According to the legend, Saint Ursula, a Christian princess from Britain or Brittany, made a holy pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 virgins. Dressed in yellow and holding a flag with a red cross, Ursula watches her companions embark on their return voyage. They carry bows and arrows, weapons that represent their death later in the story.
The balance between the soft warmth of the sky and calm sea is typical of Claude’s seascapes. The buildings, trees and ships, all depicted in detail, frame the scene. Claude spent most of his life in Rome: the buildings on the left were inspired by those familiar to him and to this painting’s owner, Fausto Poll (1581–1652), a future cardinal. The palace was inspired by the residence of the powerful Barberini family, Claude’s most influential patrons, whose ship – with their emblem on the flags – is in the centre.
This is one of three imaginary seaport paintings by Claude owned by the National Gallery, and one that tells a story: the sorry tale of Saint Ursula. According to the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, Ursula, a Christian princess from Britain or Brittany, made a holy pilgrimage to Rome with 11,000 virgins.
In this painting, Ursula, dressed in yellow and holding a flag with her emblem, watches her companions embark on their return voyage. They carry bows and arrows, weapons that represent their martyrdom. Later in the story, Ursula and her companions stop at Cologne in Germany, where the companions are all killed by the invading Huns, a nomadic race from Central Asia who conquered much of Europe in the fourth century. When Ursula refuses to marry the leader of the Huns she is shot with an arrow and dies.
The viewer’s gaze is directed towards Ursula and her attendants by the bows of the ships on the right, which point across the painting, and two aristocratic figures in the bottom left corner who witness the spectacle. The balance between the soft, hazy light, the sun low in the sky, and calm sea is typical of Claude’s seascapes, as are the highly detailed buildings, trees and ships, which are intended to frame the scene. Claude spent most of his life in Rome: the circular building with columns in the left foreground is based on the Tempietto di San Pietro in Montorio, a temple built on the spot of Saint Peter’s crucifixion.
This work was painted in 1641 for Fausto Poll (1581–1652), shortly before he became a cardinal. The position was granted to him by Pope Urban VIII (1568–1644), one of Claude’s most influential patrons. The palace building positioned slightly further back on the left resembles the Palazzo Cancellaria, the residence of the Pope’s nephew, Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597–1679). The emblem of the Barberini family can be seen on the blue flags of the ships placed in the centre, which are being admired by two figures in the middle distance. The Barberini family wielded immense power and influence in seventeenth-century Rome. They were avid collectors of paintings and patrons of Claude.
This story was rarely painted in the seventeenth century but was a popular subject during the sixteenth century. Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, now in the Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples, shows Ursula with an arrow impaled in her chest and surrounded by the Hun soldiers. The authenticity of her legend was questioned during the twentieth century resulting in her feast of 21 October being removed from the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar.
This work, along with several others by Claude, was among the first to be bought by the Gallery in 1824, from the prestigious collection of John Julius Angerstein (1735–1823).
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