Catherine of Aragon as the Magdalen by Master Michiel

Early Flemish painting is not yet so thoroughly explored that all its important artists are well known. It is only since 1929 that Master Michiel, one of the most important Flemish painters of about the year 1500, has been identified and the works which were formerly scattered through the mass of anonymous paintings in old collections have gradually been assembled under his name. Master Michiel is thus a new name to most people. He can be best described as playing in the world of about 1500 somewhat the part that Van Dyck played around 1630. The museum has acquired as the gift of the Founders Society a portrait of Catherine of Aragon as the Magdalen which is a perfect example of the beauty of style and distinction of feeling that made him the foremost Flemish portrait painter of his day.1

Catherine of Aragon as the Magdalen by Master Michiel
Catherine of Aragon as the Magdalen by Master Michiel

Master Michiel's life was spent as a court painter. He seems to have developed in Bruges in the circle of Memling, for his art shows the influence of Memling's portraits; but he was also inspired, it would seem, by the elegance of the portraits of Jean Perreal (the Master of Moulins), the contemporary French court painter to the Dukes of Bourbon and the Valois court. Like a number of other artists of Bruges, he was attracted to the Spanish court, as Queen Isabella of Castile was a great lover of Flemish painting. He painted Queen Isabella's portrait in 1481 and may have been in her service from that time (and certainly from 1492) until her death in 1504. Afterwards he returned to the Netherlands and entered the service of the regent Margaret of Austria and her nephew, the future Emperor Charles V. In 1514 he visited the Danish court and painted the portrait of King Christian, and he may also have visited England. He was active in the Netherlands until about 1520 but his exact birth and death dates are unknown.

The better part of his works are either portraits or paintings like our Magdalen which are portraits under a religious guise, but like Van Dyck he painted religious compositions as well. While in Spain he collaborated with Juan de Flandes, another Flemish painter, in making for Queen Isabella an elaborate altar telling the life of Christ and the Madonna, in fortysix small painted panels of which one is now in our museum: Juan de Flandes' Christ Crowned with Thorns. He did also a very beautiful Adoration of the Shepherds by Night, now in the Wilstach collection of the Philadelphia Museum.

The qualities of our new painting are typical of all his work. Its reserve, elegance and melancholy Ise the tone of both his religious paintings and portraits. Its fresh and pleasing color, its delicacy and clarity of form, its forceful plasticity that surpasses Memling, constitute both the appeal and the distinction of his art. The color of our portrait is simple. The Magdalen's cloak is blue, her dress dark red. The cool flesh tones of the face and the gold brown hair are light against a black background.

The face of this handsome, proud and melancholy young woman in the pose of the Magdalen could not but provoke curiosity. She appears in three paintings by Master Michiel in a portrait in Vienna, which obviously represents a lady of high rank, as the Magdalen in our picture, and as the Madonna in a painting in Berlin which once formed a diptych with the Portrait of a Calatrava Knight in the National Gallery, Washington. In the Vienna portrait she wears a black velvet dress trimmed with pearls and gold, and a heavy gold necklace and chain. The necklace is formed of linked Tudor roses and the letter K, while on the center of her bodice is the letter C in gold. Friedländer2 was the first to suggest that of the personages at the Spanish court, she must be Catherine of Aragon, the younger daughter of Queen Isabella, who married Arthur, the Prince of Wales, in 1501, and after his death, the future Henry VIII of England. A portrait of Catherine's first husband, Prince Arthur, in Windsor Castle, shows him wearing a necklace of linked white and red Tudor roses of related form.3 Gluck suggests that the portrait in Vienna was done in England after her marriage of 1501, of which the necklace would be a symbol. And although there is no documentary evidence that Master Michiel painted the princess, there does exist, preserved in a report of the Spanish ambassador in England to his king in 1505, a remark of Catherine that shows she knew and admired Master Michiel's work. The ambassador reports at the end of a long diplomatic communication that he showed the princess two portraits of the Princess of Savoy by Peter van Coninxloo and that the princess said Michiel would have made better portraits. So, although the resemblance of these three portraits to the old picture preserved in the National Portrait Gallery in London as Catherine of Aragon is not very striking, the best students have been led to agree with Friedlander's identification. The Vienna portrait must have been done first. The others may have been ordered by Catherine herself or by some member of her suite, who, like the Calatrays Knight would have been glad to have the princess's features preserved in a devotional picture.


1 Accession Number: 40.50. Panel: Height: 12% inches; Width: 994 inches. Described by P. Winkler in Pantheon, Vol. VI (1931), P. 175 and Art in America, Vol. XIX (1930-31), p. 247: Gustav Gl, Burlington Magazine, Vol. LXII (1933), p. 100; Vol.Baldass, Burlington MO 842*. Vol. LXVII (1935), P. 77; E. P. Richardson, Thy Art pnartorly, ol II (1939), p. 102. Collections: August Beres. Portland, Oregon; Clendenns J. Ryan, New York (1940).

2 M. J. Friedlander, Analiche Berichm atm den . . . Ktinmsammitingen, Berlin, Vol. XXXVI (1915), o. 177.

3 Reproduced in the Catalogae of an Exhibition of British Primitive Paintings, Burlington House, London, 1923, No. 80, plate XXXV.