This is a later 16th century copy of the Horenboult miniature painted, almost certainly, to hang in the home of a Catholic English family. The iconography of the painting has been changed to show the monkey choosing the cross on Catherine's dress above the money in her hand. The miniature is a portrait of a real woman and her pet; this image has evolved to impart a religious statement.
Recent dendrochronological dating has concluded that an earliest felling date of 1531 is likely for the production of the panel on which this portrait is painted. Such analysis is based on the measurement of a tree’s growth rings in the panel, and comparison with climate records and other known and dated examples. The analysis of this panel found that the latest, or ‘oldest’, growth ring surviving is that for 1523. More precise dating is then achieved by adding a minimum number of growth rings that may have been lost in the process of manufacture, typically eight rings, or eight years. Such a small amount of wood lost in the process is not untypical, since great care was taken to prevent unnecessary waste. Thus in this case eight years have been added to 1523 to arrive at 1531.
This panel, however, is unusual in that it is made of two boards joined at a skewed angle, and not a straight vertical line as normal. Furthermore, the grain runs at a further skewed angle within the boards, meaning that more – or perhaps less – growth rings could be present. However, the relatively crude manner in which this board is constructed suggests that it was made during the earliest period of manufacture of large artist’s panels in England, not to mention the artistic style and technique of the painting itself. Furthermore, in the absence of any similar dendrochronological analysis for the two other best-known panel portraits of Catherine of Aragon (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and National Portrait Gallery, London) this example could well be the earliest currently known easel portrait of Catherine, and the only example plausibly datable to her lifetime.
The significance of such an icon produced during the 1530s is apparent. In the midst of her divorce from the King, Catherine and her party may well have been concerned with making sure that her face continued to be seen at home and abroad as part of the concerted programme to maintain her status as Queen. There would, therefore, have been considerable incentive for producing a portrait that repeated a younger, beautiful likeness of the Queen as well as conveying, perhaps, an intelligible iconographic message to her adherents.
The portrait derives directly from a miniature painted c.1525 by Lucas Horenbout d.1544 (Duke of Buccleuch Collection), which again shows Catherine holding a monkey, but makes subtle alterations to the iconography. The monkey is being offered a coin, which he ignores, reaching out instead for the jeweled crucifix that the Queen wears at her breast. The interpretation here is plain: Catherine’s creature expresses his obedience to the church by recognizing that the cross is more precious than money. The fact that these elements are absent from the Buccluech miniature, in which the monkey is merely being offered a tit-bit, and the gesture of its outstretched hand is empty, shows that the portrait’s iconography was deliberately reconfigured to comment on the Queen’s situation in the years c.1527 – 1530 and to make a point of her Catholic orthodoxy. It has even been suggested that the species of the monkey, a marmoset, may be an allusion to the straits of Catherine and her party at that date, since the letters are a near-anagram of the name Thomas More, the most celebrated of Catherine’s supporters and later a martyr for her cause. This is not too-far fetched, since the Tudor audience was schooled in allegory, the essential pabulum of their art. The apparent frivolity of the subject – a court lady playing with her pet monkey – would have delighted them all the more if it was susceptible to a deeper, parallel reading that touched on what was to become the King’s Great Matter. Far more than a flattering likeness of a Queen who felt herself spurned in place of a younger rival, the portrait can also be read as a calculated piece of propaganda and a move in a game being played for the very highest stakes.
Comparison with other known portraits of Catherine again shows the importance of the present example. The exaggerated, angular features of that in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 163) and its derivatives are clearly a schematized derivation of the pleasanter face in the present painting, which relates so closely to the Buccleuch miniature, traditionally and legitimately considered an ad vivum likeness. The later portraits, described, as with the example in the MFA Boston as ‘mechanical and workshop in quality’1 suggest little of the woman who in 1531 was described as ‘if not handsome she is not ugly; she is somewhat stout and always has a smile on her face.’2
The authorship of the present panel painting is not known. Its close relation to the Horenbout miniature might suggest some connection to the Horenbout workshop, and the old attribution recorded on the verso of the old frame may have some validity. Too little is currently known, however, of the portrait practice of Anglo-Flemish artists’ workshops in the period before the arrival of Hans Holbein the younger for one to be able to pronounce with any certainty. It is worth remembering that the years up to c.1530 represent the very infancy of easel painting in England: royal portraits datable to this period are scarce, and those of non-royal sitters effectively non-existent.