“Lady with an Ermine” is the second-most famous woman in Leonardo’s life. As she makes a rare trip to London, Francesca Kay looks at her magic

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011

Consider the ermine: a stoat in winter fur. Stoats are small and fierce and quick and feral; they kill by biting the necks of their prey; they are said to mesmerise their larger victims with a snake-like dance. And now look at Leonardo da Vinci’s ermine, resting quietly, although still very much alert, in the loose grip of his mistress. His left paw is upraised in a heraldic gesture. He has intelligent eyes, his mouth is closed over sharp teeth, his fur is soft and creamy, and his owner’s long fingers rest gently on him. This is a beautiful, sleek creature, a beloved pet.

The lady is Cecilia Gallerani, aged about 16 when her portrait was painted, c.1490, and at that time the favourite mistress of Lodovico Sforza, the immensely powerful duke of Milan. In the year after she was painted, Cecilia gave birth to Lodovico’s son, and Lodovico married Beatrice d’Este, who soon ensured her rival was dismissed. Records suggest that when she left the Sforza castle, Cecilia took the painting with her. 

“Lady with an Ermine” lives in Krakow these days, but she is about to be displayed in Britain for the first time. The National Gallery in London is bringing together seven of Leonardo’s paintings—half of his surviving works of paint on wood–and more than 50 drawings, from the period when he was the court painter in Milan. There will be other famous paintings in the exhibition, but it is Cecilia who will be the star.

We can reasonably assume that the portrait was commissioned by Leonardo’s patron, the enamoured duke. Cecilia was apparently as gifted as she was lovely—a poet, linguist and musician. Why then did Leonardo pair her with an animal that few would call endearing? Why draw attention to the stoat-like shape of Cecilia’s face: was it a waspish tease, a moral rebuke, a subtle act of malice? 

On one level the inclusion of the ermine is a tribute to Lodovico, who used it as an emblem. There is a knowing joke here: a ruthless lord is fondled by his mistress, made submissive by the power of love. But, in another aspect, this animal is Cecilia herself. See how the curve of Cecilia’s shoulder rhymes perfectly with the curve of the ermine’s body, how her bent wrist echoes its paw, how the two are connected in a sinuous flowing spiral, how their matching eyes, clear and brown, look at the same point to their right—both at the duke, we presume, who, in this most elegant of compositions, is also the source of light. The ermine and the girl are almost indivisible, two aspects of one being: you can see how they inspired Philip Pullman’s daemons, the animal spirits or alter-egos that were such a telling feature of “His Dark Materials”. 

In folklore the ermine was a symbol of purity, because it was supposed to prefer death to the defilement of its snowy coat. Leonardo knew this—the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has a drawing by him of the myth. But no one as observant as Leonardo could fail to see that the ermine has two faces, and that in its stoat-guise it is brown, smells musky and is vicious. 

“The good painter has to paint two principal things,” Leonardo wrote of figure painting, “that is to say, man and the intention of his mind.” Yes, but the intentions of a man’s mind—or a woman’s—are not singular. One reason for the great allure of this painting is the hint of troubling duality. Stoat and ermine, lover and beloved, girl and animal—beautiful Cecilia, with her immaculate white skin, is a mistress, not a lawful wife. She could equally be predatory as pure and honourable; she could indeed be prey herself. The potentially dangerous creature in her arms is captive, for the moment. But while Cecilia may have captivated the mighty Lodovico, she herself, dependent on patronage like the painter, is subject to his will. There’s not much security in the post of ducal pet, as Cecilia would soon discover. The fillet on her brow, the edging of her veil, the beads around her neck, her helmet hair, may all be in the latest fashion, but they bind Cecilia closely.

Those bindings have another function—to highlight the perfect proportions of the woman’s head. And here’s the real purpose of the portrait. Leonardo wrote that beauty lies in harmonious proportion, and beauty inspires love. This is above all a painting of supreme harmony, the creation of a perfect whole through total mastery of line and shadow, light and form. Look at this woman, Leonardo is saying: ambiguous and flawed like every human being, but beautiful and lovable. Now, though, after more than half a millennium on this earth in her painted incarnation, Cecilia is also very fragile; she may never be allowed to go travelling again. Seize the chance to see her.  

"Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan" is on at the National Gallery in London from November 9th to February 5th 

Francesca Kay is the author of "An Equal Stillness", which won the Orange Award for New Writers. Her second novel is "The Translation of the Bones".