A reader of the posts on the hairy-women scale and Life of Brian, sent me another example of the horrors of hair. Or rather, of the horrors of people’s imagination around hair. She had spotted a painting on the same theme.
At the moment, the city of Den Bosch in the Netherlands is hosting a big Jheronimus Bosch exhibition. This exhibition contains the restored painting of Saint Wilgefortis, a saint venerated in western Europe since the late Middle Ages.
According to her legend, Wilgefortis was a princess who had dedicated her life to Christ. Then her father sold her to be married; to a pagan husband, no less. She prayed for Christ’s assistance. This was given her in the form of a beard. Apparently, it made her so repulsive that the pagan king refused to marry her. Her unfemininity had liberated her! (This is what her name indicates in many languages – ‘Liberata’ etc.) Of course, the story is not over yet. In his anger, her own father killed her in the same way her spiritual husband had been killed: on the cross. After death, she continued to work various miracles and to help innocent people whose liberty had been taken away from them.
On the recently restored painting by Bosch, and especially on the infra-red images that have been made as part of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, a subtle beard and moustache have become visible.
In a double irony, Wilgefortis’s beard not only turned her into a monstrous woman, but also gave her the power of a man, that is, not to be wed without her choosing. And yet, this was only a very limited power, dependent on her real husband – Christ – and restricted to the negative ability to say ‘no’ to her father, but not extending to the positive capability of saying ‘yes’ to a religious life (she was murdered). She was still a woman, an underdog. But isn’t that just what you would expect from a Christian saint?
The fact that Wilgefortis’s story probably stems from a misunderstanding of images of a crucified Jesus in full robe and with crown (even Bosch’s painting might in fact picture a different martyr altogether!), does not make her subsequent veneration through the centuries any less real or any less significant. It even adds a layer of interest by showing how difficult people find it to deal with gender ambiguity.
Bosch’s painting is more than five hundred years old, Wilgefortis’s story even older. The fear and fascination with ‘hair in the wrong places’ go back a long way.
For more on bearded ladies, see my column on Conchita Wurst.