The Life and Works of Vittorio Carpaccio

By Pompeo Molmenti; Gustav Ludwig et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THE LEGEND OF S. URSULA AND CARPACCIO'S PAINTINGS

THE better to follow the Cycle of paintings in the Scuola dedicated to S. Ursula, we should first of all consider with some detail the Legend from which Carpaccio drew his inspiration.

The cult of S. Ursula and her companions has its origin at Cologne.

Tradition relates that about the year 385 a legion of eleven thousand virgins professing the faith of Christ, with the Holy Ursula at their head, and of twenty thousand Christians led by Eterio-Conon, coming from the island of Britain were massacred by the Germans before the walls of Cologne.1 In that same fourth century, as appears from an ancient inscription, there arose at the foot of the Greesberg upon the spot where the martyrs were buried the Basilica of S. Ursula; but in 451 during an invasion of the Huns this church was razed to the ground and a great multitude of the citizens of Cologne were killed. Hence, when at the beginning of the sixth century a new church was built and among the ruins of the old one a great quantity of bones were found,-- doubtless the remains of the slaughter of 451,--popular tradition, which creates its legends with small regard for chronology, merged the two massacres at Cologne into one. From this confusion of the two incidents, that of the Huns and the murder of S. Ursula and her companions one hundred years earlier, the Legend of the Martyrdom of the eleven thousand virgins assumed its traditional form.

The earliest of the legends dates from the tenth century, and

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1
Maugenre. Sainte Ursule et ses ligions, Lille, Paris, 1904. It is not unimportant to record that other hagiographers reduce the immense Ursulan legion to one single virgin companion in martyrdom, called Undecimilla, from which arose the Legend of the eleven thousand (undicimila) martyrs.

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