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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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IX. A Peregrinatious Tale: Images and Narrative Cycles beyond the Rhineland


As the Holy Virgins traveled on their pilgrimage to martyrdom, and as their relics were subsequently disseminated across the face of Europe, so too images and pictorial cycles continued to spring up in locales far from the Virgins’ cultic home. Frequently the impetus to the creation of images was the presence of relics, which would be thereby contextualized within the broader parameters of the cult and manifest on a local level. We have already seen how a series of thirteenth-century reliquary busts in the Lim- ousin was fashioned so as to present a carefully-constructed sense of like- ness, which effectively asserted the group cohesion of the saints. It is also noteworthy that these reliquaries do not strive to visually align themselves with the Cologne examples, but rather make the point about visual unity in their own, distinctive local dialect. The same can be argued for the splendid reliquary bust of St. Ursula in the treasury of the cathedral of Basel. This reliquary provides a fascinating case study of the ways in which the group cohesion of the Eleven Thousand Virgins served as an underlining influ- ence in the fashioning of reliquaries, and even in the shifting of identities of relics of the group. In the year 1254 Berchtold von Pfirft, Bishop of Basel, acquired relics of the Eleven Thousand Virgins from the Church of the Maccabees in Cologne. In the cathedral records, these relics are described as “caput integ- rum cum duobus brachiis et aliis reliquiis sanctorum undecim milium virginum...

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