Behind the Mystery of The Lady with an Ermine

Discover the symbols, mastery and origins of one of the most fascinating portraits in Western European art.

Lady with an Ermine (circa. 1489) by Leonardo da VinciThe National Museum in Krakow

Leonardo at the Milanese court

In 1482, one of the most famous painters in world history, Leonardo da Vinci, took up residence at the court of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan - as a musician  and inventor. Not long after, he became the official court painter, and was commissioned to paint a portrait of Ludovico’s 17-year-old mistress. This commission would engender one of the most fascinating portraits in Western European art, The Lady with an Ermine.  

The young woman portrayed in the painting, Cecilia Gallerani, was born into a non-noble family,as evidenced by her simple dress in the painting. She first entered the Duke’s service as a lady-in-waiting, but soon became a favourite of the Duke due to her keen mind, education, and beauty.

She was familiar with literature, wrote verses in Latin and Italian, and was often referred to as a “great light of the Italian language”, a muse, and a scholarly woman, being compared to Ancient Greek poetess Sappho.

In 1491, after ten years of engagement, Ludovico Sforza married Beatrice d’Este. But in May that year, Cecilia gave birth to the Duke’s son, Cesare, and later married Count Lodovico Carminati de Brambilla, known as Ludovico Bergamino.

Cecilia lived at Carmagnola Palace in Milan, which had been given to her son Cesare by his father. She kept the portrait painted by Leonardo in her chambers. She died in 1536.

Allegory of love

The portrait of The Lady with an Ermine is an allegory of love and attachment. Cecilia Gallerani is imagined as an ideal of beauty. But why is she holding this unusual animal - an ermine, or a stoat in its winter coat? Ludovico Sforza was often called “the White Ermine” due to the fact that in 1488 he had been granted the Order of the Ermine - a type of knighthood - by the King of Naples.

The first portion of Cecilia’s surname sounded like “galé”, meaning ‘weasel’ or ‘ermine’ in Greek. The animal the Lady holds in her hands could therefore be seen as a symbol of the two lovers.

The ermine could also allude to the mythical birth of Heracles. Galanthis, a servant of Alcmene, assisted Alcmene in giving birth to Heracles - against the wishes of Hera, Heracles’ stepmother. As a punishment, Hera turned Alcmene into an ermine.

It is possible that the painting made a reference to Cecilia’s pregnancy, since weasels were believed to protect pregnant women in Italian Renaissance culture - just as Ludovico protected Cecilia.

Modern portrait

In painting “The Lady with an Ermine”, da Vinci created the first modern portrait in the history of art, surpassing the traditions of the time. It was also one of just four portraits of women that Leonardo created in his lifetime, along with the Mona Lisa, Ginevra de Benci and La belle ferronnière, or ‘Portrait of an unknown woman’.

Leonardo “In a sense freed from its frame the subject of the painting, who turned as she is in gaze and gesture beyond the field of vision, is not frozen, as was the custom of the time, in a stiff profile or three-quarter profile, yet is somehow alive.” (Marek Rostworowski)

The background of the painting was originally dark grey. During a 19th century renovation it was covered in black paint.

The caption “LA BELE FERONIERE / LEONARD D'AWINCI” was added after the painting was acquired in Italy by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. At that time, the painting was believed to be a representation of La Belle Ferronière, the alleged mistress of King Francis I of France.

Lady in Poland

The painting was executed with oil paints on a walnut board. It was purchased around 1798-1800 by Prince Czartoryski, who later presented it to his mother Izabela, who was, at that time, creating the first museum in Poland, which became the National Museum in Krakow.

Credits: Story

Text: Katarzyna Bik (selection: Agata Jabłońska, Marta Bosak)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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