La mujer barbuda

by Víctor Montoya

(Translation by Elizabeth Gamble Miller)

I stared at the long beard of this woman in the picture, her cap of fine cloth, her medieval dress with its wide collar, her breast revealed; my hair stood on end, and my head filled with ideas about women surrounded by signs -Come to our tents. See what you have never seen before- advertising and exhibiting them as freaks in circuses.

The bearded lady, who answered to the name of Magdalena Ventura, came to Naples from Acumulo (a region of Abruzzi). The Duke of Alcalá, in 1631, at that time Viceroy of Naples, impressed by the particular aspect of her extraordinary hair, assigned José Rivera the task of immortalizing her in one of his paintings. The painter, conscious of having found his best reason for living, picked up palette and brushes and painted her portrait, beside her husband, with the boy in diapers up in her arms. It isn't known for certain if the boy was hers, but it is known that this woman, as the inscription in the lower corner of the picture indicates, let her beard start growing at 37 years of age. Surely from that time on whenever she looked at herself in the mirror she touched her face and exclaimed, "Oh, my God! What did I ever do to deserve this punishment?".

Interest in the human freak was an obsession shared by gentlemen of the Court and painters of great mastery and talent. This was the case with José Ribera, called El Españoleto. His Renaissance painting at the Museo Tavera in Toledo, Spain is a magnificent example. The painter was known for his style of strong contrasts of light, dense plasticity of form, attention to detail, and a propensity to monumental composition. These fine qualities can be appreciated in this horrifying painting, in which the bearded woman of broad forehead and serene eyes has a moustache above her lip and a plentiful beard that reaches the top of her breasts. The baby at her breast, lying in her hairy, robust arms, seems, as if by instinctive aversion, to draw away from the nipple of the bearded woman, whose husband, pictured in the background following the disposition of the artist, emerges from the shadows with his gaunt face, as one, who, compelled by other than his will, lets the intimate secret of his beloved be revealed.

This bearded woman, undoubtedly suffered unspeakably in the depths of her soul and cursed the hour she was conceived, like the celebrated Olga Roderick after having been exhibited in circuses and films as an incomparable freak. She, in spite of having married three times and given birth to two children, at the end of her life was a hardened Bohemian. The Mexican Julia Pastrana was a similar case. She was first subjected to the research of men of science and then to the curiosity of a public who considered her a phenomenon of Nature. Julia was of noble sentiments but hairy from head to foot, a perfect hybrid of a human and an orangutan. She was doomed, by her single brow, moustache, sideburns, and beard, to be traded for saleable goods in the hands of an artistic impresario, who besides contracting to marry her, exhibited her in half the world as his hairy wife until in 1859 in Moscow on a tour, Julia Pastrana discovered she was pregnant. On the 20th of March in 1860 her only son came into the world for a scarce 35 hours of life. She died five days after giving birth. When the curtain fell on the tragic ending, the cadavers, by the express orders of the husband with power of attorney, were mummified and auctioned off to the University of Moscow.

The bearded woman, at least until the beginning of the 20th century, earned her daily bread going from town to town in traveling circuses. She was presented with fireworks and noisemakers, "Come, be amused, be amazed! Know the misfortunes and miseries of our freaks. Look at the authentic, the genuine, the unbelievable bearded lady, and, if you dare, for a couple of coins you can touch her beard and talk to her. Look not at the mermaid, or the fat lady. No! See, with your own eyes, the bearded lady. Yes Sir, you heard right, the bearded lady; the one who by divine damnation on her mother had the misfortune to be born like an orangutan...".

So, alongside the contortionist who played the violin with his toes and the acrobat who did his act mounted on a horse, was the bearded lady. She was the key to the classic circus, with its smell of elephant dung and tiger urine; she incarnated the horror, the suspense and the freak; she was the principal attraction. So the public at the moment they faced that stellar spectacle raised their hands to mouths and eyes, and voices of amazement and fright rose in the tent, "Ah..! Oh..! Yuck..!".

Every epoch imagined its own freaks. Laws of nature and science set limits beyond which the excess overflowed into shows of natural phenomena. Therefore, the bearded woman, bearing a kind of collective scorn, came to symbolize deformities, deviations, giants, dwarfs and other anomalies. Her physical appearance not only provoked gossip and controversy, but involved representations and fictions in diverse art forms, even resulting in literary and cinematographic genres that placed her as a central figure.

During the Inquisition, the bearded woman was compared to the witch, and was said to represent passions and instincts repressed by the masculine world. It is logical to deduce that facing such great contempt this woman, pictured with strong realism by José Rivera, suffered from the attitudes of her environment and the social pressures of her times and was forced to live as a recluse within the four walls of her home, where the only one to look at her by candle light was her legitimate husband who found the magic of sensuality in the hairy zones of his wife lying naked upon the furs of the bedroom, and different from the girls, who with tweezers, razors and waxes stripped their bodies until they were like newborn rats.

A portion of Inquisition literature portrayed the saintly bearded woman as a reflection of misogyny. Considering women evil was synthesized in the expression "that devil of a woman." More than a few explored the mythic character of the bearded woman as an expression of the transvestite persuasion, indicating "a double not desirous of the masculine glance."
Moreover, some suggest that the "mannish" woman occupied an important place in Christian hagiography: the female in convents disguised as a man, and the acquisition of abundant hair that neutralized masculine sexual appetite.

The bearded woman, who in this painting causes a kind of vertigo between the real and the imaginary, is an extreme case of hirsutism, a natural phenomenon that calls attention to the woman without hair and provokes the envy of men who can't grow a beard, who, from the beginning of puberty, dreamed of showing off a beautiful beard like Marx or Engels.

As for the rest, the taboo of hair on women has reached such an extreme that today it is repugnant for someone to have body hair. Anyone of an opposite opinion mustn't express it for fear of being called perverse and disgusting. He might even find women, who show abundant hair there where God put it, fascinating.

© Víctor Montoya, Elizabeth Gamble Miller (2008)

Original en español de
esta crónica

Contactar con el autor: montoya [at]

Ilustración: La mujer barbuda (1631), pintura de José de Ribera, dominio público

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Revista Almiar (Madrid, España) - MARGEN CERO™ (2002)

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