Saint Eligius: The Iconography

In Noyon, Belgium, St. Eligius, Bishop, whose admirable life is commended by a great number of miracles. – Roman Martyrology for December 1

A 7th-century vita attributed to Dado of Rouen recounts the life of this important church reformer. He apprenticed with Abbo, a goldsmith in Limoges, then sought his fortune at the court of Chlothar II, where he hired on with the royal treasurer. When the king called for a golden saddle to be made Eligius was found to be the only one capable of such an undertaking.1 His success led to appointment as royal goldsmith, then as adviser to Chlothar and his successor Dagobert, and finally as bishop of Noyon.

Some portraits have St. Eligius hold a golden chalice as a symbol of his original profession or show him plying his trade in a workshop, as in the first and second pictures at right.

According to Duchet-Suchaux (132-33) an alternate legend has it that Eligius started out as a farrier who one day "cut off a horse's hoof to shoe it with greater ease; once the work was done, he simply replaced the whole hoof." This episode is the usual subject of narrative images (example). It also leads to portraits that use the hoof and the farrier's tools as attributes, as in the third picture at right. Yet the legend is not in Dado or any medieval source that I could locate. Perhaps it arose from the saddle story.

Duchet-Suchaux (ibid.) writes that Eligius is also sometimes shown pinching the devil's nose, resuscitating a hanged man, or advising Clotar or Dagobert.

Dado's vita provides a detailed physical description of Eligius:
He was tall with a rosy face. He had a pretty head of hair with curly locks. His hands were honest and his fingers long. He had the face of an angel and a prudent look. At first, he was used to wear gold and gems on his clothes… [But] as he proceeded to perfection, he gave the ornaments for the needs of the poor. Then you would see him, whom you had once seen gleaming with the weight of the gold and gems that covered him, go covered in the vilest clothing with a rope for a belt.

Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-10-30, 2018-04-04.

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St. Eligius as a bishop with a chalice, one of his attributes (See the description page)


St. Eligius as an apprentice at work on a chalice in Abbo's workshop (See the de­scrip­tion page.)


Portrait of St. Eligius with the horse's leg and farrier's hammer (See the description page)

DATES

  • Feast day: December 1
  • Lived circa 590-659

NAMES

  • This is the "Seinte Loy" by whom Chaucer's Prioress swears (Canterbury Tales, I, 120).

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 In the Latin presented by the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Vita Eligii Episcopi Noviomagensis, 672), the object is definitely a saddle (sella). So too Graesse, 952, and Caxton. But in the Medieval Sourcebook translation it is a "seat."