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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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VI. Golden Visions: Altarpieces with Relics


The miracle of the singing heads of Esrom on Christmas Eve emphati- cally illustrates the corporate nature of this cult of the undecim milium virginum, as they sing as one choir. The massing of relics and the strategic use of figural reliquaries fashioned a cultic display that brought this to life within the space of the church. Frequently, the arrangement of reliquary figures and relics was intended to engage the viewer, involving her/him in a dynamic spatial (and even temporal) interaction with the saints, as we have seen in the Church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins in Cologne. Another conceptually similar approach is illustrated by two important altarpieces in and near Cologne that utilize relics and reliquary figures in the creation of a dynamic sacral environment in which the audience is both situated and actively involved. As in the church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins in Cologne, religious women (and men) are invited to follow the model of the Holy Virgins and literally join their sacred company. The first is the so-called Clarenaltar – the altarpiece fashioned for the high altar of the church of the Poor-Clares of Sankt Clara am Römerturm in Cologne. The second is the Marienstatt Altarpiece, made for the high altar of the Cistercian abbey of Marienstatt. These two central examples of the fourteenth-century development of relic altars in the Rhineland reveal how relics, and their attendant reliquary figures, were able to stress liturgical and super-liturgical ideas in a demonstrable manner.1 They also reveal 1 There...

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