The Latin Hymns of St Elizabeth of Portugal

Gregory DiPippo

On the calendar of the Usus Antiquior, today is the feast of St Elizabeth, Queen of Portugal, who died on July 4th, her feast day in the Novus Ordo, in 1336. She was born into the royal house of Aragon in 1271, and married to Denis, the King of Portugal, when she was 17. Although her husband was a capable ruler who achieved many good things for his country during his long reign (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 or her many charities. Elizabeth 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 to a private home near a convent of Poor Clares that she herself had founded at Coimbra. 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.

(St Elizabeth of Portugal, by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), ca. 1635. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

The Pope who canonized her, Urban VIII (1623-44), is well-known to scholars of the liturgy for promulgating a 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 criticism, most of it well-deserved, and gave rise to a 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, St Elizabeth. 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 (1814-78).

Domáre cordis impetus Elísabeth
Fortis, inopsque Deo
Servíre, regno práetulit.

En fúlgidis recepta caeli sédibus,
Sidereáeque domus
Ditáta sanctis gaudiis.

Nunc regnat inter cáelites beátior,
Et premit astra, docens
Quae vera sint regni bona.

Patri potestas, Filióque gloria,
Perpetuumque decus
Tibi sit, alme Spíritus. Amen.

A very nice setting in alternating polyphony and chant by the composer Matías García Benayas (†1737), without the 3rd stanza.

Pure, meek, with soul serene,
Sweeter to her it was to serve unseen
Her God, than reign a queen.

Now far above our sight,
Enthroned upon the star-paved azure height,
She reigns in realms of light;

So long as time shall flow,
Teaching to all who sit on thrones below,
The good that power can do.

To God, the Father and Son
And Paraclete, be glory, Three in One,
While endless ages run. Amen.

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 relíqueras,
Elísabeth, Dei dicáta númini:
Recepta nunc beáris inter Angelos;
Libens ab hostium tuére nos dolis.

Praei, viamque, dux salútis índica:
Sequémur: O sit una mens fidelium,
Odor bonus sit omnis actio, tuis
Id ínnuit rosis operta cáritas.

Beáta cáritas, in arce síderum
Potens locáre nos per omne sáeculum:
Patríque, Filióque summa gloria,
Tibíque laus perennis, alme Spíritus. Amen.

The Miracle of the Roses, 1735, by the Portuguese painter André Gonçalves (1685-1754; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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!

Guide us; and fill our days with perfume sweet
Of loving word and deed;
So teaches us thy beauteous charity,
By fragrant roses hid.

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.

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