The Stories from the Life of St Ursula (1490-96)
by Vittore CARPACCIO
In 1488 the Confraternity of St Ursula in Venice decided to commission a series of large canvases recounting the story of St Ursula. Vittore Carpaccio was commissioned to do the work. The legend of the northern saint Ursula was extremely popular in the Middle Ages and had been the subject of several pictorial cycles. Carpaccio drew his inspiration for the cycle from the Lives of the Saints (Legenda Aurea) published in Venice in an Italian translation in 1475.
In painting the nine canvases, today in the Accademia in Venice, Carpaccio was not able to follow the chronological order of the story, he was forced to paint the scenes in the order that the wallspace was available for him. He begun working in 1490 and completed the cycle in 1496.
The elements of the story: the arrival of the ambassadors of the pagan King of England at the Court of the Christian King of Brittany, to ask for the hands of his daughter Ursula for the son of their Lord (canvas No. 1); the conditions Ursula sets out before accepting the marriage proposal (canvas No. 2); the ambassadors return to the English Court (canvas No. 3); the farewells and Ursula's pilgrimage (canvas No. 4); the dream in which Ursula is forewarned of her martyrdom (canvas No. 5); her encounter with Pope Cyriacus in Rome (canvas No. 6); her arrival in Cologne, occupied by the Huns (canvas No. 7); the slaughter of the pilgrims and Ursula's funeral (canvas No. 8); St Ursula in glory above the host of martyrs (canvas No. 9).