According to The Golden Legend, Ursula of Britain was a third-century Christian princess who converted 11,000 virgins and led them on a pilgrimage to Rome. On their return north, they were martyred by the pagan Huns outside of Cologne. Many medieval hagiographers rejected the Ursula legend. Her cult remained popular across Europe, however, enjoying increased interest during the Counter Reformation after the Company of St. Ursula, a religious order dedicated to the education of young girls, was founded by St. Angela Merici in 1535. One of the last paintings Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio completed before his death in the summer of 1610 was a haunting image of the martyrdom of the saint, a canvas produced for the Genoese nobleman Marcantonio Doria, whose beloved stepdaughter had chosen the name Ursula when she took the veil. Certainly, the painting of St. Ursula shown above—featuring a sharply lit half-length figure set against a dark background—owes its conception to Caravaggio’s atmospheric religious scenes. The virgin martyr is crowned, as befitting a princess, and she delicately presents an arrow—the instrument of her martyrdom—to the viewer. In her left hand is the royal English banner: a red cross on a white field.
The reproduction entered the Photoarchive as attributed to Jusepe de Ribera, one of Caravaggio’s Neapolitan followers, yet an attribution to one of his followers in Rome, Valentin de Boulogne, might be more convincing. Little is known of Valentin’s early life. He was born in Coulommiers-en-Brie, France, the son of a painter of the same name who may have been his first teacher. He is recorded as having shared a studio with the Flemish artist Gérard Douffet (1594–1660) — also a Caravaggesque painter — in the neighborhood of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome in 1620, yet he probably had arrived in the city years earlier, perhaps as early as 1611. With her smooth oval face, full cheeks modeled by a distinctive crescent-shaped shadow, cupid bow mouth, and finely drawn dark eyes, the young figure of St. Ursula recalls the female protagonists of Valentin’s Erminia Among the Shepherds (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and his Allegory of Italy (Finnish Institute, Rome) illustrated below. Even her sidelong glance resembles that of the allegorical figure who wears her own crenelated crown so uneasily. Valentin’s naturalism, derived from Caravaggio’s revolutionary technique of working directly from the live model, often emphasized the vulnerability of his figures. Although in some compositions such human frailty is at odds with the subject matter (for example, the protagonist of the Allegory of Italy lacks the monumentality and gravity necessary to an effective symbolic composition), in the smaller devotional image, St. Ursula’s fragile beauty and extreme youth heighten the poignancy of this exemplar of quiet dignity and resolve in the face of persecution and death.
Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (1591—1632), St. Ursula, early 17th century. Oil on canvas. Private collection, Scotland
Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632), Allegory of Italy, 1629. Oil on canvas, 333 x 245 cm. Villa Lante al Gianicolo (Finnish Institute), Rome.