Beer, Bombs and Bones

A token representation of the 11,000 VirginsEdith, Bob and I are in Cologne. Yesterday we went to another brewery, strictly for research purposes, of course. The Pfeffen kölsch served there was very different there from the kölsch at Fruh– fruitier and more like an ale– a bit like Fuller’s Discovery, but with a creamier head, more carbonation and served much colder. I drank it with the seasonal dish– asparagus with Holländische sauce, potatoes and salad. It was delish.

We also went to the Roman museum whose impressive collection is mainly gleaned from the 1941 discovery of a Roman settlement adjacent to the Dom. The site was discovered while digging to build an air raid shelter.

I was particularly fascinated with the delicate and almost ephemeral Hellenistic gold work as well as the “local deities”– Celtic & Germanic goddesses whose names are unmentioned. They resemble the Ursuline virgins in the Ursulaplatz with their benevolent smiles and diadem coiffures. Like the virgins, these goddesses are now decorative objects. Moon-headed, they sit in threes on little couches, the triple goddess present as trifling objects next to the monumental columns of Jupiter’s temple, souvenirs from a forgotten destination.

Three impressive floor mosaics are almost entirely preserved. One features a pattern of swastikas. One can only imagine the sense of vindication the Nazis might have felt uncovering this, even as they were burrowing for shelter from the bombs that would eventually destroy the city.

The souvenir shops are full of black and white postcards depicting the city in ruins. Here is an image of the damage Köln endured in WWII. The Dom remains standing, and the smog-blackened facade greets you as you leave the train station. No matter where you are in Köln, you can find your way via the spires of the Dom.

Cologne is a city that wears its scars proudly, incorporating fragments of the old, pre-war buildings in the modern restoration. Even the cobblestone streets were laid by hand again in the 1950s, giving the town a kind of postmodern melancholy.

Today we also visited the Ursulaplatz, the main reason why I was excited about visiting Köln. Many years ago I wrote a poem based on the story of Saint Ursula in the Golden Legend. The whole thing is quite grisly, as are most of the women saints’ deaths in that book. More popular than the bible at the time it was written, The Golden Legend was a kind of compiled oral hagiography. Many of the female saints in the book are almost superheroes, despite their grizly deaths, or maybe because of them. Ursula is no exception. I love the suggestive number of her entourage– 11,000– and the gory depictions of mass slaughter. Campy blood and guts! Even the doors of the Ursulaplatz feature the headless bodies of the virgins piled atop one another. The story of Ursula has always suggested to me an “open” space in the patriarchal medieval church– a willful woman would leading an army of girls down the Rhine– it suggests many subversive possibilities. I’m sure I’m not the first to imagine the story another way, and maybe this is the reason for the sadistic deaths of many of the female saints in the Golden Legend. A strong woman is safer dead, rewarded and silent in heaven– but I digress.The Ossuary of Ursulaplatz
Above shelves of Reliquaries, the bones spell out latin words. (photo by Edith Abeyta)

The impressive ossuary in the Ursulaplatz supposedly contains the bones of the virgin martyrs. However, history seems to suggest these bones were from a mass grave of some sort, and in order to explain the multitudes, the story was embroidered. One version has monks digging the bones up and putting them back together so that some of the virgins actually materialize again in Frankensteinian fashion. Whatever fable one attaches to this morbid spectacle, it is impossible to not see it as a kind of percursor to the modern horror movie, but it also transcends this facile comparison and becomes something more: a consoling attempt to make whole a brutal array of fragments– a poetic display of remains, not unlike Cologne itself.

One thought on “Beer, Bombs and Bones

  1. There’s fantastic history out there about the origin and history of catholic relics. During the middle ages, there was practically an industry in finding, inventing and selling relics from various saints. Churches and shrines that had famous relics were basically the tourist destinations of the day, and there was healthy competition to have the best relics, or the biggest collection.

    So in some way, many of the most totally gothic or impressive church relics are in the same boat the Jackalope.

    Still, I’ve got a long list of “must see” Catholic relics for some eventual wander through Europe. So I guess all of that fake history is still working its interest and wonder generating magic.

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