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