1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elizabeth, Saint

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ELIZABETH, SAINT (1207–1231), daughter of Andrew II., king of Hungary (d. 1235), by his first wife, Gertrude of Andechs-Meran (d. 1213), was born in Pressburg in 1207. At four years of age she was betrothed to Louis IV., landgrave of Thuringia, and conducted to the Wartburg, near Eisenach, to be educated under the direction of his parents. In spite of her decidedly worldly surroundings at the Thuringian court, she evinced from the first an aversion from even the most innocent pleasures, and stimulated by the example of her mother’s sister, St Hedwig, wife of Henry VI., duke of Silesia-Breslau, devoted her whole time to religion and to works of charity. She was married at the age of fourteen, and acquired such influence over her husband that he adopted her point of view and zealously assisted her in all her charitable endeavours. According to the legend, much celebrated in German art, Louis at first desired to curtail her excessive charities, and forbade her unbounded gifts to the poor. One day, returning from hunting, he met his wife descending from the Wartburg with a heavy bundle filled with bread. He sternly bade her open it; she did so, and he saw nothing but a mass of red roses. The miracle completed his conversion. On the death of Louis “the Saint” in 1227, Elizabeth was deprived of the regency by his brother, Henry Raspe IV. (d. 1247), on the pretext that she was wasting the estates by her alms; and with her three infant children she was driven from her home without being allowed to carry with her even the barest necessaries of life. She lived for some time in great hardship, but ultimately her maternal uncle, Egbert, bishop of Bamberg, offered her an asylum in a house adjoining his palace. Through the intercession of some of the principal barons, the regency was again offered her, and her son Hermann was declared heir to the landgraviate; but renouncing all power, and making use of her wealth only for charitable purposes, she preferred to live in seclusion at Marburg under the direction of her confessor, the bigoted persecutor Conrad of Marburg. There she spent the remainder of her days in penances of unusual severity, and in ministrations to the sick, especially those afflicted with the most loathsome diseases. She died at Marburg on the 19th of November 1231, and four years afterwards was canonized by Gregory IX. on account of the frequent miracles reported to have been performed at her tomb.

The exhibition in the Royal Academy of P. H. Calderon’s picture, “St Elizabeth of Hungary’s Great Act of Renunciation,” now in the Tate Gallery in London, roused considerable protest among Catholics. The saint is represented as kneeling nude before the altar, in the presence of her confessor and a couple of nuns. The passage this is intended to illustrate is in Lib. iv. § 1 of Dietrich of Apolda’s Vita, which relates how, on a certain Good Friday, she went into a chapel and, in the presence of some Franciscan brothers, laid her hands on the bare altar, renounced her own will, her parents, children, relations, and all pomps of this kind (hujus modi) in imitation of Christ; and stripped herself utterly naked (omnino se exuit et nudavit) in order to follow Him naked, in the steps of poverty. A literal interpretation of this passage is not impossible; for ecstatic mystics of all ages have indulged in a like κενώσις, and Conrad, who revelled in inflicting religious tortures, was quite capable of imposing this crowning humiliation upon his gentle victim. It is far more probable, however, that the passage is not to be taken literally.

Lives of St Elizabeth were written by Theodoricus (Dietrich) of Apolda (b. 1228), Caesarius of Heisterbach (d. c. 1240), Conrad of Marburg and others (see Potthast, Bibl. Hist. Med. Aev. p. 1284). A metrical life in German exists by Johann Rothe (d. c. 1440), chaplain to the Landgravine Anne of Thuringia (Potthast, p. 985). L’Histoire de Sainte Élisabeth de Hongrie, by Montalembert, was published at Paris in 1836. Her life has also supplied the materials for a dramatic poem by Charles Kingsley, entitled the “Saint’s Tragedy.” The edition of this in vol. xvi. of the Life and Works of Charles Kingsley (London, 1902) has valuable notes, with many extracts from the original sources.