Scott B. Montgomery, Associate Professor of Art History, University of Denver, will present the Annual Kohler Lecture on Art History. His talk is titled: “The Mute Bones Speak: Relics and the Performance of Sanctity in the Cult of the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne” and will be presented on Wednesday, October 21, 7 pm, in Lebus Court 113.
The cult of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne was one of the most widespread manifestations of collective sanctity in the Middle Ages, largely due to the immense quantity of holy relics that were venerated throughout Europe. While these sacred bones provided the focus of their veneration, textual and visual forms fleshed out the dynamic role of this vast mass of bones in the construction of notions of communal identity and sanctity. From the earliest document of a cult of unnamed and unnumbered holy virgins in early medieval Cologne to the expanded late medieval narrative of the pilgrimage and martyrdom of eleven thousand maidens, the story of the development of the legend of St. Ursula and her companions is itself an epic tale, one that reveals much about the process of hagiographic construction. The legend was increasingly embroidered in response to the discovery of a vast cache of relics of the Holy Virgins of Cologne in the twelfth century. While the textual sources served to verify the power of the relics, images produced in the service of this relic cult made their presence most palpable in a variety of contexts, engendering both personal and communal veneration of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. Profoundly asserted via myriad reliquaries and narrative pictorial cycles, the visual culture of St. Ursula and her companions influenced the perception of their role within their urban cult center and beyond. Coupled with miracle accounts and imagery, the corporate nature of displays of relics of the Holy Virgins helped fashion an understanding of these holy women as both potent civic protectors and ideal role models. Images, particularly reliquary figures, facilitated the performance of collective sanctity asserted by the group identity of these holy virgins and extending to their devotees who were frequently encouraged by such imagery to model their own pious behavior after that of the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne. Texts, images, and relic displays worked in concert to allow the mute bones to speak, dynamically performing their role as holy protectors and models of virtue within medieval Cologne.