Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
Martyrdom of Saint Ursula
This painting is attributed to an artist of the circle of the anonymous Master of the Magdalen Legend (c.1483-1527). This name is applied to works which bear a resemblance to the Triptych of the Legend of the Magdalen, c.1515-20 (the triptych has been dismembered, with the centre panel cut in two halves in Budapest and Copenhagen, and the wings in Philadelphia and Schwerin). The artist is thought to have run a large workshop in Brussels.
This work does not have evidence of hinge marks and has not been cut down. It is therefore considered to be a stand-alone panel rather than a fragment from an altarpiece. It would have been intended for devotional use, perhaps in a small chapel where it could have been displayed to show both sides. The front panel depicts the Martyrdom of St Ursula. The story of the saint’s life is often depicted in Renaissance narrative paintings, the most famous Netherlandish example being Memling’s painted St Ursula Shrine, 1489 (Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges). The story of the Breton princess is told in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (c.1260). The beautiful daughter of the King of Brittany accepts a marriage proposal from Conon, the son of the pagan King of England, as long as the Prince agrees to travel with her to Rome and to be accompanied on the pilgrimage by eleven thousand virgins. They are baptised in Rome and return home via Cologne, where their vessels are besieged by the Huns. The entire company is killed, including Ursula, who turns down a proposal of marriage from the barbarian leader (he oversees the massacre from the window at foreground right) and is shot by an arrow.
The impression is given that the boats in the foreground are part of a larger retinue, containing all the maidens. The women who have already disembarked refuse to be violated by the Huns, so are murdered on the quayside. The small scene of Ursula’s betrothal to Conon shown through a decorated window (to the left of the King of the Huns) provides the viewer with the narrative background. This is further evidence that the panel was not intended to be part of the complicated iconography of a multipanelled altarpiece. Two single-figure saints are depicted on the reverse of the panel. St Hugh of Lincoln is shown in his bishop’s vestments, with a crosier in his left hand and a Bible in his right. He is accompanied by his attribute of a swan. St Bruno wears the habit of a Carthusian monk. He holds an olive branch (to symbolise peace) and a Bible. His bishop’s crosier and mitre lie at his feet and the fountain next to him may symbolise salvation. Both saints were of the Carthusian Order, indicating that the panel was probably a Carthusian commission. They are depicted within fictive stone niches. A strip at the bottom edge of the reverse of the panel has suffered damage. The reverse seems to have been painted by a different artist from the front, but stylistically both can be associated with the Master of the Legend of the Magdalen.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011
Previously attributed to Jan Sanders van Hemessen (active 1519-1555, d. 1557) (artist)
Previously attributed to Flemish School, 15th century (artist)