Austrians worshipped bearded woman

An exhibition in the Waldviertal region of Lower Austria tells the story of a bearded lady worshipped by those who sought the freedom to live their lives as they pleased, free from oppression.

Austrians worshipped bearded woman
Photo: Wolfgang Andraschek/Museen der Stadt Horn, APA

Could this popular saint from the Middle Ages perhaps have served as inspiration to a modern day Austrian icon – Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst? 

The City Museum of Horn has recently opened an exhibition featuring a popular saint from the Middle Ages, "die Heiligen Kümmernis", known in English as Saint Uncumber, and also as Wilgefortis.

Although never officially canonized by the Catholic Church, Wilgefortis was very popular in central Europe and the alpine regions, and her reputation spread as far as England, France, and Spain.  

While her origins are unclear, she is thought to have originated as a folk tale in Portugal, about a teenage noblewoman called Wilgefortis (meaning either "holy face" or "strong virgin") who was going to be forced into an unwanted marriage by her father. 

The intended husband was a pagan king – and as a staunch Christian, the young would-be bride refused to have anything to do with a strange religion.  

To avoid the horrors of marriage, Wilgefortis prayed to the Virgin Mary to be made repulsive – and through divine intervention, she grew a full beard overnight – which compelled her betrothed to break off the engagement.

This enraged her pagan-loving father, who had his unfortunate daughter crucified.

Wilgefortis became the saint to whom women through central and western Europe prayed when they were in abusive relationships from which they sought to escape.  Additionally, she was the saint of infertility and marriage problems. 

She is depicted in a variety of statues, votive figurines and paintings as a beautiful young woman with a full beard – bringing us full circle to Conchita Wurst.

While we haven't seen any reports of Conchita helping her admirers to achieve liberation from abusive relationships or marriage problems, there are certainly a few angry people who have threatened to kill her.

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