Friday, December 4, 2015

St Barbara, St. Wilgefortis and the present need for heavenly aid

Spoiler alert: This is not just a pious ditty. Keep reading.

December 4 is the feast of St. Barbara, supposedly a fourth century martyr from somewhere in present-day Turkey or possibly Lebanon. Although a popular saint in East and West, there are no reliable historical accounts of her life or death. In the Orthodox traditions, she is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

What is more interesting to me, in some ways, is that her name became associated with stories about bearded female saints in the middle ages. In many of the romance (Latin-based) european languages, her name is similar to the word for beard: Italian, Spanish and Portuguese barba; French barbe.

The most famous of the bearded female saints is Wilgefortis, whose name is clearly not Barbara or any variation of the same. She is a female saint of popular religious imagination whose legend arose in the 14th century, and whose distinguishing feature is a large beard. Her name is thought by some to derive from the Old German "heilige Vartez" ("holy face"), a translation of the Italian "Volto Santo"; others believe it to derive from the Latin "virgo fortis" ("strong virgin").  She was known as Liberata in Italy and Librada in Spain (where her name means "liberated"), and as D├ębarras in France (where her name means "riddance"). She was venerated by people seeking relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated ("disencumbered") from abusive husbands.

Her story was that she was a Portugese noblewoman whose father betrothed her to a pagan king. She prayed to be rendered repulsive to him, and promptly sprouted a beard. Her angry father crucified her, and thus is she usually represented in art. Some think that the story may have arisen in part from crucifixes and paintings of Jesus on the cross, in which the face of the savior is particularly effeminate. That image on the left, which dates to 1513, is not of Jesus but of Wilgefortis on her cross.

And one notes that abusive husbands were so common that it was considered natural that their wives would need a heavenly protector all their own.

All sorts of things could be said about that legend, but when I visited Avila in 1978, we were told a version about a holy woman of that city. Like Wilgefortis, the Barbara of Avila had prayed that God take away her beauty in order to rid herself of unwanted suitors. In response to her prayer, she had sprouted a beard overnight. According to the story, her suitors melted away in disgust, but Barbara's story ended more happily than that of her Portuguese sister. The bearded lady lived out her days in prayer and penance. Her relics were venerated at her tomb in a small chapel in the city, to which many young women seeking husbands resorted in search of the assistance of the young woman who had wanted no husband for herself.

I recall visiting the supposed tomb of the saint, which the friars assured us was actually a tomb of some unknown male. Somewhere over the centuries, the name of the bearded figure carved on the tomb was forgotten, and perhaps because he had a gentle face, the legend grew that it was a woman who was buried there. I was once able to locate this story online but I have lost the link and could not find it to share with you today.

Still, an interesting story. Perhaps today, that St. Barbara or St. Wilgefortis, long  a protector of women who did not wish to marry men for whatever reason, might be appealed to as protectors of transgender persons who too often find themselves the victims of violence, abuse and misunderstanding, frequently at the hands of parents, political and religious types who turn a blind eye to the desires, needs and prayers of others.

All you holy men and women, pray for us!

I might also mention that there is a story that some bishop or male saint or other once declared that St. Teresa of Avila, because of her courage and strength, was a woman with a beard, meaning only that she was manly or virile.

[I really should have given this story to Damien for his blog.]

3 comments:

Damien Malachy said...

Yes, Michael, you should have.

Mitchell is Moving said...

Oy... as they say... "a woman with a beard," "he sings in the choir"... So many church-related turns of phrase.

Ur-spo said...

Today 5 December I am attending the funeral of my Aunt Barbara, who died on All Saint's. I am glad of the proximity and will the saint for interventions for my aunt.