MASTER of the Legend of Saint Ursula (I)
(active 1480-1500 in Bruges)
Legend of St Ursula, the Church and the Synagogue1475-82
Oil on oak panel, 47,5 x 30 cm (each scene), 59 x 18,5 cm (wings)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges
The two large wings are each composed of four small panels painted on both sides. On the front side the legend of St Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins is related. The order follows as in an open book:
1. In the foreground the heathen king of England hands a message to a herald. It contains the request to marry his son Etherius (with falcon) to the pious Ursula, daughter of Deonotus, king of Brittany. The herald's tunic bears the coat-of-arms of Edward IX (king of England at the time the painting was made). In the middle ground he leaves for Brittany. In the background he hands the message to King Deonotus, in Ursula's presence.
2. With divine inspiration Ursula accepts, on condition that she may first be sent eleven thousand virgins with whom she would make a pilgrimage to Rome. The scene shows the embarkation of the virgins, under the watchful eye of the king and queen of England and the prince.
3. Ursula also embarks and bids farewell to her parents on the rocky shore. The ship carries coats-of-arms with the blazon of the dukes of Brittany. In the background the belfry of Bruges can be seen, though without its octagonal crown, which was built from 1482 to 1486.
4. The pilgrims disembark in Cologne, whose city arms can be seen over the city gate. An angel predicts to Ursula that on her return from Rome she will die a martyr's death here in Cologne.
5. The journey reaches Basel, after which it continues on foot to Rome, which is portrayed in the foreground. At the back the pope and his retinue advance towards the pilgrims. On the coat-of-arms: S[enatus] P[opulus] Q[ue] R[omanus].
6. On leaving Rome Ursula is accompanied by the pope, Cardinal Vincentius and James, archbishop of Antioch, who wished to join her on the return journey.
7. In Cologne the whole party is murdered by the Huns who had meanwhile occupied the city under their leader Julius (in a long tunic on the quayside). In the ship above left we can make out Prince Etherius, who had obeyed a heavenly voice and come to Cologne to die as a martyr with Ursula.
8. In a chapel the faithful venerate the relics of St Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins. They belong to different social classes: there are aristocrats and burghers. On the left kneels a pilgrim with insignia and a box of provisions. A priest prays at the altar. Candles and wax ex-votos are sold at the entrance. Above left a nun in a black habit kneels unobtrusively. Without being intended as a portrait, she may represent an augustine nun.
The two small wings, which probably belonged to the same altarpiece, show the Church or the New Testament and the Synagogue or the Old Testament. The Church holds the chalice and the cross-shaped staff. The Synagogue is blindfolded and holds in her right hand a broken lance while the old tables of the law are slipping from her left hand.
For the history of Ursula the thirteenth-century Legenda Aurea has been followed fairly faithfully.
The original form of the altarpiece can only be guessed at. The central panel may have resembled the altarpiece portrayed on the eighth panel, although it should not be identified with it. It is, however, likely that it too showed the figure of Ursula protecting the eleven thousand virgins under her cape, either in painted or sculpted form. Judging by their common provenance and style the small panels with Church and Synagogue apparently also belonged to this retable. They were probably the upper wings of the panels with the Ursula legend which, when closed, were intended to cover a central panel with a raised centrepiece.
The painter is unknown. The panels were attributed to Dieric Bouts in the nineteenth century but later to a contemporary of Memling, designated the Master of the Legend of St Ursula. Since the belfry is shown without its octagonal superstructure, built from 1482 to 1486, the altarpiece definitely predates Memling's Ursula Shrine (completed 1489), it was painted before 1482.