Tag: Abuse

Saint Wilgefortis

Saint Wilgefortis

It is my sincere pleasure to introduce you — my sparkly, queer, and quarantined friends — to my favourite medieval Catholic saint.

Saint Wilgefortis shown on the cross with a beard, a crown, and a light blue dress with a fiddler at her feet. There is a column of text to the left of the image.

Date & Location: 1678, (currently) St├Ądtisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany

Artist: Unknown

Media: I believe it is pigments and ink on a wooden panel, but I will keep investigating! I wanted to get her name out to you all even while awaiting the reopening of libraries.

Significance to Queer Art History:

Saint Wilgefortis (or Saint K├╝mmernis) was martyred on a cross — the same martyrdom as Christ. According to her hagiography (the formal term for stories of Saint’s lives), she was being forced into marriage by her father, but wished to remain a virgin married only to God. She prayed to God to save her from her fate. He responded to her prayers by giving her masculine features, such as a beard, so that no one would want to marry her (perhaps the medieval version of finding freedom through the defiance of cis- het- standards)! Her father sentenced her to death for her disobedience and had her crucified.

Since she has a beard and died on a cross, images of the gender-bending Saint Wilgefortis are often easily mistaken for images of Christ. Some distinguishing features are: her missing shoe on the right foot, a fiddler, and sometimes a gown.

Saint Wilgefortis is a valuable component of the web of intersectional queer and feminist art “hirstories.” She is commonly seen as the Patron Saint of Abused Women, and she makes us question premodern/medieval constructions of gender and sexuality. Transformation between binary genders, as well as non-binary characters like Saint Wilgefortis herself, abound in the medieval imagination from biblical narratives to courtly romances.

The Vatican also removed her Feast Day from the Catholic calendar in 1969, and so her story continues in the discourse of trans- and homophobic exclusion, the resilience queer cultural memory, and contemporary art activism.

German image of St Wilgefortis. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Resources:

Friesen, Ilse E. The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis since the Middle Ages. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001.