Diario Judío México - In all the region of Coimbra, Santa Isabel, or, as the people call her, the Holy Queen, is the object of the most successful Marrano Jewish or crypto-Jewish cult in Portugal. She is mainly venerated in the church of Santa Clara in Coimbra, where her silver mausoleum is constantly visited. Near the altar there is a “petition box” for the people to ask the saint for favors in writing. Her artistic iconography, of an inert and languid aspect (as are most of the images of urban cults), can be found often on the exterior tiles of Portuguese houses. Coimbra lives under the aura of the Holy Queen, a true Magna Mater who suffocated all the other popular cults in the city. During her festival, the city is practically closed to cars for two or three days, to host a gigantic procession made up of hundreds of women, most of rural origin and dressed as the “Holy Queen” (with a robe and a crown), followed by the corporations of the city and the university faculty dressed in formal clothes.
The myths connected to the Holy Queen are numerous but repetitive; the historians and the chroniclers of the regions reproduce them as if they were demonstrated truths. From the words that the Queen pronounced in her journeys, it is believed that many villages came into being in the region of Coimbra and the Beiras. Condeixa has the name because the Holy Queen supposedly saw a count that was punishing some highway robbers. She took pity on them and said: “Count, let them be” (Conde, deixa): Con-deixa. Pataias came into being because she was passing through the land and said to her ladies in waiting: “Let’s get a move on” (Vamos a pata, aias)—Pa-taias; Lumiar started because she had gone to separate her husband from her son in their ongoing war. It was night and her husband, King Dinis, asked her why she was there. She answered: “to illuminate you” (Vos alumiar)—lu-miar. The pine forest of Leiria, which historians call “belonging to the king”, should be called “belonging to the queen, because, it was she, according to local belief, who planted the seeds that made the forest grow in one night.
The Holy Queen is simultaneously seen as a great benefactor, a wife who corrects her husband’s defects, and a victim of the same. After establishing many towns, Isabel instituted worship and festivals, and created religious orders; she opened hospitals, washed the clothes of the sick, and cured many of them; she established shrines, erected churches, paid the salaries of the workers in roses that she changed into bread, or the opposite, and she still had time left over to get involved in politics and run after her son and her husband to keep them from fighting. The chronicler Rui de Pina shows her as a mystic who spent her time in prayer, fasting, and asking for penitence. If we believed everything, we wouldn’t be able to understand how she could “establish” so many towns, hospices, and churches, take care of the sick and the cleaning of the infirmaries, institute so many festivals, and simultaneously, spend her time in prayer and a search for penitence.
The historiography of Isabel of Aragon is an example of how certain scholars are first inspired by myths and popular sayings, then give them a serious air, and finally write “history.” Actually, everything that the chroniclers wrote about the Christian merits of Isabel of Aragon is a mythological imbroglio woven in the Renaissance, created by the nucleus of secret Jews in Coimbra to pay homage to the cult of the Holy Queen Esther.
The promoters of the cult and of the canonization of the Portuguese queen, in the seventeenth century, witnesses of her Christian merits and of her miracles, were the New Christians of Coimbra (later accused of Judaism), who had regrouped in secret societies with Christian names, like the Brotherhood of Frei Diogo (from the name of Frei Diogo of Assuncion, a Franciscan who died in 1603), from which arose another society called the Brotherhood of Santo Antonio, in memory of Antonio Homen, after his death.
Among the promoters and the witnesses of the saintliness of the Holy Queen was this man, Antonio Homem, 47 years old, canon of the University of Coimbra and of the Cathedral, a man of great prestige in the city. Later he was accused of being a “high Jewish priest,” of organizing secret religious ceremonies in his residence in which he took the part of “High Jewish Priest,” and of trying to reconstitute the cult of the Temple of Jerusalem.
The cult of the Queen had been practiced for a long time, but the bishops had always been against it, as they were later against her canonization. Until 1551, a church service had been celebrated in the monastery of Santa Clara in the Queen’s honor, which was a “shame”, according to André de Resende, who confesses to having been “shocked with the monstrous demonstration of piety from the clergymen called to perform it.”
One year before the year foreseen for the canonization, the Inquisition swooped down on the New Christians who were behind the process. “When in Rome the preparations for the canonization were being finalized, and the twenty fifth of May was being anticipated with enthusiastic joy, the Inquisition of Coimbra made an effort to suppress all the heretics of this city so that there would only be people with clean blood and pure conscience on Judgment Day.
There were two autos de fé in the month of May. In one of them, twelve nuns were condemned, some to the fire, perhaps those who worked the hardest to increase the cult of Santa Isabel. Some were from the convent of Celas, and others were from that of Santa Ana. Those who escaped the claws of the Inquisition went back to their respective convents, but they could not enter because their fellow sisters now refused to receive them–even though they had left all their goods to the convent. The Pope had to intervene to re-impose canonical justice; the convents insisted on their refusal, and only obeyed when the Pope obliged them to establish a new convent next door to the old for these “repentant heretics.” One year before the date set for the canonization, one hundred and thirty nine suspects were condemned for practicing Judaism, ten of them going to the bonfire. Some months later, there were nine autos-de-fé with seventy-five condemned and eight executed. With regards to Antonio Homem, the main witness of the process of canonization and the greatest enthusiast for the cult, he was executed in Lisbon in 1624.
The miracles included in the process all have an air of fantasy. Besides the “odor of the body,” that appears in all the hagiographic myths, “she cured the bite of a leach, she cured an ulcer of the gums, a man blind in two eyes began to see out of one of them, the oil that burned near her tomb had curative properties, she gave milk to women who could not breastfeed, she cured diseases with medicine made out of ground lizards, and other marvels of this type.”
Despite the fame of being a miracle worker surrounding the Queen, the process was a game of hide and seek between Rome and the Portuguese monarchs. But Isabel was finally canonized. “Two centuries after her death there was an attempt to canonize her, but the Holy See was reluctant to do so. Eighteen popes ignored the request. Beatification only occurred in 1516, under Pope Leo X, at the request of King Manuel I. In the first attempt, the Pope answered that there had been no miracles. But Leo was not difficult in concessions of this nature and had made many beatifications. The quality of the Portuguese king and the justice of the cause made a declaration of beatification take on added urgency. He finally gave in, but “through an inexplicable mistake,” the name of the saint was published incorrectly: from the words of the Papal brief, we can clearly see that it refers to Dona Isabel, but every time she is mentioned in the document she is given the name Dona Branca–six times to be exact.
It was Philip II of Spain who promoted the process of canonization initiated in 1611. The Spanish kings were interested in this saint of Spanish origin for obvious reasons. The process dragged on. In 1618 Philip III recommended that Lisbon hurry up in getting the funds for the canonization. When Urban VIII refused to speed up the process, despite the pressure from some cardinals, Philip IV spoke in a letter of the sum of twelve thousand cruzados that he would send quickly to Rome. Finally Urban gave in to the pressures of the Spanish king, who sent the “gift” of 12,000 cruzados. With this donation the Pope could only agree and he made elaborate praises about the “Emperor of the Spains”, a country that had been so prolific in producing saints like Isabel of Aragon, who is the “mother of the Fatherland”, “protector of the cities”…and he manifested his disposition to honor the Holy Queen and “satisfy the desires of the royal family and of the Spanish provinces”. A pompous pontifical ceremony was announced for 25th May 1625, and Isabel’s canonization was celebrated in Coimbra on the same day with an even more elaborate ceremony.
But investigators have discovered problems with this canonization. Although Urban had decreed that the bull of canonization should be written, not in his time, or in that of the eleven popes who followed him, was such a document ever written. The Pope received the gift, he pretended to perform the ceremony, but he never wrote the official act of the canonization. Whether this lapse was the result of bureaucratic inefficiency or the Pope’s guilty conscience, we will never know.
It was only in the eighteenth century that Bento XIV finally had the document prepared. But even then there were errors in the Bull—strange contradictions like: while in one part it declares that the canonization took place on 24th June 1626, in another it says that it occurred on the same day and month, but in 1625. Thus the Holy Queen ended up by not being either officially beatified or canonized.
Another aspect of this saint is that she is confused with her aunt, Saint Isabel of Hungary. In order to write the miracles, penitence and good works of the Portuguese queen, the chroniclers, or their informers, did little more than adapt what the Golden Legend says about the Hungarian queen. The coincidences are interesting, like the testament of the husband, the fact that she administered her own property, the journey to Santiago de Compostela (her aunt went to the Holy Land), the establishment of infirmaries, the healing of the sick, the penitence, etc. Some miracles included in her process of canonization are the same as those in the Golden Legend about Isabel of Hungary; i.e., curing only one eye of a blind man, the pleasant aroma that her body gave off after four days, and the miracle of the roses changing into bread or coins.
The association with Queen Esther is very clear . (…) The Holy Queen is the reincarnation of the figure of Queen Esther, as conceived by the Marrano community of Coimbra during the Renaissance. The main reason for this association would have been the policy of King Dinis and his son Afonso IV in favor of the Jews, who were protected and called “my Jews”. The Jews would have attributed this policy to the influence of Queen Isabel. There was a parallel with Queen Esther, a young exiled Jewess who, after entering the harem of the king of Persia, and becoming queen, set up an operation of charm and a palace coup, radically changing the fortune of the Jewish people, who went from the threat of total extermination to a position of absolute predominance, and even of tyranny over their former persecutors.
The cult of the Holy Queen allowed the crypto-Jews to conceal that of Queen Esther, since the two figures were similar in many ways. It is also possible that many believed, in the context of the Messianic myths of the time, that Queen Esther had been reborn in Portugal. The Coimbra operation for her canonization, led by Antonio Homen, that took the lives of so many witnesses and promoters, was very efficient for the glory of Isabel and a disaster for the people of Esther. (. . .)
What can be concluded about the personality, real or mythical, of Isabel of Aragon, is that there is some hidden secret. What is brought to light does not deny that she must have participated in one way or another in some religious, mystical, or philosophical movement of her time, especially since she descended from the aristocracy of Aragon (in which the king and the Jews were connected through common interests). It was King Jaime, her father, who proposed the theological discussion between Dominicans and Jews in the public tribunal, presided over by the king himself (like the famous debate in Barcelona in 1263).
Be as it may, Isabel must have been as Catholic as any older woman of her time. The obstacles encountered for her canonization—at the time when putting princes on altars was as common as giving out titles of nobility in the nineteenth century—make us suspect that, if Isabel was a saint, the process in which she became one, was not done in a very Christian way.