St Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation 1891
Oil on canvas:support: 1530 x 2134 mm
Tate Britain, London
The Tate catalogue for this painting describes the painting`s theme thus:
"Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) was the wife of Lewis, Landgrave of Thuringia. After his death in 1227 during one of the Crusades, she entered a convent and devoted herself to good works. Before becoming a nun, she passed through a spiritual crisis, torn by the need to renounce the world, and therefore her children, in order to fulfil her desire to serve God. Pressed by a domineering monk, Conrad, whose natural affections had been starved by celibacy, Elizabeth finally vowed that 'naked and barefoot' she would follow her 'naked Lord'. "
Philip Hermogenes Calderon was born in Poitiers, the son of Juan Calderon, later Professor of Spanish Literature at Kings College. His father was a former Roman Catholic priest who had converted to Anglicanism. He had left Catholicism to marry. His mother was French.
He studied engineering, and became so much interested in the drawing side that he decided to become a painter.
Despite his antecedents, he and his family moved to England in the 1840s and he was brought up and lived in England. He is regarded as an English painter. In 1887 he became Keeper of the Royal Academy
His works are sentimental and he was heavily influenced by the pre-Raphaelite sensibility.
His works often have a historical and religious theme or bias. Calderon was a guiding part of the St John's Wood Clique.
The above painting was bought for the nation in terms of the Chantrey Bequest. It hangs in The Tate Britain as part of the many works comprising the Chantrey Bequest.
(In 1875, the Royal Academy received under the will of Sir F. L. Chantrey RA, 105,000 pounds. The income each year was handed over to the Academy to purchase works of art - painting and sculpture - executed within the shores of Great Britain. The idea was to build up a national collection of British Art. It was a great honour for an artist to have a picture purchased under the terms of the Chantry Bequest )
The painting caused considerable controversy from Roman Catholic circles because it depicted the saint bending naked over an altar watched by monks. It was perhaps seen as containing an anti-Catholic sentiment.
Calderon took his subject from The Saint's Tragedy (1848) by the anti-Catholic Charles Kingsley [12 Jun 1819 – 23 Jan 1875]. You will recall Kingsley from his celebrated public disputes with Cardinal Newman.
It has been disputed that there is an anti-Catholic bias in the picture. However if one reads the Introduction to his poem-play by Kingsley, one can see that the theme is definitely not pro-Catholic:
"The story which I have here put into a dramatic form is one familiar to Romanists, and perfectly and circumstantially authenticated. ...
In deducing fairly, from the phenomena of her life,the character of Elizabeth, she necessarily became a type of two great mental struggles of the Middle Age; first, of that between Scriptural or unconscious, and Popish or conscious, purity: in a word, between innocence and prudery; next, of the struggle between healthy human affection, and the Manichean contempt with which a celibate clergy would have all men regard the names of husband, wife, and parent. To exhibit this latter falsehood in its miserable consequences, when received into a heart of insight and determination sufficient to follow out all belief to its ultimate practice, is the main object of my Poem. That a most degrading and agonising contradiction on these points must have existed in the mind of Elizabeth, and of all who with similar characters shall have found themselves under similar influences, is a necessity that must be evident to all who know anything of the deeper affections of men. In the idea of a married Romish saint, these miseries should follow logically from the Romish view of human relations. In Elizabeth’s case their existence is proved equally logically from the acknowledged facts of her conduct....
Such was my idea: of the inconsistencies and short-comings of this its realisation, no one can ever be so painfully sensible as I am already myself. If, however, this book shall cause one Englishman honestly to ask himself, ‘I, as a Protestant, have been accustomed to assert the purity and dignity of the offices of husband, wife, and parent. Have I ever examined the grounds of my own assertion? Do I believe them to be as callings from God, spiritual, sacramental, divine, eternal? Or am I at heart regarding and using them, like the Papist, merely as heaven’s indulgences to the infirmities of fallen man?’—then will my book have done its work.
If, again, it shall deter one young man from the example of those miserable dilettanti, who in books and sermons are whimpering meagre second-hand praises of celibacy—depreciating as carnal and degrading those family ties to which they owe their own existence, and in the enjoyment of which they themselves all the while unblushingly indulge—insulting thus their own wives and mothers—nibbling ignorantly at the very root of that household purity which constitutes the distinctive superiority of Protestant over Popish nations—again my book will have done its work.
If, lastly, it shall awaken one pious Protestant to recognise, in some, at least, of the Saints of the Middle Age, beings not only of the same passions, but of the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, as themselves, Protestants, not the less deep and true, because utterly unconscious and practical—mighty witnesses against the two antichrists of their age—the tyranny of feudal caste, and the phantoms which Popery substitutes for the living Christ—then also will my little book indeed have done its work"
Kingsley`s treatment of the life of St Elizabeth of Hungary amounted to a Protestant revision of the life of a Catholic saint.
The most controversial scene in the play is Act 4, Scene 1 in which Elizabeth is before the altar and says:
"Lo, here I strip me of all earthly helps [Tearing off her clothes]
Naked and barefoot through the world to follow
My naked Lord."
Kingsley apparently did not intend there to be full nudity as later Elizabeth is made to remark: "I have stripped of all, but modesty."
However Calderon did depict her as seen above totally naked.
As well as criticism from the Roman Catholic press, the picture was parodied in Punch and in Fun in connection with the alleged impropriety "on the part of two officials of the London County Council, who were said to have demanded to inspect the bare back of Miss Zaco, a famous aerial act at the Royal Aquarium Summer and Winter Garden."
Usually the best way to deal with criticism is gentle laughter, not outright confrontation but satire.