform of 1969.

Her Abbey and the bearded sisters figure prominently in the second book of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting.

The legend of Wilgefortis is obliquely referenced in the song "Overachiever" by the Crash Test Dummies.

The story of Kümmernis plays a significant part in Olga Tokarczuk's novel House of Day, House of Night.

References

  1. Ilse E. Friesen (2001). The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages, pp. 47–8. ISBN 0-88920-365-2
  2. The Volto Santo is sometimes described as typical of early Byzantine robed crucifix's, eg in John Shinners (2003). "Religion, Popular: Cult of Saints", in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Supplement 1. ISBN 0684806428. But no comparable large carved figures formed part of Byzantine art, whilst there are several surviving from Germany. Any Byzantine influence is very remote, as the face and hair are typical of German crucifixes, and many Ottonian manuscripts show robes in crucifixions. The Byzantine examples are from icons, illuminations or small relief carvings. See G Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. II,1972 (English trans from German), Lund Humphries, London, figs 327–37, 379–394, 455–75, ISBN 853313245
  3. James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art, p 172, 1983, John Murray, London, ISBN 0719539714
  4. Fiesen op. cit.
  5. Fiesen op. cit. Ch 3

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