In the vast and prestigious repertoire of images originating from the story of St Ursula there is one which is humbler than the others but which is especially moving. It is a collection of busts, perhaps reliquaries, kept in the diocesan museum of Álava, the main town of a Basque province in northern Spain. It is the work of an anonymous 16th-century sculptor and depicts the saint with four companions.
For each of them the image is composed of a very stylized partial bust and a head, which by contrast is portrayed with surprising realism: we really seem to see the faces of those five girls as if we had them before us, with their long, carefully combed hair and the expression of those who trust in life, images of female youth which challenge time, as if they entrusted to eternity an undying hope. In the many ways in which art has told the story of this young woman an element of the serenity in her face and a certain pride in female courage are never missing. But what is this courage? And with what other aspects is it interwoven in the saint’s legendary history? And where was her powerful and inspiring legend born?
A small heap of bones, poor human remains worked on by time: this is all that gives a basis to the core of historical truth at the root of the sequence of events concerning Ursula which has been passed down to us. The bones were found in Cologne where, in the church dedicated to her, an inscription commemorates the martyrdom of some virgins who “spilled their blood for the name of Christ”. The events of the building and successive rebuilding of the basilica, together with ancient documents and testimonies of her cult (already present between the eighth and ninth centuries) have made it possible to connect those human remains with Diocletian’s persecution at about the beginning of the fourth century. But it was from the 10th century, through a stratification of successive information, that the history of their guide, young Ursula, took shape and never ceased to be enriched, demanding imagination and devotion.
Here then, against the background of a remote epoque in a northern setting, a young girl received a proposal of marriage. She was not just any girl but the daughter of a king, a British sovereign who sought through this marriage to form alliances with a young foreign prince. Ursula knew well that neither her assent nor her refusal were a simple private matter: they could lead alternatively to peace or to war for her people. Although she was reluctant she withdrew. She was very young but it was not her age that bothered her nor was the figure of her future husband displeasing to her. It was something else: the fact that the young monarch for whom she was intended was a pagan. Ursula was Christian: even though she had not consecrated her virginity to God (as some versions of her history say) she could not agree to be joined in marriage with a man who did not share her faith. And here a first surprising element occurred: Ursula did not refuse the marriage, but asked that it be delayed. She may have been allowing her future husband time to convert or may have been intimating that she herself might change her ideas. What is certain is that she took time. But what does this “to take time” mean?
It means not letting oneself be swept away by the course of time itself, it means inserting into the linear time of history a different time, a time of meditation allied with sacred time, which has the power to throw human events and desires into disorder. In this case, sacred time burst in during the night. The girl had a dream in which an angel appeared to her who showed her the way. In the saint’s iconography the angel has with him the palms of martyrdom, but before the martyrdom occurred many other things were to happen. One above all: Ursula was to take her life in hand, she would not be passive, she would not give in but nor would she limit herself to standing back. Instead she got going, in an unexpected and daring way. Even though she was only a woman from whom obedience was expected, indeed a very young girl and respectful of her father, she wanted to defend her faith, that faith for which, as St Paul wrote to the Galatians “There is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ”. The Christian faith disenfranchised her from female submission.
The night, the dream and the angel did not announce a supernatural event but rather a decision: in spite of her age and her condition as a woman and a daughter, Ursula was to give proof of tenacious independence and was able to transmit this independence to her companions – girls like her who were to sustain her in her decision not to accept the marriage and to go on pilgrimage to Rome. From this her journey was born: the boat that would take her to distant shores was at the same time the Church and her church, namely the church which her decision itself was building, and at the same time the distant church of England, which joined the centre of Christianity through the unexpected journey to Rome of a defenceless girl, followed by other defenceless and courageous girls like her.
Were there really 11,000 of these girls? Perhaps this figure, as some people maintain, is merely an error in the interpretation of the inscription in Cologne. However it should be clearly understood that 11,000, this figure so inconceivable and hence fantastic, is no more than an amplification of the determination of Ursula and of her group of followers, fit to enter a legend in which female power is of such importance. Whether they were 11 or fantastically 11,000, what is certain is that Ursula and her followers were a female community on the move, capable of combining action with faith. It is not surprising that in 1535 Angela Merici founded in Brescia in Ursula’s name the order of Ursulines, dedicated to teaching little girls, that is, to doing something which is the exact opposite of passivity and unawareness.
The saint and her companions travelled to Cologne then to Rome, where authoritatively they made themselves heard by the pontiff. Then they returned to Cologne where they were slaughtered by pagan barbarians. Yet in all the works that portray them, from the reliquary painted at the end of the 15th century by Hans Memling, to the marvellous cycle of the same period by Carpaccio, the youthful firmness stands out with which this heroine challenged the unknown, the sea, her aggressors and death. At the same time the protective solidarity which she showed for her companions is equally prominent (Memling represents her according to the iconography of Our Lady of Mercy with her companions lovingly gathered beneath her mantle).
But even in Caravaggio’s sombre oil painting depicting the martyrdom of the saint, pierced by the arrow with which – the legend has it – Attila shot her, it is the assassin himself and his ruffians who show dismay and fear. Instead Ursula looks with composed acceptance at the wound which marks the end of her journey. In the devotion that surrounds her the adventurous traveller soon became the protectress of another journey: the travel agent, so to speak, of the journey which leads to paradise.
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 22, 2020
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