Skeletons of Week, August 12: The Relics in the Ursulakammer in Cologne


The story is at best implausible: a pious Christian princess from Britain bearing the odd name of Ursula (in Latin, it means “the little bear”) sailed forth to meet her future husband, bringing with her a company of 11,000 virgins. (It must have been an awfully big boat . . . ) A storm at sea miraculously transported them all the way to Germany in day, and she instead decided to take her entourage on a pilgrimage, in the company of the pope and the Bishop of Ravenna. When they reached Cologne, however, they met an army of Huns, who massacred them all. This supposedly took place in the fourth century, although the dates of the legend are muddled enough that it has been also been ascribed to the third, fifth, and seventh centuries. This lack of firm documentation caused the Catholic Church to remove the liturgical celebration of St. Ursula and her virgins from its official calendar in the 1960s.

So much for the legend of St. Ursula. Whatever the truth behind it, she was once one of the most popular of all Catholic saints, and in no small part because in Cologne, the presumed city of her martyrdom, a basilica erected in her honor was one of the most sacred churches in all of Germany. Its allure was due to a special room, the Goldenekammer, or Golden Chamber, which housed thousands of bones—these were believed to be the very relics of Ursula and her virgin companions, thus substantiating the story.

The chamber housing the relics is a small treasury on the right side of the church’s nave. Polychromed wooden reliquaries line the walls, with small holes allowing a peak at the bones inside. Reliquaries alone could never hold such an enormous mass of osteological material, however, and most of it was kept in piles around the room, as in a medieval ossuary. In the seventeenth century, however, these bones were used to redecorate the clerestory, creating a large mosaic in bone covering the four walls of the room—the largest mosaic in human bones ever created.

In retrospect, the legend of St. Ursula is so dubious that even if she once existed, it’s unlikely that these are the bones of her and her supposed traveling companions. Archeological evidence indicates that they were probably culled from an ancient necropolis, and misidentified by romantically-minded church leaders. It is debatable whether they were even the bones of Christians. The provenance of its contents aside, the chamber itself is stunning. Once described by a traveling aristocrat as the most beautiful charnel house in the world, it remains a gilded testament to medieval piety.

The book Heavenly Bodies by Paul Koudounaris, a history of skeletons taken from the Roman Catacombs, will be released Fall 2013 by Thames and Hudson. Images from the book will be featured in a gallery show at La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, and the book is available for pre-order via

book cover

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