Da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’

“Everyone who sees her
-even if too late to see her alive –
will say: that suffices for us
to understand what is nature
and what art.”
– Bernardo Bellincioni, poet at the court of Ludovico Sforza

Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine), about 1488

There is nothing innocent about even the most innocent looking of Da Vinci’s paintings. ‘Lady with an Ermine’ is a perfect example. What seems to be the portrait of a young lady holding an ermine is nothing other than the outer expression of an intricate system of symbols.

Identified as Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Milan’s powerful Ludovico Sforza, she is posing while holding a white-furred ermine. Why an ermine? The reasons are many, even though it is impossible to know what Da Vinci had in mind exactly:

First, ermines are famed for their reserved appetite (if they get too fat, they can’t slip through burrows to chase their preys) and hence are symbols of moderation. Cecilia, a refined lady of good taste and a poetess, is a moderate, self-contained character, even though she did not bear noble blood.
Second, legend had it that ermines would rather give in to their hunters than risk spoiling their pure white fur. Cecilia is pure at heart, despite being Ludovico’s mistress. Quite appropriate, bearing in mind that Sforza sponsored Da Vinci.
Third, ermines are lustful, they are symbols of childbirth, and yes, Cecilia bore Sforza’s son. Of course we cannot see her belly, obscured entirely by the ermine and by her hands.
Fourth, Ludovico, having received the Order of the Ermine from the King of Naples, had the nickname of ‘Ermellino Bianco” or White Ermine. She is actually ‘holding’ her beloved Ludovico.

But there is more to this, and the image below explains it better.


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