Performing the Passion in Thirteenth-Century Liège: Elisabeth of Spalbeek and the Relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins

Kimberley Aura Smith, University of Colorado Boulder


This thesis presents a thorough study of Elisabeth of Spalbeek (c. 1246-1304), a beguine mystic who was popular in thirteenth-century Liège. Elisabeth was known for her daily performances of Christ’s Passion, which began with her reenactment of Christ’s capture in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ended with her own “crucifixion” and symbolic burial in the sepulcher. These performances were lifelike and violent affairs, and frequently included Elisabeth’s miraculous reception of the stigmata. While several small-scale studies of Elisabeth’s performances have emerged in recent decades, none have considered her spirituality in light of her involvement with the relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. I argue that an examination of her relationship with the Virgins’ relics offers an explanation for her unusual expression of spirituality and serves to situate her performances in a spiritual climate that called for a more public, material manifestation of devotion.

Elisabeth’s active participation in the Virgins’ relic network and her influence over the relics granted her the spiritual authority to publicly perform Christ’s Passion, suggesting a connection between devotion to the Virgins’ relics and the rise of material spirituality, or the expression of devotion through the use of physical objects and bodies. The sheer abundance of the Virgins’ relics, as well as their overt materiality and their emphasis on community, encouraged the development of a special relationship between Virgins and female mystics in which physical proximity to a Virgin’s relic enhanced the mystic’s connection to the divine.

Using Philip of Clairvaux’s vita of Elisabeth’s life, as well as various documents that track the movement of the Virgins’ relics, I demonstrate that while Elisabeth’s performances were certainly a unique expression of spirituality, they were also part of a much more widespread trend of rendering the divine more understandable, relevant, and humanly tangible.