Wilgefortis 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"). In England her name was Uncumber, and in Dutch Ontkommer (where her name means escaper). In German lands she was known as Kümmernis (where her name means "grief" or "anxiety"). She was known as Liberata in Italy and Librada in Spain (where her name means "liberated"), and as Débarras in France (where her name means "riddance"). In places such as Sigüenza, Spain, she was sometimes conflated with another Saint Liberata, the sister of Saint Marina of Aguas Santas, whose feast was also celebrated on July 20. She was venerated by people seeking relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated ("disencumbered") from abusive husbands.
Art historians have argued that the origins of the cult can be found with Eastern-style representations of the crucified Christ, and in particular the Volto Santo of Lucca, a large eleventh century carved wooden figure of Christ on the Cross (now replaced by a 13th-century copy), bearded like a man, but dressed in a full-length tunic that might have appeared to be like that of a woman's instead of the loin cloth familiar and by the late Middle Ages normal in depictions in the West. The theory is that when the composition was copied and brought north of the Alps over the next 150 years, in small copies by pilgrims and dealers, this unfamiliar image led Northerners to create a narrative to explain the androgynous icon. Some older images of the crucified Christ were re-purposed as Wilgefortis, and new images clearly intended to represent the saint created, many with female clothes and breasts. Some older images of Christ on the cross are argued to have already deliberately included hints at an androgynous figure for theological reasons. Single images normally showed Wilgefortis on her cross, but two prominent standing images where she carries a smaller cross as an attribute as part of a group of saints, are mentioned below. Images showing a set of scenes covering the whole legend are unusual, but a German one of 1513 is illustrated here.
The popularity of the cult in the final period of the Middle Ages has been connected to the Devotio Moderna and related trends in medieval devotion, where intense meditation on and identification with the sufferings of Christ was encouraged by writers such as Thomas à Kempis, author of the The Imitation of Christ, circulating from the 1420s.
According to the narrative of the legend, sometimes set in Portugal, a teen-aged noblewoman named Wilgefortis had been promised in marriage by her father to a pagan king. To thwart the unwanted wedding, she had taken a vow of virginity, and prayed that she would be made repulsive. In answer to her prayers she sprouted a beard, which ended the engagement. In anger, Wilgefortis's father had her crucified.
St Wilgefortis remained popular in the North until the end of the Gothic period; there is 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. She also appears in a similar pose, very lightly bearded, on the outside of a triptych door by Hans Memling. She was decisively debunked during the late 16th century (after a period in the 15th and 16th centuries in which she was popular), and thereafter disappears from high art, although lingering well into the 20th century in more popular forms, especially in Bavaria and Austria, but also in northern France and Belgium. In the 12th-century church of Saint-Etienne in Beauvais, there is a 16th-century wooden statue of Saint Wilgefortis on the cross. She is depicted in a full blue tunic and sports a substantial beard. She is venerated by the name of Santa Librada, in Argentina and Panama.
She is often shown with a small fiddler at her feet, and with one shoe off. This derives from a legend, also attached to the Volto Santo of Lucca, of a silver shoe with which the statue had been clothed dropping spontaneously at the feet of a poor pilgrim. In the Wilgefortis version the poor devotee became a fiddler, perhaps in the 13th century.