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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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VIII. Picturing the Pilgrimage: Images and Narrative Cycles in Cologne


The group identity, emphasized in liturgical sources as well as by the display of reliquary images, informs much of the imagery associated with the cult of the Holy Virgins, both narrative and iconic. The earliest surviving image of the group, contained in a mid-twelfth-century manuscript from Kloster Zwiefalten, reinforces the notion of a nameless mass of Holy Virgins.1 The page illustrates the month of October with the principal saints associ- ated with the diocese of Cologne. Beneath a portrayal of the martyrdom of St. Gereon and his companions is a highly abstracted representation of the martyrdom of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Surrounded by two rings, containing a total of forty-nine heads, the figure of St. Ursula is being struck by the arrow that kills her. The inscription identifying the scene reads “Ursula regina cum XI milibus virginibus.” The representa- tion of her companions as a series of very similarly-depicted disembodied heads minimizes any sense of individuality among the company. These heads literally cluster around the centralizing body of Ursula. The artist has created an image of group identity as the nameless heads acquire their identity only through their collective association with their leader. In this aspect, this image is not unique, but is prescient in its foreshadowing later visualizations of the group. A late thirteenth-century Cistercian missal from France marks the feast of the Undecim milium virginum with a historiated initial depicting the Eleven Thousand Virgins as a cluster of nearly identical female saints.2 Like the massing of stylistically unified...

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