Feast Day: October 21
Patronage: British Virgin Islands, Cologne, Germany, University of Paris, Educators, Girls, Drapers, Orphans, Archers
Invoked for a Holy Death, the education of girls and women, against shipwrecks on rivers and for a happy marriage.
Symbol: Arrows, Cloak, Ship, Crown, Pilgrim’s Staff with white flag and red cross.
“For this most chaste and golden army
crossed the sea with maidenly, flowing hair.
O who has ever heard such great things?” – From “Chants for the Feast of Saint Ursula” by Hildegarde von Bingen, 12th Century
The story of Saint Ursula and her virgin army of 11,000 maidens was a major influence on the creative world of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For hundreds of years, the tales of Ursula and her army of 11,000 Virgins made a fascinating subject for artists of all disciplines. The early Middle Ages are filled with accounts of mystics communicating with the souls of the young maidens. Images of thousands of girls sailing around in their own ships captured the popular imagination. Their tragic and daring tale of martyrdom inspired one of the finest pieces of liturgical music ever written, “Chants for the Feast of Saint Ursula” and the artists Caravaggio, Giovanni Bellini and Claude Lorrain have all celebrated her as a famous subject. Almost every country of Europe has a famous visual rendition of Ursula’s story created by some of the greatest painters in history. The Reliquary of Saint Ursula can be found in Bruges and is said to contain an arm of the saint. It is adorned with six miniatures by Hans Memling. The Scuola di San’ Orsola in Venice commissioned the artist Carpaccio to create his greatest work “The Dream of Saint Ursula” , a series of paintings based on the life of the saint that tell her story in an almost cinematic way.
There are many different versions of this story, the first known one appearing in the eighth century when the local Cult of Saint Ursula was strong. The authenticity of her legend is based on ten lines carved in the fifth century, now found in the church of Saint Ursula at Cologne, Germany. The words were written by a senator named Clematius who attests that due to a spiritual vision, he is dedicating a church on the grounds of an older basilica built to honor the virgins of Cologne martyred on that site on October 21.
The first written accounts of her martyrdom come a century later and nearly five hundred years after her death. They depict Ursula as the Christian daughter of a British king who in order to avoid a war, agrees to an arranged marriage to a pagan prince. On the advice of an angel received in a dream, Ursula requested that she travel three years visiting the holy shrines of the Christians along with ten noblewomen who would each be accompanied by one thousand virgin companions. So great was Ursula’s beauty, that the neighboring king and his son readily agreed to her request. They helped amass the 11,000 virgins from kingdoms all over the known world. Men being unwelcome on such a voyage, Ursula and her virgins were trained in sailing their 11 massive ships which first sailed to Cologne, Germany and then on to Basle where the women proceeded on foot through the Alps down to Rome. Gradually, these accompanying maidens converted from their pagan faiths to Christianity, and they were given a joyous reception by the Pope and the Christian community. On their return voyage, they stopped again at Cologne which had been overrun by the Huns. The invaders hated the prospect of so many future Christian mothers taking over the continent, and the virgins were massacred. Ursula was spared for her beauty, and the leader of the Huns demanded that she marry him. When she refused, he shot her in the chest with an arrow. After her death, an army of 11,000 angels chased the Huns from Cologne and the grateful population converted to Christianity and erected a basilica in honor of Ursula and her Virgins.
It is thought the very early stories of the virgin martyrs actually only included eleven young women, Ursula, being one of them. As the tale was recorded in Latin, the number 11 was transposed into 11,000, making the original story more fantastic with each recounting of it. In mythology, Urschel is also the name of the Teutonic moon goddess who welcomed the souls of dead maidens. It is thought that the history of this early virgin martyr could have been confused and combined with the legend of this goddess who also sailed up the Rhine river with a boatload of virginal companions.
It is in Ursula’s influence on a woman who lived 1,000 years after her own death that we feel her impact in modern times. In the 16th century, the Italian Saint Angela Merici was inspired by her own personal visions of Saint Ursula and her Virgins to found an order of nuns dedicated to educating young women. This was considered a revolutionary concept at a time where women were scarcely allowed to leave their homes. These were the first schools established for girls and young women in Europe, later coming to the Americas in the 17th Century. Today, Ursuline Academies and Colleges seriously follow their mandate to educate young women throughout the world and this order of teaching nuns maintains Saint Ursula as their patron.
Though her cult is most popular in Germany and Eastern Europe, Saint Ursula can be found on the flag of the British Virgin Islands where her Feast Day, October 21 is a national holiday. The islands were discovered by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. He named a larger island Saint Ursula and the surrounding ones, Once Mil Virgines (The Eleven Thousand Virgins). Eventually, this name was shortened to the Virgin Islands which is what they are known as today. Since Ursula was a British princess, she is depicted with a crown and the flag she carries is the banner of Saint George, the Christian flag of England. She is frequently sheltering young girls under a cloak, for this reason she is the patron saint of drapers. Because her fiancee was so agreeable to granting her request, she is invoked for happy marriages. She was martyred by an arrow, so she is the patron saint of archers. Saint Ursula is most associated with the education and empowerment of young girls.
Prayer to Saint Ursula
By the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, accept, O God,
The prayers offered to you through the intercession of Saint Ursula,
Faithful imitator of the virtues of the Heart of your Son,
And grant us the favors we are confidently asking for. Amen.
Saint Ursula, pray for us!
Excerpted from the book: “Saints: Ancient and Modern” by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua.