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The Female Crucifix

Interview with Ilse E. Friesen

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Why do we need to know about an obscure medieval saint who may not even have existed?

The story of St. Wilgefortis is unique among the pantheon of Catholic saints. No other saint is said to have undergone the kind of drastic physical transformation that St. Wilgefortis underwent—i.e. changing from a beautiful, very feminine princess into a bearded, male-like martyr on the cross. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether St. Wilgefortis actually existed or not—it’s the issues that were raised by her extensive cult of veneration that are relevant at the present time. These issues include such things as gender stereotyping, the changing role of women—and more specifically, societal attitudes towards seemingly “masculine” women—the increasing visibility of females within organized religion, the quest for alternative forms of spirituality, occasionally in the face of opposition from established church hierarchies....Suffice it to say that these reflected in images of the bearded female saint several centuries ago. In a sense, then, her legend foreshadows many of the societal trends that we are witnessing at the present time. The saint herself may have been largely forgotten, but the issues that her story raises will probably continue to preoccupy us for a very long time to come.

What made you decide to write a book about this topic?

I have always had an interest in religious art, particularly in the form of medieval Central European art. I had known about the legend of St. Wilgefortis for some time, but what I didn’t realize until several years ago was the extent to which her cult of veneration—which at one point nearly rivalled that of the Virgin Mary in some parts of Europe—had resulted in the creation of paintings, sculptures, and numerous other works of art over the course of several centuries. The more I looked into this, the more I realized that there was a story to be told here—an examination of evolving social and religious attitudes as expressed through art.

Another reason for writing this book was that I wanted to demonstrate that the highly controversial and unorthodox images of a female Christ that have appeared in contemporary art over the past two or three decades are not, as might be supposed, the unique invention of radical modern-day artists, but that in fact they have their antecedents in the image of the Female Crucifix as represented by depictions of St. Wilgefortis dating back to the Middle Ages.

How does your book differ from others that have been previously written about this subject?

Previous books about St. Wilgefortis—and I should point out that there have been extremely few of them!—had all been written from a limited historical, psychological or literary perspective. In other words, they tended to focus primarily on the dramatic and frequently lurid details of her legend, while almost completely overlooking the significant artistic dimension that characterized her extensive cult of veneration. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever written a book about St. Wilgefortis from a predominantly art historical perspective—until now!

I should add that several of the art works in question had been damaged, locked away or misplaced over the course of the centuries. I was fortunate enough to rediscover a number of them during extensive field trips that I made to western Austria as part of my research. Several illustrations of these previously lost works have been published for the first time in my book.

What do you hope to accomplish as a result of having written this book?

I hope I have provided an opportunity for students of art history, as well as interested members of the public, to examine a highly specialized form of artistic expression in the broader context of religion, spirituality, popular literature, gender relations, and more. I think it is very important to examine any work of art against the background of the prevailing cultural contexts of the day, and not in isolation.