The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (Caravaggio)

Infobox Painting|

title=The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula
type=Oil on canvas
museum=Galleria di Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano

"The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula" (1610), is a painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610). It is owned by the Intesa Sanpaolo Bank.

The holy Ursula, accompanied by eleven thousand virgins, was captured by the Huns. The eleven thousand virgins were slaughtered, but the king of the Huns was overcome by Ursula's modesty and beauty and begged her forgiveness if only she would marry him. Ursula replied that she would not, upon which the king transfixed her with an arrow.

"Saint Ursula" was done in 1610 in Naples for Marcantonio Doria, a twenty-five year old nobleman from Genoa. Doria had become an ardent collector of Caravaggio's work, and he commissioned the painting to mark the entry of his stepdaughter into a religious order as Sister Ursula. The date of the painting can be located at shortly prior to 11 May 1610, when Doria's agent in Naples wrote to his master that the painting was finished. There had been a slight accident, the agent wrote, when he had tried to hasten the drying by leaving it out in the sun the day before, softening the varnish. The agent told Doria not to worry as he would take it back to Caravaggio to be fixed and, in fact, Doria should commission more works from the artist as "people are fighting over him and this is a good chance." It was received in Genoa on 18 June and Doria was delighted, placing it with his Raphaels and Leonardos and his vial of the authentic blood of John the Baptist.

Caravaggio had arrived in Naples from Sicily in September or October of 1609. Within days he was attacked outside a restaurant by four armed men, leading to rumours that he had been killed or facially disfigured. It is probable that he took a long time to convalesce, and it is difficult to link more than a handful of works, and most of them hesitantly, to this second stay in the city. The "Saint Ursula", however, can be positively identified. It marks yet another change in style: in Sicily he had continued the compositional scheme introduced with "The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist", a small group of figures dwarfed by massive architecture, but "Ursula" marks a return to a scene which brings the action directly into the space of the viewer, at the very moment when the Hun king lets fly his arrow, and Ursula looks down with an expression of mild surprise at the shaft sticking out of her chest. To the right and rear a few onlookers stare in shock, one of them, the upturned face behind Ursula, apparently Caravaggio himself. Everyone who had seen the painting had been stunned, Doria's agent reported. Doria himself might have been glad to see his favourite artist, unmarked despite all the rumours.

"Saint Ursula" was one of the last paintings ever made by Caravaggio. In July he set off by boat to receive a pardon from the Pope for his part in the death of a young man in a duel in 1606. But instead of the pardon, he died, exactly how is unclear, although a fever is most frequently quoted as the cause, at Porto Ercole, on the coast north of Rome. A discussion of his death is given under the article on "John the Baptist".



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