Emperors, Kingdoms, Territories: Multiple Versions of the Pietas Austriaca?

By Ducreux, Marie-Elizabeth | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Emperors, Kingdoms, Territories: Multiple Versions of the Pietas Austriaca?


Ducreux, Marie-Elizabeth, The Catholic Historical Review


The author proposes to enlarge the model of the Pietas Austriaca formulated by Anna Coreth by including material from non-Austrian core lands of the Habsburg monarchy. Using sources mainly from Austria and the empire, Coreth revealed the principal components of the dynastic devotion, linking the mission given by God to the founding emperor, Rudolph of Habsburg. Yet, in Hungary and Bohemia, seventeenth-century narratives on the origin and models of dynastic piety were not always in line with the Viennese model. Some parallel symbolic competition in representations of Habsburg piety culminated in an invention of traditions distinct from the Austrian model. The author then distinguishes between holy patrons and patron saints in the Habsburg monarchy, mostly in the seventeenth century.

Keywords: Bohemia; holy rulers; piety; political symbolism; sacral kingship

Decentralizing Pietas Austriaca?

In 1959, the Austrian historian and later director of the Viennese Haus- Hof-und Staatsarchiv (House, State and Court Archives) Anna Coreth (1915-2008) published her most famous opus, the landmark Pietas Austriaca.1 This short but brilliant book described how seventeenth-century Austrian Habsburg sovereigns succeeded in changing what was initially presented as dynastic and personal devotion into public religious ritual, giving their peoples and lands a new common ideological horizon and inextricably binding reasons of state with theological doctrine. Coreth wrote: "These conceptions were based on an all-inclusive worldview, itself dependant on a certain cultural framework, that connected secular and spiritual realms."2

Coreth approached her topic through four aspects: worship of the Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, confidence in Christ's Holy Cross, and veneration of selected saints. These have been viewed as special manifestations of Habsburg piety and the fundamentals of their sovereign rule, from Ferdinand II (1619-37) to the mid-eighteenth century and particularly during the Counter Reformation.3 All of these aspects disclosed the central component of the Habsburgs' scheme of theological politics: the process of salvation stressing Christ's human presence on earth through incarnation and its outcome; the Eucharist; and the Sacrifice of the Cross, in which the prince embodies the mediation between this world and the heavenly one and thus represents God on earth. Yet from the introduction of her book, Coreth made clear that the whole system of the Pietas Austriaca rested on the sovereign's virtues. These virtues were inherited from ancestors, especially from Rudolph I (1218-91), as Coreth noted. "The same piety became a holy, binding heritage, which had to be faithfully followed and constantly renewed as the destiny of the house depended upon it," she wrote.4

Recent research on the political devotional comportment of the Habsburg's Spanish branch, on "the Power of the Kings" and also on theological politics in general make it increasingly evident that the themes favored by the Habsburgs were not unique to them in all their features.5 Coreth addressed this aspect briefly.6 Like the Habsburgs, other Catholic European rulers were convinced of a divine presence on earth and thus believed in the righteousness of acts inspired by God. Obviously, ties between religion and politics have been inherent to the power of rulers from antiquity through the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and in some cases even beyond.7 However, the Pietas Austriaca constituted a particular form of Habsburg piety built on the four main types of devotion stressed by Coreth. What was also specific about Austrian Habsburg piety was the identification of its components with a special mission to rule the empire, which God had given the House of Austria in medieval times.8 Because of its intrinsic contradictions, Habsburg piety- together with virtue, a collection of devotions, and an ambition to rule- was an essential element in forming an ideological identity, providing a political impetus for reinforcing Catholicism, and even for issuing laws. …

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