'Four scenes from the life of St Ursula'

Valencian School (about 1400 - 1410)

Tempera and gold on wood panel , 125.5 x 171.5cm
Accession Number LL3426 - 3429

'Four scenes from the life of St Ursula', Valencian School: Scene in frame'Four scenes from the life of St Ursula', Valencian School: Three scenes

The cult of Saint Ursula and her 11000 virgin companions is linked to the German city of Cologne where their martyrdom occurred, but their relics were scattered throughout Europe, including Palencia in western Spain. These four panels come from a large altarpiece originally in the main Dominican church of San Pablo in Palencia, in what was then the kingdom of Castile.

The altarpiece included another similar row of four panels (now in the Prado, Madrid) and eight smaller panels (in other European and American collections), all surrounding a sculpted or painted image of the saint’s martyrdom (now missing). The expressionless faces, combined with the extensive use of punched and tooled tendril patterns in the gold backgrounds, and of decorative effects like the varied geometric designs of the tiled floors, suggest that the paintings came from the workshop of Lorenzo Zaragoza (active 1364-1406), the leading artist at the Aragonese court of King Peter IV.

From 1377 to 1402 Zaragoza worked in Valencia, on the other side of the country from Palencia. It is not yet known who commissioned this major and certainly expensive altarpiece, possibly some four metres in height, but in the 15th century San Pablo served as a burial place for local nobility of royal descent.

An extended study of 'Four scenes from the life of St Ursula' is available as part of our picture of the month series.