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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

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Created by British Museum.