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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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VII. The Protective Mantle: The Holy Virgins as Patron Saints of Cologne


The omnipresence of the Holy Virgins within Cologne, their relics being found in every church within the walls of the city, underscores their stat- ure as patrons and protectors of one of the most populous and important cities of medieval Europe.1 From its establishment in the ninth century, the feast of the “undecim milium virginum” on October 21 was one of the major feasts celebrated in Cologne during the liturgical year.2 In 1305, Archbishop Heinrich von Virneburg fixed October 21 as the officially required feast day for the Holy Virgins in the diocese of Cologne.3 The celebration of the feast became a part of civic ceremony and ritual well into the late Middle Ages and beyond. From at least 1512 onward it was custom- ary on the vigil of this feast for the City Fathers to light eleven candles in the choir of the Church of the Eleven Thousand Virgins.4 Stefan Lochner’s Altarpiece of the City Patron Saints is probably the most well-known pictorial example of the Eleven Thousand Virgins as civic patrons of Cologne.5 Commissioned for the Ratskapelle in Cologne, 1 For the history of medieval Cologne, see: Ennen and Eckertz, 1860–79; Hermann Keussen, Topographie der Stadt Köln im Mittelalter, 2 vols., Bonn: Hanstein, 1918 (reprinted: Düsseldorf: Droste, 1986); Manfred Groten, Köln im 13. Jahrhundert. Gesellschaftlicher Wandle und Verfassungsgeschichte, Cologne: Böhlau, 1995; Paul Strait, Cologne in the Twelfth Century, Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1974. 2 Zilliken, 1910, esp. pp. 108–9. 3 Zehnder,...

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