Saturday, July 08, 2023

The Hymns of St Elizabeth of Portugal

Today is the feast of St Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal, who died on July 4th, 1336. When she was canonized in 1625, her feast was assigned ad libitum to the general calendar on the day of her death. Pope Innocent XII then made it obligatory in 1694, and reassigned it to July 8th so as not to perpetually impede a day within the octave of Ss Peter and Paul. The octave having been suppressed in 1955, the post-Conciliar rite returned her to July 4th.

St Elizabeth of Portugal, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), ca. 1635. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Elizabeth was born into the royal house of Aragon in 1271, and named for her great-aunt, St Elizabeth of Hungary. At the age of 10, she was married by proxy to Denis, the King of Portugal; the official ceremony was held in 1288, when she was 17 and her husband 26. Although Denis was a wise and capable ruler who achieved many good things for his country during his reign of nearly half a century (1279-1325), his personal life was dissolute, as witnessed by the six illegitimate children he fathered with five different mistresses. He was often neglectful of his wife, but did not interfere with either her devotional life, which was very strongly centered on the liturgy (she recited the Office and attended solemn Mass daily), or her many charities, which are celebrated in the proper invitatory of her feast, “Let us praise our God in the holy works of the blessed Elizabeth.” Elizabeth herself prayed constantly for his conversion, which was achieved on his deathbed through a long and painful illness; she also cared for his other children, and worked to bring peace between him and their son, the future king Afonso IV, since Denis’ favor lay rather with his bastard Afonso Sanches.

After her husband’s death, she was professed as a member of the Franciscan Third Order, and retired into a private home near a convent of Poor Clares that she herself had founded at Coimbra. However, in 1336, she was called upon to intervene in a war between her son and his son-in-law, King Alfonso XI of Castile. Although the matter was settled peaceably, the effort of traveling in the summer heat led to her death; her remains were transferred to the Poor Clares’ church in Coimbra, where they rest to this day. She was beatified in 1526, and canonized in 1625.

The Pope who canonized her, Urban VIII (1623-44), is well-known to scholars of the liturgy for promulgating the famous (or infamous) reform by which the hymns of the breviary were mostly recast according to the meters and diction of classical Latin. This reform has been subjected to endless, and for the most part well-deserved, criticism, most succinctly in the famous dictum “accessit Latinitas, recessit pietas – Latinity (meaning, “good”, classical Latinity) came in, and piety went out.”

As Pope, Urban personally composed the hymns of three Saints whose feasts he extended to the general calendar, those of the Visigothic prince and martyr Hermenegild, the early Roman martyr Martina, and Elizabeth of Portugal. The two for the latter are, in my estimation, by far his most successful efforts, and indeed, rather better than the revision of the traditional hymns would lead one to expect. Although their meters are unusual, and therefore require new melodies to be sung, their vocabulary is mostly within the established usage of Christian Latinity, and devoid of the precious citations of classical poems that make the hymns of St Martina especially difficult to pray.

The hymn of Vespers and Matins, with a rather free translation by Fr Edward Caswall.
Domáre cordis ímpetus
Fortis inopsque, Deo
Servíre regno práetulit.
Pure, meek, with soul serene,
Sweeter to her it was to serve
Her God, than reign a queen.
En fúlgidis recepta caeli
Sidereáeque domus
Ditáta sanctis gaudiis.
Now far above our sight,
Enthroned upon the star-paved
   azure height,
She reigns in realms of light;
Nunc regnat inter cáelites
Et premit astra, docens
Quae vera sint regni bona.
So long as time shall flow,
Teaching to all who sit
   on thrones below,
The good that power can do.
Patri potestas, Filióque
Perpetuumque decus
Tibi sit, alme Spíritus.
To God, the Father and Son
And Paraclete, be glory,
   Three in One,
While endless ages run.
A very nice setting in alternating polyphony and chant by the composer Matías García Benayas (†1737), without the 3rd stanza.

The hymn for Lauds includes a reference to a miracle which is also attributed to several other Saints, including, more famously, her great-aunt and namesake of Hungary. The story goes that Elizabeth was surprised by her husband while carrying food to the poor in her skirts. Challenged to show that she was not once again exhausting the royal treasury by excessive charities, she opened the folds of her skirt, at which the king saw in them not food, but roses, and this in the middle of the winter, and so allowed her to go on her way. This story is very much out of keeping with what we know of King Denis’ character, and in this case is generally regarded as apocryphal. (English translation also by Fr Caswall.)

Opus decusque regium relí-
Elísabeth, Dei dicáta númi-
Recepta nunc beáris inter
Libens ab hostium tuére nos
Riches and regal throne,
   for Christ’s dear sake,
True saint, thou didst despise;
Amid the angels seated
   now in bliss,
Oh, help us from the skies!
Praei, viamque, dux salútis
Sequémur: O sit una mens
Odor bonus sit omnis actio,
Id ínnuit rosis operta cáritas.
Guide us; and fill our days
   with perfume sweet
Of loving word and deed;
So teaches us thy beauteous
By fragrant roses hid.
Beáta cáritas, in arce síde-
Potens locáre nos per omne
Patríque, Filióque summa
Tibíque laus perennis, alme
   Spíritus. Amen.
O charity! what power is thine!
   by thee
Above the stars we soar;
In thee be purest praise
to Father, Son And Spirit,
   evermore. Amen.

The Miracle of the Roses, 1735, by the Portuguese painter André Gonçalves (1685-1754; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Fr Caswall (1814-78), by the way, was an Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism in 1847. After the sudden death of his wife in 1849, he entered the Birmingham Oratory in 1850; he was ordained priest two years later, and died in 1878. He was a talented poet, and many of his English translations of Latin hymns were incorporated by John Crighton-Stuart, the Third Marquess of Bute, into his monumental English version of the Roman Breviary, including these two.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: