Saturday, July 24, 2010

St. Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins Sounds Better Than St. Ursula and Her Virgin Named "Eleven Thousand"

Lat. S. Ursula. Ital, Santa Orsola. Fr. Sainte Ursule.
Patroness of young girls, particularly school girls, and of all women who devote themselves especially to the care and education of their own sex.
Attributes in art: Arrow, Virgins, Ship, Crown, Ermine lined cloak, Palm of Martyrdom, Pilgrim’s staff with a white banner and red cross (Christian symbol of Victory), Dove.
Feast Day: Oct 21.

The legend of St. Ursula ranks as the one of the best examples of mistranslation in history. One of the Virgin Patronesses and Martyrs, she is historically one of the most revered saints in the Christian pantheon. She is shown in both historical and devotional pictures with several standard attributes. She always wears a crown because she was a princess. She holds an arrow, as it was the implement of her martyrdom, as well as the martyrs' palm. Often she is shown with a ship, referring to her journey to Rome, or a Dove, referring to the pigeon who indicated her gravesite to St. Cunibert during Mass, which is entirely another story and a big hoo-hah in itself. She wears an ermine lined robe as befits a virgin princess. Pure white ermine lines royal cloaks for a reason which is also pertinent here. Ermine, according to Aelian, upon falling into mud would become stiff and die ,* thus symbolizing the Death before Dishonor credo of Kings and insuring certain extinction for themselves as eventually everyone would want to wear these symbols of innocence and moral purity.** Coincidentally, the ermine is featured on the coat of arms of Brittany, her realm. She sometimes, especially in sculpture, holds her cloak open to let the virgins hiding beneath get a breath of air.***

There is some confusion over the number of virgins with whom Ursula was murdered, however. Tradition holds that there were 11,000, and an extravagant story has evolved to embellish this overcalculation, but in fact, there were probably no more than eleven, maybe only one.

According to Mrs. Anna Jameson in Volume II of her Sacred and Legendary Art, published in 1857:

"The first mention of the definite number of eleven thousand virgins was by Herbert, bishop of Cologne, in 922, and is said to be founded on a mistake of the abbreviation XI. M. V., i.e. eleven martyr virgins, for “undecimilla virginis,” eleven thousand virgins. Others reduce the eleven thousand to one; they say that a virgin named Undecimilla perished with St. Ursula, which gave rise to the mistake.
All these attempts to reduce the legend to a fact leave us, however, in the same predicament: we must accept it in the popular form in which it has been handed down to us, and which, from the multiplicity of representations in Germany and Italy, has assumed a high degree of importance."

So whether we actually accept that there were 11,000 virgins, 11 virgins, one virgin named Eleven Thousand (really!?), or perhaps no virgins at all, for there are those who maintain that St. Ursula never actually existed, we can still enjoy the story of St. Ursula, the spirit of protection she and her crew have provided for women over many centuries, and in particular the rather interesting and almost perverse artwork that her legend has inspired.

Though no one is certain of the date of St. Ursula’s massacre, we do know that it took place in Cologne, Germany and the Huns were responsible, as usual. However, before we get to the martyrdom and the Huns, we have a few chapters of introduction.

Ursula was born a princess of Brittany. Her father was King Theonotus and his mother a Sicilian princess Daria. Both were Christians and they brought up their beautiful daughter in the True Faith. Daria died when Ursula was about 15, leaving the daughter to play the role of hostess at Court. Precociously brilliant and brave, and always gloriously beautiful, she shone at court and her reputation as a rich, sophisticated, knockout brain child spread far and wide.

Across the Channel, over in pagan Britain, there lived a Crown Prince named Conon who was as comely and chivalrous as Ursula was brilliant and beautiful: a match made in heaven (no pun intended).

So Conon proposed (by Royal emissary, of course) and was surprised to learn that Ursula had already made a vow of chastity, dedicating herself to the service of Christ. Not knowing how to answer the proposal in light of this, the King allowed his daughter to address her suitor’s ambassadors personally.

In a speech filed with platitudes and sweetness, Ursula accepted Conon’s proposal with three conditions:

1) Conon shall provide ten virgins of the noblest blood to serve Ursula as her ladies and companions and for each of these a thousand attendant noble virgins, plus an extra thousand for Ursula herself (all the ladies must be or become Christians).
2) Conon shall wait 3 years before marrying Ursula so that she and her 11,000 attendants can make the grand tour of the Holy Shrines and visit the relics of the holy martyrs and saints.
3) Conon must become a Christian and become baptized, as Ursula cannot marry one who does not share her faith. ****

So, much to Ursula’s surprise, Conon agreed! He came to Brittany, met her father, and bid her and her traveling virgins adieu. Some versions of the legend have him staying in Brittany to help rule the kingdom while others have him traveling with Ursula in divine chastity. Either way, she heads out for Cologne, her first stop, where she has a dream that upon her return to that city, she and all her virgins will be massacred and be martyrs for Christ. She told the girls the news and they were thrilled, so they got on with the journey looking forward most especially to the return to Cologne!

They stopped in Basel, Switzerland and some angels helped guide them over the Alps to Rome, their ultimate destination. As fate would have it, Conon missed his betrothed terribly and so set out for Rome by a different route, arriving on the very same day: a happy reunion for all. He met the Pope, changed his name to Etherus to celebrate his new faith, and upon hearing what awaited the virgins upon their return to Cologne, got all hepped up himself that he might share the crown of martyrdom with some very giddy girls. There was a giant pool party where the pope baptized everyone before the ill-omened trip home.

Meanwhile, some wicked pagans who happened to command the Imperial troops in Germany caught wind of all this and thought having that many Christians cavorting through their domains might corrupt and convert too many of their subjects, so they sent a message ahead to the Huns, who happened to be besieging Cologne at the time, that Ursula and her entourage must die.

So the celibate royal couple, the girls (still 11,000, remember), the pope, several bishops and lots of other important personages set out from Rome and upon entering Cologne were set upon by the Huns. Prince Etherus was one of the first to go. Then went the pope, bishops and virgins, egged on by Ursula’s humility and faith. Slashing, beheading and shooting all over the place with the virgins offering little resistance and St. Ursula offering only succor.

The Huns were powerless to touch Ursula, however, because of her charms, so they took her to their leader, Attila, who naturally wanted to make her his bride. Calling him “Son of Satan” or some other pet name, she refused him. So he pulled out his bow and arrow and shot her dead, fulfilling her dream of martyrdom and making quite a mess.****

Since Ursula suffered her martyrdom in Cologne, she is one of the city’s three patron saints, the other two being the We Three Kings of Orient Are, who share one slot, and whose relics are in the Cathedral, and St. Gereon who alone occupies the other and has his own church.

As patron of the city, Ursula is well represented in churches throughout the city, notably in the altarpiece and a nave sculpture in the Dom, as well as the entire cycle of paintings of her legend in the Basilica of St. Ursula, painted over many years by many hands, and featured above. In addition, her basilica contains her tomb and a very special room called the Golden Chamber, (which I have nicknamed the Golden Chamber of Horrors)which houses the remains of the 11,000 virgins, arranged in rococo splendor with many gold reliquary heads and bones spelling out messages to the Virgin Mary on the walls. The relics were discovered in 1106 during an excavation of the city walls. “Divine visions” provided updates to the legend to explain the number of remains and the presence of males among the victims. ("Divine visions.")*****

By the 13th century, her legend had evolved into the fabulous fable we have handed down to us today. Despite her standing as the patron saint of school girls and the city of Cologne, St. Ursula’s feast day was removed from the Catholic Church’s general calendar in 1970 – basically decommissioning her. Below, also from St. Ursula's Basilica is a 17th century (Rubens?) Martyrdom of St. Ursula, a version which captures all the drama of that final bloody moment and hangs just over her tomb. The archer on the right releases the bow as our pallid saint swoons among the dismbodied heads and bloodied corpses of her heaven bound virgins, the rejected pagan smug in his shining armor and eternal damnation.

The tour book from St. Ursula’s Basilica skims over this special room, the parish attendant is none too eager to open it or visitors, few tour guides even mention it, and it is currently undergoing renovation. However, you haven’t seen Cologne until you’ve seen The Golden Chamber of St. Ursula and her 1 to 11,000 virgins, if for no other reason than to ponder:
If there were not, in fact, 11,000 virgins with St. Ursula, then whose bones are these? And if they are not from the 11,000 virgins, are they still saints? What if they are the bones of very bad people? And what if they’re not even virgins? The questions boggle the mind: one of Catholicism’s most bizarre legends and one of the most macabre rooms in all of Christendom.

* Guy de Tervarent: Attributs et symboles dans l'art profane, 1450-1600, Geneva, 1959
** Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant: A Dictionary of Symbols, Penguin Books, 1996
*** James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, New York, 1979
****Mrs. Anna Jameson: Sacred and Legendary Art, Vol II, Houghton Mifflin, 1857
*****St. Ursula Cologne Schnell Art Guide #2749, First English Edition, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

Surprise! Cache of Caillebottes Found in Cologne!

In my June 7 post, I wrote about Gustave Caillebotte, which was basically an opportunity for me to rant about one of my favorites. Then during a recent trip to the Wallraf-Richardz Museum in Cologne, Germany, I was excited to see no less than nine Caillebotte paintings, more than I have seen in any single collection, except the Musee D’Orsay or a retrospective exhibition, such as the one held by the Brooklyn Museum last year.

In fact, a couple of these may have been included in that show, particularly Drying Clothes at the Seine, (1892) which is a symphony of diagonal, slashing brushwork and Sailing Boat at the Seine near Argenteuil (1893), but as my copy of the exhibition catalogue is languishing in my sister’s garage since my move to Europe I can’t confirm my memory.

Classically Caillebotte are the forced receding angles and sharp geometry of the fields in The Plain of Gennevilliers, Yellow Fields, (1884) and Hills Near Columbes (1884), and even in the kooky little Boats and Shed on the Banks of the Seine (1891) with its shed about to slip into the river.

The way the river and fields recede away from the viewer in these paintings is Caillebotte resolving some of the same spatial issues he mastered in his larger, earlier landscapes like Rainy Day – Paris, at The Art Institute of Chicago®, and Le Pont de l’Europe at the Petit Palais in Geneva (both featured in my previous post).

But right up there is the little canvas, Garden in Trouville (1882): such a jumble of color and lively brushwork that the painter has almost left the realm of impressionism, heading dangerously close to abstracting the summer garden - paving the way for artists of the next generation to do just that.

These paintings are not included in the online collection (though it claims to be comprehensive) and are not in the online images on the museum’s website, so I thought I’d give my fellow Caillebotte fans a little something special by posting these myself, and if you're in Cologne, don't miss them. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Baker of Eeklo at Muiderslot Castle

So I struck out from Amsterdam the other day on my bike to Muiderslot Castle, about a 45 minute bike ride to the east. Little did I know what entertaining artworks I would encounter.
First of all, Muiderslot is a lovely little miniature castle, a true medieval relic complete with interesting history and all. Designed by a Count Floris V in the 1200’s, the castle numbers among its residents the very famous 17th century poet, P. C. Hooft. It has parapets, a moat, a drawbridge and all the requisite castle stuff: some grand rooms and armaments, staircases and boiling oil. Of course now it is surrounded by a harbor and industry, so it seems s little less intimidating, remote and feudal than it once did, I’m sure. Now it’s just quaint and adorable, set amid its gardens overlooking the zee.

Inside the grand rooms are the still lifes, portraits and landscapes you would expect to find in a restored castle which is open to the public, but there is one painting which came as a total surprise and delight to me. From the late 1500’s, by Cornelius van Dalem and Jan van Wechelen (neither of whom I had ever heard of either), the painting is entitled “The Baker of Eeklo” and illustrates the regrettably obscure legend of said baker.

It seems that if your head is acting badly, looks poorly, or for whatever reason you are not pleased with it, you can visit the Baker of Eeklo and he will guide you through the process of re-baking your head! It’s all there in the painting, just look, mon petit chou!

They remove the offending head, replace it temporarily with a cabbage (yes, a cabbage), re-knead and re-shape the head, apply a new finish, coat with egg yolk for luster, just like a hot cross bun, pop it in the oven and Voila! New head! There are a few possible side effects with the process, however, so before you decide to try it, be aware that your head could potentially come out half-baked, leaving you, well, half-baked, or if your head were left in too long, you could become a hothead, and if it fell like a soufflé, you could be a misfire! Moral: Be happy with the head you have, it could come out worse next time.

As you see, contrary to modern hygienic standards, all of the Baker’s Assistants work shirtless, probably because of the heat of the oven, but perhaps also because theirs is messy work. On the far right of the canvas, there is a woman turning away as one of the Assistants (carefully) chops off her husband’s head. Just before them is a basket of cabbages from which the Assistant will choose a temporary replacement for the gentleman’s head while it undergoes the re-baking process. Notice the husband’s and all the Cabbage-heads’ hands are clasped in prayer…for success, I guess.

In the center foreground, you see three people whose heads are being baked waiting patiently, cabbages substituting for their heads, and a basket of three heads ready to be re-attached. On the far left of the canvas, there is another Assistant reattaching the head to the man whose cabbage lies at his own feet. Apparently, that Assistant is working left to right and will reattach the three heads in the basket to the three Cabbage-heads in the waiting area.

In the background are two other scenes which complete the story. On the left you see three Assistants working feverishly by the fire: one is kneading a head, one painting on a new finish, and the third placing a head in the oven on a long spatula as if it were a pizza.

On the right is my favorite detail. The Baker himself is standing almost in the center of the canvas in a bright red robe speaking with a woman in a black cape who is bringing in a disembodied head. My theory is that it’s her husband’s head and that she (or he) is displeased with the Baker’s results and is returning the defective merchandise. Likewise is a man in a black cape with red leggings hiding a head under his cloak, presumably another return - hothead, half-baked or freak. The baker makes no guarantees.

The perspective is a little woobly, as you might expect from a painting from the late 1500’s, the faces are a little lifeless, the clothes a little stiff and the cabbages a little idealized, but there is a naïveté and charm to it that makes it absolutely delightful and well worth the trip to Muiderslot.
If you are lucky enough to ride a bike from Amsterdam to Muidersport you will pass another wonderful gallery, this one in the great outdoors. Under the A-1 highway, as it crosses the Amsterdam-Rijn Kanal, you cannot miss the great graffiti on the bridge supports. As they are more self explanatory than the legend of the Baker of Eeklo, I will leave you to ponder the images. I’m sure I will share more of the local graffiti another time. Tot Ziens!