When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.
I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.
So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?