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The Honesty of St Eligius

Gregory DiPippo

Most of France has traditionally kept December 1st 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 he has long been honored as the heavenly Patron of that art; his biography attributes to him reliquaries of several prominent Saints of the Gallic church, including Martin of Tours, and Denys and Genevieve of Paris. Under the Merovingian Kings 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, most 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.

An episode from his early life has often been celebrated in art as the launching of his public career, and a demonstration of his honesty, one of the characteristics that led to him being chosen as a bishop. When the young Eligius had finished his apprenticeship as a goldsmith with the master of the mint in Limoges, the treasurer of King Clotaire II hired him to make a “sella” (understood to mean either a saddle or a throne) out of gold and gems. With the amount of such material provided to him, Eligius was able to make two seats, which, when weighed together, proved both his skill and his honesty, since he might easily have made just one, and pocketed the difference in the valuable materials for himself. It is recounted thus in the biography of him attributed to another Saint and friend of his, a man called Audoënus in Latin, Ouen in French, who later became the bishop of Rouen.

(St Eligius presents the saddle to King Clotaire; a panel from the doors of an altarpiece dedicated to him, by the Portuguese painter Pere Nunyes, ca. 1526-9. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) 

“Volebat (Clotharius) rex sellam urbane auro gemmisque fabricare, sed non inveniebatur in eius palatio, qui huiusmodi opus, sicut mente conceperat, posset opere perficere. Cum sciret ergo … regis thesaurarius Eligi industriam, coepit eum explorare, si quo modo opus optatum possit perficere, … Tunc rex mente gratissima tradidit ei copiosam auri impensam, sed et ipse … tradidit Eligio; at ille accepto opere cum celeritate inchoavit atque cum diligentia celeriter consummavit. Denique quod ad unius opificii acceperat usum, ita ex ea duo conposuit, ut incredibile foret, omnia ex eodem pondere fieri potuisset; nam absque ulla fraude vel unius etiam siliquae inminutione commisso sibi patravit opere, … (‘siliqua’ is here used in its later sense of ‘a very small unit of measure.’)

Opus ergo perfectum defert protinus ad palatium traditque regi quam donaverat sellam, alteram penes se, quam gratuitu fecerat, reservatam. (Note here the early medieval use of an accusative absolute, where the classical language would require the ablative.) Coepit autem princeps mirari simul et efferre tantam operis eligantiam, iussitque ilico fabro tribuere mercedem laboris dignam. Tunc Eligius, alteram sellam in medio prolatam (another accusative absolute), ‘Quod superfuit’, inquit, ‘ex auro, ne neglegens perderem, huic opere aptavi.’ … Ex hoc nempe adauctius consurgens factus est aurifex peritissimus atque in omni fabricandi arte doctissimus, invenitque gratiam in oculis regis et coram cunctis obtimatibus eius. Domino iuvante, roborabatur in fide, et a rege provocatus, crescebat in melius cottidie.

(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)

King Clothaire wanted a finely-made seat of gold and gems, but no one could be found in his palace who could do the work as he conceived it. But when the … king’s treasurer had learned of Eligius’ skill, he began to investigate whether he might be able to complete the desired work, … Then the king most readily gave him a great weight of gold which he in turn gave to Eligius, and he, having taken it, began the work immediately and with diligence speedily completed it. And from that which he had taken for one piece of work, he was able to make two in such a way that it was hard to believe that it could all have been made from the given weight; for he completed the work commissioned from him without any fraud or the loss of a single gram…

Therefore, he brought the completed work to the palace at once, and gave to the king the seat which he had commissioned, keeping back the other which he had freely made. The king began to marvel and praise such great elegance in the work, and ordered that the craftsman be given at once a reward worthy of his labor. Then Eligius produced the other seat and said, ‘What was left over of the gold, I have made into this piece, so that I might not lose any of it by negligence.’ … From this of course, the most skilled goldsmith became ever more ascendant, and most learned in all the arts of manufacture, and found grace in the king’s eyes and before all his leading men. With the Lord’s help, he grew stronger in the Faith, and driven on by the king, grew better every day.”

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