(b. 1472, Venezia, d. 1526, Capodistria)

Martyrdom of the Pilgrims and the Funeral of St Ursula

Tempera on canvas, 271 x 561 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Canvas No. 8 of the series of nine large paintings "Stories from the Life of St Ursula".

The speed at which Carpaccio's ideas develop is noticeable in the Martyrdom of the Pilgrims and the Funeral of St Ursula, signed and dated 1493 on the scroll at the foot of the column bearing two coats-of-arms, the emblem of the Loredan family and another one, probably belonging to the Caotorta family.

The composition of the scene is quite complex, for Carpaccio wanted to include two separate episodes from the legend of St Ursula in the same painting, one being the violent scene of the slaughter of the pilgrims and the other the sad and mournful description of the saint's funeral: he succeeds thanks to his masterly spatial division of the composition. The focus of the painting is the knight about to draw his sword out of its scabbard; notice how similar he is to certain figures by Perugino. Behind him, the moorish bugler on horseback rallies the troops and the white and red standard gives depth to the background landscape, mellowed by the green meadow and the pinkish buildings depicted in the peaceful light of the Venetian pre-Alps.

Right in the foreground, on the edge of the field in which the knights look almost as though they were taking part in a mediaeval tournament, a fair-haired archer draws the bow he holds in his gloved hand - he is like a sophisticated arabesque in his elegant pose and splendid costume. Motionless, Ursula awaits the mortal arrow, standing against a background of trees, arranged like the wings of a stage, that seem to prolong the scene of the slaughter all the way to infinity. But, just like the fresco of this same episode painted by Tommaso da Modena more than a century earlier, every gesture, even the most violent, is part of a deliberate rhythm and a strict geometric pattern composed of the interplay of weapons of all sorts: swords, daggers, misericords, bludgeons, pikes, spears and halberds, each carefully described down to the tiniest details.

The calculated violence of the scene of the slaughter is separated from the solemnly dignified scene of Ursula's funeral by a column on a pedestal of a very complex shape and colour scheme. This second event is indissolubly linked to the first since they are both set in the unmistakable atmosphere of the Venetian mainland landscape. The funeral procession solemnly parades out of the town at the foot of the wooded hill, and marches towards the mausoleum; all that we can see of the mausoleum is one marble corner, in the shadow, with a carved inscription reading URSULA. Against the vibrant luminosity of the blue sky, the landscape, the human beings and the architectural constructions appear almost like a colourful inlay. All the characters, portraits of contemporaries, take part in this splendid interplay of forms, with their statuary solidity and their sense of physical movement; notice particularly the woman kneeling to the right, presumably a deceased member of the Caotorta family since she is portrayed set apart from the rest of the procession.