Before I begin, let me state the obvious point that "sexy saints" are the work of the fevered imaginations of fans who come along after the saint dies. As with the many homoerotic images of Saint Sebastian and Saint John the Evangelist, the above portrayal has no credible connection to the real Saint Elizabeth. On the other hand, there is no reason a saint cannot be sexy nor is there any reason a sexy person cannot become a saint (although, alas, I must admit I have no personal experience of the challenges of being a good Christian while being a sex object). Perhaps God's grace is at work in these sexy portrayals of his saints?
The key element for a saint being transformed into a sexy icon, as near as I can tell, is for them to be young and plausibly vigorous. Saint Elizabeth was only 24 when she died but was most likely quite sickly in real life. The artist's imagination soon fixed that; people who kick off that early rarely look as strong and healthy as the young woman pictured above, whose image suggests healthy food and regular exercise rather than sickness and fast-approaching death. And this portrayal is far from unique. Check out images of her and you will notice that she is usually presented as young and beautiful. And often with breasts and hips. That's unusual in portrayals of female saints where the breasts and hips tend to be small and hidden behind drapery.
As we will see in coming posts, this also applies to the literary tradition associated with Elizabeth where stories of her hiding secrets under her cloak and in her bed abound.
It is true even in very recent portrayals. Consider A-M Religious gifts who offer a six inch high carved statue of Saint Elizabeth. The carving is the work of Conrad Moroder. Take a moment to go visit the image. Then go to this page and look at the other female saints he has carved. Moroder is not averse to carving the women saints as beautiful women and girls but he gives Saint Elizabeth a little extra sexual oomph that he does not bestow on others. I won't violate his copyright by reproducing the whole image here but I think this little portion of the larger image constitutes fair use:
As they used to say in the 1980s, Is she cold or happy to see us? That is a deliberately erotic image.
Anyway, back to the painting at the top. It is the work of a man named Phillip Hermogenes Calderon who was the son of a former Catholic priest. He was inspired to paint it by an anti-Catholic play by a hugely influential (but now forgotten) figure of the Victorian era named Charles Kingsley. Kingsley feared and hated Catholicism but he revered Saint Elizabeth. The story of how that reverence led to such an overtly sexual portrayal is an interesting one. I'll take it up Thursday.