Saint Wilgefortis, Virgin and Martyr

Santa Librada o Liberata, Virgen y Mártir

Feast day: July 20

Patroness of laundresses

Invoked during moments of distress and headache.

Essay by Carolyn Christensen

Saint Wilgefortis, also known as Saint Librada (Liberated), was born to a Portuguese pagan king and his wife around the fourteenth century. Wilgefortis is derived from the Latin phrase Virgo fortis, which means “strong virgin.” She took a vow of chastity; however, this would become problematic, as her father was arranging her marriage to the Sicilian king. To protect this vow, she prayed to God for a disfigurement to her body. As a result, she grew a beard and was crucified by her father. She would not be canonized.

Represented in this retablo (fig.1) is Saint Wilgefortis tied to a wooden cross with two red ribbons in the position of crucifixion. She is wearing a long red robe and a crown of roses on her head. The beard is not present in this image. A pair of palms are fixed vertically on her back. Behind her is a turquoise and yellow background that forms a faint gradient; this is further accented by clouds billowing in the direction of her outstretched arms. The crucifix is the symbol of Christ’s suffering for humanity; the horizontal limb of the crucifix is the phenomenon; the vertical limb is the spiritual transcendence; the red ribbons represent restraint; the crown of roses is symbolic of consummation. Overall this suggests the idea that man is bound to the world.

In the second retablo (Fig. 2), Wilgefortis is in a position similar to the first image; here, the crucifix is ornate. The background, while suggestive of landscape figures such as grass, is almost a solid blue.  The only major difference for the third retablo (fig. 3) is the cross being used to crucify Librada; it is invisible.

Figure 1. Saint Wilgefortis., Virgin and Martyr /

Santa Librada, Virgen y Mártir

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1964.3.4.

Donor: Dr. Reginald Fisher.                                                     

Figure 2. Saint Wilgefortis., Virgin and Martyr /

Santa Librada, Virgen y Mártir

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on Tin. 13½ x 10”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1969.6.9.

Donor: Dr. and Mrs. Andrew M. Babey.

Figure 3. Saint Wilgefortis., Virgin and Martyr /

Santa Librada, Virgen y Mártir

Anonymous, Mexico. Nineteenth Century.

Oil on tin. 14 x 9 ¾”. NMSU Art Gallery Collection #1963.3.38.

References

Cirlot, Juan Eduardo. A Dictionary of Symbols. London: Routledge, 1995.

Dodwell, Charles Reginald. Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982.

Giffords, Gloria Fraser. Mexican Folk Retablos. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1994.

Zarur, Elizabeth Netto Calil, and Charles M. Lovell. Art and Faith in Mexico the Nineteenth-Century Retablo Tradition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.