Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe

Article excerpt

St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe. By Scott B. Montgomery. (Bern: Peter Lang. 2010. Pp. xvi, 207. $60.95 paperback. ISBN 978-3-039-1 1852-6.)

As Scott Montgomery argues, the cult of St. Ursula and her companion martyrs deserves attention as the most widespread in Europe. Given the treasure trove of relics discovered in a cemetery under the medieval walls of Cologne, identified and disseminated from the early-twelfth century as the relics of the saint's cohort (both male and female), such ubiquity is not surprising. Montgomery's task, however, is not primarily that of discussing the "bones," but rather, as an art historian, "to explore . . . collective imaging, investigating how text, image and relic display . . . fashion [ed] a total cult environment that expressed the power, presence and cohesion of [the] company of the Holy Virgins of Cologne" (p. 3). Excepting the excellent 1997 study by Joan Holladay in Studies in Iconography, most work on Ursula is in German; so this book, with its extensive bibliography, is a welcome addition for English readers.

Montgomery examines the visual manifestations of the cult from the fifthcentury stone plaque of the "Clematius" inscription to the seventeenth-century Golden Chamber of Sankt Ursula, the storehouse of the church's some 120 reliquary busts, 670 additional skulls, and the many other bones that line the walls- arranged to spell out prayers of invocation. Medieval Cologne, with its busts, narrative paintings, and altarpieces, is clearly the primary focus of the author's attention, but discussion makes substantial forays to Basel (a silver-gilt reliquary head), Bruges (Memling's painted shrine), and Renaissance Venice (Carpaccio 's frescoes). Unfortunately for the reader, some pieces under discussion are not illustrated, and too often the small black-and-white images do not always reveal the details mentioned in the text.

A discussion of the early foundation of the cult in the second chapter is summary. The treatment of the Clematius inscription is minimal (what is its archaeological status? …

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