Castilian School, Saint Ursula, mid-16th century

Carved female bust with gold draped clothing and hole in center of chest

Castilian School (Spanish, mid-16th century)

Saint Ursula

mid-16th century

Polychromed and gilded wood

27 1/2 x 20 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (70 x 52 x 29 cm)

Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas. Museum purchase, Meadows Museum Acquisition Fund, MM.92.01

Hear a reading of the object label (1:17 minutes)

Object Label

According to legend, Ursula was a fifth-century British princess who avoided an arranged marriage to a pagan prince by embarking on a three-year pilgrimage, accompanied by eleven thousand fellow virgins of noble birth. Toward the end of her travels, she and all her companions were reputedly slain by the pagan Huns in the city of Cologne, thus making them martyrs of their faith. In the twelfth century, the discovery of a mass burial believed to be that of Ursula and her companions in Cologne encouraged renewed veneration of the saint and her entourage, which lasted well into the Renaissance era. The many relics excavated from the burial site were often housed in figural containers such as this one, which was believed to focus the worshipper’s prayers and provide visual access to the relic itself via a small opening.

The style of this late sixteenth-century bust reflects the Renaissance manner of the Burgundian-born Spanish sculptor Juan de Juní (c. 1507–1577). Although this work is not thought to have been carved by Juní himself, the bust shares that artist’s soft, elegant modeling, Italianate manner, and the elaborate polychromy, best seen in the brocaded scarf, where golden sgraffito designs are incised in multicolored layers of paint.

Listen to Sophia Salinas, 2020­–2021 AAMD Undergraduate Intern in Museum Education at the Meadows Museum discuss this work (2:46 minutes)

Audio Transcript

Castilian School (Spanish, mid-16th century), Saint Ursula, mid-16th century

by Sophia Salinas, 2020­–2021 AAMD Undergraduate Intern in Museum Education at the Meadows Museum

Here we see a lifelike wooden polychrome sculpture that would have once served as a reliquary of the Christian saint, Ursula. This means that at one point, this hollow sculpture with a window would have been a container for saintly remains, called relics. While we are not viewing this sculpture as would pilgrims, or travelers journeying to a sacred place, like them, the sculpture invites us to imagine the Saint’s own travels by reading the Latin inscription that wraps around the base: “accompany me to the place where Ursula was on the banks of the water.” This refers to the 5th-century Saint’s passage across land and sea, which you can learn more about in the object’s label.

After the discovery of a mass burial thought to contain Saint Ursula and her many followers in Cologne, Italy in 1106 CE, the city began to export reliquaries starting as early as 1113 CE. These reliquaries were received enthusiastically, as bones from Cologne were believed to not only possess the blessing of Saint Ursula but of all eleven thousand of her followers. Reliquaries of Saint Usuala and her followers became ubiquitous across Europe, from Hungary to Finland, in both churches and monasteries. Large concentrations also formed around areas such as northern France that had established Ursuline orders, comprised of nuns dedicated to the education of girls. A record from 1307 even discusses Archbishop Heinrich von Virneburg gifting two skulls from the mass burial to Donato Nicoli, a representative of the Peruzzi Bank in Cologne. Decrees by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 also commanded that relics were not to be displayed outside of reliquaries under any circumstances, ensuring that all exported remains would necessitate the creation of yet another reliquary and causing hundreds of Ursuline reliquaries to be produced in workshops throughout Europe. As a result, Saint Ursula gained extensive appeal largely due to her presence in reliquaries such as this one.

The popularity of Saint Ursula fluctuated over time as did the details of her martyrdom, with the original story initially intending her to have eleven thousand followers and the number substantially increasing to 11,000 after an inscription was misinterpreted. While her slaying at the hands of the Huns was later proved as entirely fictional, and Saint Ursula was eventually removed from the Catholic calendar in the 20th century due to these inconsistencies, reliquaries such as this one demonstrate the cultural and artistic influence of Saint Ursula and her legend.