Enclosed within substantial city walls, Bourges was a city of some historical consequence and an early centre of Christianity. Pilgrims were welcomed by a large number of monastic communities both within and outside the walls. The cathedral held relics of Saint Stephen the protomartyr and at the collegiate church of Saint Ursinus, pilgrims venerated the relics of the first bishop of Bourges in the crypt.
Ursinus was the evangeliser of the region of Bourges in the late third or early fourth century.
A follower of the Seven Bishops who had been sent, in some versions by Peter and Paul themselves, to evangelise Gaul, Ursinus was dispatched to convert the inhabitants of Bourges. In the story recounted by Gregory, it was Ursinus who went before the Senator Leocadius to obtain a church for the growing congregation which they then endowed with Saint Stephen’s relics.
It was said that Ursinus’ tomb lay outside the city walls and by the sixth century was forgotten and abandoned. In an account familiar from other legends of relic inventios, Ursinus appeared in a dream to Augustus an abbot of Bourges and then to Germanus of Paris, identifying the hidden site of his tomb. Augustus and Germanus located the relics and brought them to the church of Saint Symphorian at Bourges were they were kept in a crypt. The church was rededicated to Ursinus and rebuilt in the eleventh century.
A chronicle of 1055 gives some indication of the celebrity of Ursinus’ relics at the time. It tells of the plague which was sweeping through the town of Lisieux. The inhabitants, knowing of the reputation of the relics for miraculously bringing an end to such epidemics beseeched the notables of Bourges to allow the saint’s reliquary casket to be brought to them. The request granted, the plague stopped.
The tympanum of the church of Saint Ursinus is one of the most singular in all Romanesque sculpture in that there is no obvious Christian imagery whatever.
The light relief carvings on the side columns are of scrolling vines and bears, a reference possibly to the evangelising role of the saint, where the Latin word Ursus denotes a bear and the vine refers to Christ.
The tympanum itself is divided into three registers. The uppermost features images taken from medieval fables featuring the characters of Reynard the Fox and Chantecleer the Rooster. Below is a hunting scene typical of those depicted on Gallo-Roman sarcophagi, notably that of Saint Lusorius at the nearby abbey of Déols. The bottom register features peasants carrying out the tasks which refer to the Labours of the Months.