Saint Ursula and her Myriad Companions

The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula Caravaggio, 1610 public domain

Today is the traditional commemoration of Saint Ursula, who was put to death on this October 21st, in 383, along with – as the legend has it – 11,000 virgin martyr companions. They were all slaughtered by pagan Huns, but Ursula was spared, for the king was besotted with her, offering his hand in marriage. She, of course, refused, and he, enraged, ran her through with an arrow. Hell hath no fury like a Hun scorned.

A basilica named in honour of the saint in Cologne has an ossuary filled with skeletal remains purported to be from this wholesale martyr massacre. One theory has it that the ‘11,000’ from a misreading of the one martyrs name ‘Ximilia’, with the first two letters erroneously read as the roman numeral for eleven (XI), and the last for the Latin for a thousand (milia). Perhaps.

Whatever the truth, there does seem to have been a virgin martyr on this day, who had widespread devotion throughout the Church’s history. To name but a part of that: Saint Hildegard of Bingen composed many chants in her honour; Saint Angela Merici named her Order, the Ursulines, after the saint in 1535; Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after Ursula and her companions; and Caravaggio’s last known painting commemorated her martyrdom, as depicted in the picture for this reflection. After its commission, the troubled artist set sail for Rome to receive pardon from the Pope for his part in the death of a young man in a duel, but died en route, perhaps of a fever. We may hope our saint interceded for his soul.

May Saint Ursula do the same for us, and may she, and however many were martyred with her, beseech God for our troubled and fractious world, filled a whole new set of pagans. +