Mary Tudor or Katherine of Aragon?

The portrait of a young woman thought to be Katherine of Aragon has recently been identified as Mary Tudor, the youngest sister of Henry VIII. It is by the Estonian painter Michel Sittow. It is currently on display as part of the exhibition entitled, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue. It will remain there until January 8, 2023.

In 1915 Max J. Friedländer identified the subject of this portrait as Katherine of Aragon. His argument was largely informed by the jewels that feature so prominently in the painting: the border of gold cockleshells centered by a tiny C that ornaments the neckline of the bodice; and a heavy gold collar necklace set with jewels, pearls, and alternating enameled roses and the initial K. As roses were a symbol of the Tudor dynasty and cockleshells the symbol of Santiago (Saint James), the patron saint of Spain, Friedländer theorized that the woman was a Spanish princess with ties to the Tudor court and a name commencing with C or K – plausibly Katherine of Aragon, who married Henry’s brother Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1501 and subsequently, Henry in 1509. However, the physiognomy of the sitter differs considerably from documented likenesses of Katherine, which show her to be stout, with small eyes, a pointed chin, and a tightly held mouth.

So, we can surmise that until 1915, this portrait was not identified as Katherine of Aragon. It is a much more modern concept.

Dr Emma Cahill Marron states, “I believe that Catherine is more likely to be the sitter due to several facts in connection to her activities as an artistic agent for Henry VII. For example, in 1505 Catherine said to the Spanish ambassador that Sittow was an incredible portraitist.”

Who was Michael Sittow? Michael or Michel Sittow was an Estonian painter trained in Early Netherlandish painting. Sittow worked as a court portrait painter for Isabella of Castile, the Habsburgs, and other prominent royal houses. Michael Sittow became an independent master in the late 1400s. From 1492 until 1502, Sittow worked for Isabella I of Castile at the Spanish court, painting portraits and some religious works. By late 1505 or early 1506, he was working for Isabella’s son-in-law, Philip the Fair, Duke of Burgundy. Following a period in Reval, by 1515 Sittow was back in the Netherlands in the service of Philip’s sister, Margaret of Austria, and her nephew Charles V, the future Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1515 Sittow was documented as being in Spain, to claim debts incurred by Isabella of Castile. In these documents he is referred to as the painter of Margaret of Austria. This appears to be true because in 1514 he painted Christian II in Copenhagen as part of his betrothal to Margaret’s niece, Isabella of Austria. Sharing portraits was a diplomatic custom of that time.

Sources cite Sittow as painting a portrait of Mary Tudor in 1514 as part of the betrothal negotiations with Charles. This is displayed in the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum although it is currently on loan to The Metropolitan Museum (The Met) in New York City. This portrait has been assumed to be of Catherine of Aragon. Two other Sittow paintings of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary appear to have used the same model. (Members of royal households as models for sacred figures who are their namesakes are often found in court art during this time.)

According to Elizabeth Cleland, co-curator of The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England. “If we accept the attributed date and artist, it is much more likely to be Mary than Katherine (who would have been a married mum in her thirties by this point)- and the jewelry, even with its K, match pieces Mary was given by none other than her erstwhile suitor, the Habsburg Prince Charles (“Karolus”)- which marriage negotiations provide the likely context for the creation of this lovely work.”

Marjorie E. Wieseman of the National Gallery of Art has conducted extensive research on the portrait, the meaning of its symbolisms, Katherine of Aragon, and Mary Tudor. Since 2019 Ms. Wieseman has been curator and head of the department of northern European paintings at the National Gallery of Art. She is a specialist in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, with a particular interest in genre painting, and portraiture (including portrait miniatures). Read more about the work of Ms. Wieseman at the National Gallery of Art.

More from The Met exhibition and catalogue entry, which details the painting:

“Posed before a green background now darkened with age, she wears a deep red gown with a low, square neckline; a close-fitting, multilayered headdress covers her reddish-gold hair. Finely sculpted facial features, sumptuous garments, and glittering jewels are all meticulously rendered with smooth, virtually undiscernible brushstrokes.

The style of the painting fits most comfortably with Sittow’s portraits of about 1515, by which time Katherine would have been about thirty-considerably older than the young woman depicted here.

The identification of the artist as Michel Sittow was first proposed in 1933 by Gustav Glück. Originally from Reval (Tallinn) in Estonia, Sittow came to Bruges in 1484 and may have completed his artistic training under Hans Memling. In attributing the present portrait (then still assumed to be a likeness of Katherine of Aragon) to Sittow, Glück proposed that it had been painted during a hypothetical visit by the artist to England in 1505.

While there is no documentary evidence to support either Friedländer’s proposed identification of the sitter or Glück’s revised chronology for the artist, an identification as Mary Tudor appears better substantiated.

In 1506 Mary was betrothed to Charles V, then aged six, in an alliance that would potentially unite two of the most powerful ruling houses in Europe. A marriage by proxy took place in late 1508, celebrated by a week of festivities, during which the imperial ambassadors presented Mary with a gift from her young groom: a large piece of jewelry with a K (for “Karolus”) garnished with diamonds and pearls and an inscription praising Mary’s holy namesake. It is not known what Charles’s gift looked like, whether it was similar or identical to the necklace, but this type of jewelry, incorporating initials and devices alluding to royal or noble lineage and marital alliance, was a popular fashion among the Burgundian nobility.

The stylized roses seen here may allude to both the Tudor dynasty and Mary’s second name, Rose. Mary is clothed in Franco-Burgundian fashions, characterized in part by a close-fitting cloth hood instead of the gabled headdress then popular in England.” It was customary that, betrothal, princesses adopt the national costume of their future partners. Indeed, Henry VIII wanted Mary’s wedding dress to be in the Burgundian style, and Mary herself wrote to her aunt, Margaret of Austria, “for a long time I have had the desire to know how the ornaments and clothing that are used over there [in Flanders] will fit me and now that I have tried them I am greatly contented with them.” Despite the long betrothal, however, the marriage ceremony between Mary and Charles planned 1514 did not take place, and in October of that year, Mary was married to Louis XII of France.

Mary was regarded as one of the beauties of her age, with blue eyes and golden hair tinged with red. There is, however, no consistency to portraits assumed to have been made of her, and thus no concrete evidence of her appearance. If this sweetly haunting portrait is a likeness of Mary Tudor, it is possible that Sittow painted it in London on commission from Margaret of Austria. In the mid-1510s the archduchess ordered a number of portraits in connection with the betrothals of her nieces and nephews, from Sittow and from other artists in her employ. The inventory of her extensive art collection lists multiple portraits of Mary Tudor, although none are explicitly described as by Sittow and cannot by their description be associated with the present painting.

How and when Sittow might have made it to England is not known. In late June 1514 the Habsburg envoy sent to London to placate Henry VIII over the failed marital alliance wrote to the archduchess, “The painter has made a good likeness of Mary”. It is possible that Sittow visited London en-route to the Danish court at Copenhagen, where he is documented on June 1, 1514, and painted this portrait of the king’s sister at that time.

As has frequently been noted, there is a marked similarity between the face of the sitter in this portrait and that of Mary Magdalene in Sittow’s painting and of the Virgin in his Madonna and Child, both of which have been dated to about 1515. Most likely, Sittow adopted his subject’s refined facial features to express the perfect beauty of the religious exemplars who shared her name.”

The portrait is on loan from Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. There, it is displayed as:

Mary Rose Tudor

Catherine daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon (1485 – 1536)

Isabella daughter d. John II of Castile (1451 – 1504)

The provenance listed is Ambraser Coll.

The fact that the museum lists identifies three noblewomen as the sitter adds even more to the mystery. You can link directly to the painting and the Kunsthistorisches Museum gallery via this link.

Find out more information about The Met exhibit

The Tudors Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, installation view. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo Anna-Marie Kellen

Purchase the catalogue of the exhibition at The Met entitled The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England 


Images and information shared courtesy of The Met Fifth Avenue and Dr Cahill Marron. Spelling inconsistencies are based on the sources supplied for this article.

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