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A bearded virgin
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The statue of a bearded virgin, inside the church.

This statue now set against a wall represents a female-saint called Wilgeforte, wearing a beard and crucified like Christ. According to legend, a young princess, daughter of some king in Sicily, was forced by her father to marry the king of Portugal with whom he was at war. But the father’s wish ran against his daughter’s will, since she had vowed to remain a virgin. She therefore entreated God to make her look as ugly as possible, and that is how she grew a beard. But, to punish her, her father had her crucified.

According to yet another legend, drunken soldiers would have tried to rape her. She prayed God for protection, and he answered her prayer in the same way as before.

Scholars of course give credence to neither story, since Wilgeforte would have been the only crucified woman in history! Wilgeforte would instead have been an Eastern representation of Christ wearing a tunic on the Cross (and not naked like a slave). There are well-known similar representations of Christ in Western Europe, especially in Lucca (Tuscany). There the “Volto Santo” (or “Holy Face’) is the statue of a bearded Christ wearing a long tunic with a belt round his waist. In Old French that Christ was similarly known as “le Saint Vou”, and copies of the Luccan statue could be seen by English pilgrims in many churches and chapels on their way to Rome. In Northern France that was the case not only in Wissant but also in Rinxent, Abbeville and Beauvais.

After the 13th century the Western Church broke with that Eastern tradition and imposed instead the statue of a nearly stark naked Christ. As a result, the pilgrimage to Lucca gradually disappeared, and the worship of the “Holy face” sank into oblivion. Some of its statues were destroyed, while others remained but no longer understood whence the birth, as early as the 14th century in Flanders, of the legend of a “bearded virgin”. This accounts for the statue in Wissant having indeed breasts like a woman; the Luccan Christ had by then been utterly forgotten.

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