Were some Catholic saints transgender? Berkeley show raises eyebrows

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"Saint Wilgefortis" by artist Alma Lopez plays with the 14th century saint's gender. Photo courtesy of Alma Lopez

"Saint Wilgefortis" by artist Alma Lopez plays with the 14th century saint's gender. Photo courtesy of Alma Lopez

BERKELEY, Calif. (RNS)  Step into the one-room art gallery inside the Pacific School of Religion  and look closely at the saints in the paintings:  Some have beards; some have buzz cuts; some have their breasts obscured; some appear in unisex clothes like tanks tops and jeans.

Are they women or men?

That’s the point of artist Alma Lopez’s new show, “Queer Santas: Holy Violence,” on display at this theological school known for its embrace of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. In playing with the gender characteristics of religious icons usually depicted as feminine, Lopez asks us to reconsider our ideas of religion, beauty and gender.

Three works by artist Alma Lopez in her show, "Queer Santas: Holy Violence" on display at Pacific School of Religion. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

Three works by artist Alma Lopez in her show, “Queer Santas: Holy Violence” on display at the Pacific School of Religion. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

Justin Tanis, who teaches at the school, said it’s as if these saints, with their direct eye contact and open arms, are saying, “‘I am natural, I am one of God’s people.’ And yet this is an image that many people would consider heretical because gender play is involved.”

Gender play is at work in each of the icons in the show — St. Lucia, St. Wilgefortis and St. Liberata – on display in the Doug Adams Gallery and is presented by the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education.

 "Saint Wilgefortis" by artist Alma Lopez plays with the 14th century saint's gender. Photo courtesy of Alma Lopez

“Saint Wilgefortis” by artist Alma Lopez plays with the 14th-century saint’s gender. Photo courtesy of Alma Lopez

Lopez, a visiting artist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said she was attracted to these saints because their stories have a common theme — each one tried to step out of the expected role for a woman of her time and, as a result, was the victim of terrible violence.

Take St. Wilgefortis’ story. A 14th-century noblewoman promised in marriage without her consent, she prayed to God to be made ugly so she could keep a vow of chastity she made to Jesus. God granted her a man’s beard. The marriage was off — but Wilgefortis — whose name means “strong face” — was crucified by her father.

The stories of St. Liberata and St. Lucia are similar — Liberata sprouted a beard and Lucia had her eyes torn out when she disappointed her family.

“All of these saints are women who took their own agency and stepped outside gender norms,” Tanis said as he stood before Lopez’s rendition of St. Liberata, arms splayed in a way that suggests both crucifixion and winged flight. “In that sense, they were queer and violence was done to them for it.”

Speaking by phone from her home in Southern California, Lopez, 47, said she was drawn to the stories of these saints because of their refusal to conform to the social norms expected of women in their times — much the way lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people today do.

“I think many of us would refuse to submit to something that we do not believe in, especially when it has something to do with identity,” she said. “In our community, we do endure so much because we believe in certain things and we know ourselves. So I wanted the Queer Santas to stand for that and start a discussion of how much we endure to be who we are and love who we want to love.”

Alma Lopez's version of Santa Lucia confronts the viewer with a direct gaze - and her torn out eyeballs in her hands. Photo courtesy of Alma Lopez

Alma Lopez’s version of Santa Lucia confronts the viewer with a direct gaze — and her torn-out eyeballs in her hands. Photo courtesy of Alma Lopez

For models, she used her own wife and friends, drawn by their own combination of female and male characteristics.

“So it is really me painting their masculinity and their beauty through the story of the Santas,” she said, using the Spanish word for female saints.

The show also includes a work Lopez is most famous for — a 1999 representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe who is partially nude and clad in a robe decorated with the image of Coyolxauhqui, an Aztec moon goddess who was murdered by her brother. A bare-breasted woman with butterfly wings holds the virgin on her back as the virgin stands with arms akimbo, confronting the viewer with a daring gaze.

When the work appeared in a New Mexico show in 2001, it sparked an international controversy. Protests from Catholics followed the work to shows in Oakland, Calif., and Cork, Ireland. Like the saints in the current show, Lopez and museum officials received verbal and physical threats.

Also included in the “Queer Santas” show are several images of “sirenas,” or mermaids — another opportunity to play with gender. Lopez said she took the images from Mexican “loteria” game  – similar to bingo – she had as a child and included them in this show because they also play with gender — their genitals are obscured by a fish tail and their breast are covered by shells, hair or hands.

This self-portrait by artist Alma Lopez features images of change central to most of her works - butterflies, roses and wings. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

This self-portrait by artist Alma Lopez features images of change central to most of her works — butterflies, roses and wings. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

In the loteria cards, the sirena “is the only one who is a hybrid,” Lopez said.

At the gallery talk, Tanis said his research showed that some young transgender girls have adopted the sirena as a symbol of the exploration of their own identity.

And as for the controversy Lopez’s art often attracts, this time there’s been none. In fact, Tanis said, he’s walked into the gallery to find people sitting before the image in meditation or prayer.

“So far it’s been quiet,” he said. “But we are prepared to offer hospitality to any protesters.”



  • Frank

    Is this a joke? Sounds and looks like one.

  • A great opportunity for some of our fine, male bishops and other churchmen to come out for an evening of good art, dressed in drag and trailing a boa. It would make them feel right at home, for one thing, and secondly, it would, if just for one night, take their minds off that saucy little altar boy they had their eyes on all day long. “Father Daniel!” Father Lance flutters and waves a hankie, “do look at this one, she looks just like my sister Sara. Just to die for,” as his wrist goes limp and they bump heads. “You bitch, you’ll knock my tiara off!” “Sorry, girlfriend, so sorry!”

  • Doc Anthony


  • 10% of humanity is homosexual. It stands to reason that among the hundreds of so called ‘saints’ are examples of every sexual interest. It can be no other way.

  • DGnosis

    Awesome article! images of resilience and resistance, beautiful work.

  • DCNB

    Good art is in the eye of the beholder. I must, in all honesty say, these [ ICONS ]
    are disturbing. Religious icons are to be gateways to heaven, art that brings one to prayer, closer to God. These icons are weird. I would not want my children or grandchildren to see this art on my wall.

    Where are all the true artists today …. any Michelangelo’s living today?

  • Crash2Parties

    There are straight transgender people and there are gay ones. Lesbian, bi and asexual, too. Gender is *not* sexuality.

    It’s pretty well documented that there were gay saints such as St. Anselm of Canterbury, arguably the first gay activist. Proving others were trans is more difficult such as in the case of St. Jeanne D’arc (Joan of Arc) is far more controversial. As happens to many other women in history that dressed and/or lived as men, both feminsts and trans people claim her as one of their own.

  • They say that the vocation of a saint is to “comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” It would seem fitting then that an exhibit of saints should unsettle and disturb our expectations of icons, and to edify our families in ways we might not intend ourselves.

  • Transgender people are not drag queens/kings: try again.

  • Diogenes

    Lopez confuses cultural norms with gender norms. And gender may not be sexuality, but it is sexual; in fact it is a distinction without a difference. There are too many Humpty Dumpty’s around who unilaterally declare, ‘When I choose to use a word, it means what I say it means…’ (Re: Lewis Carroll’s, “ALICE IN WONDERLAND”). Whether art is seminal or mere recapitulation, Lopez’ art in spirit if not presentation reflects the growing incoherent chaos of our age.

  • Fourth Valley

    Eh. The depictions of St Wilgefortis here are pretty similar to her normal iconography. You can call it “weird”, but pretty much ANY icon depicting St Wilgefortis will probably look unusual to you, since St Wilgefortis was a bearded woman, granted a beard by God to prevent her being married off to a pagan king violating her vow of chastity.

  • Elledra

    I’m curious: the author says these images (like Lopez’ earlier Guadalupe) have led to verbal and physical threats. But a few paragraphs down it says there has been no controversy with the exhibit. So how have people reacted? (Sadly, I would expect the first–but maybe that was just from cranky people who didn’t actually see the show?)

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  • Oliver

    Nice idea, but it seems like the answer to the headline is probably “no”, at least for these particular saints… Wikipedia says two are names for the same one, who is legendary (who God made her beard grow to help her stay a virgin) and one made a vow of virginity and gave away her money, which angered her fiancé who denounced her as a Christian during one of the times of persecution. So, it seems a bit pushing it to say they were maybe transgender etc. But then artists are allowed some licence if something inspires them I guess!

  • Frank

    It’s art not reality.

  • This show is not presented by the Pacific School of Religion, but by the Ceneter for Arts, Religion and Education at the GTU, an independent organization for which PSR has been a gracious host for many years. The Doug Adams Gallery is named for CARE’s founder.

    Eliza Linley, past CARE board member

  • Bill

    I wrote a doctoral dissertation about St. Anselm of Canterbury, for which I read everything written by him and many works about him and his thought. I found not the slightest evidence that he was a “gay activist.” In Schmitt’s 5-voume edition of his works, Anselm does not advert to this subject even remotely. The allegation may have been made by many in the thousand years since his time, but not in any reputable literature I know of. It is not “well documented” and seems not documented at all.

  • Doc Anthony

    You might want to check that gay-propaganda claim of “10 percent” soon. It’s been cleary REFUTED. It’s only 3.8 percent at best.

    National Public Radio News explains it thusly:


  • Doc Anthony

    Thank you. That’s what somebody, anybody, needs to say about this kind of artwork. It DOES look weird, honestly. This so-called “art” is NOT pointing upwards towards God, but pointing downwards.

  • Jack

    Atheist Max, you should recheck the 10% figure. It’s actually closer to 3-5%.

  • Jack

    DCNB, it’s Berkeley, the Mecca of the radical left and all things alternative…..would you expect anything else?

  • Jack

    Doc, for at least a century, art has tended more toward self-expression, and less toward depicting reality of any kind. It is inward-focused rather than focused on the world outside of self.

    Some will say that much of modern art is the art world throwing a temper tantrum against the invention and refinement of photography.

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