Oil on copper 28 x 20 cm. Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine. London.
Depicts Princess Elizabeth as a nurse caring for the sick in an asylum.
Born in 1207 and daughter of the Hungárian King Andrew II, she is distínguished by her Chrístian vocation from childhood. According to her hagiography, she prayed devoutly from the age of five.
At the age of 14, she married the future Landgrave of Thuringia, Ludwig IV.
In 1226, she founds her first poorhouse, where she provides companionship, care and sustenance.
At the age of 20, she was already a widow and, driven by her desire to serve the únderprivileged, she renounced a new offer of marriage, her titles and even her children.
She left Wartburg Palace, leaving behind a life of privilege, and moved to Marburg, where she founded an asylum.
There he took his devotion to the sick to the extreme, especially the lepers.
It is said that he kisses their feet and even allows them to sleep in his bed.
In this work by Elsheimer, she shows a leper in the foreground with his leg bandaged to cover the ulcers.
This life of sacrifice leads to her death at the age of 24, on 17 November 1231.
Her corpse smells of perfume.
Soon a special devotion to Saint Elizabeth was born and her miracles followed one after the other.
She relieved the pain of a sick monk to whom she appeared in a dream, resuscitated a drowned man and raised a hanged man from his grave.
This painting shows this asylum in Marburg as it was imagined by Adam Elsheimer, who painted it around 1597.
There are two separate rooms for men and women, with Saint Elisabeth, distinguished with a halo of sanctity, feeding a sick man, while two other elegantly dressed ladies, in contrast to the saint’s simplicity, serve as her attendants.
The main room is amply lit and well ventilated, as was the custom in Renaissance hospital architecture.
The darkness of the back room is resolved by a lamp supported by a cord that serves to regulate its height.
Special attention should be paid to the saint’s patient.
The fixed gaze, the tongue hanging out and the tension of the muscles seem to indicate a nervous illness, perhaps epilepsy.
With great effort, perhaps inspired by the presence of Elizabeth herself, he manages to join his hands to pray before receiving his food.
This is the main task of the asylums, where medical help is limited to herbal preparations and the sporadic visit of university doctors, who can do little with their treatments based on the balance of humours and the analysis of urine collected in chamber pots.
The last hope, as the presence of religious sculptures and paintings seems to indicate, is faith in healing, if not on earth, then in heaven.