Medieval Hotties

by Scarlet W. Blue

When I was younger, I used to do charcoal drawings, often copies of the 15th-16th century German artist Hans Holbein’s “medieval ladies,” as I called them. I loved to sketch the richly detailed dresses of Jane Seymour and Anna of Cleves in particular. I kindly gave them more appealing faces, of course (why is it people from the past always looked so effing ugly? Are humans becoming better looking or just better at making themselves look better?) and redesigned their dresses, too, until I eventually outgrew that activity. This is the only one I have left, as far as I know:

My Medieval Lady

Over time, I discovered other portraits of Holbein’s that I found of particular interest, including one of the Lady Margaret Roper, favorite daughter of the martyred Thomas More. (The Lady Margaret Roper served as my avatar for the longest time in my earlier blogging days.) Sir Thomas More, by the way, refused to take the oath swearing loyalty to Henry VIII as leader of the church in England; thus, he lost his head—literally! His head was then placed on a pike and displayed publicly for a month before Margaret was allowed to purchase it. She pickled it in spices (I wonder which spices work best to preserve a severed head?) to keep it until her own death, when it was buried with her. (Alfred Lord Tennyson immortalized her in his poem, Dream of Fair Women, as the devoted daughter “who clasped in her last trance/ Her murdered father’s head.” Sigh.)

Lady Margaret Roper

However, my favorite Holbein portrait might be the Unknown Lady with the Squirrel. Apparently, there is a bit of a mystery surrounding this portrait and the identity of the subject, a young woman holding a pet squirrel on a chain, although she is generally thought to be connected to the More family. (I love that weird-ass hat she’s wearing. I wish those would come back in style. If you’re familiar with the movie A Knight’s Tale, you might recognize it as the same hat the Lady Jocelyn is wearing the first time William sees her.)

Lady with a Squirrel

Holbein became court painter to Henry VIII. After the death of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, Holbein was sent abroad to paint potential brides for the king. His portrait of the widowed Duchess of Milan, formerly Christina of Denmark, left the king “enraptured,” according to writer Antonia Fraser.

However, Holbein was still dispatched to the continent to paint a series of other prospective brides, five in all, for the king in 1538, because, I guess, one can never have too many paintings of prospective brides. Negotiations for marriage with Christina of Denmark came to nothing, but suddenly the German duchy of Cleves seemed like a good ally for Protestant England against the Catholic Hapsburg Empire. Therefore, Holbein was sent to paint the portrait of Anna of Cleves in 1539, and this portrait convinced Henry VIII to offer marriage to her.

Anna of Cleves

When Anna of Cleves arrived in England, Henry found her appearance disappointing. (I don’t know about you, but I think Anna is way hotter than Christina of Denmark. I mean, what’s under all those baggy, shapeless robes of Christina’s anyway? She could be the Pope, for crying out effing loud. Anna is much more stylish, I’m thinking). A contemporary portrait of Anna, possibly done by Barthel Bruyn the Elder, does show a significantly longer and somewhat more bulbous nose than that depicted by Holbein (which is worse, a big beak or a big Pope-ish butt?). The king angrily blamed those around him for their “deception,” but according to Antonia Fraser, author of The Wives of Henry VIII, his anger was never directed at Holbein. However, Helen Langdon states that “Henry’s displeasure at finding Anne of Cleves more like a ‘fat flanders mare’ when she arrived for the marriage ceremony in January 1540 cost Holbein dear in prestige, and he received no further important work from this quarter.” The biography included at the WebMuseum indicates, though, that Holbein was in the process of painting another portrait of Henry VIII when he died of the plague in London in 1543, which would seem to support Fraser’s assertion that Henry didn’t hold Holbein responsible. At any rate, the king’s marriage to Anna lasted only a few months until he divorced her, which was better than the alternatives some other of Henry’s wives faced.

For years, every time I have toured the St. Louis Art Museum, I have made a point of dropping by the Early European Art to visit the Lady Guildford. Like all of the portraits of medieval ladies painted by Holbein that I have seen, she captured my interest the first time I ever saw her, before I knew anything about her or much at all about Holbein.

The Lady Guildford

Sir Henry Guildford, once comptroller of the King’s household, and his wife Mary, Lady Guildford, were painted by Holbein in a complementary pair of portraits, both having the same blue background decorated with vines and the same curtain pole running across the top. Lady Guildford appears decidedly truculent in the portrait, her rounded face slightly puckered into a frown, thin lips tight. Langdon points out that the “grotesque head on the pillar” above her, with its rounded face and mouth shaped into an “O,” seems “to parody Lady Guildford herself”

The Grotesque Head

There is another drawing by Holbein of Lady Guildford in black and colored chalk on white paper done in preparation for her portrait. In this drawing, Lady Guildford glances off to the side, lips curved in a slight smile. The pose seems less formal than that of the final work, the expression pleasant and even slightly whimsical. There is a bit of girlish attractiveness about this version of Lady Guildford.
Lady Guildford Drawing
I have read before, although I cannot recall where, that it is possible her husband disapproved of the less staid demeanor of this drawing and asked Holbein to represent her in a more sober fashion. If so, I wonder if the change dampened Holbein’s enthusiasm. The livelier original does seem to have inspired his imagination quite a bit more than the formal portrait that now hangs in the St. Louis Art Museum. Also, it seems to me if the portraits were placed side by side with the Lady Guildford to the right of her husband, so that they would be turned slightly toward each other, the “grotesque head on the pillar” with the mouth in the round, mocking “O,” its eyes directed to the left, would be looking directly at Sir Henry. This makes one wonder who is actually being mocked .

The Guildford portraits were separated nearly 400 years ago, so that today Sir Henry is displayed in the National Gallery in London and is part of the Royal Collection, while the Lady Mary Guildford belongs to the St. Louis Art Museum. Recently, however, from January 31 to April 27, 2003, the two were reunited for a special exhibit at the National Gallery in London. Presently, the Lady Guildford is back in her place in the Early European Art section in the St. Louis collection. It seems a shame for the three of them, Sir Henry, the Lady Guildford, and the ambiguous “grotesque head” not to be together all the time.

Sir Henry Guildford

The portrait of the Lady Mary Guildford is not Holbein’s best work. That distinction would most likely go to his painting The Ambassadors, which, by the way, has some very strange imagery:

The Ambassadors

Still, I like those medieval ladies.


Fraser, Antonia. The Wives of Henry VIII. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Hughes, Robert. “Clear Eye, Flawless Touch.” Time Archive. 20 June, 1983.

Kennedy, Maev. “Holbein Couple Meet After 300 Years.” Guardian. 16 Dec. 2002. Langdon, Helen. Holbein. London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1976.

Linder, Douglas O. “More Trial Report.” 2007. Famous Trials. From A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceeding Upon Impeachments for High Treason, etc. London, 1719.

Pioch, Nicholas. “Holbein, Hans the Younger.” WebMuseum. Paris. 19 Sept. 2002.

Synge, M.B. “Margaret Roper (1501-1544)”. Great Englishwomen. The Baldwin Project. Lisa Ripperton. 2000-2007.

~ by Scarlet Blue on May 4, 2008.

17 Responses to “Medieval Hotties”

  1. This was such a breath of fresh air for Sunday afternoon reading. Wow. You are so lucky to have the gift to draw. And I studied art history, but never got to spend any time in the early European study as represented here. I love the stories behind the portraits.

    And I love that hint of a smile on your drawing.

  2. Well you little artist you. I mean, well, you tall willowy artist you. Why do you hide your light under a… What is it bushel or barrel? Anyway, your drawings are lovely. You are doing exactly what most painters do–start using other artists as inspiration and then once you have a little confidence in your own skill, you break out on your own. Time to break out on your own.

  3. It is so fucking cool that you posted about medieval art. This was very fun to read. I may pull a copy cat move and post about my penchant for medieval Japanese art. I can’t draw like you though, so it would probably just be really boring. You’re cool.

  4. I concur.

    Scarlet, you are cool, and very talented.

  5. OUI! It is a pleasure reading your post. as BFKADC said, refreshing on a sunday. And, concuring with fairlane’s concurance, yuppers!

  6. DCup, the stories are just as fascinating to me, too. Glad you enjoyed.

    Yes, UT, I need to break out. How do I do that? 😉

    Suzi, I hope you will post on that subject because I know exactly nothing about medieval Japanese art, but I do think it looks cool and would LOVE to know more. Please do.

    Why, thanks, fairlane. I believe you were the one who encouraged this post.

    And thanks to you, OKJimm!

  7. Scarlet darling, have you ever taken a drawing class? Worked from a live model? Looked in the mirror and drawn your own lovely face? There are so many ways for you to break out. I think the art classes were very useful to me–they taught me to trust my own hand, my own brain, to use my eyes in a new way. They taught me much about color. I found a medium I liked and stayed with it until I felt really comfortable with my own vision and skill. Then I started writing and forgot all about painting. You are creative in so any ways. For instance, are you hiding more short stories?

  8. Ahh, there’s nothing like a touching story about Henry VIII, the plague and a reminder of the fates of Ann Boelyn, Jane Seymore and Catherine Howard. He was reputed to have loved Catherine of Aragon most of all and was married to her for many years before the annullment and subsequent troubles with the Church but she couldn’t have children and Henry really longed for a IX. The War of the Roses had lasted a very long time and he didn’t want that to happen again. Little did he imagine Elizabeth.. but the line did end with her. Nice post, you cultural maven you.

  9. Scarlet – Thanks for sharing this and your drawing skills. There’s a great deal of fascinating history to absorb here. Much appreciated.

  10. You can draw…what about Sir Philip Sydney? he is oe of my favorite self absorbed characters that really lived.

  11. I am hiding more short stories, UT, and plan to break those out with the new project. I took quite a bit of art in high school. Strangely for a small school, we had a fairly extensive art curriculum. One of my paintings won a prize at the university. That was a thrill for a high school freak.

    Glad you liked the post, Susan. I really wonder if Henry was actually capable of any kind of real love.

    Thanks, Spart.

    Thanks, Dave. And the really interesting member of the Sidney is Mary, Philip’s siter (later Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke). Recently, a scholar put forth a case for Mary having authored many of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Fascinating, although I’m not sure. However, Mary Sidney as Shakespeare would explain some things:

    Why Shakespeare is said to have written passionate love sonnets to a younger man. (Mary had an affair with a younger man.)

    Why the First Folio is dedicated to her sons.

    I think, too, that Ben Johnson called Shakespeare the “sweet swan of Avon” or something once, and Mary’s symbol was the swan and one of her estates was on the Avon River. Or something like that.

    She had the skill and education to have written the works. But at the time, the subject matter would have been a bit shocking for a woman. (This was before my much-adored Aphra Behn).

  12. we have a real artist among us!

    where is Lady Godiva? (and not the chocolate lady)

  13. Jane Seymour is hot. Live and Let Die, woo! Now, SWB, you best be starting a new program of drawing and post them more, along with such illuminating (come on, that’s funny) commentary. More art, dammit.

  14. Good stuff S-Blu…I love encyclopaedic knowledge

  15. I think you should draw the severed head. Then a Pope butt and a bulbous nose might seem hotter.

  16. Traditionally, the Middle Ages is said to have begun when the West Roman Empire formally ceased to exist in 476, but it is difficult to decide when the Middle Ages ended. Scholars assign different dates or events in different parts of Europe, such as Renaissance, the Turkish capture of Constantinople, the end of the Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War (both 1453), the invention of printing by Johann Gutenberg (around 1455), the fall of Muslim Spain or Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America (both 1492), the Protestant Reformation starting 1517, or the Battle of Lepanto (1571). Which one is correct?

  17. wtf

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