SAINT URSUS OF SOLOTHURN
A fourth-century Egyptian who was a member of the THEBAN LEGION martyred in Switzerland under the emperors Maximian and DIOCLETIAN (feast day: 30 September). Foremost among sources specifically naming Ursus are the records left by Saint Eucherius, the fifth-century bishop of Lyons, Passio Agaunensium martyrum and an anonymous Passio sancti Mauritii et sociorum ejus . . . (Codex 256, in the Monastery of Einsiedeln). The early chronicle of Fredegar (c. 600) furnishes further confirmation of the events of the martyrdom at Solothurn.
Relatively later descriptions are in Codex 569 in the Library of the Convent of Saint Gall and in the Codex Signacensis, originally from the Monastery of Signy, in Rheims. Though both codices are dated in the ninth century, it is quite clear that they are copies of much earlier sources. The martyrdom of Saint Ursus is also mentioned in the ninth-century Martyrology of Ado, by the archbishop of Vienne (c. 800-875), and in the Vitae sanctorum by the sixteenth-century Carthusian L. Surius.
Like the other members of the Theban Legion, Ursus and Saint VICTOR OF SOLOTHURN refused to obey the imperial command to sacrifice to the heathen gods and to take part in shedding the blood of innocent Christians. Therefore, Hirtacus, the Roman governor of Solothurn, had them brutally tortured. During this savage event, several miracles occurred, which filled the spectators with wonder. Enraged by this demonstration, Hirtacus ordered the beheading of the Thebans. Without the slightest resistance, they offered their necks to the executioners. According to the Codex Signacensis, the saints, who had been thrown into the river Aar after their decapitation, stepped out of the river, walked a short distance, and then knelt to pray. Their bodies were buried, and the Chapel of Saint Peter was later built on that spot.
Archaeological excavations have revealed that the present chapel was constructed over another dating from the fifth century. During the first half of the eighth century, Queen Bertrada, wife of Pepin the Short and mother of Charlemagne, founded a monastery there. The present Cathedral of Saint Ursus in Solothurn was built in the tenth century by Queen Bertha, daughter of Burchard of Swabia and wife of Rudolph of Burgundy, and it housed the relics of seventeen Theban martyrs whose bodies were found at the spot of the martyrdom.
In 1473, during the restoration of the Chapel of Saint Peter, the remains of thirty-four more martyrs were discovered, and in the presence of two papal commissioners, their bones were deposited with those of their other Theban brethren in the Cathedral of Saint Ursus. In 1479, additional bodies were discovered, raising the number of the martyrs at that spot to over sixty. According to Sirius, the figure of sixty-six martyrs is mentioned at Solothurn, which seems to be confirmed by the discoveries of relics in modern times.
Though a number of scholars have cast some doubt on the Theban origin of Ursus, contrary to established traditions and the earliest sources, which had specifically linked him to his Theban brethren (Eucherius and the anonymous account), the ethnological construction of the name seems to indicate an Egyptian origin. The names Orsos or Orseus and Orsis are frequent in the Copto-Greek papyri; the first two are derivatives of the dynastic deity Horus, while the last means Horus, the son of Isis.
Ursus has always been highly venerated, especially in the canton and town of Solothurn. His image in armor, as well as his resurrected body standing upright with head in hand, were reproduced in the earliest coats of arms of the medieval Convent of Saint Ursus (St. Ursenstift, 1 December 1208), and of the town of Solothurn (28 July 1230). Among the churches consecrated in his name, in addition to Cathedral of Solothurn, the church of Subingen and the church of Kestenholz (originally Saint Peter’s) are still in existence.
- Girgis, S. F. The Coptic Contribution to the Early Evangelization of Switzerland. Zurich, 1984.
- . Die thebäische Legion im Lichte der koptischen Quellen sowie der koptisch-griechischen und altägyptischen Etymologie. Zurich, 1984.
SAMIR F. GIRGIS