Wilgefortis, patron saint for the LGBTQ+ community

The story of this bearded woman saint reminds us that queerness has always been part of Catholic history.
Our Faith

A young Portuguese princess converts to Christianity as a teenager and takes a vow of chastity, entering into a mystical marriage with Jesus. But her father has ordered her to marry a pagan king, so she pleads with God to save her from marriage. Miraculously, her prayers are answered when she grows a beard. Her suitor is repulsed, and the marriage is off. Her father, infuriated, has her crucified for her disobedience.

The princess is known as St. Wilgefortis. Today, she is a folk saint well-loved by LGBTQ+ individuals; her feast day is July 20. Her beard not only brought her closer to Christ but also shows us a saint who defied cisgender, heterosexual norms through a blessing from God.

In her 2001 book The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages (Wilfred Laurier University Press), Ilse E. Friesen argues that St. Wilgefortis was once so popular in Europe that her devotion rivaled the Virgin Mary’s. Although the details of her story indicate she lived sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries, her legend first appeared in medieval literature around 1400, and she was added to the Martyrologium Romanum in 1583. She was given many names: St. Uncumber (“one who lifts the load”), St. Ontkommer (“one who avoids something”), St. Kümmernis (“grief, anxiety”), St. Débarras (“riddance”), and Saint Liberata or Librada (“freed”). Some of these names—“Uncumber” and “Liberada”—derived from her followers, women who made offerings to the saint to be freed from abusive or unsatisfactory marriages.

But her Catholic following largely died out in the 19th century when both the church and historians began to question whether she really existed. Today, some scholars believe her legend derived from a misidentified wooden crucifix in Italy named the Volto Santo (Holy Face)from Lucca, Italy.


This statue—a depiction of Jesus with a wooden crown and wide-open eyes, a victor over death and Satan—is the oldest wooden sculpture in Europe, dating to the seventh, eighth, or ninth century, according to carbon-14 dating. The carving was done according to the Syrian-Palestinian tradition in which Christ wears the long flowing robe of a priest. In the Middle Ages, however, Europeans customarily portrayed Jesus on the cross wearing a loincloth. In the early 20th century, Jesuit scholar Hippolyte Delehaye argued that this image of the crucified Christ in a flowing dress led to the misconception that it depicted a crucified woman, and this belief and imagery spread across Europe.

On certain holy days, Christians in Lucca dressed the statue in jewelry and a velvet gown patterned with lilies. This was the root, Delehaye argued, from which the legend of St. Wilgefortis grew, followed by multiple portrayals of the virgo fortis (the courageous virgin). Her portraits were often distinguished by a missing or fallen boot, made of gold or silver, that St. Wilgefortis supposedly gave to a fiddler who was playing during her crucifixion.

However, Wilgefortis may be more closely associated with another work of art: Hieronymus Bosch’s The Crucifixion of Saint Wilgefortis (c. 1497). The person featured in this triptych was first identified as St. Julia of Corsica—another crucified virgin martyr. German and Austrian art historians made this identification more than a century ago during the work’s eighty-year installation in Vienna, arguing that the triptych’s right panel shows a port that appears to be Corsica. Then, in 2006, art historian Larry Silver argued that the work depicted St. Eulalia of Mérida, yet another virgin martyr. Medieval art historian Robert Mills in Trans Historical (Cornell University Press) lists these many misidentifications. Recent restoration of the painting, however, revealed the crucified feminine figure has a wispy beard, indicating that St. Wilgefortis was Bosch’s intended portrayal.  

In 1969, the church revoked the saint status of Wilgefortis and 92 other folk saints, because their stories lacked historical evidence. Ironically, this was the same year trans women led the Stonewall Revolt in New York City, setting off what many consider the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement. Today, even though she lost her official saint title, St. Wilgefortis remains a key figure in modern LGBTQ+ folklore.


The legend’s complicated history offers a window into both medieval and modern conceptions of gender-expansive identities. In Religion and Intersex: Perspectives from Science, Law, Culture, and Theology (Routledge), Christian historian Stephanie Budwey explains that imagery of St. Wilgefortis challenges the belief that sexual dimorphism—an exclusive male/female binary—is a God-given universal that defines what it means to be human. Wilgefortis’ beard was seen as proof of her sanctity, and her courageous gender-bending inspired her veneration.

Journalist Lewis Wallace further argues that Wilgefortis’ gender transformation represents the power she received from God, which she wields on others’ behalf. Through these transformations, Wallace writes, “the saint became a particularly potent symbol of the paradox of the crucifixion as it was depicted in late-medieval Christianity: flesh immortalized, masculinity feminized, and ugliness revered.” Her existence as the sacred oxymoron—the virile virgin, the feminine bride of Christ, an unusual virgin martyr, or even a female counterpart to Christ—is what endears her to people who feel they do not fit into society’s gender expectations.

Scholar Valerie Hotchkiss, however, points out that some stories of female saints crossdressing can support a patriarchal church, since acquiring attributes associated with masculinity was thought to affirm a woman’s holiness. As she sees it, Wilgefortis, in the process of becoming holy, distances themself from the sinfulness of women’s bodies.

The historical portrayals of Wilgefortis challenge this idea, however, because she remains consistently female, both in artwork and folklore. Her loss of traditionally feminine beauty is a miracle through which she becomes Christ. (I intentionally avoid the term “ugliness” used in other scholarly discussions of the saint, because it denies the beauty of women with beards. )


Wallace, however, also explains that in the early modern period, people in Tyrol and the Low Countries would “cross-dress” crucifixes, transforming them into Kümmernis (Wilgefortis). This practice allowed women to access holiness through ritual embodiment, mirroring depictions of Jesus and his wounds as a feminine or genderqueer child of God. Through these adorned crucifixes, the crucified female body and that of Christ became one, and a male salvation became either female or genderqueer. St. Wilgefortis is an example of a similar process.

At the same time, she is one of many virgin martyr saints, women who became blessed through their marriage with Christ, taking on masculine attributes of the other gender or becoming agender or nonbinary as evidence of their divinity. Wilgefortis’ dedication to chastity and marriage to a mystical spouse endears her to asexual, lesbian, and other queer people of faith who resist heterosexual unions. Images of St. Wilgefortis affirm that people outside a strict male/female binary—including intersex, bigender, genderqueer, nonbinary, and transgender people—are made in the image of Christ. This artwork also affirms that people like me, who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or other conditions that cause hirsutism, are also made in the image of God, and that gender attributes are not definitive.

The saint recently appeared as both Wilgefortis and Liberata in Chicana artist Alma Lopez’s “Queer Santas” series. Such modern art is part of a growing movement of LGBTQ+ artists who are crafting images of queer saints, as well as sacred images of modern-day queer people. Many of these artists reject older hagiographies in which Wilfegortis’ beard is a form of humiliation or disfigurement; instead, they depict it as a sign of liberation. As medieval historian Hannah Skoda argues, Wilgefortis’ beard became her armor against sexual predators.

St. Wilgefortis might be one of the best-loved saints who never existed. Still, as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and legislation restricting health care spread across the United States, she is needed more than ever. We—LGBTQ+ people, women, and many others—are protected by the same queer armor that God granted to Wilgefortis to fulfill her destiny. Even if she is only a legend, the survival of her story showcases a deep desire for queer and femme representations of divinity. Faith in Jesus brings liberation to all people.


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Heiliger Kümmernis, anonymous German painter, 18th century


About the author

Emma Cieslik

Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a queer Catholic scholar focused on material culture and LGBTQ+ identity within the church. She founded and directs Queer and Catholic, A CLGS Oral History Project based out of the Pacific School of Religion.

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