Margaret of Austria – A New Portrait? ~ A guest post by Susan Ross

Margaret of Austria as a widow by Bernard van Orley

The Freelance History Writer is pleased to welcome Susan Ross to the blog. Susan is retired and lives in Bristol. This article is the expression of what might well be an unhealthy obsession with Margaret of Austria and her world. Hopefully, at some point, this obsession will result in a book. You can find Susan on Facebook and Twitter.

Margaret of Austria was one of the key figures in the history of Northern Europe in the early 16th Century. In her early life, she was a dynastic pawn and married into the French, Spanish, and Savoyard royal families. When, in 1504, at the age of 24, she was widowed, both her brother and her father made strenuous efforts to engineer a marriage between her and the recently widowed Henry VII in England. To that end, a portrait of Margaret was painted and sent to England. I will come back to this later.

Philip, Margaret’s brother, died unexpectedly in 1506 and Margaret left her lands in the Savoy region to rule the Low Countries as Regent on behalf of her father, and then her nephew, the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Two years later, she became the guardian of Philip and Juana’s children, Charles, Eleanor, Isabella and Maria. Margaret, at this time, was only in her mid-twenties and, in her portraiture, wished to emphasize she was a fit person to function as Regent. To this end, her court artist Bernard van Orley and his studio painted many versions of what is essentially the same picture.

Above is Orley’s portrait of Margaret in her widows weeds. This is a woman making a statement, saying that she is no longer on the marriage market. She will not marry a foreign prince and allow him to control her lands. Versions of this picture were offered to visitors to the court, so that, when they returned home, this picture could offer a image of strong, and stable ruler in the Low Countries.

But what to make of this second picture?

I found it on a website with frustratingly minimal information. Firstly, it’s in a private collection, secondly, the sitter is Mary Tudor, Queen of France, and thirdly, the artist was Bernard van Orley. I believe that this is a portrait of Margaret of Austria. The facial features are the same – the slanting right eye, and the way that her eyes are set above defined pouches, the broad nose, the shape of the face and, of course, the Burgundian lip.

I would love to know who the medallion on her bodice depicts, but, if it was Margaret, it could have been Philibert II, Duke of Savoy, her recently-deceased husband. Lastly, the identity of the pearl shoulder collar. There is a connection between the name Margaret and the word pearl. A picture of Mary of Burgundy (Margaret’s mother) has now been reattributed to Margaret, partly due to the abundance of pearls used in the picture.

Juan Luis González García, in a paper from 2010 refers to a pearl collar, the ‘‘Margaret’, [….] given to Queen Joanna by her sister-in-law Margaret of Austria. [……] recognisable as well in her postmortem inventory (1539-1542) on account of some striking feature, such as the shoulder necklace known as de las margaritas owing to the use of pearls in some of the pieces.

Could the shoulder collar be the one worn on the second portrait?

It also seems strange the position of the hands is identical in both pictures. In the first, she is holding her veil, but, in the second picture, it’s as though she is holding something between finger and thumb that hasn’t been painted in. There is a reference in the 1542 and 1547 inventories of Henry VIII and Edward VI as ‘…oone table with the picture of Lady Margaret the Duches of Saway…’. Is it possible that this, second portrait, the one sent to England, portraying Margaret as a desirable young woman?

Isabella of Denmark

However, there are complications. This is a copy of a picture held in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. It appears to be a version of the picture I’ve been describing, except that the face, to me, at least, appears to be of a younger woman, or a girl. The painter was Jacob van Oostsanen. There has been much conjecture on the subject, but it is believed to be Margaret’s niece, Isabella of Denmark, and it’s dated circa 1524. The museum states that it is thought to be a copy of a van Orley painting ‘now lost’.

Isabella died in 1526. Is it possible the painting was made posthumously? Could the painter have copied the van Orley under discussion, and changed the features to those of Isabella? Both the head and the hands are out of proportion from the rest of the body, which might indicate the reuse of another image.

I’m aware this article leaves questions to be answered, rather than reaching firm conclusions. The biggest question being ‘what private collection is the second picture held in?’ My conclusion is that, after Margaret was widowed, the second portrait was made and sent to England, in pursuit of facilitating a marriage between Margaret and Henry VII. Shortly after this marriage was abandoned, paintings of Margaret had a different function, designed to emphasize her role as an able ruler. Other portraits of Margaret as a mature woman are rare, and not, in my opinion, of good quality. If this is a picture of Margaret, I firmly believe it is an exciting addition to the information we have about her. 

Further reading: RIHA Journal 0012, 11 November 2010 ‘Charles V and the Habsburgs’ Inventories: Changing Patrimony as Dynastic Cult in Early Modern Europe’ by Juan Luis González García

4 thoughts on “Margaret of Austria – A New Portrait? ~ A guest post by Susan Ross

  1. Actually it’s Mary of Austria, Queen of Bohemia and Hungary. How do I know? Because this is netherlandish outfit, cloth of gold suggests royalty and her french hood is lined by tiny thistles. Mary’s relatives tried to remarry her to James V of Scotland. But she refused. Nevertheless this painting and probably another of hers ended up in Scotland, probably because Scottish and Netherlandish fashion was not that different(as oposite to Bohemian/Hungarian). Then due to similiarity to outfit to portrait of Margaret Tudor(by those who don’t know the difference)-they both got mistakenly labelled as Tudor princesses. Illogically the one with thistles as Mary Rose and the other as Margaret Tudor.
    Tbh it took me a while to figure this out.


  2. Thanks for this fascinating article. I would love to learn more about this: “A picture of Mary of Burgundy (Margaret’s mother) has now been reattributed to Margaret, partly due to the abundance of pearls used in the picture.” Is there more information about that in the article you cited, or is there another reference? Thank you.


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