Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary – Duchess and Servant of the Poor

First Master of the Prayerbook of Maximilian, Saint Elizabeth
 of Hungary
From the Hours of Isabella the Catholic
Flemish, c. 1500
Cleveland, Museum of Art
Acc # 1963, 256, fol. 197v

“When one finds a worthy wife,

her value is far beyond pearls.

Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,

has an unfailing prize.

She brings him good, and not evil,

all the days of her life.

She obtains wool and flax

and works with loving hands.

She puts her hands to the distaff,

and her fingers ply the spindle.

She reaches out her hands to the poor,

and extends her arms to the needy.

Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting;

the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.

Give her a reward for her labors,

and let her works praise her at the city gates.”

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31

First Reading for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Sunday, November 15, 2020

On reading and hearing the first reading from the Sunday Mass yesterday, I thought it was an appropriate Biblical quotation to begin this essay on the iconography of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.  As a woman, married to an important nobleman, she certainly fulfilled the words of the writer of this proverb for she brought good and not evil, worked at spinning wool, reached out her hands to the poor and extended her arms to the needy.  In her short time on earth she fulfilled this passage and modeled her life on that of Christ.  And she has been remembered for it through many generations.

I don’t recall when I first heard about Saint Elizabeth of Hungary but I know it was when I was very small.  I remember my mother telling me the story of what I now know is called the Miracle of the Roses.  This is probably the best known tale attached to Saint Elizabeth.  It is probably a pious fiction, although it does reveal a deeper truth about the woman.  I remember thinking, that it was a sweet and helpful miracle, but not much more than that.

Main Altar with Miracle of the Roses windows
German, c, 1920s
New York, Church of Saint Elizabeth, Wadsworth Avenue

However, this saint seems to follow me around.  When I was 16 my family was forced to move from the Bloomingdale area on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I grew up, to a more distant location in upper Manhattan known as Fort George.  The parish in that area is known as Saint Elizabeth, period, no further description.  So, it could refer to the Virgin Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, or to someone else.  Once we relocated, it was obvious that the Elizabeth who is patron of the parish is not the mother of Saint John the Baptist but the medieval Elizabeth of Hungary.  Indeed, there was (and is) a beautiful stained glass window behind the main altar that depicts the Miracle of the Roses. 

These views of the three panels that form the windows, plus the view from above (shown below), give a much clearer impression of the real beauty of these windows, which come as a surprise in the otherwise unremarkable decorative scheme of this church.  Currently, I have no idea of who the designer was.

We remained in that parish for twelve years, most of which were unhappy ones.  My father died three years after our move and my mother developed chronic leukemia shortly thereafter.  It was there that I had to cope with the demands of grad school while taking care of her during the many complications of that disease.  During the latter years of our sojourn, the area became a well-known location for drug dealers and increasingly unsafe. 

We finally found a suitable new apartment and moved to the Upper East Side to the area historically known as Yorkville.  To my surprise, in addition to the big parish churches of which I had always been aware, the area was sprinkled with small, “national” churches, founded in the early part of the 20th century, when immigrants were flooding into New York from many diverse language groups.  While, at the time, in every parish Mass was offered in Latin, the national churches allowed newcomers to hear preaching and receive other sacraments, such as Penance, in their own language.   These parishes also functioned as social centers for their communities, offering a haven in an Anglophone and sometimes hostile city.  One language group that settled in the area was Hungarian, another was Slovak.  Consequently, my apartment was within one block each way of both a Hungarian and a Slovak Catholic church.  The Hungarian church was named for Saint Stephen of Hungary and the Slovak church was named for Saint Elizabeth of Hungary.1   

Devotional Image of Saint Elizabeth
Origin Unknown, c. 1900
London, Wellcome Trust

So, why would a Slovak church be named in honor of a Hungarian saint?  It was a puzzle, but not one sufficiently intriguing to cause me to do any research. (And, to be fair, simple research of this kind wasn’t quite as easy then as now, when you just have to enter a few words in a search engine).

Having decided to honor the feast day of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, which is November 17, with an iconographic essay I finally did that research, and what an interesting woman I found! 

Pietro Lorenzetti and Workshop, Crowned Female Figure (Saint Elizabeth)
 Italian, c. 1336-1340
London, National Gallery

The very first thing I found out is that Elizabeth was not born in today’s Hungary, but in what is today’s Slovakia.  In fact, she was born in 1207 in the capital city of Slovakia, Bratislava.  However, in her day (the early 13th century) this area was part of the kingdom of Hungary.  Bratislava was then known as Pozsony in Hungarian and Pressburg in German.2   She was born a princess, daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his queen, the Bavarian countess, Gertrude.  Interestingly, her mother’s sisters were Hedwig, now Saint Hedwig, who was married to the Grand Duke of Poland and is now one of that country’s patron saints, and Agnes, who was married for a time to King Philip II Augustus of France.3 Thus Elizabeth’s parents were very well connected as well as very pious.

Jean le Tavernier and Follower, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
From a Book of Hours
French (Oudenarde), c. 1450-1460
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 2, fol. 277v

As was common among the aristocracy of Europe in this period (and for years before and after) royal children were political bargaining chips.  No matter how much their parents may have loved them it was understood that they would be used in ways that may seem to us to be barbaric.  So, like many other children, Elizabeth was betrothed to Herman, the son of the Duke of Thuringia, at the age of four.  Shortly thereafter she was sent to Thuringia to be brought up along with her betrothed and his siblings.  There were practical reasons for this kind of arrangement of course.  Although it must have been devastating to the child to be taken from the only home she knew, it guaranteed the political association which her marriage was intended to make permanent and guaranteed that she would be familiar with the language and all the customs of what would become her country.

Scenes from the Life of Saint Elixabeth
Dutch, c. 1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
The story in this painting winds through the two levels.  At bottom left her parents agree to send her to Thuringia to marry the Duke's son.  The infant Elizabeth appears in her nurse's arms.  In the lower right her nurse prepares the girl for her trip as her parents stand waiting behind the wagon.  Her father can be seen to be carrying a pot of gold, presumably her dowry.  In the upper right she dines with her parents and her future parents-in-law.  At the upper left the two groups of parents take leave of each other.

In her new homeland Elizabeth seems to have grown up to be a very devout child.  There are stories about her spending a great deal of time in church, even trying to get into the chapel when it was closed, of private devotions and penances.  What may have been a refuge for her in the strangeness of her early days there seems to have developed into a deep and serious piety. 

Charles Allston Collins, The Devout Childhood of St. Elizabeth of Hungary
English, 1851-1852
Detroit, Institute of Arts

What was always questionable about childhood betrothals was whether they would ever see fruition.  As happened many times in history, Elizabeth’s betrothed died before the wedding could take place.  Since she was part of an agreement between Hungary and Thuringia which both wanted to retain, Herman was replaced as her betrothed by his next younger brother, Ludwig (often referred to as Louis).  And this was surely a marriage made in heaven.  At the time of their wedding Ludwig was 20 years old and Elizabeth was 14.  This sounds drastically young to our modern thinking, but was not uncommon in its time.

Wedding Feast of Saint Elizabeth at the Wartburg
Dutch, c. 1490-1495
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum
Here we see two scenes from the wedding.  At the right the bride is presented to her betrothed (the young man in the red hat, whose coat matches her dress) and his father (the older man with the full beard and the robe with the broad fur collar and fur cuffs).  On the left we see the wedding banquet.  

Ludwig succeeded his father as Duke of Thuringia in 1217 and, at their marriage three years later, Elizabeth became Duchess of Thuringia.  The marriage seems to have been a very happy one.  They had three children, Herman, Sophia and Gertrude, the youngest being born three weeks after her father’s death.  The capital of the duchy was at Eisenach, and the ducal residence was the castle of the Wartburg, which towers above it.  There is an irony here, as those of you familiar with the story of Luther will realize.  For, it was the Wartburg where Luther holed up, under the protection of the Duke of Saxony, a descendant of Ludwig and Elizabeth, in order to escape imprisonment following his condemnation at the Diet of Worms and where he made his famous translation of the Bible into German.   However, in the period during which it was the home of Ludwig and Elizabeth, it was the home of some of the most celebrated of the German troubadours, especially Walter von der Vogelweide and Wolfram von Eschenbach.  It was here that the Battle of the Bards, the central piece of Wagner’s opera, Tannhäuser, actually took place.  So, Elizabeth was the chatelaine of a very important location, wife of a very important local ruler within the larger Holy Roman Empire.

Anton Dietrich, Count Ludwig and Saint Elizabeth
German, c. 1850-1890
Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen

But, in addition to being a wife, mother and consort of an important man, Elizabeth was a serious and devout Christian.  She did all she could to alleviate the sufferings of the poor in the area around Eisenach.  She gave them alms in money and she gave them food with her own hands.  This is the context from which the story of the Miracle of the Roses comes.  The story is that one day, as Elizabeth and her ladies in waiting were on their way to feed the poor they encountered Ludwig and a hunting party of lesser nobles and court officials.  There seems to have been some suspicion of Elizabeth on the part of some of the courtiers because Ludwig wanted to prove that she and her ladies were not stealing treasures from the castle.  So, he insisted that she show them all what she was carrying in her skirts and baskets.  When she unveiled the contents of her cloak and baskets everyone saw only roses.  She was exonerated of suspicion of theft and her true purpose hidden as well.

Miracle of the Roses
Austrian, c. 1525
Mariahof, Parish Church

In the town of Eisenach Elizabeth also founded a hospital to care for the sick and dying.  The medieval hospital was a combination of what we would today consider a hospital, where ailments are treated (and hopefully cured) and a nursing home/hospice, where the chronically sick and the dying are cared for.  Needless to say, the treatments available at the time were primitive and the secondary function had more numerous clients than the first.  What is most significant about this particular institution is that Elizabeth invested a great deal of herself into it.  She made it a point of every day to be at the hospital and to care for the sick herself rather than to just provide money and oversight.  With her own hands she washed and fed the sick, including the most abject of medieval patients, the lepers.  In this she sounds remarkably like a saint of our own time, Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

Saint Elizabeth Washing a Beggar
Slovak, Second Half of the 15th Century
Kosice, Cathedral of Saint Elizabeth

One interesting element in her attempts to make common cause with the poor sounds surprisingly modern.  This has to do with her diet.  Among other privations, Elizabeth insisted that she would not eat any meat that was obtained in ways that were not ethical.  This suggests that she refused to eat meat from animals who might have been abused either in their living conditions or in the manner in which they were slaughtered.  Consequently, it seems that bread formed a significant portion of her diet, even as she reigned over grand ducal banquets.  Contemporary vegans and vegetarians might find some resonances in this aspect of her life.  

Saint Elizabeth with Her Guardian Angel and at a Banquet
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 16v

Elizabeth’s life changed dramatically when Ludwig died suddenly in September, 1227.  He had left the pregnant Elizabeth in August in order to follow the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II Barbarossa, on the sixth crusade to the Holy Land.  Unfortunately, Ludwig got no farther than Otranto in southern Italy before dying of the plague on September, 11.  When she received news of his death, Elizabeth, who had just given birth to her last child, Gertrude, is reported to have said “He is dead. He is dead. It is to me as if the whole world died today."4

Farewell of Saint Elizabeth and Her Husband, Ludwig of Thuringia
Swiss, 1480s
Eisenach, Wartburg Museum

From this point Elizabeth went through a period of great trial and suffering.  Throughout history native suspicions of non-native queens following the death of their husbands has been frequent.  This seems to have occurred with Elizabeth.  Her brother-in-law, Heinrich Raspe, assumed the role of regent for her son, Herman, and seems to have taken over her girls as well.  Whether she was forced to remove from the Wartburg (and even from Eisenach) by physical or psychological force is unclear, but she did move to Marburg and there does seem to have been some elements of coercion involved.  

Moritz von Schwind, Flight of Saint Elizabeth from the Wartburg
German, 1854
Eisenach, Wartburg Castle

Her uncle, the bishop of Bamberg, offered her shelter, but also proposed to find her another noble husband, to further enhance the family fortunes.  She refused this suggestion and returned to Marburg. 

St. Elizabeth and the Franciscians
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol.7

About the same time, she came into contact with members of the recently founded Franciscan order and was in communication with Saint Francis himself.  She was greatly attracted by his ideals of poverty, prayer and service to the poor.  She also placed herself under the spiritual guidance of a cleric called Conrad of Marburg, who was not a Franciscan, but seems to have acted for them at times.  He seems to have been determined to break whatever within Elizabeth might still have felt privileged.  He is said to have subjected her to severe and unnecessary penances which she accepted with humility. 

St. Elizabeth in the Mud and at Prayer
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 23v

The following year, 1228, her husband’s remains were brought home to Thuringia and interred.  Following this, she was given the dowry money which she had brought to the marriage.  With the dowry funding she built another hospital in Marburg and renounced all her earthly rank and possessions, much in the manner of Saint Francis himself.  This renunciation and her adoption of a simple form of dress based on the Franciscan habit has caused her to be considered as one of the first members of the lay branch of the Franciscan order, the Third Order, and she is one of their patron saints.  However, she was not an actual member of this branch of the Franciscans, as it did not yet exist at the date of her death.

Philip Hermogenes Calderon, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation
English, 1891
London, Tate Britain

During this period, she lived in the new hospital she had founded.  Her life there consisted of prayer, penance, tending the sick and finding money to finance the work.  To bring in money, she spun wool and sold it to aid in financing the hospital and, in addition, sewed garments for the patients.  Her life must have been a busy one.  This routine, coupled with her continuing fasting and penances, was also wearing on her body.

Bartolomeo Schedoni, Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Italian, 1611
Naples, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Thuringia died in Marburg at the surprisingly early age of 24 in 1231.  

Death of St. Elizabeth of Hungary
Flemish, c. 1540
Paris, Fondation Custodia

Conrad of Marburg encouraged devotion to her and began the medieval process of canonization.  Miracles took place, especially for the poor and sick.  Evidence was collected from Conrad and from her ladies in waiting and others who had known her during her life and on May 28, 1235 she was formally canonized by Pope Gregory IX in Perugia.  The bull of canonization is still extant in a Viennese church. 

Sandor Liezen-Mayer, Canonization of St. Elizabeth of Hungary in 1235
Hungarian, 1863
Budapest, Magyar Nemzeti Galeria

She became a very popular saint in medieval European culture.  Her iconography spread widely. Through her daughter, Sophia, she is an ancestor of many of the noble and royal families of Europe. Unfortunately, at the time of the iconoclasm associated with the Protestant Reformation, her tomb was destroyed by one of those descendents and her remains desecrated and spread far and wide.  They remain widely dispersed to this day.  She is the patron saint of the homeless, exiles, nurses, widows, young brides, charity workers, the Third Order Franciscans, bakers and those who are falsely accused of wrongdoing.

Shrine of St. Elizabeth of Hungary
German, c. 1235-1249
Marburg, Elisabethkirche

Iconography of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Thuringia

The iconography of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary is not unlike the iconography of many medieval saints.  There are areas of focus, such as her early life, her marriage to Ludwig IV of Thuringia, the events which followed his early death, her asceticism, her own death and her place among the saints.  There are some miracle stories, but the most common of these has to do with the famous Miracle of the Roses.

What is remarkable about her iconography is that it is so varied and, especially, that it has been remarkably consistent and long-lived.  It continued to be produced throughout the twentieth century and continues into the twenty-first using the same motifs and stories as in the fifteenth.

Elizabeth’s Early Life


Albrecht de Vriendt, The Youth of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Belgian, 1872
Private Collection

Her Marriage

Marriage of St. Elizabeth and Ludwig of Thuringia
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 6r


The Death of Her Husband in 1227 

Moritz von Schwind, Farewell of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Her Husband Ludwig IV of Thuringia
Hand Colored Lecture Slide
German, 1854
Eisenach, Carl Simon Coll

The Difficulties of Her Life Following Ludwig's Death

Saint Elizabeth Giving Up Worldly Titles
German, 1490
Überlingen, Cathedral

Théophile Marie Francois Lybaert, Saint Elizabeth and Her Children at Their Refuge
Belgian, 1890
Private Collection

The Charitable Work – Saint Elizabeth as Role Model for Enacting the Corporal Works of Mercy

In Christian thought the corporal works of mercy are comprised of seven charitable acts: Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the Naked, Giving Drink to the Thirsty, Caring for the Sick, Giving Alms, Visiting Prisoners, Burying the Dead.  Saint Elizabeth personally performed all but the last two and probably did these as well.  In this aspect she set an example for European royalty and nobility, many of them her descendants.

Saint Elizabeth Ministering to a Sick Woman
German, c. 1240-1300
Marburg an der Lahn, Elisabethkirche

St. Elizabeth Feeding the Poor
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia_
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 3v

St. Elizabeth Washing the Feet of a Poor Man
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 8r

St. Elizabeth Washing the Feet of a Poor Man
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Flemish (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 103v

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Feeding the Poor
From a Psalter-Hours
French (Metz), c. 1370-1380
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 88, fol. 21v

Cologne Master, Saint Elixabeth of Hungary Giving Clothing to the Poor and Feeding a Sick Man
Scenes From the Life of St. Elizabeth
German, End of the 14th Century
Cologne,  Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

Jacques de Besancon, St. Elizabeth Feeding the Poor at Her Hospital
From Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), c. 1480-1490
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
Ms Francais 245, fol. 175r

Saint Elizabeth Distributing Clothing to the Poor
From the Hastings Hours
Flemish (Bruges), c.1480
London, British Library
MS Additional 54782, fol. 64v

Master of the Housebook, Saint Elizabeth Performing the Works of Mercy
From an Altarpiece
German, 1495
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

Erhard Schoen, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Giving Food and Drink to a Beggar
German, c. 1515-1517
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Saint Elizabeth Giving Bread and Wine to Beggars
German, c. 1515
Pedralbes, Fundacion Coleccion Thyssen-Bornemisza

Attributed to Hans Weiditz, Saint Elizabeth Washing the Hair of a Sick Man
German, c. 1520-1530
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Pieter de Jode the Elder, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Feeding a Beggar, Surrounded by Scenes
from Her Life
Flemish, c. 1585-1634
London, Trustees of the British Museum

Adam Elsheimer, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Bringing Food to the Inmates of Her Hospital
German, c. 1598
London, Wellcome Collection

Hieronymous Francken, Saint Elizabeth Caring for a Sick Woman at Her Hospital
Flemish, c. 1600-1625
Beaune, Musée des Beaux-Arts et Musée Marey

Raphael Sadeler the Elder After Johann Matthias Kager, Saint Elizabeth Washing the Feet of Beggars
Flemish, 1615
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Tending the Sick and Lepers
Spanish, c. 1671-1674
Seville, Charity Hospital

Lucas de Valdes, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Her Ladies Caring for a Sick Man as Other Beggars Wait
Spanish, c. 1700-1725
Seville, Museo de Bellas Artes de Sevilla

Daniel Gran, The Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Austrian, c. 1720-1736
Sheffield (UK), Museum

Giambattista Pittoni, Saint Eliabeth Distributing Alms
Italian, 1734
Budapest, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum

Karl Ballenberger, Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia Giving Alms
German, 1833
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sandor Liezen-Mayer, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Giving Her Cloak to a Poor Woman
Hungarian, 1882
Budapest, Magyar Nemzeti Galeria

Edmund Blair Leighton, The Charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
English, 1915
Private Collection

Among her other works it is attested that she spun and wove woolen yarn to make clothing for the inmates of her hospitals and to sell in order to obtain additional funds when her private resources were exhausted.  She is also reputed to have made clothing for the poor with her own hands.  

St. Elizabeth Spinning
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 22v

This aspect of her life seems to have fascinated a late 19th-early 20th century woman artist, Marianne Stokes, an Austrian born painter married to an Englishman.

Marianne Stokes. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Spinning for the Poor
Austrian, 1895
Private Collection

Marianne Stokes, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Sewing for the Poor
Austrian, c. 1920
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales

Saint Elizabeth's Prayer and Fasting

The Young Saint Elizabeth Praying a the Chapel Door While Her Attendants Play Chess
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 4v

St. Elizabeth Eating a Frugal Meal
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 19v

St. Elizabeth At Prayer
From Vies des saints
French (Paris), ca. 1325-1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 185, fol. 223r

Richard de Montbaston, Vision of St. Elizabeth
From Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
French (Paris), 1348
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 241, fol. 305r

Master of the Lives of the Emperors and Workshop, Vision of Saint Elizabeth
From a Breviary
Italian (Milan), c. 1425-1450
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 760, fol. 573r

Attributed to Joost de Paepe, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary Prays for the Salvation of Berthold
von Leimbach
Flemish, c. 1630
Warsaw, Muzeum Narodowe

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary in Prayer
French, c. 1735
Dijon, Musée  national Magnin

The Death and Canonization of Saint Elizabeth

 Images of Saint Elizabeth's death, burial and canonization run the gamut from imaginary to flatfooted realism.

Saint Elizabeth on Her Deathbed Surrounded by Christ, the Vigin Mary, Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Catherine of Alexandria, Peter and the Landgrave Konrad of Thuringia
German, c. 1370
Marburg, Elisabethkirche

The Last Years, Death and Funeral of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Dutch, c. 1490-1495
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Moritz von Schwind, Death of Saint Elizabeth
German, 1854
Eisenach, Wartburg Castle

Moritz von Schwind, Funeral of Saint Elizabeth
German, 1854
Eisenach, Wartburg Castle

Miracles of Saint Elizabeth

These miracles are primarily miracles of healing for poor folk prayed for by Saint Elizabeth.

Miracle of St. Elizabeth
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol. 12r

Miracle of St. Elizabeth
From Office and Life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish (Seville), c. 1275-1300
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition latine 868, fol.11r

The Miracle of the Roses

The best known miracle of Saint Elizabeth is one of concealment.  While bringing food to the poor she encountered a hunting party led by her husband.  In order to demonstrate that his wife was not stealing from the treasury Ludwig ordered her to display what she was carrying in her cloak.  When she opened the cloak it was filled with roses instead of the bread she had been carrying. She was thus exonerated before the nobles and even more cherished by her husband.  This miracle is the most commonly produced image of Saint Elizabeth, especially in latter centuries.  There are literally hundreds, probably thousands, of depictions in all media.  I have chosen just a small sampling.

Karl von Blaas, Miracle of the Roses
Austrian, 1839
Private Collection

Moritz von Schwind, Miracle of the Roses
German, 1854
Eisenach, Wartburg

Gustave Moreau, Miracle of the Roses
French, 1879
Private Collection

Károly Senyei, Saint Elizabeth
Hungarian, 1890s
Budapest, Saint Stephen's Cathedral

George James Frampton, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
English, 1895
Bath (UK), Victoria Art Gallery

Saint Elizabeth as Saint Among Others

Catholics believe in the Communion of Saints.  Not only are they united though the Church in this world, but there are three states in which the Church consists:  the living, the souls undergoing cleansing in Purgatory and the blessed in Heaven.  Salvation is not entirely a solitary occurrence, we are here to help each other.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the souls of the blessed, the saints, form the court of Heaven where God reigns.  Images of this court abound and sometimes the participants are selected by those still living in order to fulfill some idea.  These images can accommodate a variety of ideas.  And, with the other saints, Saint Elizabeth may appear as a member of the heavenly court.

Many of the earliest group images that include Saint Elizabeth of Hungary were made by artists working on the decoration of the spectacular basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi at Assisi.  This basilica was begun as soon as Saint Francis of Assisi was canonized, only a few years after his death.  Members of his newly founded orders for men, women and lay individuals were themselves rapidly canonized after their deaths and artists incorporated their images into the work they were doing in the basilica.  Saint Elizabeth was considered to be an early, almost a founding member, of the Third Order Franciscans, Hence, only a short time after her death and canonization, her image was included with images of other early Franciscan saints in the chapels and altarpieces of the great basilica in Assisi.

Simone Martini, Saints Clare of Assisi and Elizabeth of Hungary
Italian, c. 1320-1325
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Lower Church, St. Martin Chapel

Simone Martini, Saints Elizabeth, Margaret and Henry of Hungary
Italian, c. 1320-1325
Assisi, Basilica of San Francesco, Lower Church

Giotto, Coronation of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1328-1330
Florence, Church of Santa Croce, Baroncelli Chapel 6

Giotto, Coronation of the Virgin, Detail of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Italian, c. 1328-1330
Florence, Church of Santa Croce, Baroncelli Chapel

Her image appeared elsewhere as well, although often in a Franciscan context.

Saint Francis Giving His Rule to Franciscan Saints
Italian, c. 1340
Naples, Museo dell-Opera di San Lorenzo Maggiore
Here, Saint Elizabeth appears as the saint wearing a light colored veil to the right of Saint Clare.  In an enlargement it is just possible to see that she wears a tiara around her head, on top of the veil as an indication of her worldly rank.

Giovanni di Paolo, Saints Clare of Assisi and Elizabeth of Hungary
Italian, c. 1445
Private Collection

Nikolaus Obilman, Saints Hedwig of Silesia, Elizabeth of Hungary and Mary Magdalene
Polish, c. 1466
Warsaw, Muzeum Narodowe
Here we have the image of two related saints, Elizabeth and her aunt, Hedwig, alongside the Biblical saint, Mary Magdalene

Master of the View of Saint Gudule, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Dorothy
Flemish, c. 1480
Private Collection
Here we have a "modern" saint, Elizabeth of Hungary, on a par with two early Christian martyrs.

Solo Images of Saint Elizabeth

Most often, however, Saint Elizabeth appears alone,  holding one of her attributes or in relation to some characteristic object.  The symbol is often the roses from the Miracle of the Roses, but out of the context of that story.

Andrea da Firenze, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Italian, c. 1365
Houston, Museum of Fine Arts

Saint Elizabeth with the Model of a Church
Possibly French, c. 1470
Marburg, Elisabethkirche
Here she holds a model of the church in which this image stands.

Wolfgang, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
German, c. 1470
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Here the attributes are loaves of bread and a bowl of soup representing her efforts at feeding the poor.

Jan Provost, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Detached wing of an altarpiece
Flemish, c. 1500-1524
Genoa, Galleria di Palazzo Bianco
Here our saint holds a crown and a book reminding us of her rank and of her prayer life.

Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Italian, 16th Century
Richmond-Upon-Thames, London, Ham House
Here again they are a crown and a book.

Goswijn van der Weyden, Ssint Elizabeth of Hungary
Reverse of Panel with Lysbeth Biers
Flemish, c. 1510
Brussels, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique
I am including this image among the solo images of the saint.  However, the notation that this is the reverse side of a portrait of a woman named Lysbeth (Elizabeth) places the concept behind it as that of a patroness.  Saint Elizabeth is Lysbeth's patron saint.

Crispijn de Passe the Elder, Saint Elizabeth
Flemish, c. 1590-1637
London, British Museum
In this rather regal image, Saint Elizabeth sits in state, surrounded by images of the assistance she gave to the poor (basket of bread loaves and containers of wine) while over her shoulder in the background we can see an image of her at her work.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia
Spanish, c. 1635-1640
Bilbao, Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao
This beautiful image by Zurbaran, with her attributes of crown and book, is a somewhat stunning reminder of how very young she was at the time she died.  That is something that is easy for forget in looking at her accomplishments and trials.  

Hugues Merle, St. Elizabeth of Hungary
French, 1879
Detroit, Institute of Arts
Another, later, portrayal that also reminds us of the youthfulness of this saint.

 Saint Elizabeth as Patroness

 Finally, there is one more guise in which artists have depicted Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, as patroness in the personal sense.  As noted above she is the patron of many kinds of people, with many divergent histories and intentions.  

Jan van Eyck, The Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Elizabeth of Hungary and Jan Vos
Flemish, c. 1441-1443
New York, Frick Collection
Notes from the recent special exhibition of this and some related works at the Frick suggest that these saints were chosen because, before becoming a Carthusian monk, Jan Vos had been a member of the Teutonic order of knights.   The order cared for the relics of Saint Elizabeth at Marburg and the tower attribute of Saint Barbara also resonated with them.  In daily life Vos would have used the image as a focus for intercessory prayer to the Virgin and these patron saints and may have intended it as a memorial after his death.7  

Master of the Drapery Studies, Saint Elisabeth Feeding the Poor with a Donor
From The Saint Elizabeth Triptych
German, c. 1480
Karlsruhe, Staatliche Kunsthalle
Along the top angels hold a cloth of state which bears the inscription "Saint Elizabeth" and "Mother of the Poor".  Around the head of the kneeling donor the scroll, representing his words, reads "O Saint Elizabeth, Pray for me, a miserable sinner".  The name of the donor has not survived.

Attributed to Israhel van Mechenem, The Mass of Saint Gregory,
German, c. 1515-1520
Warsaw, Muzeum Narodowe
The identity of the female donor has been lost.  From her clothing she is either a widow or a nun.  It may be that her name is Elizabeth or one of the variations of that name.

St. Elizabeth of Hungary Presenting Six Women and One Child from the Busnes de Poucques Family Flemish, 1570
Saint-Omer, Musée de l'Hotel Sandelin

 There is one group of people with a very particular interest in this saint, those named for her.  And of that group, there has always been a small, but important group of women who have an even closer relationship to this saint.  They are her blood descendants.  Many of them are not immediately recognizable to English speakers because we do not necessarily associate their first name with the name, Elizabeth, for their names are Isabel, Isabelle or Isabella, the Romance language version of the name.  

Petrus Christus, Isabella of Portugal with Saint Elizabeth
Flemish, c. 1457-1460
Bruges, Groeninge Museum


Isabella of Austria with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Flemish, c. 1520
Private Collection

Peter Paul Rubens, Vision of San Ildefonso (central panel), Archduke Albert IV with Saint Albert of Louvain and Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
The Saint Ildefonso Altar
Flemish, c. 1630-1632
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

© M. Duffy, 2020

1.  In addition, just across the street from my new residence was a Byzantine Rite Catholic church also primarily attended by people from Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Ukraine.  While the church of Saint Elizabeth on Wadsworth Avenue in Fort George is still going strong, with a congregation now composed largely of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, both Saint Stephen and Saint Elizabeth on the Upper East side have been closed.  These two churches have been incorporated into the nearby parish of Saint Monica, which is now known as Saint Monica-Saint Stephen of Hungary-Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (quite a mouthful).  This represents the demographic shifts of the last 50-60 years in Manhattan and is equally true for Protestant congregations in the area that have the same ethnic composition, Slovak and German Lutherans and Hungarian Reformed.  The Byzantine Rite church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is still hanging on, although now administered from East 15th Street by the church of Saint Mary, the only other Byzantine Rite church left in Manhattan. (Source: Parish websites and personal experience.)

2.  There is an alternate possible birth location as well.  This is the castle of the town of Sárospatak in Hungary.  Initially, I thought that the two towns might be close enough to explain the confusion.  However, they lie at opposite ends of Hungary.  In any event, she was born in 1207.

3.  The marriages of Philip Augustus are a bit messy.  He was initially married to Isabella of Hainaut.  On her death he married Ingeborg of Denmark (she of the famous Ingeborg Psalter) but, like Henry VIII with Anne of Cleves, when they finally met, he was physically repulsed by her.  A three-way battle ensued between Philip, who sought an annulment; Ingeborg and her family, who fought the annulment; and Pope Innocent III, who sided with Ingeborg.  During the annulment battle, Philip planned to marry the daughter of the Count of Geneva, but she was kidnapped by another suitor and hurriedly married.  Finally, Philip succeeded in marrying Saint Elizabeth’s aunt, Agnes, and they had two children, but the marriage was eventually declared null and void by the Pope and, under threat of an interdict, Philip was forced to take Ingeborg back.  Obviously, royal marriages didn’t always work out as intended!  On his death Philip was succeeded by his son from his first marriage, Louis VIII, and is, therefore, the grandfather of Louis IX, Saint Louis, another royal saint.

4.  Rainer Koessling, ed. and trans., Leben und Legende der heiligen Elisabeth nach Dietrich von Apolda, Frankfurt am Main, Insel Verlag, 1997, p. 52.  (Cited in Elizabeth of Hungary, Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_of_Hungary) retrieved 11/14/2020.  For his part, Ludwig IV though never officially canonized, has been thought of in Germany as a saint himself.  He is sometimes called Saint Ludwig or Saint Louis or Ludwig the Pious in honor of his own personal piety and as the consort of an official saint.

5.  See also Bihl, Michael. "St. Elizabeth of Hungary." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, New York, Robert Appleton Company, 1909. (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05389a.htm).  As well as

 6.  Gardner, Julian.  “Painters, Inquisitors and Novices”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Volume 60, Number 2 (2018), p. 233, has described this altarpiece in detail:  

"The ranks of saints on either side of the central Coronation strike other chords. All the Franciscan saints canonized within the first century of the order’s foundation are present. Francis not only appears in the main register but also for a second time to the right of the central Man of Sorrows in the predella:  there, his pose reflects a doctrine especially dear to the order – its founder as alter Christus. In the main order is depicted also Louis of Toulouse, the young Angevin saint canonized in 1317, who was thus a contemporary of Giotto and of many of the Santa Croce friars…. Louis is shown as bishop of Toulouse, his cope spangled with gold fleurs-de-lys.  Clare appears near Francis…. Anthony of Padua accompanies Louis of Toulouse, while Elizabeth of Hungary, clad very fashionably in crown and wimple, stands to the left of Clare.  These ‘modern’ Franciscan saints appear alongside the prophets, apostles, martyrs, and other orders’ saints."

7. "The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos",  September 18, 2018, through January 13, 2019.  Press Release #332, dated August 16, 2018.

 Also consulted: 

Rupert Maas.  “The life of Charles Allstem Collins (1828-73): And his painting "The Devout Childhood of St Elizabeth of Hungary", The British Art Journal, Spring 2015, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Spring 2015), pp. 38-60.