The Lady With An Ermine

The UK’s National Gallery has just opened a major exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s works. It’s a blockbuster, completely sold out, and the buzz has also reached the Netherlands, with articles in the Dutch press and items in the media. I happened to watch one on Dutch TV this evening – a segment on De Wereld Draait Door. In it, the Art Editor of the Volkskrant newspaper, Wieteke van Zeil, and Emilie Gordenker of the Mauritshuis museum gave their views on why the exhibition was a “must see” event.

I must say, I felt frustrated by what they had to say. Van Zeil opened up the discussion by saying that “The Lady With an Ermine” was a better painting than the Mona Lisa. Her evidence appeared to be simply that she thought it was a better painting… Er, sorry, but that’s not really sufficient. Had she mentioned some of the pertinent facts about the painting, then I would have been nodding in agreement, but a bald “it’s a better painting” is simply not good enough, and she’s supposed to be the Art Editor of the Volkskrant, for heaven’s sake.

Well, OK, I thought, she’s only the Art Editor of the Volkskrant, she may have just a broad but shallow knowledge of Art. Let’s hear the real background from Ms. Gordenker. As Director of the Mauritshuis, she will obviously give us the facts on why this painting is so important.

But, blow me down, she didn’t. She also wittered on about the beauty of the painting and the brushstrokes…

Dammit, it’s not just about technique! It’s also about the fact that this painting is the first modern portrait in the history of art.

The woman in the painting, Cecilia Gallerani was the 16 year-old mistress of Da Vinci’s patron, Ludovico il Moro. She looks not at us, but away to someone else with a faint smile, which immediately raises the question of whom she was looking at. Da Vinci gives us a hint. She is holding an ermine, which symbolises purity. Da Vinci states this in his notebooks. Not only that, but the Greek name for ermine, γαλή, recalls the name Gallerani. Furthermore, the animal could also be a hint to Ludovico il Moro himself. Ludovico was called “Italico Morel” (white ermine), because he had become a member of the Order of the Ermine in 1488, when the King of Naples had conferred the title upon him.

There is more to this painting than simply brushstrokes and all of this was not mentioned in the interview. What a wasted opportunity!

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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