Sunday, September 25, 2011

Another Shaggy Saint Story

Alongside the obligatory strongmen, midgets, and limbless wonders, the bearded lady has been a staple of sideshows and carnivals for more than a hundred years; the image of a demure yet hirsute women adorning countless posters. That said, you'd scarcely expect to see one in Westminster Abbey, but in the Henry VII Chapel stands a rather peculiar stone statue.

The statue depicts Wilgefortis, a medieval saint of dubious origins that is said to answer the prayers of women looking to escape abusive relationships. Why the whiskers? The story goes that Wilgefortis was a Portuguese princess who chose to convert to Christianity shortly before her arranged marriage to a Sicilian king. Refusing to compromise her new-found piety, Wilgefortis prayed that god make her ugly so her suitor would lose all interest. Within moments she had sprouted facial hair. The Sicilian king, doubtlessly aghast at the prospect of having a wife with a manlier beard than his own, called off the wedding. Wilgefortis was then put to death by her enraged father, who had her crucified.

Saint Wilgefortis briefly had her own sect of worshipers in Flanders, France, during the 1300's and her image can be seen in many examples of medieval Christian art. However, the Catholic Church is surprisingly skeptical about Wilgefortis and many religious scholars speculate that she's a folklore figure. Images of a robed Christ may have been mistaken by new converts for a bearded woman. Alternately, Wilgefortis may have been a real woman with a hormone imbalance. Regardless, she boasts one of the best beards in all of Saintdom.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this entry from Catholic Online
-Read this excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary of Saints

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