Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Feast of St Eligius

Most of the dioceses of France have traditionally kept today as the feast of St Eligius (“Éloi” in French), who was born near Limoges in about 590, and died on this day in 660 after serving as bishop of Noyon for 19 years. In youth, he was trained as a goldsmith, and has long been honored as the heavenly Patron of that art; his biography attributes to him reliquaries of several prominent French Saints, including Martin of Tours, and Denys and Genevieve of Paris. Under the Merovingian King Dagobert I (629-39), and his son Clovis II (639-57), he served as the royal treasurer, and several coins with his name on them are still extant. When he was elected bishop of Noyon in 641, the majority of the inhabitants in the regions to the north of that city, which are now the southern part of Flanders, were still pagan; it was in no small measure his preaching, and the example of his great charity to the poor and sick, that helped to convert them to Christianity. He was also the founder of several monasteries, including an enormous convent at Paris which housed 300 nuns.
A reliquary bust of St Eligius, in the church of the goldsmiths’ guild in Rome. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by JTSH26, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The church itself was commissioned from the painter Raphael in 1509, but only completed in 1575, 55 years after his death, by Baldassare Peruzzi and Aristotole da Sangallo. Because of its close proximity to the Tiber, it was frequently damaged by the river’s winter flooding, and frequently restored. It is now almost never open, one of the many Roman churches that fall under the nickname “Santa Maria Sempre Chiusa - St Mary’s Always Closed.” (Image from Wikimedia Commons by JTSH26, CC BY-SA 4.0)
A reliquary of the Saint in the cathedral of the Holy Savior in Bruges, one of his many relics venerated in various parts of northern France and Belgium. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Zairon, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The National Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona has the doors of a particularly nice altarpiece dedicated to St Eligius, formerly in the chapel of the silversmiths’ guild in the church of Our Lady of Mercy in that city. This was painted by a Portuguese artist named Pere Nunyes, whose work is documented in various parts of Catalonia and Aragon between 1513 and 1557. The outside of the doors are decorated with very colorful images of episodes from the Saint’s life. (Detailed explanations given below.)
(Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Many Renaissance altarpieces with closeable doors had the Annunciation painted in muted colors, or in grisaille, as we see here, on the outside. During Passiontide, or indeed all of Lent, the doors were kept closed, to be opened again at the Easter vigil, just as the statues were unveiled. However, the liturgical austerity of Lent would be to some degree mitigated for the feast of the Annunciation, which falls within it in most years.
The upper right-hand panel shows the birth of St Eligius. One of the many legends of his life tells that shortly before his birth, his mother had a vision of an eagle hovering over her bed and crying out, which a holy man interpreted for her to mean that her son would become a great Saint.
The middle right panel depicts an episode which took place after the young Eligius had finished his apprenticeship with a goldsmith named Abbo, master of the mint in his native city of Limoges. The royal treasurer of King Clotaire II, one Bobbo, hired him to make a saddle (as seen here, but in some tellings, a throne) out of gold and gems. With the amount of such material provided to him, Eligius was able to make two saddles, which, when weighed together, proved both his skill and his honesty, since he might easily have pocketed the difference for himself.
In the lower right panel, the Saint is consecrated bishop. Note that he appears no older than he did in the previous panel; in reality, he had a prominent position as a layman at the Merovingian court for many years before being chosen bishop at the age of 51.

At the upper left, St Eligius is shown baptizing some of the many pagans he converted by his missionary work in Flanders.

In the middle left panel, St Eligius translates the relics of St Martial, an early bishop and patron of Limoges, whose basilica in Paris he also had restored.

At the bottom left, the funeral of St Eligius, attended by many of his fellow bishops; note the subdeacon holding the processional cross and standing at the feet of the catafalque, a custom which we still observe during the Absolution to this day.

Another version of The Honesty of St Eligius, 1614, by Jacopo Chimenti, usually known as Jacopo da Empoli (1551-1640), painted for the confraternity of goldsmiths in Florence; in this version, Eligius has made two thrones for the king, rather than two saddles as above. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
A painting of Ss Anthony the Abbot and Eligius, ca. 1500, by Luca Signorelli (1450-1523). Here Eligius is shows holding a farrier’s tool for scraping hooves called a buttress, and the lowest part of a horse’s leg, in reference to another legend, in virtue of which he is traditionally honored as a patron of blacksmiths, farriers and horses. The story goes that while he was working as a smith, a horse brought to him to be shoed proved so recalcitrant (which literally means “kicking back”) that Eligius thought it to be possessed; he therefore cut off the hoof that needed to be shod, put the shoe on (while the horse stood by watching on three legs), and then re-attached the leg to the horse. This episode is referred to obliquely in the Sequence sung at Mass on his feast day in the Use of Noyon: “Qui non negas opem brutis, / auge nobis spem salutis, / medicamen veniae. – Thou who deniest not help to brute animals, increase for us the hope of salvation, the medicine of forgiveness.” (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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