Praying to Saints and Folk Magic: Santa Liberata

Santa Liberata was the patron saint of dealing with difficult marriages and lost causes. Her feast day was observed on July 20. One of her eight sisters was said to be Santa Marina di Orense. Santa Liberata was depicted crucified as a young woman or a 10-12 years old girl with a beard, and she is one of several female bearded saints. She is "ragazza con la barba."

She was venerated by those seeking relief from tribulations, in particular by women who wished to be liberated from husbands who vexed them with constant sexual demands or physically abused them. Italian women petitioned Santa Liberata imploring, "Liberami da lui!"

According to her story, she was one of nine daughters of King of Lusitania. (Portugal) Her father wished her to marry the King of Sicily, but she declared that she had privately taken a vow of celibacy. Unable to disuade either her father or her suitor, Liberata prayed on the eve of her wedding to be freed of the marriage. In answer to her prayers, she sprouted a luxuriant beard. Her suitor departed, and her father had her crucified.

The Catholic church has since deterimined her tale is a pious fiction and has removed her from the Catholic calendar of saints.

Santa Liberata was represented in androgynous icons of a bearded figure dressed in a full-length tunic. Some representations had both a beard and prominent breasts. This description may remind one of the ancient Greek Hermaphrodites or bearded Aphrodites, but there is another explanition.

Art historians have argued that the origins of the cult can be found in the Tuscan religious tradtion involving Volto Santo of Lucca. Allegedly the story of a bearded female saint was spun out of the icon of a life-size carved wooden figure of a completely robed crucified Christ. Iconography of crucified regal Christ wearing an ankle-length tunic was more familiar to Eastern Christians than to Western Christians. The theory posed by art historians is that this early statue was copied and sold by dealers as smaller images to pilgrims . This unfamiliar icongraphy led folks to create a pious tale to explain the androgynous icon.

This cult of the crucified, bearded female saint possibly took root in the 13th century.

The bearded female saint martyr was indeed popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is possible her cult really begain in the early 14th century. Her cult was spread throughout Europe. Numerous representations were made of the crucified female saint with a beard. Her names in different locales related to being liberated, unencumbered, escapingt bondage, etc. Her German name, Wilgefortis, has been theorized to be a corruption of the Old German heilig Vartez, meaning "holy face." Heilig Vartez would have been a translation of the name, Volto Santo, of the image in Lucca. In Spain, her name was Librada. In England, her name was Uncumber. In France, her name was Debarras. Her Dutch-language name was Ontkommer. In Germany, she was called Wilgefortis or Oncommer.

In some later representations, she was often shown with a small fiddler at her feet. This poor minstrel is supposed to have played music to comfort her during her martyrdom. In this version of the legend, the princess Wilgefortis kicked off a silver shoe to reward his kindness. In another version of this legend, an impoverished fiddler played before the image of Wilgefortis. The statue kicked off one of her silver shoes. The fiddler took it and was condemned to death for theft of a holy object. He was granted a last request to play his fidddle before the image of the saint a second time. In the presence of the court, the image kicked off her other silver shoe. Thus, he was acquited of any crime. Eventually the female saint was depicted missing one shoe.

In David Williams' entry "Cults of the Saints" in Carl Lindhl, John McNamara, John Lindow, Medieval Folklore, A Guide to Myth, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs, 2000, 2002, Williams explained these elements of this saint's cult involving icongraphy, prayers recited by devotees and petitioners, and biographies recording the saint's legend, were interrelated. Williams wrote, "The interrelation of these three consecutive elements of the saint's cult is highly dynamic--the one constantly informing the other, and all three mutually creative of the cult itself. The saint's cult is not, therefore, something created by an elite for passive consumption by the people--a text produced by an author for reception by an audience; rather, it is an organic reality comming to life through the mutual activity of a faith community." (p.356) The cult surrounding the crucified bearded female saint is an excellent example of that.

Santa Liberata is not related to the Roman Goddess of liberty, Libertas, as they share none of the same iconography.

Copyright 2008 Myth Woodling

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