Are bearded women in art saints or sinners?

Classical paintings are sometimes surprising to those who know how to examine them carefully. Religious painting, for example, includes many bearded women.

Whether they are sinners or saints, hirsutism (the appearance of hair in normally hairless areas in women) has always been regarded as mysterious prodigies, sometimes heralding great evils and divine punishments, and sometimes seen as symbols of resistance in the face of oppression. they turn from their faith.

Since ancient times

Female hairiness has always been the subject of comments and special presentations. In the Eastern world of antiquity, we find images of bearded women without a negative charge, such as the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, the Egyptian pharaoh Hapshepsut, or the “Venus Barbate” of the island of Cyprus. But in the Western world, female facial hair was primarily associated with women’s primitive nature, and it was automatically associated with sensual behavior, as if this trait made women morally reprehensible.

Biblical texts and literature, beginning with the first descriptions of the origin of the world, justify the superiority of men over women, showing women as evil, beautiful, but with inferior instincts by nature. God’s image and likeness.

According to the humoral theory of antiquity, hair, the most obvious physical difference between the two sexes, was also related to sexual appetite. According to tradition, an abundance of hair and body hair indicated courage in men and dangerous lust in women. These theories were expressed in medical and philosophical texts and treatises (Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna or Aristotle) ​​and entered the history of art from the 16th century.e century

hair in art

Giambattista Della Porta was one of the first art theorists to identify the negative moral connotations associated with bearded women. More precisely, in the “About Hair” section of his book From physiognomy to manhe affirms that “the bearded woman is ill-tempered.”

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If still in ancient Rome a large part of public misfortunes was associated with female immorality, Della Porta claimed that the bearded woman was “herself like a wolf, a harbinger of impending misfortunes.” According to these ideas, the gods, in a gesture of generosity and mercy towards humans, tried to help them avoid the consequences of great dangers by sending warning signs that manifested themselves in surprising, terrible or inexplicable events, or in ugly or disfiguring events. monstrous beings that portend great misfortune by being born with a prophetic character.

With the rise of Christianity, the birth of these beings was widely cited as material, physical evidence of divine punishment. Thus, these newborn children accused their parents of violating the moral rules of conception, inflicting on them a penance that would last cruelly throughout the child’s life.

Ancient and medieval sources are full of testimonies of “terrible” births. It was only at the beginning of the 16th centurye In the 20th century, this view was abandoned in favor of humanistic theories that sought to explain physical problems through medical research, gradually distancing them from the explanation of divine punishment.

Documentary portraits

From 16, thanks to this new view of the world and the printing presse In the 19th century, images of bearded women began to be prepared with different meanings, reflecting treatises on natural history, medicine or philosophy, removed from the sphere of sin.

Brígida del Río, The Bearded Woman of PenarandaBy Juan Sánchez Cotan.
The Prado Museum

From this point on, we see these women appearing in painting: Brigida del Río, known as the Bearded Woman of Penaranda, painted by Sánchez Cotan in 1590, or Magdalena Ventura, painted a few decades later by José de Ribera in Naples.

“Portrait of Magdalena Ventura, called the Bearded Woman, seen with her husband and child”, by José de Ribera.

In both cases, the artists approached the subject without the slightest criticism or censorship, with a documentary interest in which women’s illness was highlighted with dignity. In the case of Brigida, the artist represented her with a kind, direct and sincere gaze, crossed hands on her knees, gesture, face and impeccable clothes that show the honesty of her soul.

José de Ribera’s portrait depicts the pain of a woman whose body has undergone such physical changes due to hirsutism, which she developed after the age of 37, that she took on a masculine appearance. In this case, the almost defiant looks of Magdalena, who clings to her son while offering her a breast to suck, contrast with the desolateness of her husband, who wants to blend into the background.

Bearded women and saints

On the other hand, although most representations of hairy women are associated with immoral and sinful behavior, there are also representations of women whose hair or beard symbolizes their holiness. One such extraordinary case is that of the so-called St. Vilgeffort (by Maiden Fortis), a Portuguese virgin martyr whose legend and cult spread throughout Europe.

Saint Wilgefortis on a panel from 1678 in the municipal museum of Schwäbische Gmünd (Germany).

The story goes that this young Roman girl goes against her family’s marriage plans, praying and fasting to avoid such a union because she wants to dedicate her life to God. The answer to their prayers came in the form of a prominent beard and bushy moustache. This fluffiness immediately led to the disgust of her fiancé and the annulment of her marriage, and her father crucified her.

The iconographic depiction of these saints shows them bearded, crucified, and wearing a long tunic that covers almost their entire body, with only their hands, feet, and head visible.

The beard and masculine features of these women are the symbol of their sanctity, the iconographic element that defines them and allows them to be identified. The iconography of these “vrilized saints” evolved over time. The beard becomes thinner, disappears, or is replaced as an element of distinction by becoming a crucified saint, by wearing a crown and wearing rich robes, the feminine anatomy that can be guessed under the clothes.

The consolidation of these new figures brought worshipers into contact with examples of women whose beards were a source of pride. The beard of Saint Wilgefortis, known in Spain as Saint Librada or Saint Paula of Avili, became a favorite appeal of women unhappy in their marriages, expressing Christ’s love for young women who wanted to dedicate their lives to God and prayer. and make the image of bearded women a little more popular in society.

All these women – modest, noble or saintly – exist on canvas or in carvings and are among the “mirabilia” of the famous cabinets of curiosity that abound in Europe from the Renaissance.

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