Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of a Lady Holding a Book 

 Italian School 

Portrait of a Lady Holding a Book,  Italian School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
37 ½ x 29 inches, 95 x 73.5 cm
Anonymous Sale, Christies, London, 3rd April 1958, lot 157 to Barclay for £75; Anonymous Sale, Sothebys, New York, 21st October 1988, lot 73a; Private Collection.
This flamboyant portrait would have been commissioned as a marriage picture. Its prime purpose would not necessarily have been as a likeness of the sitter, but as a pictorial display of her purity and suitability as a bride. It may have formed part of the negotiations between two noble houses, long before the bride and groom ever met.

The most obvious allusion to the sitter’s virginal purity is her costume, a rich display of white silk and lace. Her main jewel, which would also have had the intention of demonstrating wealth, is made up of a mass of white pearls, symbols of the Earthly Venus. Beneath the pearls, suspended by a white ribbon, is an enamel pendant in the form of a gold tabernacle, in which a small figure, probably the Virgin Mary, can be seen kneeling at prayer. Finally, the sitter’s prayer book, symbolically tied shut with white ribbon, is a further and more obvious sign of piety and devotion.

The portrait also looks beyond the marriage ceremony, and advertises the sitter’s ability to produce children. The chain around her waist, formed of linked pairs, is made of coral, an allusion to fertility, and points prominently downwards. The handkerchief, made with expensive gold thread, continues the symbolism more literally, and alludes to the sitter bearing fruit by showing large bunches of grapes hanging from a twisted vine.

Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.