“Lady With an Ermine” by Leonardo Da Vinci
Krakow’s prized art piece is Leonardo Da Vinci’s oil on canvas, called “Lady With An Ermine” from around 1489-1490. It’s one of only 3 Da Vinci oil paintings in the world and one of only 4 portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the most famous probably being the “Mona Lisa”. This lady is a sentimental favorite of Poles, reproduced and hung in many homes.
Both times we visited Krakow we missed seeing this famous painting. The first time we went to the Czartoryski Museum, only to find the painting had been moved to Wawel Castle (due to renovation of the museum). The second time, we were not able to get tickets at the Castle.
Pity, but we did see a very realistic bronze statue of the painting at the Castle.
What’s so special about this painting anyway?
Firstly, Leonardo’s Lady has a chequered and complicated history; for centuries, she was basically unknown until Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski found her on his Italian holiday in 1800. He took the painting home to Poland, but in 1830 during the Warsaw Insurrection she as moved to Paris. In 1876 she was brought back to Poland, moving into what would become her permanent home in Krakow’s Czartoryski Museum, but was captured by the Nazis and moved to Berlin. In 1946 the Americans rescued her and returned her to Krakow where she is today one of the city’s most beloved treasures.
The subject of the painting is Cecilia Gallerani, painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Storza, Duke of Milan and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke. She was about 16 years old and renowned for her beauty, scholarship and poetry but her family was neither wealthy nor noble. In the painting she is holding a small, white-coated stoat (or weasel), also known as an ermine.
The painting is also really interesting as there are several interpretations of the significance of the ermine in the portrait. The aristocracy often kept ermines as pets and their white pelts were used to line or trim aristocratic garments. The ermine, a stoat in its winter coat, was a traditional symbol of purity because it was believed that an ermine would face death rather than soil its white coat.
For Ludovico, the ermine also had personal significance as he was in the Order of the Ermine in 1488 and used it as his emblem. The association of the ermine with Cecilia Gallerani could have been intended to refer both to her purity and to make an association with her lover.
Another suggestion is that the ermine could be a pun on her name, as the Ancient Greek term for ermine, is galê or galeê. It’s also possible the animal was a symbol of Cecilia’s pregnancy, as she gave birth to a son acknowledged by Lodovico in May 1491, and the association of weasels and pregnancy was quite common in Italian Renaissance culture.
Who quite knows? It’s fascinating nonetheless.