According to legend, Ursula was the daughter of a British Christian King who lived sometime between 238 and 450 CE. She embarked on a voyage across the North Sea along with 10,000 maidens and ladies in waiting. On their way, Ursula decided to take a pilgrimage to Rome. They were attacked by the Huns in Cologne after Ursula refused to marry their chief, and everyone was beheaded.
A basilica was erected in Cologne to honor their massacre. Although her story is now considered to be fiction, Ursula is the patron saint of young girls, which is an interesting choice, as her decisions lead to a mass murder of girls.
Memling is one of the most famous “primitive Flemish artists” whose Shrine to St. Ursula is considered to be a masterpiece. This carved and gilded wooden shrine was commissioned by the Hospital of St. John and houses the relics of St. Ursula.
It mimics the shape of a Gothic Cathedral with a steeply pointed cover and six painted tondoes which tell Ursula’s story. The tondoes include: Arrival in Cologne, Arrival in Basel, Arrival in Rome, Leaving from Basel, Martyrdom of the Pilgrims, and Martyrdom of St. Ursula. The two facades on the short sides contain representations of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus and of St. Ursula Protecting the Holy Virgins.
The scenes on Memlings’s Shrine resemble the style of the stained glass windows in contemporary churches. This particular image from the shrine is contained on one of the two facades. It is embedded within a painted niche to simulate a perspective interior of the the shrine. Within, Ursula shields the young virgins that lost their lives at her service.