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St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne

Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe

Scott B. Montgomery

The cult of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgin Martyrs of Cologne was the most widespread relic cult in medieval Europe. The sheer abundance of relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, which allowed for the display of immense collections, shaped the notion of corporate cohesion that characterized the cult. Though the primacy of St. Ursula as the leader of this holy band was established by the tenth century, she was conceived as the head of a corporate body. Innumerable inventories and liturgical texts attest to the fact that this cult was commemorated and referenced as a collective mass – Undecim millium virginum. This group identity informed, and was formulated by, the presentation of their relics, as well as much of the imagery associated with this cult. This book explores the visual, textual, performative, and perceptual aspects of this phenomenon, with particular emphasis on painting and sculpture in late medieval Cologne. Examining the ways in which both texts and images worked as vestments, garbing the true core of relics which formed the body of the cult, the book examines the cult from the core outward, seeking to understand hagiographic texts and images in terms of their role in articulating relic cults.

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Gratia Undecima Mille – Acknowledgements

Extract

A number of years ago, in the darkest hours of a cold winter’s night, I found myself stuck in the middle of Cologne with nowhere to go and nowhere safe to stay. There was, as they say, no room at the inn. After wandering in vain for several hours in search of a hotel or safe haven, I found myself drawn to what seemed (at the time) to be the only plausible recourse – the tiny platz on the north side of town that is sheltered by the entrance to the church of St. Ursula. There, on the doorstep of this exquisite, but all-too-often ignored basilica, I passed the night – cold and sleepless, but safe and oddly comforted. Upon weathering the chilly night with nothing lost but peaceful dreams, I awaited the opening of the church portal so that I could offer my thanks for a safe night’s passage. By way of a votive offering, the amount that I would have expected to pay for a hotel, found its way into the tiny collections box in the narthex. This only seemed fair and proper, as I had half-expected to be robbed or worse during the night. It has since been many times that I have returned to this church and city and always I have been treated graciously and courteously by its denizens – both mortal and saintly. As this study is essentially dedicated to the St. Ursula and her Eleven Thousand Virgin Companions and their cult’s visual expression in Cologne, it...

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