A late medieval image of St. Walpurga (c. 710-779) presents a very different version of female empowerment, perhaps because it was made by women chiefly for women. It even uses a typically 'female' technique, embroidery. The saint is shown as a capable, dominant figure, totally unapologetic about her assumption of authority. This is in line with what we know about her life. Born in England, she was summoned by her brother St. Winebald to help him rule his newly founded monastery of Heidenheim in Germany. This institution contained both monks and nuns. After St. Winebald's death in 761, Walpurga ruled over the whole monastery.
But her legend, too, like Mary Magdalene's, acquired an element of confusion. After her death St. Walpurga became identified with Waldborg, a German pre-Christian fertility goddess. On Walpurgis Night, the eve of her feast day which falls on 1 May, witches- in other words the servants of the old goddess, worshipping religion, later falsely portrayed as servants of the Devil - were believed to gather in the Harz Mountains. Even in nun's clothing, as she is portrayed here, St. Walpurga's image can be regarded as being yet another- wholly unexpected- example of a representation of the Great Mother figure.
Some of the most familiar images of female sainthood represent saints in ecstasy. Perhaps the best known is the altar by Gianlorenzo Bernini ( 1598-1680) in Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome, which celebrate St. Teresa of Avila (1515 - 82,canonized 1622). This sculpture follows the text of the saint's own autobiography, in which she describes how an angel pierced her heart with a fiery arrow of divine love. Both the description itself and Bernini's physical embodiment have strong sexual overtones - the saint, as he shows her, seems to be in the throes of orgasm. This emphasis on a female hero's helpless bondage to sexuality might perhaps be read as a way of denying her power. There is no hint here of the capable and persistent ecclesiastical reformer which we know St. Teresa to have been , and certainly none of the intense asceticism which in reality typified her character.
Nevertheless, as forthright celebration of the powers of named, individual women, Bernini's altar and other works of the same genre have had a liberating effect on a number of contemporary female artists looking for new ways of asserting the achievements of their gender. The work by Amelia Mesa-Bains illustrated here is a case in point. It celebrates St.Teresa not only as a heroic woman but also as an integral part of the Hispanic heritage- someone whom Hispanic women can still look up to as an example to follow.