Chronicle of a Marketed Martyrdom
The legend of St Ursula was a Middle Age “bestseller”. This circle of paintings also narrated it to people who were unable to read the written word. Three pictures each are devoted to the saint’s childhood, and to her courting by Aetherius, the son of a pagan prince. There follow six paintings showing Ursula and her companions on their pilgrimage from England to Rome. The last three paintings depict the pious group’s return journey and their slaughter by the Huns in Cologne.
An inscription dating from late antiquity in the Romanesque church of St Ursula in Cologne bears witness to the slaughter of virgins in the vicinity. In the tenth century the number of eleven thousand began to be named. Speculations about such a large band of martyrs then received sustenance from excavations performed on the “Field of Ursula”, an enormous Roman burial site that had once stood outside the city gates. The most intense and systematic excavations were conducted during the construction of Cologne’s new city wall from 1106 on. Over the following centuries, bones allegedly from Ursula and her companion were taken to the furthest corners of Europe, from Riga to Madrid, leading in 1393 to an export ban. In the most cases this transportation of “translation”, as it is termed, of relics was part of the politics of the church, the religious orders and the state. Exhibiting relics was also used as a kind of “fundraising” ploy for activities such as building work at the cloisters.
Our cycle of paintings once adorned the inside lids of relic caskets, presumably in the Benedictine convent to the Machabees in Cologne. Especially on feast days such as that of St Ursula (21 October), the contents of the trunks would be exhibited to streams of passing pilgrims and the legend narrated with the help of the pictures inside the lids – much like a guided tour in a museum today ...