Prayer to the Bearded Virgin Martyr: On Hieronymus Bosch’s St Wilgefortis Triptych by Jacqueline Doyle

Prayer to the Bearded Virgin Martyr
On Hieronymus Bosch’s St. Wilgefortis Triptych

The woman nailed to the cross wears a red dress and a dark green sash. Her long blonde hair cascades down her back, unbound. Arms outstretched, face raised to the sky, she looks upward or inward, away from the crowd of men assembled below her. Some of them tumble out of the hollow trunk of a dead tree. One seems to have fainted, and several men cluster around him, supporting him in their arms. On the other side of the cross, a man in the foreground pontificates as another looks on. The men in the background crowd and jeer. One points up at the crucified saint, his mouth ajar. The pose of the crowned woman on the cross, her face open and undisturbed, suggests indifference to the onlookers, transcendence rather than suffering. “Blessed art thou,” St. Wilgefortis. Also known as Liberata, Kümmernis, Livrade, Uncumber, St. Wilgefortis promises relief from the burden of violent, abusive husbands. In Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych centering on the female saint’s crucifixion, the merest hint of facial hair on her chin convinces art historians that she is Wilgefortis, daughter of a Portuguese King who had her crucified when she refused to break her vow of chastity and marry the non-Christian King of Sicily. Wilgefortis famously sprouted a beard and mustache to underline her resistance to the proposed matrimony. In the murky panel on the left, a solitary, black-robed Saint Anthony meditates, hunched in prayer. A city far behind him has erupted in hellish flames. In the panel on the right, a black-robed monk leads a soldier, or perhaps an executioner, who holds a spiked club that rests on his shoulder with one hand, grasps the hilt of a sword in a sheath with his other. The monk gestures ahead, his raised hand drawing attention to the figure who points to St. Wilgefortis in the central panel. Behind the two of them, far away, the white spires of a city arise beside a harbor and boats, one almost sunken, only its prow and tilted mast visible. Where are the women? “Blessed art thou.” Beyond the crucifix in the central panel, a fertile landscape is threaded with the silver ribbon of a shining river. A dead tree stands on a grassy hummock in the middle distance. Is Wilgefortis dying on the cross, or already dead? A martyr rumored to give succor at the hour of death, her feast day was celebrated on July 20. “Pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.” But that was a prayer to the Virgin Mary, who ascended bodily into Heaven. Bosch’s Wilgefortis looks untroubled, as if confident that she too will ascend. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” But that was God the Father. Has Wilgefortis defied the law of the father who crucified her? Holy gender transgressor. “Blessed art thou.” Bearded lady, reviled sideshow freak. “Blessed art thou.” Patron saint of abused women and girls, transsexual, bisexual, homosexual, and transgender people. “Blessed art thou” and thy inviolate womb. How many have prayed to you over the centuries, pray to you still? “Blessed art thou among women.” Not a single woman in the crowd. “Blessed, blessed, blessed,” they whisper, hidden from sight in the shadows beyond, fingering rosaries in kitchens, bedrooms, women’s shelters, police stations, court rooms, jails. In morgues and funeral parlors, rosaries wrapped tightly around hands clasped on their breasts. “Pray for us now.”


Prayer to the bearded virgin martyr


Jacqueline Doyle’s flash fiction chapbook The Missing Girl was recently published by Black Lawrence Press. Her flash has appeared in many fine zines, including Jellyfish Review. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be found online at and on twitter @doylejacq.


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Image: Hieronymus Bosch Public Domain