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'The Life of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins', c.1400-1410, by Valencian School


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About the artwork

These four pictures, painted on wood panels, once formed part of the lower half of a Spanish altarpiece illustrating the story of the martyrdom of St. Ursula. She and her 11,000 female followers were massacred by the King of the Huns at Cologne. The panels show the saint: preaching to her female companions; visiting Pope Cyriacus in Rome; being interrogated and condemned to death by the King of the Huns in Cologne and finally the martyrdom of some of the 11,000 virgins. The events illustrated may have been taken from the life of the saint as described in Jacopo de Voragine's 'The Golden Legend' (c.1266), which was one of the most widely copied, translated and read books of the late medieval period.

Four more panels showing other scenes from Ursula's life are now in the Prado Museum, Madrid. All eight panels originally came from a large altarpiece, some four metres (twelve feet) high, in the Dominican church of San Pablo in Palencia, north-western Spain in what was then the kingdom of Castile and Leon. San Pablo was an ancient church founded in 1219 as part of a monastery by Saint Dominic, who went to the university in Palencia. The church was substantially rebuilt in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The eight panels along with a further eight smaller paintings, portraying individual saints seated on tiled floors (now in museums in America and Sweden), would all originally have surrounded a central image surmounted by a crucifixion. The location of these central elements is now unknown.

The Lady Lever Art Gallery's martyrdom scene does not show Saint Ursula herself, who was executed by arrows. The missing central image, which could have been a painting or a sculpture, may have represented that event. Such large altarpiece constructions combining paintings with gilded and painted sculpture and architecture were common in Spanish churches and called 'retablos'. The Lady Lever's pictures were placed in pairs, on either side of the central image with the Prado's pictures placed above them and the eight saints placed in a single row along the bottom of the altarpiece as a predella. The gilded frames carved with Gothic tracery and architectural elements, which still surround the Lady Lever's paintings, are part of the original fifteenth-century altar-frame construction.

The legend of St Ursula was particularly popular in the fifteenth century. Although the cult of the saint and her 11,000 virgin companions was linked to the city of Cologne, Germany, where their martyrdom occurred, their relics were scattered throughout Europe, including the town of Palencia. The Cathedral in Palencia had the head of St. Cordula, one of St. Ursula's companions, whilst inserted into the reliquary of San Pablo's main altar were relics of some of the other virgins.

It is not known who commissioned this large, impressive and certainly very expensive altarpiece, nor why. But in the early fifteenth century the church of San Pablo served as the burial place for local nobility of royal descent, who could well have commissioned an altar from a court artist in honour of the saint and her companions, some of whose relics were held by the church.

The Painting

The extensive use of floral and tendril patterns punched and tooled into the gold backgrounds and other decorative effects such as the varied geometric designs of tiled floors, all suggest that the paintings were not produced in Palencia, but in the port of Valencia some three hundred miles away on Spain's eastern coast (see map). Stylistically the virgins' expressionless faces and wavy hair are close to those found on figures in paintings from the workshop of Lorenzo Zaragoza (active 1364-1406). He was the leading artist at the court of Peter IV, king of Aragon (1336-1387), who in 1373 praised Zaragoza as "the best painter in Barcelona". The kingdom of Aragon also included the port of Valencia where it is known Zaragoza worked between 1377 and 1402. The 'international Gothic' style produced in Valencian workshops was widely admired across the kingdoms of northern Spain, including Castile and Leon where Palencia is sited. From the fourteenth century onwards Valencia was known for its production of ceramics and tiles, as indeed it still is today. By the fifteenth century production had expanded and Valencia's ceramics were exported across Europe. This may account for the artist's delight in painting a variety of different patterned floor-tiles in almost all of the sixteen panels that formed the original altarpiece.

Valencian artists were also known to be at work elsewhere in Palencia in the early fifteenth century. The Valencian sculptor Centellas carved the Gothic choir-stalls of the Cathedral in 1410.

Sometime in the eighteenth century changes were made to the altarpiece. New sculptures of Pope Pius V and St Francis were inserted in the centre. In 1835, like all monastic churches, San Pablo was abandoned when the government ordered the dissolution of Spanish religious institutions. Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century the large altarpiece must have been dismantled and by 1909 these four panels were on the market in England. It was probably the highly decorative nature of the paintings such as the skilled punched work and tooling on the gold background and the wealth of detail in the dress, textiles and patterned flooring that attracted Lord Leverhulme to these panels. He bought them in 1919 for just over £624. They remain unusual in the Lever collection for being continental in origin and medieval in period.