Catholic · History

Blessed Delphina and Saint Elzéar

Blessed Delphina, in the style of the Anjou Bible delphina rose | paper and cloth
Blessed Delphina (1283-1358), artistically inspired by the style and decorations of the Anjou Bible (1340). She is extending her hand to her husband (imagine him in a similar frame on the right). *it’s a halo, not an alien hat*

Today, I am going to give you half an answer to that elusive question, “Why is your blog called ‘Delphina Rose?’ That’s not your name. Is it about a dolphin? Do you love roses an excessive amount? Or is it just totally random?”

Answering the first question first, no, it’s not about a dolphin. Dolphins are funny, and I much prefer them to killer whales (thank you, Discovery Channel, for all those gruesome seal massacre bloodbath programs), but they hold little sway over my heart. Do I love roses an excessive amount?  Of course, but I don’t have any of my own to brag about. Is it totally random? Not at all!

“Delphina” is for Blessed Delphina. She and her husband Saint Elzéar are one of the few married couples who are both canonized/beatified in the Roman Catholic Church. On their joint feast day last year, September 26th, a blurb about Delphina caught my attention for three reasons: first, she’s a princess saint! Second, she is the patroness of brides and wives—a princess bride saint! Third, she is a princess bride saint who took a vow of virginity!

Uh…hold on a sec. The saintly patroness of brides, happily married for 23 years to an even more saintly husband, made a vow of celibacy and never consummated her marriage? Yup. You read that right. (I think this falls into the category of “Weird Catholic Stuff” along with incorruptible saints.) And here’s how the virginal marriage of Blessed Delphina happened.

Delphina was born into the nobility of Provence in 1283, but she was raised by her aunt, an abbess at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sorbo (of which place or monastery I can find no information. It might possibly be this one which is really great, regardless.).

At the wish of Robert of Anjou (important dude, later King of Naples), she was betrothed to Elzéar of Sabran, a count two years younger than herself*. They were married in 1300, when Delphina was 17 and Elzéar just 15. When Delphina informed Elzéar on the wedding night that she had taken a vow of virginity, he reacted just like any teenage boy would: he took a vow of virginity too!

[As a side note, this is completely non-standard behavior in a Catholic marriage. The Church teaches that the physical union of the spouses is a great good, and the union of their physical bodies helps their souls grow closer to each other and to God. Undertaking a celibate marriage is extremely rare, and requires special permission. If one does, in fact, enter into a celibate marriage, and one of the partners decides later that they would rather have a normal marriage, they are required to consummate it. A modern example of a celibate marriage turned fruitful is that of the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux. They spent their first year of marriage as brother and sister, and then consummated the marriage on the advice of their spiritual director, and went on to have nine children.]

Elzéar and Delphina maintained their noble household with piles of servants, but they were so holy that their servants all became holier too (it’s catching). Elzéar wrote a long list of Holiness Rules to help everybody out. In 1308, however, Elzéar’s father died, and Elzéar was forced to go claim the county of Ariano in the kingdom of Naples (southern Italy). I am not sure why a French guy was inheriting stuff in Italy at all, but what can you say. European politics. The people in Ariano apparently felt it was stupid for a French guy to inherit their land too, but Elzéar won them over with his supreme meekness. Puffed up with meek success, he returned to Provence, where he and Delphina joined the Third Order of St. Francis and took public vows of celibacy together in church. (“Not to have and never to hold”—so romantic!)

King Robert from the Anjou Bible, folio 3v  delphina rose | paper and cloth
King Robert, wearing Byzantine-style robes, is surrounded by virtues wearing solid-color gowns with short tippets. They also have strange halos. From the Anjou Bible, folio 3v (1340).

In the meantime, Robert of Anjou had become King of Naples (1309). He summoned Elzéar and Delphina to join him at his new court in Naples, and enlisted Elzéar’s help in a bunch of different tasks—he made him the governor of his son, Duke Charles of Calabria, whom Elzear reformed into a stalwart young man (although Charles wasted all his hard work by dying young and never getting to rule); they kicked Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII’s butt right out of Italy (1313); and finally Elzéar was knighted. The whole Neapolitan court made a fuss about how cool he was—a soldier, a courtier, a married man, a virgin, and a saint all at once! Oh the medieval multitasking wonder!

And what was our poor Delphina doing all this time? She was hanging out with Robert’s wife, Queen Sancia of Majorca, making everyone holier by osmosis.

Saint Elzear Curing the Lepers
Saint Elzéar Curing the Lepers (carved 1373), Apt, France; the Walters Museum. Let’s all just take a moment to remember how much we do not want leprosy.

For a while, Elzéar continued doing great things, like feeding the poor, healing lepers (see snazzy sculpture above), and being made “Advocate of the Poor,” for which office he had a large purple velvet bag, which he carried around the city, distributing money and collecting requests from the poor. However, all good things must come to an end, and unfortunately Elzéar came to his end when he got sick on a diplomatic mission in 1323 and died.

Delphina remained as the companion of Queen Sancia until King Robert’s death in 1343, and retired to the Poor Clare convent in Santa Chiara with her in 1344. When Sancia died the next year, Delphina finally returned to her husband’s home in Ansois, Provence, where she lived as a recluse for the rest of her life. She died on November 26th 1358, age 75, and is buried in the Franciscan Church in Apt next to Elzéar.

Although they had such an unusual marital relationship, Elzéar and Delphina are role models for a happy marriage because they so explicitly demonstrated the oneness of souls united in God that is the true goal of every marriage. The fact that they had such a close and holy relationship without the benefit of physical union only makes their example more amazing.

*Notes on dates: The most information I could find on Elzéar and Delphina on the web seems to have originated in The Lives of the Fathers, Marytrs, and Other Principal Saints Volume II by Butler Alban; and this was, in fact, my primary source for juicy details. However, the author states on page 506 that Elzéar  was born in 1295 (not 1285 as other sources), making him simply too young to have done all of his supposed deeds. If he had been born in 1295, he was married at 5, giving away piles of money at 10, a major commander of King Robert at 18, the tutor of Duke Charles of Calabria (born 1298, only three years his junior), and died at 28. I could be wrong, but that timeline struck me as super implausible, especially when compared with the certified historical timeline of what King Robert was up to.

 

Extra reading for the super big brained academic people with big brains:

https://www.academia.edu/6161863/_Franciscan_Joachimism_at_the_Court_of_Naples_1309-1345_A_New_Appraisal_

http://www.academia.edu/5406047/Fleck_Patronage_Art_and_the_Anjou_Bible_in_Angevin_Naples_1266-1350_

 

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