Object of the week: A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling

As Norwich Castle prepares to launch its summer exhibition The Wonder of Birds, we look at a mysterious starling from Holbein, one of the greatest masters of the Northern Renaissance.

Hans Holbein the Younger, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526–8 National Gallery, London

Hans Holbein the Younger, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526–8

The son of an accomplished painter, German artist Hans Holbein the Younger introduced Italian, Dutch and French influences to Late Gothic art to create a unique style of his own. Best known for his portraits, he travelled to England to find work in 1526 on the recommendation of his client Erasmus, where he rose through the courts to become King Henry VIII's personal painter.

His enigmatic Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling was created shortly after Holbein's first journey to England, before his four-year return to Basel. Many of Holbein's predecessors would have flattered or idealised their sitters, but Holbein's humanism – a result of his relationship with Erasmus, and later through his association with English philosopher Thomas More – led him towards the realistic portrayal that can be seen in the portrait.

The sitter's identity remains unknown, but Holbein was devoted to the use of symbolism in his work – after all, this is the same artist who hid a skull in plain sight in a famous double-portrait – and there are clues that suggest the subject may be Anne Lovell, wife of the Norfolk landowner Francis Lovell.

Francis was the nephew of Sir Thomas Lovell, a nobleman who fought at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Thomas served as Speaker of the House of Commons, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Secretary to the Treasury under Henry VII – he founded Holywell Priory in Shoreditch and played a key role in the establishing Caius College in Cambridge, as well as constructing his own manor house at East Harling in Norfolk.

Following Thomas's death in 1524, his estate passed to Francis and his wife Anne. The estate is a clue to the identity of Holbein's subject: the squirrel held by the sitter is probably a reference to the three squirrels on the Lovell coat of arms, while the starling may be a rebus – a visual pun on the name of the East Harling estate.

The portrait was bought by the National Gallery in London in 1992 with help from the Art Fund, and was one of the highlights in the gallery's recent exhibition Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance.

Venue details

National Gallery Trafalgar Square London WC2N 5DN 020 7747 2885 www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Entry details

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Closed 24 – 26 Dec and 1 Jan

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