Statue of St. Wilgefortis – Prague, Czechia - Atlas Obscura
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Prague, Czechia

Statue of St. Wilgefortis

A crucified and bearded female saint. 

There are a number of treasuries and chapels within the famous pilgrimmage site of Loreto Church in Prague, but there is one chapel in particular, The Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, that houses a statue with a strange and fascinating - and completely wrong - tale.

As a young noblewoman, Wilgefortis’ father (in some versions he is the king of Portugal) had promised her to a pagan king. The pious Wilgefortis would have nothing to do with the heathen king, so she took a vow of virginity and prayed for a miracle. It came in a rather roundabout way; the pagan king did not die a sudden death, nor did he fall in love with another girl. Instead, Wilgefortis grew a beard worthy of any 19th century sideshow. The engagement was immediately off, and her father, so enraged by her unfeminine miracle, had her crucified. With that, she became an inspiration to oppressed and unhappily married women around the globe.

Wilgefortis’ story may seem somewhat strange as far as the stories of the lives of saints go, and that’s because it is. Wilgefortis is a fake, a tale which dates back to a wooden carving from the 11th century. Her name is derived from the Old German words “heilige Vartez”, or Holy Face. The Volto Santo of Lucca (”Holy Face of Lucca”) is a carving of the crucifix, believed to have been the work of Nicodemus, with one key difference. Instead of the customary loin cloth, Jesus is clad in a full-length dress, or tunic. He was commonly clothed this way in the early Middle Ages, but the practice had been discontinued in the 11th century in favor of the loin cloth.

Thus, when copies of the great Volto Santo of Lucca began to appear, the unfamiliar image of the dress confused Westerners, who quickly came up with the tragic story of Wilgefortis to explain the cross dressing Jesus. It seems however that Wilgefortis was just the saint many women were waiting for. Wilgefortis became extremely popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with different names all over Europe, translating to everything from “Strong Virgin” to “The Liberator.” There are a number of statues of the bearded and crucified Wilgefortis around Europe today, including the statue in the small Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loreta in Prague. She’s easy to miss - just look for a statue that looks exactly like Jesus in a robe.

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