Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Mediæval "Cult" of Saint Ursula

The Middle Ages was responsible for the creation of an enormous cult around surrounding saints, their [purported] remains or relics, as well as the proliferation of reliquaries and shrines, as well as beautifully ornate artwork which included elaborate altarpieces, diptychs, triptychs and numerous paintings.  Part of this veneration arose the ready availability of these supposed relics in the wake of the Crusades and the arrival of the Crusaders in Jerusalem and the Holy Land; the home of Christ and of his disciples.  This was coupled with the publication of “The Golden Legend”, or Legenda aurea, by Jacobus de Voragine, a hagiography with mostly apocryphal tales from the lives of saints.  This work was to prove to be one of the most popular and widely read books in the Middle Ages.  Among the plentiful and fanciful stories of the saints found in the pages is the one telling of the life and martyrdom of St Ursula.

Ursula was to prove to be one of the most popular mediæval saints who was not featured in a Bible story nor had been a religious leader.  Part of her cult of popularity arose in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, and she later featured in various works of art, including a painting by Vittore Carpaccio, that still can be seen in Venice to this day.  Indeed her name became very popular amongst members of the royal family in Mediæval and Renaissance England, who had previously employed mostly Biblical names such as Mary, Anna, and Margaret when naming their daughters. 

The cult of Ursula was widespread, and prolific.  Dedicated to her memory and, without question, one of the finest and most beautiful mediæval reliquaries is that of the Shrine of Saint Ursula; painted and decorated by the Flemish Primitive artist Hans Memling and painted in commemoration of her life and martyrdom, as well as that of ten thousand virgins, at Cologne.  The shrine itself was fashioned from oak, and has been painted with oils.  It measures 87cm x 33 cm x 91 cm, and has been specially constructed to look like a chapel in design.  The shrine itself is made up of various different components; a gilded frame, the walls and roof, and the panels on the sides.  Intriguingly the reliquary was not deigned to be housed in neither a cathedral nor church, but in a hospital; it seems that this was an object of veneration to celebrate the life of Saint Ursula and to draw attention to the splendour of the panels rather than to any relic that may have originally been intended to be contained within.  The shrine itself was designed to be similar to that of a chapel in the Gothic style, with pointed arches, and corner spires.  The roof has been designed to appear as tall as the walls of the “chapel”.  Furthermore, Memling has created the illusion by using tromp-l’oeil traceries around the paintings, suggesting the appearance of three dimensional accenting the roof.
The 15th century Shrine of Saint Ursula, painted by Hans Memling.

The paintings on the panels are unsigned, however it is generally accepted that they are the work of Memling.  It appears that the panels were initially sketched in black chalk, then painted in oils, and were subsequently attached to the shrine itself.  It appears that the shrine was commissioned to replace an earlier shrine at the St John’s Hospital in Bruges, in 1489.  The shrine it was to replace is till located in the hospital to this day.  This commission was made by two nuns, Jasosa van Dudzeele and Anna van den Moortele, both of whom are depicted on the shrine itself, kneeling before the Virgin Mary.  However the shrine itself does not appear to have been commissioned nor design to house a particular relic, nor was it on permanent display, just on the feast day of St Ursula, the 21st of October each year.  The shrine is designed to be much like a chapel in nature, complete with a saddle roof and the panels representing the stained glass windows. 

The imagery that adorns the panels is taken from the legends surrounding St. Ursula as recounted in “The Golden Legend.”  The first of the panels shows the arrival of Ursula’s arrival in Cologne.  Together with Ursula are eleven virgins, as opposed to the eleven-thousand suggested.  As well as depicting Ursula and her entourage, the painting shows a number of buildings in the background, representative of the city which the women have just arrived in.  Among the buildings is painted a house with two large windows.  In these windows are premonitions of the impending fate of Ursula; one showing a likeness of an angel in one window and Ursula herself in another window.  These likenesses represent the story of a visitation made to Ursula, telling her that upon her return to Cologne, she would face a martyr’s death.
The second panel shows the arrival of Ursula and the pilgrims at Basle in Switzerland.  The Swiss Alps can be glimpsed in the background of the cityscape behind the ship and its entourage.  Upon their arrival the pilgrims were to make their way to Rome on foot from Basle, as shown in background once, again a premonition of events to come.  This panel is followed by Ursula’s arrival and audience with the Pope, whom she kneels in front of to receive his blessing.  The buildings, although not Italian in nature, are given a foreign feel to convey that the pilgrims are in Rome.  The panel also shows Ursula’s conversion to Christianity as well as that of her husband, depicted in red.  Other figures are also shown wearing red, including the Pope, Cyriacus, once again drawing attention to their impending martyrdom.  In the background, Ursula is shown to be taking communion whilst her husband, Etherius, is seen to be confessing and other pilgrims are seeing being converted and baptized.  The fourth panel shows the fated groups return to Basle to board the ships to take them back to Cologne, and their destiny with martyrdom. 

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, in the final panel,
as painted by Hans Memling.

The final panels are the most tragic of the story, showing the martyrdom of Ursula together with the Pope, the virgins and her husband.  Upon their arrival at Cologne once more, Ursula and her group are met by the pagan Huns, called by the Roman rulers to kill the Christians.  The Huns are shown killing the pilgrims, starting with the stabbing of Etherius in Ursula’s arms.  The other pilgrims are then dispatched with arrows from the Huns bows.  The final panel shows Ursula being prepared to be shot with an arrow, leading to her martyrdom.  This scene of execution was due to her spurning the advances of Julius, leader of the Huns, who had hoped to make her his wife, after being captivated by her beauty. 

According to the legends that surround her, Ursula is recorded as being a British saint.  The legend tells that of Ursula being a British princess sent by her father, the Christian king Dionotus of Dunmonia (a kingdom of south-west England) to marry a Pagan Governor Conan Meriadoc, of Amorica.  Ursula went on her voyage across the sea accompanied by 11,000 virgins as handmaidens.  However, upon arrival Ursula and her handmaidens decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome instead.  Upon converting to Christianity, she and her handmaids returned together with the Pope.  Upon arrival in Cologne, her handmaids were all beheaded by the pagan Huns seeking to quash the Christian faith from spreading further.  However, Julius, the leader of the Huns endeavoured to win the hand of the beautiful Ursula. She, however,  refused to return his affection.  Therefore, in anger, he shot for dead for this rebuttal. 
These events are alleged to have taken place in c. 383 AD.   An inscription in Cologne dating from the fourth or fifth century appears to make reference to this massacre.  However, no early Mediæval historians such as Jerome and Gregory of Tours make any reference to Ursula nor the massacre of eleven thousand virgins.  None of the early hagiographers make reference to her existence and martyrdom either so it is questionable as to whether or not Ursula as a historical personality did actually exist.
The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula at Cologne by the anonymous Master of the Small Passion. c. 15th Century.

The ecclesiastical historian Cesare Baronius wrote of the martyrdom of Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins in his Annales Ecclesiatici, which he penned during the sixteenth century.  However, the Annals have been largely disproved and discredited by historians as being mostly fictional in nature.  The story by Jacobus de Voragine is considered to be largely apocryphal in nature.  Therefore, historians have endeavoured with considerable difficulty to find evidence as to the veracity of the life and death of Ursula and of the virgin martyrs.  In Cologne itself, there survives an inscription on a stone located in the choir of the church of St. Ursula which makes reference to the martyrdom of the virgins.  The stone and inscription is purported to date from approximately the fifth century AD and comprises of ten lines recounting events in Latin.  However, the veracity of the inscription has been drawn into question with some historians stating that although a significant part of it indeed does date from the fifth century , i.e. the first eight lines as far as the word “RESTITVIT”, and that the remainder of the lines on it in fact date from the ninth. 

The inscription itself reads:


However, the inscription is ambiguous and vague, being subject to interpretation.  The text itself relates to Clematius, a high ranking knight or senator, who, having been in the Orient, received visions and dreams telling him to visit Cologne and to build a church there, the site of the martyrdom of Christian virgins.  The text however does not refer to when the virgins were killed, nor to their number, and is extremely vague in nature.  However, if indeed the inscription does date to the fourth century,  it is the earliest surviving reference to the virgin martyrs until the ninth century, some five hundred years afterwards.  In the ninth century there are written works relating to the persecution and slaughter of Christian virgins in Cologne, said to have occurred during the reign of Diocletian.  The number of virgins again is not given, however depending on the source, the number varies from just several virgins to a significantly higher number of several thousand.   

A later version of the story surfaces in the eleventh century history of Geoffrey of Monmouth, best remembered for his history of British kings such as Cymbeline, Leah, and most famously King Arthur.  Geoffrey tells how the Pagan Breton Prince, Coranus, having been placed on the throme by the Roman usurper, Maximus,  sent a request to Britain for maidens to marry his men and for the hand of a British princess to form an alliance between the two nations.  When the fleet of ships carrying the princess and her entourage of maidens was crossing the sea, a strong wind blew her towards Germany, where, upon arrival, they decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome instead of heading to Amorica [modern day Brittany].  However Geoffrey’s work is considered to be somewhat questionable in nature by historians, and of a somewhat dubious chronology.  Therefore it cannot be certain where in the time scale of British history do the events which are relayed in his somewhat dubiously titled  "History of the Kings of Britain" do events actually fall.

Despite the continued questioning by scholars as to the veracity of the story/legend, it cannot be denied that Ursula was an important personality in Mediæval Europe and her cult was widespread.  Numerous relics relating to the episode surrounding her death lead to a proliferation of objects out of Cologne including numerous relics of the virgins, as well as one of the axes responsible for the decapitation of the virgins being revered in the Church of St. Mary Axe in the City of London.  In addition to some truly beautiful works of art, the order of the Ursulines was established in the early sixteenth century, an order still devoted to the education of young women in the Christian world.

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