Lady with an Ermine

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Lady with an Ermine
Italian: Dama con l'ermellino, Polish: Dama z gronostajem
Dama z gronostajem.jpg
Artist Leonardo da Vinci
Year 1489–90
Type Oil on wood panel
Subject Cecilia Gallerani
Dimensions 54 cm × 39 cm (21 in × 15 in)[1]
Location Wawel Castle, Kraków

Lady with an Ermine (Italian: Dama con l'ermellino [ˈdaːma kon lermelˈliːno], literally "Lady with the Ermine") is a painting by Leonardo da Vinci from around 1489–1490. The subject of the portrait is Cecilia Gallerani, and painted at a time when she was the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Leonardo was in the service of the Duke. The painting is one of only four portraits of women painted by Leonardo, the others being the Mona Lisa, the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, and La belle ferronnière. It is currently being displayed at Wawel Royal Castle whilst renovations are being carried out at the painting's home, Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland.

Subject and symbolism

The small portrait generally called The Lady with the Ermine was painted in oils on wooden panel. At the time of its painting, the medium of oil paint was relatively new to Italy, having been introduced in the 1470s.

The subject has been identified with reasonable certainty as Cecilia Gallerani, who was the mistress of Leonardo's employer, Ludovico Sforza.[2]

Cecilia Gallerani was a member of a large family that was neither wealthy nor noble. Her father served for a time at the Duke's court. At the time her portrait was painted, she was about 16 years old and was renowned for her beauty, her scholarship, and her poetry. She was betrothed at the approximate age of 10 years to a young nobleman of the house of Visconti, but the marriage was called off. Cecilia became the mistress of the Duke and bore him a son, but he chose to marry a woman from a nobler family, Beatrice d'Este.[3]

The painting shows a half-length figure, the body of a woman turned at a three-quarter angle toward her right, but her face turned toward her left. Her gaze is directed neither straight ahead, nor toward the viewer, but toward a "third party" beyond the picture's frame. In her arms, Gallerani holds a small white-coated stoat, known as an ermine. Gallerani's dress is comparatively simple, revealing that she is not a noblewoman. Her coiffure, known as a coazone, confines her hair smoothly to her head with two bands of hair bound on either side of her face and a long plait at the back. Her hair is held in place by a fine gauze veil with a woven border of gold-wound threads, a black band, and a sheath over the plait.[4]

There are several interpretations of the significance of the ermine in her portrait. The ermine, a stoat in its winter coat, was a traditional symbol of purity because it was believed an ermine would face death rather than soil its white coat.[5] In his old age, Leonardo compiled a bestiary in which he recorded:

MODERATION The ermine out of moderation never eats but once a day, and it would rather let itself be captured by hunters than take refuge in a dirty lair, in order not to stain its purity.[6]

He repeats this idea in another note, "Moderation curbs all the vices. The ermine prefers to die rather than soil itself."[7] Ermines were kept as pets by the aristocracy and their white pelts were used to line or trim aristocratic garments. For Ludovico il Moro, the ermine had a further personal significance in that he had been in the Order of the Ermine in 1488 and used it as a personal emblem.[8] The association of the ermine with Cecilia Gallerani could have been intended to refer both to her purity and to make an association with her lover. Alternatively, the ermine could be a pun on her name because the Ancient Greek term for ermine, or other weasel-like species of animals, is galê (γαλῆ) or galéē (γαλέη).[9] This would be in keeping with Leonardo's placement of a juniper bush behind the figure in his portrait of Ginevra de Benci in reference to her name. Given that Gallerani gave birth to a son acknowledged by Lodovico in May 1491, and the association of weasels and pregnancy in Italian Renaissance culture, it also is possible the animal was a symbol of Cecilia's pregnancy.[10] In addition, it has been speculated that the animal in the painting appears not to be an ermine,[11] but a white ferret, a colour favoured in the Middle Ages because of the ease of seeing the white animal in thick undergrowth.

As in many of Leonardo's paintings, the composition comprises a pyramidic spiral and the sitter is caught in the motion of turning to her left, reflecting Leonardo's lifelong preoccupation with the dynamics of movement. The three-quarter profile portrait was one of his many innovations. Il Moro's court poet, Bernardo Bellincioni, was the first to propose that Cecilia is poised as if listening to an unseen speaker.

This work in particular shows Leonardo's expertise in painting the human form. The outstretched hand of Cecilia was painted with great detail. Leonardo paints every contour of each fingernail, each wrinkle around her knuckles, and even the flexing of the tendon in her bent finger.

According to the art-critic Maike Vogt-Luerssen the depicted lady clearly identifies herself as a member of the Royal Neapolitan House of Aragon by wearing a Catalan costume and holding the most important symbol of her dynasty, the ermine in its winter fur. Her name is Giovanna of Aragon (1478 - 1518), Queen of Naples, and she was married to Ferrandino (or Ferdinand II) of Naples. The portrait of her was made around 1495.[12]


The Lady with an Ermine has been subjected to two detailed laboratory examinations. The first was in the Warsaw Laboratories, the findings being published by K. Kwiatkowski in 1955. The painting underwent examination and restoration again in 1992, at the Washington National Gallery Laboratories under the supervision of David Bull.[1]

The painting is in oil on a thin walnut wood panel, about 4–5 millimetres (0.16–0.20 in) thick, prepared with a layer of white gesso and a layer of brownish underpaint.[1] The panel is in good condition apart from a break to the upper left side of the painting. Its size has never been altered, as indicated by a narrow unpainted strip on all four sides of the painting.

The background was thinly overpainted with unmodulated black, probably between 1830 and 1870, when the damaged corner was restored. Eugène Delacroix was suggested to have painted the background. Its previous colour was a bluish grey.[1] The signature "LEONARD D'AWINCI" (which is Polish phonetical transcription of the name "da Vinci") in the upper left corner is not original.[13]

X-ray and microscopic analysis have revealed the charcoal-pounced outline of the pricked preparatory drawing on the prepared undersurface, a technique Leonardo learned in the studio of Verrocchio.[14]

Apart from the black of the background and some abrasion caused by cleaning, the painted surface reveals the painting is almost entirely by the artist's hand. There has been some slight retouching of her features in red, and the edge of the veil in ochre. Some scholars believe there also was some later retouching of the hands.[1]

Leonardo's fingerprints have been found in the surface of the paint, indicating he used his fingers to blend his delicate brushstrokes.[15]


The painting was acquired in Italy by Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, the son of Princess Izabela Czartoryska and Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski in 1798, and incorporated it into the Czartoryskis’ family collections at Puławy in 1800. The inscription on the top-left corner of the painting, LA BELE FERONIERE. LEONARD DAWINCI., probably was added by a restorer shortly after its arrival in Poland,[16] and before the background was overpainted.[17] Czartoryski was clearly aware it was a Leonardo, although the painting had never been discussed in print; unfortunately, no record exists of any previous owner. The Belle Ferronière is the Leonardo portrait in the Louvre, whose sitter bears such a close resemblance, the Czartoryskis considered this sitter to be the same. The painting travelled extensively during the 19th century; Princess Czartoryska rescued it in advance of the invading Russian army in 1830, hid it, then sent it to Dresden and on to the Czartoryski place of exile in Paris, the Hôtel Lambert, returning it to Kraków in 1882. In 1939, almost immediately after the German occupation of Poland, it was seized by the Nazis and sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. In 1940, Hans Frank, the Governor General of Poland, requested it be returned to Kraków, where it hung in his suite of offices. At the end of the Second World War it was discovered by Allied troops in Frank's country home in Bavaria. It has since been returned to Poland at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków. Currently the painting is in Old Town, Kraków, on display at the Wawel Castle.


When exhibited in The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2003, the painting was described as "signal[ling] a breakthrough in the art of psychological portraiture".[18]

Popular culture

Lady with an Ermine was one of the visual inspirations for Philip Pullman's concept of dæmons, appearing in the His Dark Materials series of novels.[19]

Mike Resnick's 2005 science fiction novel Lady with an Alien was inspired by Resnick's opinion that the animal in Gallerani's arms "simply doesn't look like an ermine".[20]

This painting also features in the Robert Harris novel Fatherland as part of a collection stolen by a quartet of Nazi officials who were also part of the board who passed Hitler's Final Solution. The painting is hidden in a Swiss bank vault along with incriminating evidence of the Final Solution and remains there although at the end of the novel it is assumed that one of the protagonists will return and bring the painting back into the world. In the novel, this painting signifies that although the officials were corrupt in other ways, they were unable to accept the terrible human sacrifice of the Holocaust and were prepared to die rather than meekly go along with it.

The painting also appears in the 2014 film The Monuments Men, an account of the U.S. Army's actions in WWII to recover artworks stolen by Nazi Germany.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Preservation and Scientific examinations, David Bull
  2. M. Kemp, entry for The Lady with an Ermine in the exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration (Washington-New Haven-London) pp 271f, states "the identification of the sitter in this painting as Cecilia Gallerani is reasonably secure;" Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, "Cecilia Gallerani: Leonardo's Lady with an Ermine" Artibus et Historiae 13 No. 25 (1992:47–66) discuss the career of this identification since it was first suggested in 1900.
  3. Who was Cecilia Gallerani?, Barbara Fabjan and Pietro C. Marani, Exhibition notes, October 15, 1998
  4. Notes for a portrait: the Lady's dress and hairstyle, Grazietta Butazzi, Exhibition notes, 1998
  5. Boria Sax, The Mythical Zoo: an encyclopedia of animals in world myth, legend, and literature, 2001, s.v. "Beaver, porcupine, badger and miscellaneous rodents".
  6. James Beck, "The Dream of Leonardo da Vinci", Artibus et Historiae 14 No. 27 (1993:185–198) p. 188; Beck adds, "the artist left a pictorial record to accompany his written testimony—the famous Portrait of a Lady with an ermine (Czartoryski Collection, Cracow)
  7. Beck 1009:191.
  8. A. Rona, "l'investitura di Lodovico il Moro dell'Ordine dell'Armellino" Archivio Storico Lombardo 103 (1979:346-58); as political allegory, see C. Pedretti, "La Dama dell'Ermellino come allegoria politica", Studi politici in onore di Luigi Firpo I, Milan 1990:161-81, both noted by Ruth Wilkins Sullivan, in "Three Ferrarese Panels on the Theme of 'Death Rather than Dishonour' and the Neapolitan Connection" Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 57.4 (1994:610–625) p. 620 and note 68.
  9. Liddell, Scott and Jones Ancient Greek dictionary
  10. Jacqueline Musacchio, "Weasels and Pregnancy in Renaissance Italy", Renaissance Studies 15 (2001): 172–187.
  11. Tracy Godse. "Ermine or Ferret?"
  12. Giovanna of Aragon, Queen of Naples (image gallery)
  13. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  14. David Bull, Two Portraits by Leonardo: "Ginevra de' Benci" and the "Lady with an Ermine" Artibus et Historiae 13 No. 25 (1992:67–83), pp 76ff.
  15. Bull 1993:81.
  16. Shell and Sironi 1992.
  17. Bull 1992:78.
  18. Leonardo da Vinci and the Splendour of Poland, exhibition February 17, 2003
  19. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  20. Lady with an Alien, by Mike Resnick, published 2005 by Watson-Guptill


  • Laurie Schneier Adams, Italian Renaissance Art, (Boulder: Westview Press) 2001.

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