Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Legend of St Ildephonsus of Toledo

The day after the feast of one of its most celebrated martyrs, St Vincent, the church in Spain commemorates one of its greatest bishops, St Ildephonsus, who succeeded his own uncle, St Eugenius, as archbishop of the primatial see of Toledo in 657, and reigned until his death about ten years later. Many Saints have been honored liturgically in one place or another, or within a particular religious order, as Doctors of the Church, without the title being officially proclaimed or recognized by the Holy See. In Spain, even before the expansion of the title’s use began in the Tridentine reform, Ildephonsus was called a Doctor, along with St Isidore of Seville, traditionally said to have been his teacher. (The latter, by the way, was officially granted the title by Pope Innocent XIII in 1722, and has more recently, in view of his work as an encyclopedist, become the informal Patron Saint of the internet.)

The calendar page for January of a Missal according to the Use of Toledo, Spain, printed in 1551, with the entry on the 23rd “Ildephonse, Archbishop of Toledo, Confessor and Doctor.” The term “vj cap(parum) - of six copes” refers to a system for grading feasts based on the number of copes used at Vespers, which was borrowed from the Mozarabic Rite. (This missal is not Mozarabic, but the Toledan Use of the Roman Rite.)
Among St Ildephonsus’ works is a treatise “On the Perpetual Virginity of St Mary” which came to be fairly well-known in the Middle Ages, a defense of the Church’s traditional teaching on that subject, and filled with praises of Her, always in reference to Her Son. To give just a sample:

“Behold, all the earth is filled with the glory of God through this Virgin. From the little to the great, all have come to know the living God through this Virgin. All have seen the salvation of God through this Virgin. All the ends of the earth have remembered and been converted through this Virgin. All the nations of the world worship before Her Son; for the kingdom belongeth to the Son, and God Himself shall rule over the nations. All these sing to the Lord, Her Son, the new song of their redemption, for by being born from this Virgin, He hath done great things. God hath made known His salvation through this Virgin, and revealed His justice in our sight. Through this Virgin they have found God, who could not find Him through the observance of the Law. Through this Virgin came God, and the nations and tongues being gathered, we have come and seen His, glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father. All the nations have been gathered in the name of this Lord, in the midst of Jerusalem, which is tehe vision of peace, that is, the universal church, and they will walk no longer after the wickedness of their heart. … And behold, all the nations bless Him that was born of such a Mother, and praise Him.”

This rhetorically effusive and repetitive style is very typical of the Mozarabic liturgy which was then used throughout Spain, and for which Ildephonse is believed to have written the Mass of the Ascension. The Mozarabic Mass has many more variable parts than the Roman; another example of the same style may be found in his introduction to the Lord’s Prayer.

“Who will speak of Thy mighty deeds, o Lord, or who shall be able to tell of all Thy praises? Thou camest down to the things of man, while leaving not those of heaven, and returned on high, leaving not the things of man behind; wholly omnipresent, everywhere wondrous, not cut off by the flesh, that Thou should not be in the Father, nor taken away by the Ascension in such wise that Thou should not be in man. Look upon the prayer of Thy people, o holy Lord, o merciful God, that on this day of Thy Ascension, just as glory was given to Thee on high, so grace may be given to us on earth.”

Sometime after St Ildephonsus’ death, a legend arose that once as he was praying before the tomb of St Leocadia, a virgin of Toledo martyred in the persecution of Diocletian, she rose from her grave in order to convey to him the thanks and praise of the Virgin for what he had written. Later on, the Virgin Herself appeared to him, sitting on his episcopal throne, and bestowed a chasuble upon him.

The Virgin Mary Appears to St Ildephonse, by Bartolomé Estaban Murillo (1617-82), ca. 1655. (Public domain image from Wikimedia).
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, collections of legends of the Virgin Mary became extremely popular, and a great many of them contain some version of this story, which, in fact circulated so widely that it was incorporated into the liturgy of the Ethiopian Church. In the Ethiopian synaxarium, the Eastern equivalent of the Martyrology, an entry for Tahisas 22 (December 31st), the feast of St Gabriel, reads “Salutation to Dekesius, Bishop of Telteya (Toledo), to whom Mary gave heavenly apparel, because he wrote the account of the miracle of her Annunciation.”

St “Dexius” offers his book about the Virgin Mary to Her (above), and receives a vestment from Her (below). This image comes from a translation of a late 14th century Ethiopian manuscript of legends of the Virgin Mary, published in Britain in 1900, with reproductions of the original illustrations.

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