Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
(b.1207- d. 1231)
Elizabeth of Hungary lived for only a short while during the early part of the thirteenth century, yet experienced life as only few can; she was a child, princess, mother, queen, widow, exile, and one of the most pious women to ever live. She was able to simultaneously balance the role of prosperous sovereign with humble servant of God. Even after her exile by her in-laws, in the years following her husband’s death, she remained strong in her faith and never wavered in her devotion to the poor. She was an extraordinary woman who lived for less than a quarter of a century during the early portion of the 13th century, but made more of an impact on an entire country then most people who live three times as long as she did. She is still remembered in Germany as "dear St. Elizabeth" and her feast is celebrated on November 17 in the Roman Catholic Church.
While most sources refer to her as Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, she is more accurately referred to as Elizabeth of Thuringia and Hesse as she married into the Thuringian family line from Hesse and consequently spent more of her time in her husband's territory. Born in 1207 at the castle at Pressburg (modern day Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia) she was the second child of Alexander/ Andreas/ Andrew (different sources give diverse names) II and Queen Gertrude of Hungary. As a royal daughter, the issue of marriage became an important one, even in her infancy. Ultimately, an offer was accepted and she was betrothed to Landgrafin Hermann I of Thuringia.
Elizabeth was an outstanding child who directed all of her actions and intentions to God. She was intelligent, well-educated, and a willful young girl who practiced penance regularly, refused to go to Mass in embroidered sleeves or gloves (as she felt that these luxuries were unnecessary and gaudy), and regularly gave alms to the poor. She was often being lost in prayer and at an early age, put herself under the protection of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John.
While most children are off frolicking and making trouble, Elizabeth was married between the ages of thirteen and fourteen. Hermann I had died on December 31, 1216; so instead, she married his brother, Ludwig. The match proved to be a happy one. Ludwig loved her deeply and was a kind-hearted husband. He was generous and wary of misusing his power. His ultimate goal was the service of God, and therefore their philosophies and personal morals intertwined perfectly.
Ludwig spent his reign, as he spent his life, acting for the will of God. As ruler, he traveled to Italy on behalf of the empire and emperor. In his absence, he left control of his finances and household to Elizabeth who in turn disseminated alms, including state robes and ornaments, to all parts of the territory. In addition, she built a twenty-eight-bed hospital below the Wartburg and visited the residents daily to attend to their wants. The following year, after a brief return to Germany, Ludwig left yet again, this time on a crusade to Palestine in conjunction with Emperor Frederick II. He died shortly after leaving for Palestine, on 11 September 1227 en route to the crusade for God against the infidels.
Thus, Elizabeth was left with three children, a widow at the age of twenty. She was deeply upset at the loss of her beloved husband. Yet, she turned to God for aid and found it in the guidance of Caesarius of Speyer. With newfound hope, she built a monastery for the Franciscan order in 1225 at Eisenach.
However, trouble was not far behind. In 1227, she felt compelled to leave Wartburg for moral reasons and instead took up residence at Marburg. Ludwig’s brother, Heinrich Raspe, was a cruel and harsh man compared to his brother, and offered to provide her with enough to subsist her each day, but nothing more. She did not agree to these terms and ultimately, his callous and uncooperative manner drove her out of Warburg; without extra money, she could not provide for the poor of the community and her conscience would not permit her to act without regard for others. She found final refuge on Good Friday, 1228 with the Franciscans at Eisenach. Here, she formally relinquished worldly possessions and then proceeded to become one of the first tertiaries of Germany, a member of the Third Order of St. Francis. Her last act of the outside world was the completion of the Franciscan hospital at Marburg in the summer of 1228. After this, she devoted her heart and soul to the aid of the poor and sick, especially the most severely afflicted. She died only a few years later, at the age of twenty-four.
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, or Thuringia, is the first royal Franciscan tertiary to be canonized. At only twenty-four years old, Elizabeth of Hungary died and the world lost of one of the most pious women to ever live. Within only four years, Pope Gregory IX named her a Saint (in May of 1235). She is most remembered for her gentle, charitable nature and complete devotion to God’ s will. Her popularity was immediate, with most of her followers living in the regions in and around Germany and Hungary. While she is still remembered today for her many works of charity, Elizabeth's popularity has declined due to the historical distance that today's society possesses from the 12th century.
American Catholic. "Saint Elizabeth of Hungary"
(18 December 2005).
American Catholic is a website published by the Franciscans and
Online. "St. Elizabeth of
The website claims to be the "first and most trusted name in Catholic news." Unlike other websites, this is an actual newspaper, complete with sections regarding national and international news, dioceses, and arts and entertainment. In addition, it has components devoted to the saints and angels, where the page on
The author begins the book with a prologue that states," the life of a Saint cannot be tragedy; therefore what follows is heroic drama." Drawing from historical sources, the author pondered the life of Saint Elizabeth for twenty years, and after doing so, compiled a play. Sanctity is a five act, one hundred and twenty-five page theatrical piece that is host to twenty characters. The play does not present much factual information about the life of Saint Elizabeth, however it does present an alternative literary interpretation regarding the significant achievements accomplished throughout Elizabeth's pious life. It may not be appropriate for scholarly work regarding Elizabeth's life, but would complement an art history or literature project nicely.
de Robeck, Nesta. Saint Elizabeth of Hungary : A Story of Twenty-Four
Years. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1954.
This is one of the most complete works regarding the life of Saint Elizabeth.It begins with a brief history of the time period in which she lived, the early 13th century, and then progresses through her life in an easy to follow chronological fashion.In addition to the complete biographical picture, the book contains artistic depictions of Saint Elizabeth and her residence. Furthermore, the book has a three-page bibliography for easy references to other sources of information on Saint Elizabeth. Lastly, the book provides the best summary of the life of Saint Elizabeth in a succinct, poetic, and beautiful way through this paragraph: “No prophet foresaw that most salient, indeed unique characteristic of Elizabeth’s life which was the pace at which she lived; a pace only comparable to that of the most fleet Arab horse. In twenty-four years she passed through all the major phases of a woman’s experience; she was the princess and the pauper; brought up in a palace she chose finally the poorest of dwellings and to tend the lepers; she was the child of the castle, the courted fiancée, the bride, the deeply loved and loving wife, the mother, the widow, and the saint (13).” This book should be of vital importance to any St. Elizabeth scholar.
Fatovic-Ferencic, S. “The image of a leper (?): a paradigm of hidden fears of contagious diseases (Exemplified in a wall painting of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary).”
Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology & Venereology. Vol. 16, (September 2002) P. 447-449.
This is a brief study of the correlation between traditional ideas of leprosy and an 18th century wall painting of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. The fresco mentioned can be found in northwestern Croatia and depicts Saint Elizabeth healing a sick man, who is speculated to be a leper. The paper uses examples from the history of medicine, semantics, and iconography to conclude that the painter may have been visually describing an ailment he had never seen. This picture shows the lasting impact that leprosy had on an entire people and culture. For Elizabeth scholars, it does not present important biographical information, rather an interesting interpretation of the effect of leprosy on a civilization’ s collective memory.
Gibbs, Robert. “Correspondence.” Art History. Vol. 17, (March 1994),
This article is a reaction to the article by Adrian Hoch. As a response, this piece condemns the conclusion that the author makes regarding Simone Martini depiction of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Gibbs believes that Hoch made an inaccurate assessment of the painter’s depiction of St. Elizabeth as a transvestite. While he agrees with the important nature of the literary piece by Hoch, he disagrees with her overall conclusion. Paired with the article listed below, they make an interesting pair of reading, however neither focuses on the life of St. Elizabeth and are therefore more useful within the confines of an art history paper or discussion.
Hoch, Adrian S. "Beata Stirps, Royal Patronage and the Identification of the Sainted Rules in the St. Elizabeth Chapel at Assissi."
Art History. Vol. 15, (September 1992), pp. 279-295.
This article, which speaks of the blessed lineage, or beata stirps, can be found in the Art History Journal. The author's goal is to establish the identity of the last of the unknown figures portrayed on the frescoes of the Chapel of Saint Elizabeth at Assisi. According to this author, the paintings were completed by a single author and commissioned by one sovereign ruler, thus making it unique from the other iconographic schemes of Franciscan churches elsewhere. While this much is known, the identity of one of the characters has remained a mystery for centuries. The author conjectures that the unknown person is Saint Elizabeth because of her influence on the Franciscan order. The author also makes an unusual speculation; the writer believes that the artist portrayed St. Elizabeth as a transvestite, a theory that is not found in other sources. This article provides beautiful illustrations from the Chapel of Saint Elizabeth, however focuses more on the identity of the character in the fresco than it does on her life, therefore making it a useful source for art historians, but of limited value to those seeking background information into the life of Saint Elizabeth.
Jones, Terry. "Elizabeth of Hungary." The Catholic Community Forum. <http://www.catholic-forum.com/saints/sainte01.htm> (18 December 2005).
This website is a facet of the Catholic Community Forum, a website made by and for participants of the Catholic tradition. The goal of the site is to strengthen the faith of those who already believe and to entice new followers. The Saint Elizabeth page is part of a Patron Saint Index that categorizes saints according to their name and topic. It provides basic and introductory information to her life in which details are categorized in a bullet like format, so specifics are easy to locate such as birth, death, canonization, and images. In addition, it has links to other sites about Saint Elizabeth. It is a relatively useful site for initial inquiries into the life of Saint Elizabeth, but does not provide relevant specific details necessary for scholarly work.
Knight, K. St. "Elizabeth of Hungary." Catholic Encyclopedia <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05389a.htm> (18 December 2005).
New Advent is a database for religious websites that has links to the Summa Theologica, Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers and more. The biography for St. Elizabeth of Hungary goes more in-depth than any of the other websites found. It describes her prearranged marriage, her subsequent married life, her family, and her time at the court. The site also describes the political concerns of the time and the mistrust between Germany and Hungary. For a website biography of Saint Elizabeth, this is the most complete content based work and should be the first page visited.
ed. Parker, Elizabeth C. The Cloisters: Studies in Honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary. New York : The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1992.
The goal of this book is to provide a history of the Cloisters in Europe from their inception until the late Gothic period. However, this is more of an art history book than a scholarly piece as it was made possible due to the close connection between The Cloisters and the International Center of Medieval Art. While it is a great source of pictures, it is difficult to locate specific information on particular people, as there is no index. It is especially complicated to find pertinent information on the life of Saint Elizabeth; therefore, it is not a constructive source for information on her life.
Sawyer, Ruth. "The Legend of Saint Elizabeth." Catholic Information
(18 December 2005).
Hosted by the Catholic Information Network, a website that touts itself as being the source for "Catholic evangelization since 1987," this website gives a brief summary of the life of Saint Elizabeth from her youth, where she practiced mortification (which is defined as discipline of the body and the appetites by self-denial or self-inflicted privation), to her marriage to Louis of Thuringia at age thirteen, to her death at age twenty-four. While it does not go in-depth, it does provide the reader with a quick tool for gaining a preliminary glimpse into the life of Saint Elizabeth and therefore is a convenient source for the initial stages of research, however ineffective for latter stages of scholarly work.
Seesholtz, Anne. Saint Elizabeth: Her Brother's Keeper. New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.
Similar to the Nesta de Robeck book, this work is a complete and concise biography of Saint Elizabeth. It provides information in a chronological order that follows Elizabeth from her birth until her canonization in May of 1235 by Pope Gregory. Unlike the de Robeck book, however, there are no citations, footnotes, or bibliography; therefore, the reader is unsure where the author gathered her information and where more information can be found. While this is a helpful book, as it provides the reader with a brief, yet compact version of the life of Saint Elizabeth, it should be used for leisurely reading, rather than scholarly research.
St. John's Episcopal Church. St. Elizabeth of Hungary. 10 November 2005. <http://stjohns-stamford.org/chapel/StElizHungary.html>
This website is published by St. John's Episcopal Church in Stamford, Connecticut. It provides the reader with all of the same information that has been seen in other sources about the basic life, death, and canonization of Saint Elizabeth. Nevertheless, it distinguishes itself from the pack as it also contains a decorative glass windowpane that depicts Saint Elizabeth. This cannot be found in other sources. Therefore, while it describes many of the same events as other sources, this also presents a unique artistic interpretation of Saint Elizabeth through the stained glass window of the Church and should be viewed, if only momentarily, for the picture.
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Written by Kimberly Fabbri, 2005
Last Revision: 18 December 2005
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