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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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IV. Ecclesia sanctarum undecim milium virginum: The Church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and its Decoration


IV. Ecclesia sanctarum undecim milium virginum : The Church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and its Decoration Despite the extensive dissemination and presence of their relics in Cologne and elsewhere, the core of the cult of the Holy Virgins remained the mother- house and titular church of the cult – the ecclesia sanctarum undecim milium virginum (Church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins) [Figs. 2 and 3]. Since the sixteenth-century, it has been known as the Church of St. Ursula.1 The Clematius Inscription provides the first source regarding a church on the site, dedicated to Holy Virgins, which was constructed with funds provided by Clematius as a votive offering, presumably in the fifth century. The ninth- century Vita of St. Kunibert (died after 648) reports that the saint made a visit “in sanctarum virginum basilica,” during which he was guided by a dove to rediscover the tomb of Ursula.2 While providing clear evidence of the existence of the church in the ninth century, this mention suggests that the basilica was dedicated to the Holy Virgins much earlier, as cor- roborated by the Clematius Inscription. A document of 867, listing parishes in Cologne, refers to a “monasterium beatarum virginum.”3 The basilica, 1 Regarding the history of the church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, see Albert Gereon Stein, “Das Kloster und spätere adelige Damenstift an der Kirche der heiligen 11,000 Jungfrauen zu Köln,” Annalen des historischen Vereins für den Niederrhein, 31 (1877), 45–111; Gertrude Wegener, Geschichte des Stiftes St....

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