Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Opening of Saint Hedwig's Tomb; The Translation of Saint Hedwig's Relics
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This is an image from the Hedwig Codex, also known to scholars as the Vita Beatae Hedwigis. This particular image depicts the removal of Saint Hedwig’s head from its original resting place in her tomb, and its subsequent translation to a nearby cathedral. The Hedwig Codex originated in Silesia, Poland, where Saint Hedwig herself lived and died. Although the individuals who composed the saint’s lives remained unidentified, scholars know that the codex was commissioned in 1353 by one of Hedwig’s descendants, Duke Ludwig I of Liegnitz and Brieg and his wife Agnes.

    The earliest information known about Saint Hedwig comes from the decree of canonization written by Pope Clement IV. It is entitled the Legenda maior de beata Hedwigi and details aspects of Hedwig’s life and her saintly activities. Saint Hedwig was born to parents from two of the most prominent families in Europe. As a young woman, she married Henry I, eventual High Duke of all of Poland, and bore him seven children. Lady Hedwig was known for having helped her husband throughout his reign. She encouraged him to be merciful towards prisoners, and to give charity to widows, orphans, and other impoverished people. In the year 1229, Henry I was captured by his predecessor Konrad I, and Duchess Hedwig helped to negotiate his release. After Henry I’s death in 1238, Hedwig moved to a Cistercian cloister at Trebnitz, which she had founded and where her husband was buried. At the cloister, Hedwig lived an ascetic lifestyle. Here, she survived the Mongol invasion of Silesia, only to die of a sickness two years later in 1243. One of Hedwig’s many grandchildren, Wladislaus of Silesia, who became the archbishop of Salzburg worked to make sure that Hedwig was memorialized with a saintly cult.

    Saints were very important in the religious experience of medieval Christians. Saints were expected to help people overcome their sins in order to ascend to heaven after they died. Saints also gave Christians help and security over the course of their lives, providing protection from accidents and assisting people in their daily pursuits. A focal points in the practice of devotion to the saints were relics. Relics are either items associated with a given saint, or parts of their bodies. In early Christianity in order to venerate saints, shrines were often erected over their tombs. This allowed Christians to pray directly to the saints before the practice of removing body parts from their tombs became popular. Each saint was seen as responsible for performing certain kinds of miracles. The collection and circulation of saintly body parts became a commonplace practice in the medieval period. This was particularly important because every new church had to contain at least one relic. This facilitated the travel of pilgrims throughout Europe. In the church, the saints’ bones often were soaked in water that was then offered to weary pilgrims to drink. Additionally, this same water was often used in the healing of the sick or injured. Although relics of female saints were always in the minority, many late medieval reliquary busts used for the display of relics represented female saints rather than their male counterparts. This suggests that women were regarded as carriers of religious virtues in a way analogous to the Virgin Mary who carried her child, Jesus Christ.

  • Source: J. Paul Getty Museum
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Body Hagiography Hedwig of Silesia, Saint Relics
  • Geographic Area: Eastern Europe
  • Century: 14
  • Date: 1353
  • Related Work: Digitized images from the Vita Beatae Hedwigis.
    Scene preceding the translation of Hedwig's relics, Nuns Praying over the Body of Saint Hedwig; The Burial of Saint Hedwig.
    Following illustration: The Sick, the Leprous, and the Lame Praying at Saint Hedwig's Tomb; People Coming to Visit Saint Hedwig's Tomb.
  • Current Location: Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig XI 7, Fol. 137v
  • Original Location: Silesia, Poland
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Tempera colors; Colored washes; Ink
  • Donor: Layman and laywoman; Ludwig and Agnés, Duke and Duchess of Legnica and Brieg
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 34.1/24.8/
  • Inscription: "Hic cum magna reuerentia et deuotione reliquie sancta[e] hedwigis tolluntur de sepulchro et per uenerabiles patres dominum wladizlaum salzburgensem archiepiscopum et ducem slesie. nycolaum abbatem Lubensem. et mauricium abbatem camenacensem uenerabiliter reportantur. presentibus Conrado duce glogouiensi. cum filiis suis et sorore agnete et aliis multis nobilibus personis Tunc accederunt omnia miranda que in hoc libro continentur." [Here with great reverence and devotion the relics of Saint Hedwig are taken from the tomb and carried by the venerable fathers Ladislas, archbishop of Salzburg and duke of Silesia, Nicholas, abbot of Leobus, and Maurice, abbot of Kaminiec, in the presence of Conrad, duke of Glogau, with his sons and [his?] sister Agnes, and many other noble persons. Then all the wonders happened which are contained in this book.]
  • Related Resources: Alvis, Robert E. "The Modern Lives of a Medieval Saint:  The Cult of St. Hedwig in Twentieth-Century Germany." German Studies Review 36, 1 (2013): 1-20;
    Head, Thomas.  "The Cult of the Saints and the Relics". The Orb: Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies;
    Shortell, Ellen M. "Dismembering Saint Quentin: Gothic Architecture and the Display of Relics."  Gesta 36, 1 (1997): 32-47;
    The Long Formation of the Region (c. 1000 - 1526)." Edited by Przemyslaw Wiszewski.  Vol. 1 in the series Cuius Regio? Ideological and Territorial Cohesion of the Historical Region of Silesia. Publishing House.eBooki.com.pl, 2013.