Liberata was one of the King of Lusitania’s (now Portugal) nine daughters. Her father wished her to marry the King of Sicily, but she declared that she had privately taken a vow of celibacy. She prayed on the eve of her wedding to be freed of the marriage. In answer to her prayers, she sprouted a luxuriant beard. Horrified by her appearance, her suitor departed. In anger, her father had Liberata crucified.
Liberata is known by several different names around the world. In Spain, her name was Librada. In England, her name was Uncumber. In France, her name was Debarras. Her Dutch-language name was Ontkommer. In Germany, she was called Wilgefortis or Oncommer.
The meaning of her names in each language relates to being liberated, unencumbered, or escaping bondage. She was formerly the patron saint of dealing with difficult marriages and lost causes, but the Catholic church has determined that her story is fictional so she has been removed from the calendar of saints.
In art, Liberata is often presented crucified and is invoked to drive away melancholy thoughts and summon peace and serenity. Generally, she is depicted as a young girl (10-12 years old) with a beard, but Bosch’s work does not follow that trend. Here, Liberata appears as a nearly grown woman with a height comparable to those of the adults around her cross. To her right, we see noble men in fine dress, presumably those who have condemned her to death. On her left are victims of another crucifixion (already dead) and a crowd who appears to lament Liberata’s fate.
The Triptych of the Martyrdom of St. Liberata is actually three panel paintings that have been combined — St Anthony, The Martyrdom of St Liberata and the Pilgrims and the Port. In the St Anthony panel on the left, the northern city appears in the background ablaze, while a small cricket represents the temptation of the flesh. In the Pilgrims and the Port on the right, a monk is accompanied by a soldier while in the background various violent scenes take place. The monk points towards the central panel where St. Liberta hangs from the cross. This is thought to be a sign encouraging the viewer to abandon a life of violence and embrace the path of virtue.
This painting of St. Liberata shows her hanging from a crucifix inside a chapel, with the full beard that forced her suitor to flee. A fiddler appears at Liberata’s feet here, playing music to comfort her during her martyrdom. The fiddler’s dress in this work is indicative of the time period in which it was made — the late 17th century — rather than historically accurate. The fiddler’s presence stems from some versions of Liberata’s story where she was said to have kicked off her silver shoe to reward his kindness. This is also the reason why Liberata is sometimes depicted missing one shoe.