Saint Wilgefortis: The Bearded Lady’s Tale of Liberation and Courage

Wilgefortis, a figure more of folklore than religion, often surfaces in narratives marked by her distinguishing facial hair, leading to the colloquial moniker ‘The Bearded Lady’. A symbol of liberation, courage, and resistance, her legend has been told in varying ways across Europe and the world.

Born to a pagan Portuguese king, young Wilgefortis took a solemn vow of virginity, only to be betrothed to the King of Sicily by her father. To escape the unwanted marriage, she prayed for a transformation that would make her undesirable to her suitor. Miraculously, she grew a beard, achieving her objective and startling her would-be husband. Infuriated by the thwarted betrothal, her father ordered her crucifixion, thereby turning Wilgefortis into a martyr.

Different regions of Europe venerated Wilgefortis under various names, each echoing elements of her life and legend. Known as Liberata in Italy, Uncumber in England, Kummernis in Germany, Livrade in France, and Frasobliwa in Poland, her names reflected themes of liberation, disencumberment, sorrow, and courage. The name Wilgefortis itself is thought to derive from the Latin phrase “virgo fortis,” meaning “courageous virgin.”

One significant feature of the Saint Wilgefortis narrative is the imagery associated with her depictions. A prominent beard marks her face in most pictorial representations, often alongside a missing or fallen boot. This imagery ties back to a popular version of her tale, where a fiddler who played for Wilgefortis during her crucifixion was rewarded with one of her golden shoes. Wilgefortis’ distinct representation in artwork, varies from a simple carving of a bearded woman in the Henry VII Chapel of Westminster Abbey, to a slightly bearded figure on The Crucifixion of Saint Wilgefortis (c.1497) oil on panel by Hieronymus Bosch.

While the story of Wilgefortis is steeped in myth and folklore, considering it through a contemporary medical lens allows us to propose a plausible theory for her signature feature – her beard. Hirsutism, a condition that leads to abnormal hair growth in women, could potentially account for Wilgefortis’ bearded appearance. This condition can be linked to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder prevalent among women of reproductive age, where elevated levels of male hormones lead to the growth of facial hair among other symptoms.

If Wilgefortis did indeed suffer from hirsutism and potentially PCOS, her legend would carry an added layer of depth and resonance. PCOS affects numerous women worldwide, leading not only to physical symptoms but also often causing significant emotional distress due to societal beauty standards and the stigma associated with abnormal hair growth. In this light, Wilgefortis serves not only as a symbol of liberation and resistance, but also as an icon for women grappling with these health conditions. Her narrative challenges traditional notions of female beauty, providing solace and empowerment to those facing similar struggles. As such, Wilgefortis stands as an emblem of courage, inspiring women to embrace their uniqueness and defy societal norms, much like she did in her legendary tale.

Despite her widespread popularity, particularly among women seeking solace from abusive circumstances, Wilgefortis’ status as a saint was brought into question during the 16th century. A revision by the Catholic Church in 1969 led to her being downgraded due to her uncertain history. Yet, her memory continues to inspire, resonating with a variety of audiences, including the LGBTQ+ community and women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. While her veneration may have dwindled with time, her legacy continues to influence contemporary discussions on hair and beauty.


Lacey JH. Anorexia nervosa and a bearded female saint. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 1982 Dec 18;285(6357):1816–7.
Burke M, Donawerth J, Dove LL, Nelson K. Women, Writing, and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain. Syracuse University Press; 2000. 340 p.
Friesen IE. The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages. Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press; 2006. 208 p.
Wallace L. Bearded Woman, Female Christ: Gendered Transformations in the Legends and Cult of Saint Wilgefortis. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. 2014;30(1):43–63.
de Jong FH, de Herder WW. Saint Wilgefortis: sudden hirsutism to prevent an unwanted marriage. J Endocrinol Invest. 2016 Dec;39(12):1475.