4/07/2008

Portrait of the week - Sibylle of Cleve as betrothed


Portrait of the princess Sibylle of Cleve as betrothed by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, 1526

One of two pictures, the other being this one, showing the husband to be, Johann Friedrich I of Saxony (1503-1554).

This German princess' full name was Sibylle von Jülich-Kleve-Berg. She was born on January 17th 1512 in Düsseldorf and she died on February 21th 1554, just a week prior to the passing of her husband. To the English public she is mostly known as the sister to the English queen Anne of Cleve.

Cranach painted this portrait of the young bride, she is just 14, in a style both typical of him and the German Renaissance. This was long before a bride was supposed to wear white when coming up to the altar, but she was supposed to look her absolute best. Of particular interest is the golden rows around her neckline. That is not lacing on the dress but rows of golden chains. Her family was wealthy, no doubt about it.

The garland in her hair shows that this really is a betrothal/wedding portrait and that her hair is hanging loose around her shows that she is still a virgin. Compare that to this picture, showing her in 1531 when she was clearly more grown up. She still wears heavy chains around her neck, but her head is covered so you can see nothing of her hair. By then she was a mother of two. The marriage took place in 1527, the year after the picture was painted.

We do not know much about the married life of the couple, whether it was happy or unhappy and it really is a question that is not that interesting. It was political marriage but there is no reason to think it didn't turn out well. And Sibylle was a forceful lady and even defended the city of Wittenberg when the German emperor lay siege of the town in1547 - her husband had been taken prisoner and was in Worms (this was the time of the Reformation and unruly times in Germany). The husband chose to give up his rule of Saxony, which spared him from a death-sentence, but probably also the lives of his wife and children (they had four sons) and the city itself. Johann Friedrich was imprisoned for life and communicated with Sibylle and their children through letters.

When the man who had taken the throne in Johann Friedrich's place attacked the emperor Johann Friedrich was released and could be reunited with his family, in 1552, and take control over the rule of Saxony again.

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