Artists are able to offer ambiguous and discomforting images, that writers are then left to explain. Of all the legendary virgin martyrs, none is stranger than the supposed daughter of a supposed king of Portugal.

St Wilgefortis (from the Latin virgo forth, strong virgin?) was promised to a neighbouring king. Unwilling to be yoked to a pagan, she prayed for a miracle. The Lord obliged, and gave her a full beard; and the wedding was called off. Her father, ‘enraged by this unfeminine miracle’, had her crucified.

We have here then a picture of a female crucifix from the early sixteenth century. A statue of her in Westminster Abbey has her (more conservatively) merely holding a cross. She was invoked by women who wished to be free of abusive husbands.

One suggestion is that she was somehow a misunderstanding of the famous Volto Santo of Lucca, a bearded figure of Christ on the cross, clad in a full-length robe. Certainly she typifies a late medieval degeneracy in the cult of the saints, but this still does not properly explain the diffusion of this unsettling image.

To suggest, as one recent feminist ‘scholar’ does [Use Friesen, The Female Crucifix], that ‘the popular cult of this mysterious saint at one point nearly rivalled that of the Virgin Mary’ is surely nonsense, but she is right that ‘these sometimes disturbingly androgynous crucifixes resulted from a much more complex and diverse set of reasons than a mere misunderstanding of a particular image of the crucified Christ.’ She is classed among the transvestite saints in the ‘Calendar of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Saints’.

Nigel Anthony