Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria-Hungary, washes the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday

March 7, 2011

In 1850, Franz Joseph participated for the first time as emperor in the second of the traditional Habsburg expressions of dynastic piety: the Holy Thursday foot-washing ceremony, part of the four-day court observance of Easter. The master of the staff and the court prelates chose twelve poor elderly men, transported them to the Hofburg, and positioned them in the ceremonial hall on a raised dais. There, before an invited audience observing the scene from tribunes, the emperor served the men a symbolic meal and archdukes cleared the dishes. As a priest read aloud in Latin the words of the New Testament (John 13:5), “And he began to wash the feet of the disciples,” Franz Joseph knelt and, without rising from his knees, washed the feet of the twelve old men in imitation of Christ. Finally, the emperor placed a bag of twenty silver coins around the necks of each before the men were led away and returned to their homes in imperial coaches.

The Emperor washing the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday

The Emperor washing the feet of the poor on Holy Thursday

Daniel L. Unowsky, The Pomp and Politics of Patriotism: Imperial Celebrations in Habsburg Austria 1848-1916 (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2005), p. 29.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 55

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