The re-identification of Michel Sittow’s portrait formerly known as Catherine of Aragon


Something which came up on my Facebook feed this morning because it was shared on several Tudor history pages was the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. being criticised for their “major mistake”. The Queen Catherine Parr Facebook page shared a photo from the gallery’s Facebook page and stated that the “portrait of Catherine of Aragon is misidentified on the wall and in a new publication as Mary “Rose” Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII”.

This post has been shared around and has provoked a lot of debate, which is always good, but it has also provoked some quite nasty comments aimed at the gallery, which is a shame as they were working on a re-identification done in 2008 by Paul G. Matthews, an art historian with expertise on the Hapsburgs and their portraiture. This re-identification is not new, Matthews’ work was published in 2008 and we even examined this here on the Anne Boleyn Files back in 2012 when Nasim Tadghighi wrote an article on it- Katherine of Aragon or Mary Tudor? – The Re-identification of Michel Sittow’s Portrait of a Young Woman – after her sister had visited the the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and seen this portrait labelled as “Mary ‘Rose’ Tudor”. Nasim contacted the museum and they sent her a copy of Matthews’ article to explain why the portrait had been re-identified.

I myself saw this portrait labelled as Mary Tudor when I visited “The Tudors” exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris in 2015, which was in association with the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) of London which had held the same exhibition. So, Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art is not the only gallery to have displayed Sittow’s painting with this identification.

Whatever our views on this portrait, I don’t believe it is fair to say that the Washington gallery’s label is a “mistake” or error. We can disagree with it, but the gallery is simply going on a re-identification done by an expert that has also been accepted by other galleries and experts. Debate continues over this portrait and I’m sure will do for many years, and perhaps its identification will change again in the future. It is frustrating that we cannot prove conclusively, for the time being, who the sitter is, but we can enjoy debating it. I do hope more work will be done on this portrait.

Nasim’s article can be read at Katherine of Aragon or Mary Tudor? – The Re-identification of Michel Sittow’s Portrait of a Young Woman. The National Gallery of Art’s Facebook post regarding their exhibition “Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe”, which provoked this social media ‘debate’, can be found here

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44 thoughts on “The re-identification of Michel Sittow’s portrait formerly known as Catherine of Aragon”
  1. Wether it is Mary Tudor or Catherine of Aragón it could be possible to bear a resemblence or similarity if they are talking of Mary Tudor the daughter of Catherine of Aragón !

  2. I had often wondered about this portrait because to my eyes when compared to later known portraits of Katherine of Aragon there is very little resemblance.

    1. There isn’t any resemblance between it and the ones of Mary Tudor either though – the one of her and Charles Brandon, and the Joannus Corvus one. But then there are so many portraits of the same person that look nothing like each other! The world of Tudor portraits is a strange one!

      1. Claire, do you have a link or know how to get a copy of Dr Matthews article. I have looked online with no success.



        1. Hi LynMarie,
          It doesn’t seem to be available online. Nasim got hers from the Kunsthistorisches Museum so you could contact them. I’ve been doing some digging and I’m looking into the original identification for the portrait as being Catherine, as that is “recent”, being only in 1914. I’m still looking into it all.

  3. I think really it’s Katherine Of Aragon, the sitters nose resembles portraits of Princess Mary Tudor, and the headdress barely visible as its against a dark background, surely is Spanish in fashion? I have not seen any ladies of the English court wear such a headdress, there are not many portraits of Princess Mary as a young girl but there is one where she is with her husband Suffolk, the woman in this portrait is very beautiful as Mary was said to be, she has a rather long straight nose and her face is narrow, Katherines face was rather broad, thowever not all artists produce a good likeness, but I believe this one is of Katherine Of Aragon.

      1. I agree the Mary Magdalene one is very like this one, both sitters have a sort of cherubic look, but it’s the nose that I find is most telling, it has a upward tilt which is what Marys nose had also. The

      2. Also the portrait of Mary Tudor by Master John, oil on panel painted 1544 on display in room 2 at the NPG, she bears a striking resemblance to the sitter in this painting, there is a strong likeness to the mouth as well as the nose, I believe Queen Mary did resemble her mother more than her father.

  4. Different artists had different skills which doesn’t help. Too bad Holbein didn’t live long enough to paint everyone and clearly write on the back who each sitter was. I’m pretty sure his works were accurate. This is my dream on a perfect world.

  5. Interesting but in my opinion, this is most likely Catherine of Aragon. If we compare this portrait to other portraits of Mary Tudor, Queen of France I just cannot see a resemblance.
    And I have to agree that she does resemble her sister Juana and mother Isabela of Castile.

  6. This lovely portrait is dated c 1502. Prince Arthur died 2nd April, 1502. Ipso, if this portrait shows to us his grieving young widow, the Princess Katharine, I have a question. Who would have commissioned this portrait and paid for it to be done? And perhaps, why?

    1. Hi Globerose,

      The main reason Katherine would be painted then is probably for her wedding as a painting to mark her leaving home to marry Arthur or as a formal betrothed painting. Although she was probably painted as a potential bride earlier it seems quite normal to me to paint her at the point that she left for England in 1501. She looks about fifteen or sixteen and she certainly resembles her sisters and mother at the same age.

      Katherine was done as Madeleine and associated herself with this saint and it was also an old thing to show royalty with halos and as saints and women were also painted if they were about to enter the child birth chamber, in case of death. If your son or daughter got married, I think there is a good chance that you would want a portrait to remember them as you probably wouldn’t see them again. A bride or bridegroom may also send a recent, especially paid for portrait as a gift. I would assume it was paid for by her parents or by King Henry. They would be the only ones rich enough, given it is of such high quality.

      I personally believe as I said this is Catherine of Aragon, pre marriage to Arthur and until some official deep analysis is done by a group of experts, that is who she remains. The initial expert has made a valuable contribution but that is only the beginning. The Gallery will probably be doing more work. I am open, however to Catherine becoming someone else or having her identity confirmed, but we are not there yet and as the Gallery has had the courage to look at paintings in the past under new technology, I believe they should be praised and it’s a shame trolls on social media can’t see that. Sensible debate is good but abuse by trolls, well, no, no, no.

  7. Since the lady in the painting in question has a halo around her head, I don’t think we can be sure who it is supposed to be. Could represent a saint rather than a historical figure like Catherine.

  8. What a surprise that Alison Weir has announced that it is a portrait of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. Weir always likes to come up with new theories and it doesn’t surprise me that she’s jumped on this bandwagon. She isn’t an art historian and she should know that not many people regard her as such.

    1. I think she has talked about it before and I know she agrees with the identification. I’d really like to see more research done on this portrait and some testing too. It’s very frustrating!

  9. First, disgraceful those on social media who are just brainless morons who have no idea who they are looking at in a gallery, probably have never even been to a gallery as they never get off twitter or Facebook, for hurling abuse and insults at the National Gallery or anyone else. The sooner such abuse is a crime the better!

    Second, if the gallery are working with experts to properly identify or reidentify a painting then they should be allowed to do so without comment or people publishing even by accident before any conclusions are made. One experts opinion, even one who works closely on the Hapsbergs is valuable research as published in 2008 but it takes a whole team several years often to make a final determination. There appears to have been an accident in this case which has caused the usual reactions from dim wits, rather than a scholarship pronouncement on the above painting. I vaguely recall the original article but if an expert has done research then that is of value to properly identify someone, so the Gallery should be respected and congratulated for taking time to do an in-depth and independent analysis before making any formal identification of Catherine of Aragon as anyone else, her mother or sister in law, or someone else. I find all of these debates informative and fascinating but doubt that Facebook is a proper place for them as it is not an academic arena. I believe most people here are quite well informed and sensible so your debates are very interesting and we have amongst us those who know about art as well as those who are generally observant and this adds to properly conducted debate and learning. I personally believe that until the painting is formally identified she remains Catherine of Aragon as a young girl, but I am open minded enough to accept the potential that she is someone else. After all we have had Jane Grey reassigned as Katherine Parr, a missing painting identified as the only true likeness of Bonnie Prince Charlie as a young man, the others now accepted as his brother Henry, a series of lively articles about possible findings of the likeness of Anne Boleyn and Dr Stephen Edwards has identified a good candidate for a true painting of Lady Jane Grey. If the National Gallery of anywhere has a painting that was identified by an expert 100 years ago and new research or new information comes to light, when cleaning or restoring for example, under xray, three D scanning, so on, they have an obligation to the nation to correct any errors and that may take time.

    These nasty empty headed people on social media need to shut up and go back to their meaninless lives of boyfriends and pop and leave the debate to grown ups on there or on history forums who can voice an informed opinion without abuse. Social media is a valuable tool and it can bring people together but it is also abused and that spoils it for the rest of it. Unfortunately, these people are no longer a small minority. I know, for example tge Anne Boleyn files has a very good Facebook page with lots of forthcoming events there, but I stay off Facebook and Twitter as much as possible because of the fact they refuse to take down abuse.

    The fact that the Galleries of the world are prepared to risk their reputation by having a painting reevaluated for me is very courageous and shows they are fearless in the pursuit of truth and can act in the National interest and people should maybe take to Twitter to congratulate and praise them more often.

    Rant over.

  10. That’s an interesting observation but in the days of early Christian Art royal people and nobles were portrayed with a halo as alive and Catherine was often shown as Madeleine. I was wondering if she is meant to be drawn as a saint here?

    The Lady is still a very lovely young girl, of royal descent and I am guessing it’s a betrothal portrait before marriage as Catherine would be sixteen when she was married to Arthur.

    Mary Tudor was also about eighteen and Catherine’s mother was yo enough, but the painting would have to be dated almost 20 years earlier to the 1460s. It is a lovely portrait and it’s good some research is being done. I really would hope some proper analysis gives some answers rather than more speculation.

  11. The gallery aren’t the only ones in recent years to call Henry’s sister “Mary Rose Tudor”. Claire, can you illuminate this? I had never heard her called this until about five years ago when it started appearing after David Loades’ book about her was titled “Mary Rose”. As far as I know that was not her name, and Henry VIII’s ship was named after Christian figures, as was evident from the names of sister-ships. Did people just get confused because of the ship and the fact that the Tudor emblem was a rose?

    1. I think it’s been used in romantic historical fiction, but I don’t believe that it has any basis in history. I’ve never seen her called that in any of the contemporary sources or near-contemporary sources. Some people say it’s because the Mary Rose ship was name after her, but as the Mary Rose Trust point out in their article – – there’s no evidence for that, and it is more likely that the ship was named after the Virgin Mary “The Mystic Rose”, which goes well with the Tudor emblem being the Tudor rose.
      I know the title of Loades’ book was controversial and I suspect that it was to distinguish her from Mary I. There was a discussion about Mary being called “Mary Rose” on Lara’s blog back in 2008 – see

      1. I don’t think it’s helpful – or indeed, professional – that institutions like Washington’s National Gallery of Art keep labelling these things Mary Rose Tudor. I notice people here in comments are using quotation marks around “Rose” but the gallery label has none, giving the misleading impression that it was her actual name.

  12. We can’t really know for sure. All the speculation reveals much more about those speculating than it does about the sitter for the portrait.

  13. I’ve just been on the National Gallery of Art’s site and notice they give the date of this oil on panel portrait as c 1514. Seem to have got it wrong and apologise.

  14. I think they can only guess who these people are if they dont have the name on it it could be Katherine of Aragon as the person in the painting is very pretty but painters did use the same portrait for different people there is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth the first that they xrayed found someone elses face underneath, if anyone is being nasty that is very unfair
    I believe there is a miniature of a woman by hohrenbout that they think could be Anne Boleyn Mary Boleyn Katherine of Aragon or even one of Charles Brandon daughters noone really knows who it is. I think it could be Mary Boleyn but I could be wrong

  15. I think it is extremely unfair to be nasty to any gallery if they mislabel anyones paintings because it is very hard to work out who people are in paintings from that far back unless its family portraits where there features are well known and every painter had there own interpretation of the same person they painted as in the many portraits of King Henry the eigth or Queen Elizabeth the first

    1. There is a whole history of portraits being mistaken and changes as any tour of art sites on the web will show. There are also missing portraits which turn up in the oddest places, like the Antiques Road Show. One of the most interesting for me was the misidentification of Bonnie Prince Charlie from the National Gallery of Scotland. This portrait is on the front of every history book, even recent ones. It was taken off display while everything was investigated but the portrait was then confirmed as his brother Henry, who later entered the Church. There was one long search for an authentic portrait of Charles Edward Stuart from his time as potential King during 1745/6_when he was 25. Channel 4 followed the footsteps of the year long search and an authentic original was found in an obscure country house connected to the artist family and it was in a dark gallary, covered to protect it and the family knew about it. They had the entire provenance and this was then authenticated and a team of experts fully examined it and the painting was restored, officially named and lent to the National Gallery of Scotland. It now hangs next to the rehung, fully recovered portrait of Prince Henry Stuart renamed from Prince Charles Edward and the gallery are very pleased. The entire program was marvellous. Who knows one day we will see the Lady in Vienna by Michel Sittow or as we know her Katherine of Aragon (or another) being given her correct name and authenticity on a documentary.

      We had a problem to get a portrait of Lady Jane Grey and now two contenders lead the way but long ago her most famous portrait became Queen Katherine Parr and that makes sense as the sitter is much older.

      Mind you I am looking forward to the day when I can turn on the News and it has headlined MISSING PORTRAIT OF ANNE BOLEYN CONFIRMED AS CONTEMPORARY AND AUTHENTIC. Now that will be a documentary worth watching as Claire is invited to do the official unveiling.

      1. There is also the picture of allegedly Sir Thomas Boleyn, Annes father which for years was thought to be of him but now is said to be ones of his brothers?

        1. The Holbein drawing of the Earl of Ormond, once thought to be of Thomas Boleyn, has been re-identified as James Butler, to whom Anne was matched to for a brief period.

        1. Thankyou Roland, so that’s the man Annes parents wanted her to marry, if she had things would have been so different in English history.

  16. The portrait, to my mind is that of Henry’s sister Mary Tudor, Catherine of Aragon was no beauty, nor was her daughter Mary. This young woman portrayed in the painting is definitely an ‘English rose’!

    1. On what evidence do you base the claim that Katherine of Aragon was no beauty?

      Yes, it could be Mary, but it is more likely Katherine, but in any event Katherine was beautiful and was described as such from her early years. She is described as fair, meaning pretty or lovely. Her later portraits show her not so fair, but by then she was in her forties and had lost five children. She aged prematurely. It’s like looking at the giant Holbein of Henry Viii and saying he was never thin, handsome and sexy which he was when he came to the throne. Other portraits of Katherine as the Madeleine are similar and all show her as beautiful. She had clear skin, fair red long hair and beautiful features. In fact she was much prettier than the fascinating Anne Boleyn whom we all think must have been beautiful. Excluding the monstrous description by Sander which is nonsense, Anne was described as being of average looks, so hardly a beautiful woman. However, Henry went for women with brains at that time and both Katherine and Anne had plenty of those.

      Mary Tudor was certainly a beautiful woman, but it can also be one of many of the Castile Royals as they all have a very similar shaped face. Mary was about 18 in 1514 when she got married so is a good candidate, but my gut still goes with Katherine.

      1. Agree. Isabel of Castille was of the Trastamara dinasty and they were reputed as attractive people, perhaps blond. I think Katherine may have been attractive too

    2. Actually Margaret, Katherine in her youth was said to be quite beautiful and this painting of her and the Magdalene one bears this out with her Madonna like features, Katherine was Spanish but was also one quarter English and it’s her English blood which appears to have the stronger genes as it shows in her fair colouring and tawny hair, her hair like Anne Boleyns was said to be her crowning glory and fell past her waist, her serene face with its downcast eyes shows her pious nature, her daughter also when young was described as very attractive with a beautiful complexion and auburn hair, it was only when she grew older that the misery of her life took its toll on her looks, always slender, unlike her parents who both grew very stout when older, (well Henry ended up looking like an elephant ), she seemed to grow too thin and her face as a result looked hollow and gaunt in some of her later portraits, Katherines sister Juana was acknowledged as a beauty and she is said to have resembled her younger sister Katherine.

  17. I was saddened to hear that certain individuals would react so poorly. Anyone interested in Tudor history knows that our ability in learning about this period , can be very vague because the lack of documentation by so many individuals.
    This should be a positive, another exciting development perhaps.
    Cheers and thank you, for all this information you and your colleagues provide for all us fans.

    1. I wouldn’t equate wanting to accept this portrait as one of Catherine of Aragon with a resistance to “learning”. Experts aren’t always right, attributions can change, and here’s an example: The Museum of Fine Art in Boston, Mass. once exhibited a sarcophagus that was described as “ancient Roman”. After 100 years of this, “experts” decided that it was a forgery, and it was put into storage. Years later it was determined that it DID date from the ancient Roman period, but had been added to prior to reuse during the Renaissance.

  18. The artist who painted this (now) portrait of Mary Rose Tudor is the same artist who painted an accepted portrait of a young Catherine of Aragon, depicted as Mary Magdalene. The faces are the same. On what criteria did “experts” determine that this was a portrait of Mary Rose? Known portraits of her vary in appearance too.

  19. On December 17, 1508, at Greenwich, the proxy marriage of Mary and Charles of Habsburg took place. The following day, Charles’s delegates handed Mary a letter that began with the expression “Ma bonne campagne,” a phrase also used in the letter he concluded by signing “Votre bon mary.” Three jewels were also presented to her, as described in The Solemnities and Triumphs observed at the wedding of King’s daughter Lady Mary to the Prince of Castile Archduke of Austria :

    The sayde Ambassadours delyvered thre goodly and right riche tokens and Jvell to my sayd ladye Marye. oon frome the emperoure conteignynge an orient rubye and a large . and a fayre diamonde garnysshed with great perles / the other from the yonge Prynce which was a.K. for karolus garnysshed with diamondes and perles wherin these wordes were written . Maria optimam patre elegit que non auferetur ab ea / and the thirde from the duchesse of Savoye wherin was a goodly Balas garnysshed with perles /

    Note that no necklace is mentioned in this description.
    Walter Richardson (1970) transcribes the passage as follows :

    « … with Charle’s letter […] came three goodly and right rich jewels, which to her at least were more than mere tokens of esteem. A balas ruby, pale-red, garnished with pearls from Margaret, and from Maximilian a brooch of one large diamond and an oriental ruby surrounded by pearles. Charles himself had sent a more intimate gift, a ring monogrammed with the letter K for Karolus surrounded by diamonds and pearles. » (p. 43, text taken up by David Loades, 2012, p. 55).

    Is this ring bearing the letter K the same seal ring with which Mary would have sealed her letter to Margaret of Austria after the reported marriage mentioned by Erin Sadlack (2011, letter 1, p. 163-164)?

    « The wax seal remains on the righthand side of the verso page, showing a diamond shape with faint traces of a design within ; there is vaguely floral shape with swirls in the center, and a K (for Karolus ?) to the right. If it is an initial “K” presumably there was once an “M” for Mary on the left. »

    This allows us to tentatively conclude that the necklace in the Kunsthistorisches Museum portrait in Vienna may not have been a gift in December 1508.
    Now, let’s turn to Catherine of Aragon, also known as Catalina (the “C” in the portrait), whose name was also spelled Katharina (the “K” in the same portrait).

    Historical documents mention the existence of K and scallop shells in various ceremonies at the English court.
    In 1515, during a tournament organized during the visit of Hispano-Burgundian ambassadors to England for a new treaty of friendship between Henry and Charles of Spain and Maximilian, excluding Francis I, Henry VIII and Charles Brandon appeared alone in the lists, each in front of his queen. Their attire bore the letters H and K for Henry and Katherine, C and M for Charles and Mary.
    On February 13, 1511, a tournament was organized to celebrate the birth of Catherine and Henry’s first son on January 1. It began with the entrance of a hermit on horseback toward Catherine, his face and body hidden under a long red cape, accompanied by two pilgrims dressed in black, each wearing the hat and staff of pilgrims. Scallop shells on their cloaks indicated that they were on the road to Santiago de Compostela, resembling the three kings paying homage to the wife of a king and the mother of a prince. With their capes removed, Catherine recognized the hermit as Charles Brandon in armor and one of the pilgrims as Thomas Boleyn, the father of two daughters named Mary and Anne.
    The spectacle also featured an elaborate set: a forest with rocks, hills, valleys, trees, flowers, ferns, and grass, along with six foresters in green velvet hooded cloaks. In the center, a golden castle with a man weaving a rose garland at the door. This structure, measuring eight by eighteen meters, pulled by a silver antelope and a golden lion, stopped in front of Catherine and opened on either side for four knights in armor and weapons to emerge. Henry was the first; words of love embroidered on his skirt and his horse’s skirt: Cure loial (Loyal Heart). The letter “K” of Katherine was also embroidered on his banner.
    With all these historically verified elements, I continue to consider the Vienna portrait as that of Catherine of Aragon, likely painted when she was still in Spain.

    As for the research suggestion regarding the skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors, proposing it could be Anne Boleyn’s after her beheading on May 19, 1536, Holbein and she shared very similar religious views, both advocating for a profound reform of the Catholic Church, as did Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the two painted characters. Could this skull anamorphosis have been added to the foreground after Anne Boleyn’s beheading as a painful memory by those who supported her cause?
    Warmly regards from Cormery.
    Jacky LORETTE

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