Carpaccio’s Dream of St. Ursula

By Deena Sherman

Fifteenth century artist, Vittore Carpaccio created a series of nine paintings depicting the legend of St. Ursula. Naturally, I have chosen the bedroom scene in which Ursula, through a dream, receives a message from an angel that she is destined for martyrdom. The “Dream of St. Ursula,” painted in 1495, is the fifth in the series of nine paintings by Carpaccio called “Stories from the Life of St. Ursula.”

The story of St. Ursula is thought to date from between 900 and 1100. It is a dramatic narrative in which 11,000 women, including Ursula, die. The legend goes like this: “Ursula was the beautiful daughter of a Christian British king, Dionutus of Cornwall, and had taken a vow of chastity, but, against her wishes, was betrothed to a pagan prince. Ursula was warned through a dream to demand as a condition of marriage, his conversion to Christianity, and a delay of three years, during which time her companions were to be 11,000 virgins collected from her own kingdom and that of her suitor. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins were on a ship when a sudden breeze carried them off. They arrived in Cologne, Germany, sailing up the Rhine to Basel, Switzerland, where they moored their ships and crossed the Alps in order to visit Rome (on the instructions of an angel). On their return, Cologne was being sacked by the Huns, who slaughtered the virgins after Ursula refused the advances of a Hun prince. One of the 11,000, St Cordula, escaped death on the first day by hiding, wrote down the tale for posterity, then gave herself up to join her sisters in martyrdom.” (

In “The Dream of St. Ursula,” the subject is depicted lying on her back asleep, neatly occupying the near side of the bed in an elegant high-ceilinged Venetian bedroom. The angel, with long hair, flowing robe and wings has entered the room. He will tell Ursula, through a dream, that she will die and become a martyr. The light is behind the angel, casting a shadow inside the room. The room, with its canopied bed and intricate headboard is bathed in a soft, caressing light. Statues of Hercules and Venus are positioned above the doorframes and the plants are myrtle and carnations, which symbolize heavenly love. A table, on which Ursula’s book lies open, stands at the far side of the bed while a dog lies
awake on the near side.

Not much is known about Vittore Carpaccio but he is thought to have been born in 1465 to a well-known Venetian family of fishermen and boat builders and that he died in 1522. He was an artist and draftsman who, like most artists of the time, painted mainly religious works. Although he was not
quite of the standing of Bellini, he was popular for his portrayal of Venice in his work – whether or not Venice fitted into the narrative of the painting or not. Most of his commissions came from the Venetian scuole, which were lay brotherhoods whose purpose was to improve themselves on the religious front and to help charities. The bigger ones had their own buildings and Carpaccio painted narrative canvases for them. The “Stories from the Life of St. Ursula” series was created between 1490 and 1495 for the Scuola di S. Orsola and is considered Carpaccio’s most famous work.