Hans Memling (Seligenstadt, around 1436 – Bruges 1494), Saint Ursula protecting her virgin companions, 1489, oil on wood, 45.5 cm x 18 cm, Bruges, Memlingmuseum.
21 October, Memory of Saint Ursula and companions.
The history of St. Ursula is widely spread in Christian Europe and several legendary elements have been added to it. Her story is said to have taken place between the 4th and 5th centuries AD. She was probably the victim of the persecution of Diocletian or perhaps that of Attila, King of the Huns, who was quite harsh on Christians. Let us try to highlight some essential details of her life.
The daughter of a king of Britain, Ursula was a beautiful woman, secretly consecrated to God. A pagan king named Aetherius asked her to marry him. The marriage would have prevented a war, so it became a political matter: her father was almost forced to give his consent. Nevertheless, the young woman made some conditions: a three-year delay, the promise from the suitor that he would convert to Christianity and the planning of a joint pilgrimage to Rome. After three years, Ursula and ten noble young women (therefore eleven people, who would later become eleven thousand, due to a transcription error of the Roman number XI, which was overwritten with a sign indicating the thousands) left their home, set sail from their shores and reached Cologne by sea and then by river.
After a brief stay in the German city, the eleven young women continued sailing on the Rhine to Basel. From Switzerland, these praying pilgrims reached Rome on foot, where Ursula was received by the Pope. In front of the Holy Father appeared also the promised husband who, in the meantime, had converted to Christianity. In that same year, the virgins returned to Cologne following the same route. In this ancient and important city, Ursula and the others were tortured and put to death by arrows because of their evident Christian faith.
The small panel we present is part of the precious decoration that the great Flemish painter Hans Memling made on a reliquary of the Saint. On the two long sides, there are 6 scenes from the life of the Saint (from her arrival in Cologne to her martyrdom), whereas on the two short sides, there is a Virgin and Child with the Sisters who commissioned the work and this representation of St. Ursula. The saint is portrayed as a Virgin of Mercy: she is covering and protecting ten young women (her traveling companions and martyrs) with her cloak. She is looking us in the eyes and is very elegant in her dress, with the jewel that surrounds her head. She is holding the arrow in her right hand to remind everyone of her martyrdom, the testimony of her faith until her death.
The history of St Ursula, as well as the delicate representation of her life made by Hans Memling, reminds us that over the centuries many Christians have been faithful to Jesus to the point of death, to the point of deserving the palm of martyrdom and becoming examples for future generations. In this painting that we are presenting, Ursula does not have a halo, but she is in the middle of a beautiful Gothic chapel, meaning that she has already achieved the dignity of saints.