Saint Ursula: The Iconography

In Cologne the natal day Not the birthday but the day they died and were "born again" into Heaven of Saints Ursula and Companions. They achieved martyrdom when the Huns killed them for being Christians constant in their virginity. Several of their bodies were secreted in Cologne. – Roman Martyrology for October 21

In the St. Ursula story that reached the Golden Legend, the saint was a British princess who went to Rome on pilgrimage with 11,000 other virgins, numerous bishops, and Pope Ciriacus. On the return voyage (image) they stopped at Cologne, where besieging Huns killed them all (image). According to the Legend the others were beheaded but Ursula was shot with an arrow by the Hun prince, whom she had spurned. Thus an arrow is one of her attributes, as at right. As a British princess she is usually shown with a crown, as at right, and with a banner of St. George, as in the second and third pictures at right.

The story originated in a local tradition in Cologne that some number of Christian virgins had been martyred by the Romans in the early years of the city. The earliest testimony to these virgins is a stone inscription from the fourth century, now in the choir of the Church of St. Ursula in Cologne. It speaks only of an unspecified number of virgin martyrs "from the East." But in the ninth century a number of liturgical sources mention these Colognese virgins, reporting their number variously as five, eight, or eleven. Scholars are uncertain as to how the number eleven was chosen and then multiplied by a thousand.1

Medieval portraits of St. Ursula are often found among other saints – in an altarpiece (example), or a predella (example, or in a triptych, as in the second picture at right.

Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University

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Manuscript illustration from the 15th century (See description page)


Allegreto Nuzi, St. Ursula, 1365 (See description page)


Niccolò di Pietro, 14th/15th century (See description page)

DATES

  • The Legend says that some date the martyrdom of Ursula and the virgins to 238 but that the year 452 is more likely.
  • In 1969 the Roman Catholic church suppressed St. Ursula's October 21 feast day.

HAGIOGRAPHY

NOTES

1 Butler IV, 166.