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Beards

July 21, 2014 | by

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An early illustration of Saint Wilgefortis.

If you had asked me two days ago if there existed any Catholic-themed YouTube video stranger than the one where G. K. Chesterton battles a cartoonishly evil Nietzsche, I would have said, “Of course not.” But that was before I saw this group of French feminists in beards paying tribute to Saint Wilgefortis.

Wilgefortis is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “a fabulous female saint known also as UNCUMBER, KUMMERNIS, KOMINA, COMERA, CUMERANA, HULFE, ONTCOMMENE, ONTCOMMER, DIGNEFORTIS, EUTROPIA, REGINFLEDIS, LIVRADE, LIBERATA, etc.”; her attributes are listed as “bearded woman; depicted crucified, often shown with a small fiddler at her feet, and with one shoe off.” Considered a “pious fiction”—that is, a sort of unofficial folktale—she enjoyed popularity throughout Europe. Before the Church removed her commemoration in ’69, July 20 was her feast day.

Though her cult is thought to date to the fourteenth century, concrete details are sparse: generally, Wilgefortis is described as a young, Christian, sometimes Portuguese, occasionally septuplet princess who, rather than marry a pagan against her will, prayed for disfigurement. Her prayers were answered in the form of a beard. Her father, furious with this development, had her crucified. Nowadays, it’s thought that the Wilgefortis story—as well as the related fiddler/shoe legend—evolved from a misinterpretation of the famous Volto Santo crucifixion sculpture in Lucca, Italy. The art historian Charles Cahier wrote,

For my part, I am inclined to think that the crown, beard, gown, and cross which are regarded as the attributes of this marvelous maiden (in pictorial representations), are only a pious devotion to the famous crucifix of Lucca, somewhat gone astray. This famous crucifix was completely dressed and crowned, as were many others of the same period. In course of time, the long gown caused it to be thought that the figure was that of a woman, who on account of the beard was called Vierge-forte. 

Although the cult was vigorously debunked in the Gothic period, several famous representations still exist—and she is, after all, a distinctive figure. Wikipedia describes “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”; another “very lightly bearded, on the outside of a triptych door by Hans Memling”; and, at the church of Saint-Étienne in Beauvais, a sculpture in which she is “depicted in a full blue tunic and sports a substantial beard.”

Whither the French feminists, you ask? Wilgefortis is the patron of tribulations, with a special focus on those women who wish to be disencumbered from abusive spouses. If you wish to commemorate Encumber (that’s her English name) without any social overtones, and you happen to be in London, you’re in luck, or you would’ve been yesterday. According to the page of a beard-enthusiast group called the Capital Beards,

The Capital Beards will next meet along with the rest of The British Beard Club on July 20th for St. Wilgefortis’s feast day. St. Wilgefortis is a notably bearded saint, and so we try to meet up on her feast day every year.

Our venue will be the Buckingham Arms on Petty France. A pub notable for being one of only two in London to have been in every edition of CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.

As normal we should be there from about Midday.

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