Catherine of Austria (1507-1578): Forgotten Habsburg Infanta and Global Queen
Updated: Jan 25, 2022
Fig. 1: Anthonis Mor, Portrait of Catherine of Austria, Queen of Portugal, 1552, oil on canvas, 107 x 84 cm, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. no. P002109 © Museo Nacional del Prado
January 14, 2027, will mark the 520th anniversary of the birth of Catherine of Austria, Queen of Portugal (1507-1578), the youngest, and posthumous daughter of Juana I of Castile (also named Juana la Loca by nineteenth-century historians) and Philip the Fair (1478-1506) (Fig. 1). Catherine was the last child of a dynastic union which joined the Burgundian and Habsburg houses with that of Castile and Aragon in 1496. Contemporaries regarded this union as the marriage of the century.
As the youngest sister of Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), Catherine was strategically placed on the Portuguese throne by her elder brother in 1525, as a means for the Emperor to secure political stability in Iberia. By marrying his sister Catherine, a woman Charles barely knew, to King João III of Portugal (r. 1521-1557), the Emperor could rely on family ties and loyalties to protect his interests both in Spain and Portugal. His own marriage in 1526 to João’s sister, Isabella of Portugal (1503-1539), reinforced this security. This double marriage in 1525-1526, reaffirmed a marriage policy long established between the Spanish and Portuguese royal houses. Dynastic marriages, such as those arranged by Charles V, provided a platform upon which Habsburg prestige and influence could be extended and consolidated at different European courts.
As a marriageable Habsburg princess, Catherine proved to be a valuable political commodity for her brother and the dynasty. Although dedicated to her brother Charles V, Catherine learned to conform to new values and customs, continuously reinforcing her duties towards the Portuguese Avis dynasty she married into, while, at the same time, upholding her status within the Habsburg hierarchy. During her long, fifty-three reign as Queen of Portugal, Catherine matured into an astute queen, stateswoman, and politician in her own right - qualities which were recognised early on by her husband, who granted her his complete trust. In the political arena, Catherine gradually assumed great powers of government during João III’s lifetime, and after his death in 1557, she assumed the regency of Portugal for five years. Such power and political freedom was seldom shared by contemporary queen consorts or regents.
Fig. 2: Carved ceylonese casket, Sītāvaka, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), before 1545, ivory and silver mounts added in Europe (late 16th century), H: 14.9 cm, W: 25 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. KK 4743. Provenance: commissioned by Māyādunnē, the ruler (raja) of Sītāvaka (r. 1521-1578) for the Portuguese Viceroy of India, João de Castro (1500-1548), who presented it as a gift to Catherine of Austria, and later documented in her collection. © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband
The role of queens and female collectors in Renaissance Portugal has been neglected by historians, despite the fact that Catherine was one of the most inveterate collectors of her age. From the onset of her reign, Catherine began a process of legitimising her status in her new home country of Portugal through the means of her wealth, power, cultural patronage, and collecting, using material objects to articulate prestige and power. She managed to negotiate a unique position for herself, which gave her the independence to govern her household and court with great acumen and intelligence.
Catherine used patronage and collecting to reinforce her position as a “merchant queen” of an overseas trade empire: a unique circumstance for a woman of her time. Her collection of Asian and Far Eastern exotica, luxury objects and goods evolved into one which clearly defined her political position at court, reflecting the hierarchy and symbolism of Catherine’s rule in Portugal, and abroad in Portugal’s Estado da Índia (Portuguese State of India). The housing of her collection, its organisation, and the manner in which she influenced its arrangement(s) and the decoration of her quarters in the Lisbon royal palace played an equally important role for her.
Fig. 3: Carved ivory fan, Kōṭṭē, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka), before 1542, ivory and ebony button, H: 43 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. 4751. Provenance: commissioned by Bhuvanekabāhu VII (1521-1551), King of Kōṭṭē, as a diplomatic gift for Catherine of Austria. Brought to the Lisbon court in 1542, and presented there by the Sinhalese ambassador, Śrī Rāmaraksa Pandita. Later documented in Catherine's collection. © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband
Catherine’s acquisition of luxury objects from Portuguese Asia embodied her social status at the Lisbon court. After her arrival to Portugal in 1525, Catherine quickly developed an insatiable passion for treasures available from Portuguese trading posts (feitorias) in Africa, Asia and Brazil, and was soon acquiring or shopping for superb carved ivories from Ceylon in the form of folding fans and caskets (Figs. 2 & 3), textiles, Ming blue and white porcelain, kinrande porcelain, mother of pearl objects from Gujarat in India (Fig. 4), Asian lacquers from China and the Ryukyu Islands (Fig. 5), and Asian dress accessories (such as Chinese and Japanese folding fans), which were detailed and itemised in her inventories. Her collection became the first significant Kunstkammer in Renaissance Portugal, comprising more non-European objects than any other contemporary collection before the mid-sixteenth century.
Fig 4: Mother of pearl waterjug, Gujarat (India), mid-16th century, wood and mother of pearl, H: 25 cm, Innsbruck, Schloss Ambras, inv. no. KK 4125. Provenance: possibly from the collection of Catherine of Austria © Kunsthistorisches Museumsverband
At the time, Catherine’s collection competed with the Kunstkammer collection of her nephew, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol at Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck, established much later after 1567, and regarded today as the “first museum in the world” (See: https://www.schlossambras-innsbruck.at). A number of outstanding objects once in Catherine’s collection and wardrobe (guardaroba), indeed, entered Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol’s collection at Schloss Ambras, having been gifted by Philip II of Spain to Archduke Ferdinand II when Philip took over the Portuguese crown in 1580 and lived in the royal palace of Lisbon, the Paço da Ribeira. Philip sent Catherine’s objects as royal gifts to Innsbruck, where they can still be admired today.