Sunday, September 1, 2013

St. Ursula in Mexico

This is another in our occasional series on the portrayal of distinctive or unusual saints in Mexican art.

St Ursula

From medieval times and into the modern era, a fascinating subject for artists has been the gruesome martyrdom of the early Christian virgin and martyr St. Ursula.
   According to legend, this reputed British princess sailed for northern France, with a large retinue of young women—traditionally 11,000 virgins—to be married. Her ship was blown off course but miraculously landed safely and by way of thanks, she decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome.  However, she and her retinue were waylaid by the Huns en route at Cologne. Ursula was transfixed by an arrow shot by the Hun king, whose overtures she had rejected, and was martyred along with all her companions, who were beheaded.
   The cult of St Ursula enjoyed great popularity in the Age of Discovery—Columbus named the Virgin Islands after Ursula and her virgins. Portrayals of the saint enjoyed a great vogue in colonial Mexico, like those of St Teresa and St. Sebastian in part due to their connection to the prehispanic practice of arrow sacrifice.
(Her popularity continues even today. The enormous Aztec sports stadium in Mexico City has been given the nickname of "Coloso de Santa Ursula" due to its vast size—Santa Ursula being the city barrio where the stadium is located.)
   In this post we show Mexican portraits of the saint in varying styles from the different colonial centuries.
This 16th century portrait forms part of a mural sequence (santoral) in the early Dominican cloister of Tetela del Volcán.
   Although simply limited to the serene, Flemish style figure of the saint, it shows the arrow in her breast, and she bears the royal crown and martyr's palm. Apart from the crown she is modestly if amply robed showing no outward evidence of her aristocratic status or details of her gruesome fate.
Juan Tinoco (1641 - 1703)

This late 17th century version, entitled The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins is the work of the eminent Pueblan painter Juan Tinoco. 
   Small in scale and painted on copper, it hangs in the Capilla del Ochavo of Puebla Cathedral  (A smaller, less polished but otherwise identical version, also by Tinoco, can be seen in the adjacent Capilla de Reliquias
   Rendered in the more dramatic mode of the early Mexican baroque, the portrayal is clearly influenced by the figural compositions of Caravaggio and Zurbarán, and enhanced by the brilliant palette typical of this artist.
   Here the saint prays just before the arrow of the Hun strikes her, while her companions are being beheaded or transfixed with arrows. Angels hover overhead with the martyr's palms and floral tiaras.
Apart from her crown and spangled robe, the saint here too is modestly dressed.

Juan Correa the Elder (c.1645 - 1716)
Although unsigned, this spectacular painting has been attributed to the Mexican baroque artist Juan Correa the Elder by the late art historian Norman Neuerburg. 
   The Mexican-born artist rose to prominence and prosperity in the late 1600s as one of the most productive and accomplished painters of his generation. He and his workshop undertook many of the largest religious commissions of the time, including important works for the metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City. His numerous paintings are widely represented in churches and collections across Spain and north America.
   Although his style evolved during his long career, he is considered one of the foremost exponents of the "luminous" Baroque manner—an eclectic, uniquely American style that combined traditional European Mannerist and High Baroque elements with a native, often naive naturalism to create a dynamic and richly colored style that was very much in tune with the nascent Mexican nationalism of his time.
   (In a personal note, the artist's wife was named Ursula, which may have attracted him to the subject, which he painted several times. Another painting by him of St. Ursula, sans ship and virgins, survives in the church of San Francisco in Antigua, Guatemala.)
   Now resting in the museum of Mission San Gabriel in southern California, the painting displays most of the traditional attributes of the martyrdom, including the ship and the walls of the city of Cologne. An arrow pierces her breast and the bodies of several dead virgins litter the ground. 
   Although the virgins were, by tradition, beheaded, here they are shown whole with discreet wounds on their necks—perhaps to save the sensibilities of the female viewers who were the main devotees.
   In this version Ursula again wears the royal crown and now holds a Victory banner. An angel overhead presents the martyr's palm and floral tiara. While the faces and gestures are surprisingly restrained, almost without emotion, the flowing robes, swirling triumphal banner and the saint's richly embroidered, silver accented costume and jewelry clearly convey her royal lineage, anticipating the more sumptuous Mexican baroque style of the 1700s.

This later version of The Martyrdom of St Ursula was painted by the artist's putative son, Juan Correa the Younger (active 1731 - 1760), and hangs in the altarpiece of Our Lady of the Fountain, a magnificent 18th century work by master designer and retablista Felipe de Ureña located in the convent church of Regina Coeli in Mexico City.
   The composition is in the full blown heroic style of the late Mexican baroque, crowded
with numerous figures both terrestrial and celestial. An angel holds up the crown and palm and Ursula appears unscathed, with no arrow, and again grasps the victory banner—although she seems to have put on a little weight.

text © 2013 Richard D. Perry
images by Robert Guess, Niccolò Brooker, 
Gustavo Adolfo Vives Mejía and the author
gracias a todos
check out our earlier posts in this series: San Antonio Abad, Duns Scotus, San Charbel Maklouf, Rose of Lima Peter Martyr, San Dionisio.

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