Thursday, January 2, 2014

That is Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. I've left her too big for the frame on purpose.

Or, to put on our Magritte hat, that is not Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. I know, Magritte and his fans are such tedious bores.

So let's take another tack. The men responsible for that picture—there are two, one who painted it and the other who wrote the play that inspired him to paint it—had never actually seen Saint Elizabeth because she had been dead some six hundred years before they came along. The event portrayed is Elizabeth's great renunciation of all her wealth and possessions when she set out to live a new life after the death of her husband.

What we know for sure is that she knelt before an altar and placed her hands on it to make a great renunciation of all she had in this world, and she had a considerable amount to renounce being a queen. Did she actually take all her clothes off? It's possible but not likely; it's almost a certainty that she did not get naked, that part being a Victorian fantasy about her.

That said, getting naked is a recurring theme in the pious tales that are told of Elizabeth. For example, in Charles Forbes René de Montalembert's account of her life there is a tale of Elizabeth bringing home a poor woman she found collapsed from sickness in the street. After Elizabeth has taken care of her and nursed her back to health, the woman decamps stealing all of Elizabeth's clothing. The good Count de Montalembert concludes this anecdote with Elizabeth unable to leave her bed because she has no clothes but praying in gratitude because she got to be naked just like her Lord.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that this story sounds suspiciously like the sort of elaborate tale that might be told to cover up some royal hanky-panky except that the count was also writing some six hundred years after the events. The truth is that that Saint Elizabeth, like Saint Sebastian, was one of those saints that sexy stories accumulated around. It's not difficult to imagine the scene above spinning out into some elaborate sexual fantasy. It was, in fact, part of a sexual fantasy of Charles Kingsley's, he is the man who wrote the play that inspired the painting. I thought I'd spend some time writing about this aspect of the memory of Saint Elizabeth this January as this is the month of the Saint Agnes. More to come as the month progresses ...

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