Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Scent of Roses

Isabel de Aragão, Queen of Portugal, arrives at Santiago de Compostela after completing a long pilgrimage on foot.
Painting by Antonio de Hollanda, c. 1530
Queen Isabel depicted with roses.
Painting by
Francisco de Zurbarán, c. 1635
My reading has taken on a particularly intense focus, now that I have a definitive dissertation topic and am able to read daily with the beautiful backdrop of the autumn campus. I have begun research on a 14th-century queen of Portugal, Isabel de Aragão. Isabel was first made queen, then became a mother, and two centuries after her death, was made a saint through the official canonization process of the Catholic Church. 

Of the miracles attributed to her, the most popular among her devotees seems to have been the tale of how she discovered roses, all around her, during a season in which it was impossible for them to grow. After her death, her tomb and incorruptible body were said to give off an intense and pleasant aroma that resembled roses. 

Roses are not in bloom here on campus, but I sense the power of her story all around me. Her life, told and retold in many different ways over the centuries, offers a unique perspective on medieval Queenship, motherhood, sainthood, female identity, and most importantly, how all of these things could be brought into harmony under very specific, very dire circumstances... 

The Queen gifts her crown to the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. Antonio de Hollanda, c. 1530
The 14th-century was witness to a particularly catastrophic confluence of events. The rampant spread of plague led to the underpopulation of huge swaths of rural land. This lead to both economic downturn as well as easily disputed borders between territories; fighting to maintain hard-won land often resulted in dismayingly high death tolls which only served to further weaken the populations of the countryside. 

Isabel Queen of Portugal heals a woman
on the Camino de Santiago.
Francisco de Goya. 
The sometimes tenuous claims to the Portuguese throne also exacerbated conflict within the kingdom. Isabel de Aragão's own son, for instance, launched a civil war against his father, King Dinis and one of the king's illegitimate sons who was rumored to have been favored as heir. Through all the turmoil, Isabel must have appeared as a beacon of hope: her impressively calm and rational demeanor (traits typically associated with men during that time) made her much beloved by the Portuguese people, who called her saint even before her death and canonization. And yet, in spite of her socio-political and mythic importance to people throughout Portugal, her native Aragon, and neighboring Castile, her story has more recently been relegated to the archives.

For centuries following her death, she was depicted in poetry and theater, celebrated as a popular hero and saint on what became her feast day (July 4), and ascribed a powerful position in the collective Iberian memory. In the late 17th-century, the chapel she built and the order of Clarisas (Franciscan nuns) that she founded was flooded by a river that had outgrown its 14th-century banks. The basement of the church was filled with water and left to rot for a small eternity: it was not until the 20th-century that the church was finally cleared out and restoration began. 

Isabel de Aragão's tomb in Coimbra
Her tomb had of course been previously removed, to a second church of the same order, but nevertheless the original 14th-century church that lay in disrepair, all but forgotten, had at one time contained important artifacts and documents pertaining to Isabel's life. How can it be that the material legacy of this beloved woman was left unattended for so long by those who loved her? 

Isabel's story fascinates me. She is the daughter and mother of kings, and granddaughter of another queen-saint (Elizabeth of Hungary). She was powerful, but considered poor and humble; she was a mother, but considered chaste and holy; she was an important stateswoman, remembered for her peacekeeping efforts, but also for her transcendence of terrestrial powers, owing to her connection with the divine. Isabel performed very few miracles when she was alive, but she was called saint by all who knew her during her life nonetheless. After her death, her popularity continued strong for centuries and then seemed to abruptly decline. What explains this dramatic rise and fall in the popular imagination? 

In a recent conversation with my advisor, I remarked on how small and humble the miracles were that Isabel had performed during her life. I marveled at how strong the devotion was to her in spite having almost no high profile miracles. "You're right," began my advisors reply, and with her sparingly-used droll sense of humor, "only a queen, mother and saint. Why wouldn't she have had time for more miracles?" 


Until next time -- keep rustling!

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