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Reliquary bust of a companion of Saint Ursula

Exhibition curator, James Robinson (video from the British Museum), bust from the Metropolitan Museum of Art), c. 1520-30.

This beautiful woman is most likely intended to represent one of the companions of St Ursula. According to legend St Ursula was an English princess who decided to go on a holy pilgrimage before her marriage. The legend also states that she took with her 11,000 virgin companions as company for the journey.

The troop of 11,000 virgins travelled to Cologne, Basle and Rome and made their way home back through Cologne. It was here that they met with a group of pagan Huns, whose leader wanted to marry Ursula. Ursula being already engaged and a virgin refused! This made the Huns so angry that they murdered all 11,000 of the girls by arrow fire.

11,000 virgins is certainly a large party – the legend of there being 11,000 virgins became fixed in the 10th century, but this was probably through a misunderstanding of a Latin numerical inscription which read 11 rather than 11,000! Once the legend took off it became incredibly popular and indeed provided much inspiration for medieval craftsmen to create objects such as this.

The ‘door’ in the centre of the head of this reliquary opens to reveal a cavity which once held a skull relic of this unknown female saint. © Trustees of the British Museum

Created by British Museum.

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Video transcript

This is a work of incredible naturalism and astonishing beauty She's one of the maidens that accompanied St Ursula on pilgrimage St Ursula had eleven thousand virgin companions all of whom were slaughtered by the Huns according to legend and a great cult of St Ursula and her virgin masters emerges in the Middle Ages She's made of painted oak between the years of about 1500 - 1530 This one made probably in Brussels or South Netherlandish and she represents an aristocratic figure this elaborate hairstyle which is braided round the top of her head with festoons of drapery and hair around the back she's absolutely a perfectly beautifully observed work of portraiture but in fact the secret that it conceals was that it was also a reliquary so inside the head there's a cavity which opens and that's where the relic of the skull of the Saint would have been kept A pendant hangs around her neck and behind a window on hear breast would have been a second relic possibly part of the breast bone When you look at her face she's communicating with you very directly she's making perhaps a sympathetic response to a prayer and because after all the Saints were entreated to for their powers of intersession So the idea is that someone would have prayed to the Saint and appealed for her help in adversity and the prayers of the Saint of course carrying much greater currency with God because the Saint's have proved their virtue through their martyrdom She has this very beatific smile almost playing on her lips of all the objects in the exhibition this is one you feel might open her mouth and speak to you, might even move