I love stories. I have always loved them more in pictures than in words — narrative events shown rather than told. All paintings tell stories. Perhaps it is the core of painting. A great painting finds a way to tell its story in a such a way that words completely disappear and the only possible telling is the visual one.
The Venetian painting of Saint Ursula and Her Maidens by Niccolo di Pietro that hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those paintings. Upon seeing it for the first time, I found no words suitable to describe the visual solution for the story of Ursula, a 4th Century Briton princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumonia, set sail to join her future husband in Roman Gaul. Traveling with 11,000 virgins (or maybe there were only 11, depending on a possible misreading of a stone inscription, where the 11 M may have indicated 11 Martyrs rather than the Roman numeral “M,” representing 1000; not that this really matters, as it is all unbelievable!) she arrived at her destination in a single day due to some wild storm at sea. Because of the rapidity of her voyage, Ursula had some time to spare and decided to see more of Europe. Traveling to Rome, she picked up the Pope and the Bishop of Ravenna to join her in traveling onwards to Cologne, where they were caught by the Huns, all the virgins massacred, and Ursula shot dead for refusing to marry their leader.
The story of Ursula is odd enough, unclear and perhaps untrue. In the manner of storytelling at this time, di Pietro portrays the celebrity and martyrdom with the usual symbolic attributes; some virgins; some martyr’s palms; a symbolic halo of sanctity; a crown indicating royal status; Resurrection banners, etc. As a painter, di Pietro is no Titian, but a Gothic artist with the unrefined awkwardness foreign to the perfect aesthetic proportions of the Renaissance. The embellishment and improvisation used to convey the events surrounding Saint Ursula express the decorative richness derived from trade with the Middle East and the import of Islamic textiles.
Stories often lead us to distortions, hyperbole and untruths. Unearthing the truth becomes a central preoccupation. The characteristics of narrative painting in the 1400s, with its reliance on symbolism and foreign cultural influences, do not begin to clarify the narrative of this crazy traveling fiasco with virgins. In the end, that is not what this painting is all about.
Unfolding within the painting’s rectangle is a figure that acknowledges the plane while suggesting but never becoming a volume. Ursula is unable to move forward or back, in or out. The banner poles, shoulders, arms, legs and 12 virgins, six on each side, function as barriers and boundaries to keep her fixed to the center. Pattern and shape assure her adhesion to the picture plane. All elements seem to function towards this end. The rendered textiles provide the use of geometric pattern that remains firmly flat rather than conforming to the spatial fold of the garments. The black and white patterns at the bottom of her robe have no connection to their Middle Eastern source at all, but instead exist solely for their own material density. Her embellished hood-cum-halo not only covers but also circles and firmly contains her head. Its visual weight alone assures her entrapment. Di Pietro’s formal decisions secure the painting’s position in grappling with the larger issue – the visual manifestation of martyrdom. Ursula’s depiction has pushed the development of the painting to a form that becomes the embodiment of the subject.
Saint Ursula’s adherence to the painting’s plane echoes her adherence to the saintly cause of the education of women and the patronage of young girls. The visual power of the vibrant color and patterning emboldens her as female figure. Composition, shape and texture have trumped iconography and historical narrative, allowing the meaning of the work to be contained within the form of work. As a painter, I believe in this form of storytelling for its ability to more comprehensively present a visual narrative as understood, not read.