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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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V. The Face of Sanctity: Reliquary Busts of the Eleven Thousand Virgins


The importance of relics and the cult of saints in medieval piety cannot be overstated. In many ways, the cult of relics was the most widespread, vibrant, and accessible form of piety in the Middle Ages. The saints were not only perceived to be present in their relics, but also very much alive, cognizant, and interactive. In emulation of Christ, saints triumphed over death – enjoying the status of dual citizenship – in Heaven and on earth. Like the belief in the complete presence of Christ in each and every con- secrated Eucharistic wafer, the complete presence of the saint was under- stood to imbue each of her/his relics, following the notion of pars pro toto (the part embodies the whole). Therefore, the saint was believed to be truly present in each and every relic fragment. As relics provided the tangible manifestation of the saints’ continuing power and presence on earth, they established a much-desired link between Heaven and earth. God was felt to be almost unattainably distant – Heaven being remote from terrestrially-bound mortals. Saints were so central to medieval thought and practice precisely because they bridged the terrifying gap between Heaven and earth, serving as intercessors between humans and God. Hence, the saints provided much sought-after succor, both physical and mental, through miraculous healing, civic protection, and the formula- tion of corporate identity. These varied and powerful societal and personal demands required explicit concentration and visualization to make the sources of this holy authority more comprehensible, more approachable, and more tangibly...

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