Reliquary Bust of St. Ursula or one the 11,000 Virgins of Cologne
Maestro del Crocifisso dei Disiplinati or Mariano d'Agnolo Romanelli or another unknown sculptor
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This painted wood bust of either St. Ursula or one of her 11,000 companions, made in the late fourteenth century and housed in the museum of Santa Maria Novella, has five glass covered containers for tiny relics, set into the sculpted border of her dress like jewels. A later inscription in the central container identifies the relic as being that of St. Ursula herself, which is why this bust is sometimes identified as being of the saint. The head has also been hollowed, so that a skull could be inserted, with the flap to access the skull hidden by the ribbon running through the figure's hair. Bust reliquaries of the 11,000 virgins proliferated, and Friar Gherardo Fiorentino is documented to have brought one of these skulls to Santa Maria Novella in the late thirteenth century. Therefore, this reliquary was likely made to house this skull and represents one of these companions. (The hollowed head is now empty.) St. Ursula, a princess who agreed to marry a king, did so on the condition that she and her 11,000 virgin followers be taken on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where they were all martyred. A very similar reliquary bust of one of her companions, also housed in the same collection, was surely commissioned and the same time and displayed along with this example. The relics displayed here are identified by later inscriptions as (moving from the viewer's right to left) are those of St. Margaret, one of the 11,000, St. Ursula, another of the 11,000 and St. Eugenia. The relics here are tiny fragments of the skulls of the saints and virgins, but the virgin is also made seem present in the living flesh in this portrait, which is idealized according to the standards of the time -- almond eyes, rosebud lips, a columnar neck, etc. The few scholars who have discussed this bust have attributed it to Mariano d'Agnolo Romanelli or to an unknown master, known to art historians as the Maestro del Crocifisso dei Disciplinati. Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.