Today, as promised, I am featuring another beautiful and yet quite simple portrait that I came across when visiting the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. The work was one of many which hung amongst other fifteenth century paintings. The reason it stood out for me was because of the beauty and innocence of the eleven-year old sitter whose life and future had been mapped out for her at the age of three. She was born into an age when planned betrothals and marriages between royal houses was the norm. Her life, like that of her mother, was to be a life of great turmoil. The girl in my featured painting is Catherine of Aragon who was the daughter, and youngest surviving child of Queen Isabella I of Castile and her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.
Catherine was born in December 1485 in the small town of Alcalá de Henares some twenty miles from Madrid. She was the youngest of five children having one brother, John and three sisters, Isabella, Joanna and Maria. Even at the tender age of three plans were being formulated by her parents to arrange a beneficial betrothal for her. Not necessarily beneficial to her but beneficial to her country and her parents. Catherine’s parents were cousins and belonged to the House of Trastámara, a powerful dynasty of kings in the Iberian Peninsula. Isabella was the half sister and heiress to Henry IV of Castile and Ferdinand was the son of John II of Aragon. The two of them were betrothed and went on to marry in 1469 in an attempt to consolidate two of the main royal houses, for in 1474 on the death of Isabella’s half brother Henry, she became Queen of Castile and through a prenuptial agreement based on jure uxoris (literally, “by right of his wife”) Ferdinand became, not the Prince Regent, but the King of Castile. Five years later when his father died Ferdinand also became King of Aragon and this unification became the basis of what we know as modern Spain.
According to two of her biographers, Alison Weir (The Six Wives of Henry VIII) and Antonia Fraser (The Wives of Henry VIII), Catherine was “quite short in stature with long red hair, wide blue eyes, a round face and a fair complexion”. Catherine, through her mother’s side of the family, was connected to the English royal family and so her parents turned to the English royal house for a suitable husband for their daughter. They also believed that an alliance with England would safeguard them against the predatory French. Their efforts to find a husband for their daughter found favour with Henry VII the current ruler of England who believed a liaison with the Catholic rulers of Spain and the house of Trastámara would be very advantageous for the English House of Tudor. And so, in 1488, when Catherine was just three years of age, she was betrothed to King Henry VII’s oldest son Arthur, the Prince of Wales, who at the time was two years of age ! In May 1499 Catherine and Arthur were married by proxy. She was still six months away from her fourteenth birthday and he was a few months short of his thirteenth birthday. It was not until 1501 that Catherine left Spain and travelled to London to meet her future husband Arthur although they had been corresponding for a number of years. They married that November and went to live in Ludlow Castle but five months after the ceremony Arthur died of what was termed “sweating sickness” which was a highly virulent disease that had reached epidemic proportions in England at that time. Catherine was also struck down by the illness but survived.
The rest of Catherine of Aragon’s life, her marriage and divorce from Henry VIII, Arthur’s brother, has been well documented and I will not speak more about her life. The portrait that I am featuring today is a painting of the young girl herself, entitled Portrait of an Infanta, Catherine of Aragon. It was completed around 1496 when she was about eleven years old. The artist was the Flemish painter, Juan de Flandes. Little is known about the artist except that his name would indicate he was born in and spent his early life in Flanders. It is not until 1496 that we have some documented evidence of his life for his name appears as a court painter in the royal household accounts of Queen Isabella of Castile. It is thought that Juan de Flandes had, like many other European painters, come to Spain and to the royal household of Isabella and Ferdinand and along with them had worked on a number of religious paintings, including the forty-seven small (each approximately 21cms x 16cms) panelled polyptych entitled The Polyptych of Isabella the Catholic, which has since been split up into its many parts and which only twenty-seven survive.
Juan de Flandes never returned to his homeland and worked for the royal Spanish household until Isabella died in 1504. From there he moved to Salamanca where, for the next three years, he worked on the main altarpiece for the city’s university chapel. During this period he also received commissions for work on an altarpiece for the Salamanca cathedral. Then four years later, in 1509 he lived in Palencia with his wife. In Palencia, he again completed a number of commissions for the Catholic Church. Juan de Flandes is thought to have died in 1519 aged 54.
My featured painting is a beautiful work which captures Catherine’s beauty and innocence and comes before the traumatic and sad life which she was to endure. There is even some doubt that the portrait is of Catherine. Some say that it could be of her sister Joanna but at the time of the painting (1496) Joanna would have been seventeen years of age and the girl in the painting does not look that old. Also if we look at the work we can see she is delicately holding a rose and this is thought to symbolise her future intended connection with the English House of Tudor, the Tudor Rose. Other art historians such as the Elisa Bermejo tend to believe that the rose is just symbolic of the youthfulness of the sitter whilst others believe that it is indeed Catherine and this painting was just a betrothal portrait.
One of the other Nertherlandish-style painters who was at Queen Isabella’s court with Juan de Flandes was Michael Sittow and he too painted a portrait of the young Catherine, some seven years later, and one can see a definite likeness between his and Juan de Flandes’ portraits.
I love Juan de Flandes’ portrait of the young Catherine and stood before it for many minutes contemplating what was going through the young girl’s mind as she sat before the artist, totally unaware of what life in the future held for her.