My Daily Art Display today features a painting by the Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio. The painting is massive in size, measuring 280cms high and 611cms wide (9ft high by 20ft wide). It is one of a series of nine, tempera on canvas, paintings. The set of paintings, commissioned in 1488 by the Lordean family They were a noble Venetian dynasty, three of whom became Doges of Venice, including Doge Leonardo Lordean whose portrait by Bellini was featured in an earlier blog (Nov 17th). The paintings were created for the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola (Ursula) in Venice, a confraternity ( a type of brotherhood or society) of which the Lordean family was a patron. All nine paintings can now be found in the Gallerie dell’ Accademia in Venice. The artist was asked to tell the story of Saint Ursula through a series of paintings. This legendary tale of the northern saint, Ursula, was very popular in the Middle Ages and Carpaccio’s design for the paintings came from Jacobus de Varigine’s Legenda Aurea (Golden Legends) which featured stories of the Saints and which had only just been translated into Italian.
The legend of Saint Ursula has like all good stories, over time, been added to and twisted, to make it a more thrilling tale. The story is as follows….
At that time young girls did not choose their own husbands, their parents decided whom they would marry. A powerful pagan king and ruler of what is now Brittany requested of Ursula’s father that she would marry his son Ethereus. The pagan king sent ambassadors to Ursula’s father offering large sums of money and other promises if the marriage took place. However they added terrible threats of what would happen if the marriage were not to take place. Ursula’s father was very troubled by this turn of events. He was afraid of the violent reaction of the other king if he declined the request and he wasn’t sure that Ursula would agree to marry and in any case both he and Ursula would prefer a Christian marriage.
However much to her father’s surprise Ursula, inspired by God, agreed to the marriage but only on certain conditions. She demanded that her father and the pagan king put ten girls at her disposal and each of them would be accompanied by another thousand girls and that she and her entourage of ten thousand virgins would travel to Rome and once there, she would be granted three years to dedicate herself to God and that her future husband, Ethereus, would receive Christian instruction for baptism. Ursula actually thought the proposal would be withdrawn on these conditions – but no, the king agreed and Ursula’s demands were carried out immediately.
Ursula’s father also invited a group of young men to accompany her and young people began arriving from all directions to join the voyage. During the journey Ursula converted all the girls to Christianity and soon they arrived in Cologne, Germany. Here an angel appeared to Ursula and told her that she and all her companions would return to this place and win the crown of martyrdom.
They moved on to Rome and Pope Cyriacus was delighted to see them since he himself came from Britain and he had many relations among Ursula’s travelling companions. That night an angel told the Pope that he too along with Ursula and her companions would gain the crown of martyrdom. In the next few days Pope Cyriacus asked to join Ursula’s group. He put another Pope in his place called Ametos. Pope Cyriacus, Ursula and her companions set out to return to Cologne.
The Huns were afraid that Christianity would become popular and that many people would become Christians. They gathered an army and plotted to kill Ursula and all her companions on their arrival back in Cologne.
Back in Britain, Ethereus who had now become king received a message from an angel that Ursula was on her way back to Cologne with the Pope and her companions and that he should go quickly and join them. He too would become a martyr. Ethereus set off for Germany and met Ursula and her companions in Cologne.
When Ursula and her companions arrived in Cologne they met the Huns who were only interested in women for pleasure. Ursula and her young girls resisted this violation. Julius, leader of the Huns, instructed his army to kill them all, including Ethereus and the ex-pope Cyriacus. Julius decided not to kill Ursula as he thought she was so beautiful he wanted to marry her. Ursula firmly refused his proposal because she wanted to keep the promise she had made to God to remain a virgin. Julius was so enraged he threw an arrow towards her, which pierced her heart and killed her. And so Ursula and her companions were martyred in Cologne.
With that story in mind Vittorio Carpacci set about his nine-painting story of Saint Ursula. He didn’t paint the canvases in the chronological order of the events but in the order that the wall space at the Scuola di Sant’ Orsola was available for him. He began this huge commission in 1490 and did not complete the ninth canvas until 1496. The full list of paintings is as follows:
Arrival of the Ambassadors – 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
The Departure of the Ambassadors- the conditions Ursula sets out before accepting the marriage proposal
The Return of the Ambassadors- the ambassadors return to the English Court
Meeting of Ursula and the Prince and the Departure of the Pilgrims- the farewells and Ursula’s pilgrimage
The Saint’s Dream- the dream in which Ursula is forewarned of her martyrdom
Meeting of the Pilgrims with the Pope- her encounter with Pope Cyriacus in Rome
Arrivals of the Pilgrims in Cologne- her arrival in Cologne, occupied by the Huns
The Martyrdom and the Funeral of St. Ursula – the slaughter of the pilgrims and Ursula’s funeral
Glory of St. Ursula- St Ursula in glory above the host of martyrs
I am not going to give you the nine paintings over nine days as I think that would be a little hard to swallow so for My Daily Art Display today, I have just chosen one – the fourth painting of the cycle entitled Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims which Carpaccio completed in 1495. This was the largest of the nine paintings which make up the Stories of the Life of Saint Ursula.
The painting has been divided vertically into two halves by a pennant with its fluttering banners atop. The various events which take place are all incorporated in this one painting. To the left of the pennant we see Eretheus taking leave of his father and to the right we see the betrothed couple meeting for the first time as they prepare to depart from her parents and board their twelve-oared sloop and then to their ship. To the left one can see their ship having departed with its sails billowing in the wind and the inscription “MALO” which is rather like a foreboding of what is to befall the pilgrims as they start their journey to Rome.
In the left background, perched on top of a hill we have the English town with its walled fortification and this is in complete contrast to the city in Britanny built along the water’s edge, which is shown on the right hand side of the painting and seems to be without any fortification at all. It is thought that the buildings Carpaccio has placed on the right hand side of the painting were copies of Venetian palaces that were built at the end of the 15th century. To the left of centre of the middle-ground Carpaccio has given us two towers situated on the steep slopes of the hill and fortified by high walls. These are reproductions of the towers of the Knights of Rhodes and St Mark of Candia and more than likely modelled on the pictures found in Bernhard Von Breydenbach book Peregrinatio in terram sanctum.
The bridges, piers and harbour-lined streets are full of people attired in the most decorative clothing. People hang out of windows to catch a glimpse of the departure of the betrothed couple. In the foreground sitting on the left of the central pennant and looking slightly towards us is Antonio Loredan, a member of the family who commissioned this work. He is splendidly dressed and one can see, embroidered on his sleeve, the coat of arms of the Fratelli Zardinieri, one of the Compagnie della Calza. In the centre-middleground on has the busy harbour and to the left we can see a large vessel lying on its side whilst the wooden planking of its hull is being re-caulked
This work of art is a hive of activity and one can spend lots of time scrutinising every facet of this large painting. I look forward to going to Venice next month and visiting the Gallerie dell’ Accademia and standing in front of this magnificent work of art and the eight other paintings of the St Ursula cycle and absorbing all that is on display.