Catherine of Aragon, Sittow, c1502. Photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
I’ve loved this portrait of Catherine of Aragon ever since I first saw it as a little girl in a book about Henry VIII. Up to this point, I’d only really been familiar with the better known painting of a more mature Catherine, severe, apparently bald and grim faced in formidable black and gold and so was enchanted by this unexpected sight of the younger Catherine, pretty, auburn haired and looking every inch the comely Spanish princess who caused such a stir when she first arrived at the English court in 1501.
Her downcast demeanour intrigues me though – is it shyness or sadness that makes the young princess turn her eyes downwards or the remnants of that famously austere Spanish upbringing? Her Tudor in laws never look exactly cheerful in their portraits either – they either gaze stonily into the distance or confront the viewer with a wryly amused glint in their eyes but Catherine alone looks at our feet, unable or unwilling to meet our eyes. It’s always struck me as a bit odd.
I’m also intrigued by the halo around the young princess’ head – when I first saw the portrait many years ago, I thought that she was wearing an exaggeratedly massive French hood but on closer inspection, I realised that she was wearing a normal coif but with the addition of a rather splendid saintly halo. All the best dressed sixteenth century young ladies had one. Obviously. And it’s probably the one accessory that Anne Boleyn is almost guaranteed never to be seen sporting in a portrait.
Poor Catherine though. For a very long time, I just couldn’t summon up any sympathy for her – she always seemed so old, so austere, so pious, so grumpily quarrelsome but then age both softened and embittered me and I suddenly saw her for what she was – a decent woman, hard working and loyal who was righteously enraged by being unceremoniously dumped for a younger and rather less distinguishedly pedigreed model. Nowadays, I really admire Catherine although I can’t help but deplore her taste in men – I wish that she could have found someone better to be so unwaveringly loyal to than Horrible Henry, someone who would have cherished her no matter what not let her die so miserably at Kimbolton Castle on this day in 1536.
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