St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Pray For Us!
SAINTS & ART: Much is expected from one to whom much is given. Noblesse oblige.
Riches and power (and sex) can make a person hellish or holy. Bartholomeus Stroebel’s “Feast of Herod,” which we saw Aug. 29 for the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist shows us how “eating, drinking and being merry” can cost a man a life. But riches and power can also enrich another man’s life. That’s the story of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. More precisely, Princess St. Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231).
There were a lot of charitable rulers in medieval Central Europe. There’s Wenceslaus I of Bohemia, who lived in the 10th century. Eleven centuries later, we still sing about “Good King Wenceslaus” at Christmastime. The 14th-century St. Casimir of Poland was a prince noted for his generosity — remember the painting we examined of three-handed Casimir to emphasize his generosity?
And then there’s Elizabeth.
She was married at age 14 to Ludwig IV of Thuringia (a region in what used to be in East Germany). At 20, she was a widow and, with widowhood, she recovered her dowry. From then until she died at the early age of 24, she dedicated herself to the poor.
Elizabeth lived in the times of St. Francis of Assisi and was taken by his love of the poor, an example she followed herself. As a lay woman, she is regarded as the patroness of the Third Order of St. Francis.
Elizabeth dedicated herself to all manner of corporal works of mercy. She founded a hospital in Marburg for the care of the poor, and often cared for the sick personally. Even before her husband’s death, she distributed state resources and alms when floods hit Thuringia. Throughout her short life, she was noted for her generosity.
One legend has it that she had filled her cloak with bread and was on her way to a village to distribute food to the poor. Along the way, she ran into her husband, Ludwig, hunting with some other nobility. It’s said that Ludwig did not object to his wife’s charity, but thought the nobles might think she was stealing from the castle. He insisted, then, that she open her cloak. She did and, instead of bread, a bouquet of red and white roses fell out.
That “miracle of the roses” is a frequent theme in art connected with St. Elizabeth. Karl von Blaas (1815-1894), a portrait and religious painter from the Tirol region of western Austria, painted “Das Rosenwunder der Hl. Elisabeth” [The Miracle of the Roses of St. Elizabeth] in 1839. It was the same year he painted his masterpiece, “Portrait of Laura Bernabo,” a girl he fell in love on sight with at Perugia Cathedral, painted, but admitted he could not then marry because he was still a starving artist).
Elizabeth occupies center stage in “Das Rosenwunder.” Roses peek out from beneath her cloak. Her husband, in hunting dress perhaps more typical of later centuries in Germanic Central Europe, looks at the flowers with surprise, apparently certain he was going to find food. Because there are variants to this legend, Blaas omits the hunting party. A lady-in-waiting and her husband’s squire discreetly look on. The lady-in-waiting balances out the central picture, while the tree gently sequesters the squire.
The beneficiaries of Elizabeth’s charity — a man, woman and child — look up at her and at the miracle from the left. They are, of course, the subjects of her generosity, but their position in the painting also balances out boy and horse on the right, because they are all low, all leading to an apex in Elizabeth, the tallest person in an almost Marian-like pose. The family castle towers over the left amid the hills and mountains of Central Europe. Blaas is painting at the height of Romanticism in Europe, and this painting clearly has Romantic elements to it, especially in the countryside and the poses of the figures.
Ours is an age that stokes class division. Sometimes that criticism is deserved: growing income gaps do pose moral questions. Wealth can be tempting, but in itself is neither immoral in itself nor necessarily an impediment to charity or love. St. Elizabeth of Hungary proves that.