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Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci

One of my favorite Leonardo da Vinci’s work is the Lady with an Ermine which portrays an image of a woman identified to be Cecilia Gallerani who was the mistress of the Duke of Milan. Dated circa 1489 – 1490, this was the time when Leonardo da Vinci was under the service of Lodovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan.

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (c. 1489-1490)

This Leonardo da Vinci painting was heavily done with oil on a 54.8 x 40.3 cm wooden panel. The portrait shows a darkened background. Retouches of the painting were made, one of which was the dress made to appear not as transparent as before to match the color of Gallerani’s hair color. Other retouches include the appearance of Gallerani’s hair to reaching down to the woman’s chin. An x-ray of the Lady of an Ermine has shown a painting of a door in the background.

The ermine rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.

The animal in Cecilia’s arm (though depicted slightly too large) is an ermine, a stoat in winter fur, actually evolved from life studies Leonardo made of a dog’s paw and a bear’s head. It may have been included for a number of reasons, because in addition to being a pun on Cecilia’s surname, the ermine was also a well-known symbol of purity and moderation at the time and, according to popular belief, an animal that protected pregnant women (in 1489/90, Cecilia was pregnant by her lover, Ludovico Sforza). What is more, the ermine may also be an allusion to Ludovico himself, who had been awarded the order of the Ermine by the King of Naples and, as a result, was also known as l’Ermellino.

The painting is in excellent condition despite the passage of 500 years.

Cecilia’s sleek, dark hair is divided by a centre parting, arranged into two heavy swathes falling over the cheeks, and brought together in a long braid tightly bound in a cloth casing. The head is further adorned with a small, expensive cap, a thin black fillet running across the forehead and holding in place a transparent veil whose scalloped edge is at the level of Cecilia’s eyebrows. Her hair is covered by a second veil, the black silk net closely wrapped around the head. Leonardo’s fingerprints can actually be found just below, on the face of Cecilia, as well as on the head of the ermine.


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