Researchers Discover Hidden Portrait in 15th-Century Duchess’ Prayer Book

The duke of Brittany had his second spouse’s likeness painted over an image of his late first wife

Book of Hours
After Yolande of Anjou, wife of Francis I, duke of Brittany, died in 1440, her husband had her likeness painted over with a portrait of his second wife. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

When a noblewoman named Yolande of Anjou married Francis I, the future duke of Brittany (not to be confused with the French king of the same name), in 1431, her mother commissioned a devotional Book of Hours that included a painting of the young woman as a wedding gift. After Yolande died just nine years later, the duke married again—and had the image of his first wife replaced with a painting of his new one, Isabella Stewart of Scotland.

As Sam Russell reports for PA Media, the University of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum discovered the artistic cover-up after noticing a portion of the portrait that was darker than the paint surrounding it. Staff then used infrared light to investigate.

“That’s when the under-drawing was revealed,” museum co-curator Suzanne Reynolds tells PA.

The original image showed Yolande kneeling in prayer before the Virgin Mary, reports Owen Jarus for Live Science. The redone painting portrays Isabella in the same position, with St. Catherine of Alexandria beside her.

“At the death of his first wife, Francis may have taken control of the prayer book and ordered it to be customized to best suit Isabella,” Reynolds tells Live Science. “It is possible Isabella had some input. For example, the inclusion of St. Catherine who was not there before indicates that Isabella may have had a special devotion to this saint.”

In addition to adding Isabella’s image, artists hired by Francis painted her coat of arms on the floral borders of many of the book’s pages. Per the Art Newspaper’s Maev Kennedy, scientists at the Fitzwilliam were able to distinguish the different paints used by the two sets of artists. The book’s original illustrators, based in Angers, used red lead paint, while the artists in Nantes who painted over the portrait used vermillion red for Isabella’s gown and coats of arms.

Researchers Discover Hidden Portrait in 15th-Century Duchess' Prayer Book
Researchers used infrared light to reveal the painted-over likeness of the duke's first wife, Yolande of Anjou. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Francis ordered the book’s alteration shortly after Yolande’s death, before he married Isabella in 1442. Initially, Isabella was painted wearing Yolande’s headdress, but around the time of the couple’s wedding, the image was altered again, giving her a gold coronet with jewels to mark Francis’ new title as duke.

Later on, the book was once again altered, with Isabella’s daughter Margaret adding another page depicting herself kneeling before the Virgin.

Reynolds describes the book, which became known as the Hours of Isabella Stuart, as one of the most richly decorated medieval devotionals. It contains more than 500 miniature images. Yolande’s mother, Yolande of Aragon, was a patron of the arts who also owned the similarly spectacular Belles Heures of Jean de France, duke of Berry.

Reynold tells PA that the overpainting of a medieval book was “not unique but unusual.”

“It’s a very exciting discovery,” she says. “These books in a way are sort of archaeological sites and when you start to uncover what lies under these images it actually unlocks the human story of how these books were commissioned and then passed from one person to another as the story of these different marriages and different dynastic alliances evolved.”

The book is part of the Fitzwilliam’s newest exhibition, The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces.” Per a statement, the show—on view through August 1—is “a journey through the anatomical workings of touch, its creative force and its emotional power, through anger, desire and possession.” The 150 or so objects included in the exhibition include medieval manuscripts like the Book of Hours, ancient Egyptian sculptures, and paintings by renowned artists spanning centuries and movements.