Biography 25.3 (2002) 535-537
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This fine study investigates the tradition surrounding the largely forgotten and legendary medieval female saint Wilgefortis, tracing that tradition from the High Middle Ages to the present, and especially across southern Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and England. Primarily art-historical in focus, the book, which devotes particular attention to androgynous statues and images of crucifixes associated with Wilgefortis, is the first detailed analysis of the saint since Gustav Schn¨urer and Joseph Ritz published their folkloristic treatment of the Wilgefortis phenomenon in 1934.
Among Friesen's major contributions to Wilgefortis scholarship is the convincing case she makes for the popular cult of a crucified Wilgefortis as a blending of medieval Christian traditions. Wilgefortis, also known to medieval believers in the German-speaking lands as K¨ummernis, in the Netherlands as Ontcommer, and in England as Uncumber, came to be, by the Late Middle Ages, venerated for her supposed ability to liberate, that is, [End Page 535] to un-encumber, her worshippers from their troubles. Often conflated with the Spanish martyr Liberata, Wilgefortis (possibly from virgo fortis or "strong virgin") was largely held in the tradition surrounding her to be a daughter of a Portuguese king. Unwilling to accept the husband her father had chosen for her, Wilgefortis grew a beard that successfully discouraged the suitor. Thereupon, her father, angry with her resistance, punished her with crucifixion. As Friesen points out, the growth of Wilgefortis' cult—a cult that in many Central European areas often rivaled that of the Virgin Mary in popularity—was inextricably connected with the growing visibility since the High Middle Ages of ambiguously gendered crucifixes. Most influential of these was the Volto Santo at the cathedral of Lucca in Italy. Because of the practice of clothing and ornamenting this robed, crucified representation of Christ, the many pilgrims to the cathedral came to identify it often, and incorrectly, as a woman. However misguided, the acceptance by medieval Christians of that influential and widely imitated crucifix as female paved the way for the increasing acceptance of images of the crucified virgin Wilgefortis. Bringing her own research in line with newer research on medieval women and attitudes toward the feminine in medieval Christianity, Friesen argues convincingly that High and Late Medieval Christians would not have taken offense at images of a crucified woman; rather, the representation of a Christ-like, crucified feminine body was in consonance with major streams in medieval Christianity, for which the distinction between male and female was from the twelfth century forward not always pronounced, whose visual art often portrayed Christ with feminine features, and in which, for instance, monks sometimes referred to themselves as women and exceptionally resolute religious women were often called men.
After demonstrating for the Netherlands and England how the Wilgefortis cult developed simultaneously and in connection with the spread of ambiguously gendered crucifix images—to the point, in fact, where later medieval creators of images of the crucified Wilgefortis demonstrate no intention of drawing a connection to the Volto Santo—the author turns her attention to Bavaria and the Austrian Tyrol. In three chapters that constitute the major case studies of the book, she analyzes Wilgefortis images at the church of Neufarn in Bavaria, at the K¨ummernis Chapel of Burghausen (also in Bavaria), and lastly, at several locations in the Tyrolean region of western Austria. Striking in all three chapters but especially admirable in the third is the detective work that the author undertook, uncovering forgotten Wilgefortis images in, for example, local museums, private homes, and church attics. What emerges in all three very well illustrated chapters is a centuries-long history of intense Wilgefortis veneration and representation in visual [End Page 536] images. At Neufarn, for instance, Wilgefortis images include a Romanesque crucifix (identified, at least since the Baroque period, as a female martyr), five...