Leonardo da Vinci - The lady with the ermine

by Frauke Maria Petry


One or the other may stumble at the sight of the picture in connection with its title - "Lady with the ermine" and yet there is no coat to be seen? In fact, the garment is named after its origin. Because the collection items are made of numerous skins of stoats. Consequently, in the painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the lady is not wearing the mader around her shoulders, but alive on her arm. But why this animal of all things? With their eyes fixed on the target, the figures in the painting are looking at an event outside the right edge of the picture. In front of a black backdrop, the two of them stand out luminously from the background, precisely because of the light hues. The porcelain skin of the lady blends in with the white surface of the furry body. Just as elegant and delicate as her skin color, her oversized hand nestles cautiously around the animal's shoulder part. The clothing is in no way inferior to the grace of posture and gesture. The red-blue dress in connection with the hair ornament and the chain, which winds in two courses around the neck of the protagonist, testifies to high social standing.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the sitter can be clearly identified: It is Cecilia Gallerini (1473-1536) - an educated noblewoman who was called to the court of Milan as a young woman. The Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, fell in love with the then 16-year-old and made her his mistress in 1989. He then commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to create a painting of the mistress. However, the Lombard duke - called "Il Moro" (The Moor) because of his dark skin color - had to take another as his wife for political reasons. Four months after the wedding in 1491, however, the mistress gave birth to their common son, whereupon the duke placed her in a palace and married her to Count Ludocivo Carminati de Brambilla. As a farewell gift - so letters prove - Cecilia Gallerini received her portrait from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci.


The portrait (likeness of a person) in oil and tempura on walnut wood is considered one of the masterpieces of the Italian artist. Apart from being one of just four portraits by Leonardo da Vinci, it is said to have revolutionized Renaissance art. His innovative technique of sfumato mimics the different skin tones in such a way that the sitter seems to come to life. The background, formerly light and blue, which was painted over in black in the 19th century by order of the then owner Izabela Czartoryski (1494-1547), was also made using the unique painting technique. It corresponds to the Renaissance aspiration to capture an illusion of natural vitality.


Leonardo da Vinci also breaks with the tradition of depicting people in profile. By capturing the countess in a slight rotational movement for the benefit of an effective light staging, the pictorial event seems dynamic and thus becomes a representation of a movement of the mind. All this lends a certain individuality to the work, which crossed Polish borders as looted art from the Nazis in 1939 and has been in the possession of the Krakow Czartoryski Museum since 2016 - in favor of a very specific symbolism:


Duke Ludovico il Moro was awarded the Order of the Ermine by the Neopolitan king in 1488, after which he received the new epithet "Ermellino Bianco." The image could therefore be interpreted in such a way that the animal caressing the Countess could be the Duke. On the other hand, the marten in its white winter coat stands for purity and restraint. Yet the birth of their common son testifies that the relationship between the patron and the sitter was anything but innocent. Thus Leonardo da Vinci, who added the animal only in later stages of work, skillfully worked a reference to the love relationship between the two people into the work of art. In addition, the mader species is also the guardian animal of the pregnant woman, and the name of the protagonist, Gallerini, shows a certain similarity to the ancient Greek word "galée" for weasel. Thus, the symbolism here seems to be a message of the artist on several levels, which may serve the historiography as well as it proves a certain humor.


Leonardo da Vinci - The Lady with the Ermine

Oil on canvas, 1489/1490 , Cracow Czartoryski Museum, 54,7×40,3cm