Inside the Masterpiece: Portrait of Catherine of Aragon

An early, mysterious portrait of Catalina, also called Catherine of Aragon, first wife of King Henry VIII, is featured in today’s addition of Inside the Masterpiece.

Juan de Flandes

Portrait of an Infanta


John of Flanders (circa 1465-1519) was the official court painter for Queen Isabella of Spain.  His birthdate is unknown, but he came to Spain from Flanders (modern-day Belgium) sometime before 1496, when he is first documented in Spain.  We know so little about Juan de Flandes, that our only understanding of his country of origin is in his name, and his painting style, which is reminiscent of the work of Hugo van der Goes and others that were produced in Bruges at the end of the 15th century.  The earliest work attributed to Juan de Flandes is an altarpiece featuring Saint John the Baptist, now lost, made for the Charterhouse of Miraflores, in Burgos.  We only know of this work because documents were found attesting to payment made to Juan de Flandes between 1496 and 1499.  He painted a portable polyptych, a series of small altarpiece panels, forty-seven in all, for the personal use of Queen Isabella that is inventoried in her possessions as of 1505.  Only twenty-seven of those panels are extant, the rest having been lost.

The primary artistic influence around 1500 in Spain was Flemish.  Spanish artists themselves were not establishing a new school or style that would make a permanent impact, but were rather importing the wonders of Flemish painting which, from Van Eyck and Van der Weyden in the mid-15th century on, was second to none in Europe.  The Habsburg Empire had the benefit of extending into Flanders, a relatively small piece of land that had been a hot-spot for warring armies for centuries and would remain so for centuries more.  Therefore many of the best painters of this time were Flemish immigrants to Spain, or Spaniards who trained in the Flemish style.  It is not surprising, therefore, that several Spanish kings and queens should have chosen Flemish masters as their official court portraitists.

This portrait has been linked with two others in the Kunsthistorichesmuseum in Vienna, portraits of the children of Queen Isabella, Juana of Castile and her husband Philip the Handsome, now all considered the work of Juan de Flandes.  All three have the same characteristic facial structure, oblong almondine faces, slit dark eyes and a complexion that looks ghostly, elongated neck and head—all of which sounds rather unappealing when written out, but produces a portrait of astonishing clarity, but at the same time of haunting beauty, of an otherworldliness.  The porcelain skin, the detail of gilding on her garments, are of the highest quality and incredible detail.

Historians consider that this is likely a portrait of the young princess, the Infanta Catalina, who was born in 1485, and therefore would have been eleven at the painting of this portrait.  Catalina (Catherine of Aragon) was the youngest daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who were responsible for the expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula.  She was born in Alcala de Henares in late 1484, and died in England in 1536.  The rosebud in the Infanta’s hand may have been added later, as it is the symbol of the House of Tudor, into which Catalina married in 1501.  In that year she married Arthur, Prince of Wales, the son of King Henry VII of England, only to be widowed a few months later, as Arthur died of a sudden illness, aged only fifteen.  That this is a later addition is further suggested by the odd angle of the right fore-finger and thumb that clutch the rose, which look rather awkward and added on, perhaps by an artist other than Juan de Flandes.

In 1509 Catalina married Arthur’s brother, Henry (soon to become the infamous King Henry VIII).  Catalina was one of the luckier brides of Henry VIII—her head remained attached to her shoulders.  For although Pope Clement VII forbade it, Henry divorced Catalina, deciding he rather preferred the looks of one of her bridesmaids, a young woman called Anne Boleyn.

Noah Charney is a professor of art history and best-selling author.  This is an excerpt from his guides to the best museums of Spain, available here.  They are currently being made into smartphone apps.

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