Ermine or Ferret?
By Tracy Godsey
Ferrets have been interacting with humans since the ancient Greeks. We know this because they are mentioned in Greek plays. But the weasels have also been ferreting their way into other works of art throughout the years. Along the way, they may have been picking up some very famous friends -- including Leonardo da Vinci and Queen Elizabeth I.
Some controversy surrounds the paintings in question: da Vinci’s “The Lady with an Ermine,” and Nicholas Hilliard’s painting of Queen Elizabeth I entitled “Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.” Art historians have repeatedly classified the ferrets in the paintings as ermines.
Part of the problem lies in the name ermine. The ermine was a symbol of royalty. Thus, they might have been incorporated into a painting as a metaphor -- a visible symbol of material status. In the painting of Queen Elizabeth I, the ferret is pictured with black tails. Such spots don’t appear on a live ermine, whose only spot is on the end of its tail. However, the ermine spots were used as a symbol on heraldry to portray ermine fur. Possibly because the ermine tail gave the overall coat a spotted appearance when sewn together.
Some people believe that Queen Elizabeth I kept pet ferrets, so it is possible that the ermine in the painting is her real pet ferret, ennobled by the painter with ermine spots.
By contrast, the very identity of the lady in da Vinci’s “The Lady with an Ermine” is in question. Most people believe that the lady is Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Duke Ludovico Sforza. If this is the case, calling the animal an ermine would have been important to the portrait -- the Greek word for ermine is galee, and would have been a pun on her name, Gallerani. In addition, the ermine would refer to the duke himself, who had received the insignia of the chivalric order of the ermine. The ermine also refers to her character, because the animal was said to be so clean that it would not allow its coat to be dirty.
But, name aside, is the “ermine” in the painting an ermine, or a ferret? Possibly a ferret.
In a Web page supplement to her art history courses, P.E. Michelli, a Ph.D. in art history, discusses the resemblance between a ferret and the ermine in da Vinci’s portrait “The Lady with an Ermine.”
"The ermine is only 5 inches long," Michelli wrote on the Web page. "It has big black eyes and nose, and a cute face. The "ermine" in the painting is missing those qualities. Instead it is cat-sized, has pink eyes and nose, and aggressive snout pouches, traits that are common to ferrets."
Although this is evidence enough for some, the controversy will likely continue.
*Please see "Friends Through The Ages" in the May/June issue of FERRETS.