The Four Best Beards in the History of Christendom

[Check out part 2 of this series: The Salvation History of Facial Hair]

The rest of the world is buzzing about no-shave November right now. However, as Catholics, we belong to a long history of beards so magnificent they could never hope to be confined to single month. The face furniture of our early Fathers alone is resplendent enough to make Gandalf weep with envy (looking at you, First Council of Nicea).

I’m not saying that God gives the best beards to Catholics. I just want to point out the long standing correlation between Christianity and luxurious lip locks.  In fact, if you pay attention to hagiography, you can’t help but come to the conclusion that the Church Triumphant strongly resembles an NHL team during playoffs.

What follows is a handcrafted list of the four best beards in the history of Christendom.

But first…

Honorable Mention: God the Father, as depicted by Michelangelo

Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel in 1508.  His fresco of “The Creation of Adam” is one of the greatest artistic accomplishments of Western Civilization. In fact, Pope Johan Paul II referred to the Sistine Chapel as the “sanctuary of the theology of the human body.”  Michelangelo summarized two great Christian truths with his fresco: first, that human bodies serve as an icon of God’s love, and second, that God is the source of the beauty found in the human body.

And he used a beard to do it.

Burliness: Transcendental. Bonus: It kind of looks like a cumulous cloud
Contributions to the Kingdom:  Made the Kingdom in which all other beards abide. Also, made all other beards.

However, it is disqualified, on account of being beyond the judgments of man.

4. St. Simeon Stylites the Elder

St. Simeon was a stylite, a word which here means “a crazy yet holy person from the early church who lived on top of a pole for years.” St. Simeon Stylites the Elder lived on his pole for 36 years. We don’t have any records of him leaving it, except for when he was moving to a bigger one (his last pole was over 50 feet tall!). He refused to leave even when the emperor ordered him to see a doctor, so I think it’s safe to assume he refrained from visiting the barber for all 36 years. Also, he freely elected to live on top of a freaking pole, so I don’t think he was overly concerned with appearances.

History books claim his disciples used a ladder to seek his advice. I’m choosing to believe that they climbed up his decades-old beard, Rapunzel style. Regardless, he is the perfect comeback to anyone who denies how hardcore our Church is.

Burliness: 5 (Points detracted because it was probably unwashed and gross.)
Contributions to the Kingdom: 6. He was kind of crazy, but his story totally beats Buddha sitting under a tree.

3. The Capuchins and CFRs

If you’ve ever walked through the Bronx and thought you saw Dumbledore, then you’ve probably seen a Capuchin. If you’ve ever walked through the Bronx and thought you saw Jesus, then you’ve probably spotted a member of the Community of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (CFR).

They all have beards. Every single one of them. Most of these beards are of the burly lumberjack variety, although an unofficial source has told me that they also have a “Scraggly Beard Club”. And while they may not live on top of poles for decades, they do embrace a life of piety and poverty that is just as countercultural in our age as the stylites were in theirs.

So next time you see Jesus/Dumbledore, don’t just see the beard. See a living embodiment of radical religiosity in the 21st century.

Burliness: Varies, but generally impressive.
Contributions to the Kingdom: Varies, but Padre Pio and Solanus Casey alone earn them 10 out of 10.

2. Saint Wilgefortis

Note: It is very, very important that you read this one all the way through.

She was a woman. I repeat: those bountiful bristles were on a WOMAN.

According to legend, Saint Wilgefortis was a Portuguese noblewoman who consecrated herself to Christ. Her father told her she had to get married, so she begged God to deliver her. He answered by making her face erupt in a beard that would put the Duck Dynasty guys to shame. Her fiancé took one look at her villous visage and instantly called off the wedding.  Her dad had her crucified in retaliation, because that was just what you did back then, apparently.

The best part about this story is that it never actually happened. There was no St. Wilgefortis.  Her story was debunked in the sixteenth century. It turns out a bunch of people in the Middle Ages were really confused when they saw a new type of crucifix in which Christ was wearing a long robe. They mistook the robe for a dress and made up a legend to explain the bearded woman on the cross. I imagine the conversation went something like this:

Guy #1: So….do you think the artist was inspired by Eastern art and thus decided to depict Christ in a long robe instead of the loincloth to which we’ve grown accustomed?
Guy #2: Nah. It’s probably a bearded Portuguese virgin whose dad had her crucified.
Guy #3: Nailed it. Let’s call her Wilgefortis.

I love St. Wilgefortis because her story demonstrates the gritty, beautiful, and ridiculous humanity of our Church. Also, that story is hilarious.

Burliness: 9
Contributions to the Kingdom: 6. On the one hand, this fake story took away from our credibility. On the other, she brings hope of salvation to carnies everywhere.

1. St. Thomas More

His beard is shrouded in mystery. What he did with it is simply amazing.

Henry VIII condemned St. Thomas More to death after he refused to deny papal supremacy. More had been confined in the Tower of London for over a year (hence the beard, and why it’s not pictured). As the executioner lifted his axe, More asked him to wait. The blindfolded saint-to-be carefully laid his beard on the outside of the block, out of the executioner’s path. “This hath not offended the king,” he quipped, thus protecting his beard from the blade.

Then the axe fell.

You read that correctly. His last words before beholding the Beatific Vision were a beard joke. While that might not fit the modern notion of a saint, it completely matches his personality. One biographer wrote, “”that innocent mirth which had been so conspicuous in his life, did not forsake him to the last . . .his death was of a piece with his life.”

Please remember this the next time someone tries to say holiness and humor do not mix.

And then spend some time contemplating St. Thomas More’s glorified heavenly beard.

Burliness: Unknown. Although it was big enough to lay outside a chopping block, so it must have been pretty darn impressive.
Contributions to the Kingdom: 9. This story needs to be spread to the ends of the earth.

[Check out part 2 of this series: The Salvation History of Facial Hair]

Melissa Keating
Melissa Keating
Melissa is a missionary with the Digital Campus. She was born and raised in St. Louis (aka the best city on Earth), but went to school at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS (aka a city on Earth). She graduated in 2012 with degrees in Mass Communications and Foreign Languages, and minors in International Studies and Theology. Yes, she was that girl. She currently lives in Denver. Like most twenty somethings, she enjoys reading, writing, hanging with friends, linguistic hagiography, and follicular Church history. Please help slake her insatiable need for attention by following her on twitter. Twitter: @mkeats42

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