This striking portrait of a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece was executed in the early-1550s, towards the end of the reign of Charles V (1500-1558), who ruled as Prince of the Habsburg Netherlands from 1506, King of Spain from 1516 and Holy Roman Emperor from 1519. While the artist has evaded identification thus far, although both Hans Eworth (Antwerp, active 1540-1573 London) and Steven van der Meulen (?Antwerp, active 1543-1568) have been proposed, the modelling of the sitter’s features and the placement of the figure within the pictorial space, in front of a draped curtain and receding colonnade, indicate a Flemish master. The sitter’s identification has been lost, however, he is likely to be one of the noblemen knighted by Charles V in Utrecht in January 1546.
The sitter is dressed in the typical Habsbourg fashion of the day, which was prevalent throughout Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. He wears a fur-lined jerkin of black fabric, possibly velvet, which is covered with gold jewels set with pearls and slashed so that the fur is visible. The slightly darker patches in the fur at the neck suggest it might be lynx. The jerkin is worn over a silk doublet, padded to give the brick-like pattern down the sleeves, which in turn is worn over a shirt with a small attached collar. The neckline of the collar is high, but not quite as high as at its peak in the 1560s. The skirt of the jerkin is still very long, the peascod belly (padded stomach) is not too pronounced and the trunk hose are relatively restrained, all indicating a date before the 1560s.
Dendrochronological testing of the panel has revealed that the three vertical boards that make up the support were all derived from a single tree sourced from the eastern Baltic area of Europe between circa 1534 to circa 1566. This, combined with stylistic considerations and the fashion of the costume, place the date of execution in the early-1550s. When this painting was in the Cook collection, it was catalogued as 'French School, XVI Century', having formerly been ascribed to both Francois Clouet and Francisco Primaticcio. More recently, the panel was believed to have been painted in England during the reign of Mary I and the sitter was presumed to have been one of the courtiers that accompanied Philip, future King of Spain, for his marriage to Mary in 1554. Indeed, Philip is recorded to have arrived with 6000 soldiers and 1500 cavalry, as well as a household of 3000. In addition to trusted advisers like Gonzalo Pérez and Ruy Gómez da Silva, there were also at least two dukes (Alva and Medinaceli), a bevy of marquesses and counts, bishops, confessors, choristers and instrumentalists, together with kitchen staff and cleaners. Dr. Alexandra Zvereva has suggested, however, that the painting was in fact executed in the Low Countries, possibly in Bruges, which remained one of the leading artistic centres in Europe throughout the sixteenth century. She considers the pose and structure of the figure reminiscent of Habsburg portraiture, and believes that the artist must have been aware of the portraiture of Pieter Pourbus (?Gouda 1523/4-1584 Bruges).
Given the dating of the portrait and the sitter’s fair complexion and relative age, Dr. Zvereva has proposed three potential candidates: Lamoral, Count of Egmont, Prince of Gavere (1522-1568), a general and statesman in the Spanish Netherlands just before the start of the Eighty Years’ War, whose execution helped spark the national uprising that eventually led to the independence of the Netherlands; Jean de Ligne, Count of Arenberg (1525-1568), founder of the House of Arenberg and stadtholder of the Dutch provinces of Friesland, Groningen, Drenthe and Overijssel from 1549 until his death; or Peter Ernst, Count of Mansfield (1517-1604), an Imperial and Spanish commander of German origin, who was Governor of the Spanish Netherlands from 1592 until 1594 (fig. 1). The latter built an impressive castle in Clausen, named La Fontaine, which might explain the inclusion of the house in the left background of this painting, however, Mansfield would already have been in his mid-40s by the time this painting was executed.
The Order of the Golden Fleece was founded by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (d. 1457) on 10 January 1430 in celebration of his marriage to his third wife, Isabella of Portugal. Designed to promote the glory, power and prestige of Burgundy, to uphold chivalry and to defend the Catholic faith, it was modelled directly on the English Order of the Garter, which had been established by Edward III in 1348. The Order took its name from the insignia worn by its members. The eponymous Golden Fleece was jointly a reference to the famed hide stolen by Jason and the Argonauts from the mythic kingdom of Colchis, to whom the Burgundians claimed ancestry, and to the fleece of Gideon, through which he learned of God’s promise to help him save Israel (Judges 6:36-40), an overt reference to the intense crusading ambitions (ultimately unfulfilled) which constantly occupied Philip the Good during his reign. The Order was to be governed by the duke, a position which passed down to his direct male heirs throughout the succeeding centuries until 1700. Initially, the Order was composed of a strictly limited number of twenty-four knights, who met annually across the most important civic centres of the Burgundian territories. In 1433, in celebration of the birth of his third and only surviving son Charles, Philip increased the number of seats in the Order to thirty. During the fifteenth century, membership primarily consisted of the Burgundian noble families, with certain key allies, notably Alfonso V of Aragon and Edward IV of England, honoured with the Golden Fleece as an expression of diplomatic favour. Following the death of Mary of Burgundy, in 1483, and the incorporation of Burgundian lands into the Habsburg Empire, membership began to be offered more broadly to European leaders and nobles. The number of members was increased once again at the inaugural Chapter presided over by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in 1516, when a further twenty knights were appointed to the Order, bringing to total to fifty.
We are grateful to Dr. Alexandra Zvereva for her assistance in cataloguing this painting.