Catherine, wife of the Portuguese king and sister of the Holy Roman Emperor
I just got back from a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid where, among its fantastic paintings, I found myself entering a room where it seemed that on the walls all around me were old friends from my Doña Gracia research days. And suddenly those paintings felt like I was encountering real people with secrets I now knew!
In Room 56 there was Catherine of Hapsburg, wife of John III of Portugal — the Queen who would have raised Doña Gracia’s infant daughter had DG allowed her to do so. Thank goodness she didn´t. Peering past the exquisite black velvet dress trimmed with gold, I saw a plump, double-chinned woman who could only charitably be called “plain.” She seemed dour and devoid of emotion — decidedly watery blue blood flowing in her veins. Still, I wanted to speak to her — and we did have a sort of a “chat.”
She did look like she knew well how to play the royal power game and what was expected of her. After all, she once wrote a personal letter to her brother, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor up in Flanders, pleading with him to let Diogo Mendes, Doña Gracia´s brother-in-law, go free after Diogo had been jailed for supposed heresy and aiding the Turks. But this was only because the pair wanted Diogo´s money, and tying him up in jail also tied up his money. So take that haughty look off your face, Catherine, I now know your game!
Next to Catherine was a portrait of Mary Tudor, who may have met Doña Gracia in England. Mary also was unbelievably plain, uneasy, and stiff. Her clothes were as plain as her face, oddly enough. Not someone you would want to meet, except if you had no choice.
Maybe I was a bit biased, but next to her was a portrait of an unnamed young “Lady with Gold Chains” from the same era. Her eyes and face were so full-blooded that — pardon my imagination — she looked very Jewish. Could this have been Ana? Or the niece from the medal?
Indeed, she was so different that it occurred to me that one day we might discover that the members of the House of Mendes have their anonymous portraits hanging in museums and private collections all over the place without anyone knowing who they are. So I would like to put out a call to any gallery, museum, or private collector: if you have a portrait from the mid 16th century with any of the family names Mendes, Nasi, Micas, or de Luna, please let us know. We will offer a longer list of names in a coming post.
Upstairs in Room 27 was Titian’s famous portrait of Charles V on a horse — the quintessential Charles, determined, regal, cunning and painted just after his victory at Muhlberg. Not a mention, of course, about who he tried to strong-arm into giving him the cash to pay for his endless battles. Okay, Charles, I now know the real story!!!
And over in Room 49 was Raphael´s famous “Portrait of a Cardinal” — he could well have been one of those righteous Vatican cardinals that the family bribed for so many years to keep the Inquisition from coming to Portugal. It was painted a little earlier, but the young man could have well been in his middle years by the time the Mendes family came along with their lobbyist, Duarte da Paz. The cardinal´s right hand is not in the picture — symbolic of his hot hand for cash?
It was all a little much — as though they had suddenly come to life before my eyes and had to answer for their nefarious deeds.
More another time…